Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
James Taylor is an iconic folk singer that came to fame in the 1970’s. One of his greatest hits “You’ve God Friend” could have, without a doubt, become a Christian hymn of faith for the 21st century. The lyrics of that song go something like this, “When your down and troubled, and you need a helping hand, and nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me and soon I’ll be there, to brighten up even your darkest nights. You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running, to see you again.” Taylor makes it clear that our need for friendship, for intimate connections with each other, is as essential to life, as the air we breathe. When we respond to a friend, when come running when a need arises, we are encouraging and giving life to each other. Connecting with those we love makes life sweeter, richer, and it gives us purpose.
The latest technology (cell phones, email, text and video chat) makes connecting with friends instantaneous. We can connect with our friends anytime, anywhere. Today we have Skype, Facebook Chat, Google chat, and telephone text messages. In an instant, any of us can with the touch of a finger (or using the two thumbs shuffle); we can connect with grandkids, nieces or nephews. Technology is great, but many of us long to sit together and be present to each other. We want to see each other’s face and to be near the ones we love. We long to share our life, our breath, and our touch. We are real, flesh and bone and as such, physical proximity is a part of our relational natures. We need to be close to be relational. Being present with the other is necessary for the bonds of love to grow, the bonds of friendship to spring forth, and for relationships to draw closer. Being present with each other, breaks down barriers, it builds trust, and it increases mutual reliance.
When people are together, especially when there is a deep, shared friendship, something changes in both lives. Shared experience makes room for deep relational trust, joy, and peace. Being with someone, being present not only overcomes loneliness, but also enhances belonging and creates wholeness. When we are with a friend, they seem to understand us. They listen and care because they have been where we’ve been. They somehow know what’s troubling us and understand our joy. Friends believe in us. Friends stand with us. They lift our spirits, encourage us, and hopefully, friends do not forsake us.
In Advent, one of the hymns we often sing is, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Emmanuel, (God with us) is an interesting name for Our Lord. Emmanuel is more than just a name, it is a Christian proclamation of the Incarnation. When we proclaim Jesus Emmanuel, “God is with us,” we recognize that God in Christ was physically present in space and time. It’s hard to wrap our minds around it, but God was present with us in Christ, and God continues to be present with us now through the Holy Spirit.
When we hear “God with us,” immediately our minds flash to the the birth of Christ in which God, fully divine/fully human was present in the world as a little child. “God with us” certainly finds meaning in the fact that God dwelt among us, as one of us, but the meaning goes deeper as well. Because God dwelt among us, God knows our pain, knows our sadness, knows our frustrations, knows our celebration and joy, and God knows betrayal. God in Christ was with us in those experiences. Jesus knows the pain of grief; he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Jesus knows our frustrations; he took a whip and cleared the temple one day. Jesus knows the joy of life’s celebration; he celebrated at the wedding at Cana and enjoyed common meals in people’s homes. Jesus knows the sting of betrayal; he hung on the cross and proclaimed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Emmanuel not only proclaims God’s physical presence, but it shouts that God believes in us. God is actively present with us supporting and loving us now. God believes in the ultimate goodness of his creation, because God proclaimed it from the beginning. God saw that it was good. God cares so much for creation that in Christ, God was willing to risk it all on creation’s goodness. Love that was so great demonstrates for us that God actually bears our burdens with us. “Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened and I will refresh you.” Simply stated, “God with us” is an announcement, a proclamation, that God calls us friends.
The promise of Emmanuel strengthens us to know that we have a friend in God who stands beside us. In today’s gospel, Joseph received some devastating news. His bride to be was with child before the marriage. In those days, this news was a scandal and it meant opening up the young Mary to ridicule and possible punishment and death. How could Joseph face this scandal? His life plan was turned upside down. Joseph was paralyzed by fear, but God promised to be with him. Writer Martin Copenhaver explains Joseph’s dilemma, “When our dreams are dashed, when as we struggle with fear and grief, they seem only to tighten their grip on us, when our mind spins in the same awful and familiar circles all day long, it can be exhausting. But sometimes there is a blessing in that, because sometimes it is only when we are weakened enough and tired enough that we are able to listen.” (Journal for Preachers, “Jesus’ Other Parent” by Martin B. Copenhaver Jan 1, 2007)
Life’s burdens, life’s fears are not something to dismiss or deny. They are something to face, to live with, and to know but with peace. Peace comes in the knowledge that God is with us in the midst of it all. When we are vulnerable, we open ourselves to the glorious presence of God, and we make room for God to be with us. In our weakness, we come to know God’s strength because God’s promise of presence, gives us the confidence to know that in everything, we are not alone. God is with us in joy, in grief, in pain, and even with us unto death.
God is on our side, God knows our experiences and God calls us friend. That is good news! With this friend, you need no technology to stay in touch; no texting, no video chat, and no emails are required. Through worship, through song, through silence, and through each other, we connect with God’s presence. Through prayer, through receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord in the Eucharist, through this community gathered, we connect with Our Lord’s presence.
In the words of that earlier mentioned 1970’s ballad, we get a glimpse into the heart of the God who desires an intimate connection with us. “Whenever we’re down and troubled, and we need a helping hand, God is there beside us, whispering in our ears, I love you, I am with you always.” With not so eloquent words, that inspiring folk hymn ends with a simple prayer of thanksgiving and for us today, with a proclamation of the good news of Christ, “ain’t it good to know, that you’ve got a friend?”