Renewing Baptism - God With Us
A sermon on Matthew 1:18-25
(For an audio recording of this sermon, click here.
photo credit: mrjn Photography on Unsplash)
A week or two ago my oldest child was studying for a grammar test, which involved walking around the house singing a bunch of different memory-assisting songs for parts of speech.
For example: (sung to the tune of jingle bells)
Helping Verbs! Helping Verbs! There are 23…
Am, is, are! Was and were! Being, been, and be!
Have, has, had! Do, does, did! Shall, should, will, and would!
There are five more helping verbs: may, might, must, can, could!
Maybe this persistent focus on grammar is why the familiar phrase – Emmanuel, God is with us – struck me in a new way as I pondered Matthew’s birth story this week. In the past I have mostly paid attention to the words in that phrase with an identity attached to them: the noun and pronoun; the subject and the object: God (sounds of angelic singing)… God is with us.
Now, that IS a really big deal. The whole idea of the incarnation – of God becoming human, taking on a human body and life… I could preach a bunch of sermons on that topic and not lose my excitement about it. But in that excitement, I think I’ve been missing out on the power of the preposition.
God is WITH us.
Prepositions, according to my child’s 7th grade language arts teacher, are words “that show the relationship between two things.” Which means, God’s relationship to us is WITH. Not just above, or before, or around, or against – as we sometimes fear. Not even just near. But WITH.
There is a connotation of partnership in the preposition “with,” a sense that we’re in this together. In the birth of Jesus, in the vulnerable, squirming infant taking his first gasp of air in a smelly stable, God is really and truly with us in all that it means to be human.
There are two particular lessons about this “with-ness” that come through in Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus. The first is that God does not cut any corners in joining us in all the messiness of human life. Because this story is messy… A scandalous pregnancy, an instinct to hush it up, fear, and doubt, and uncertainty about “what is the right thing to do in this situation?” Joseph wants to the do right thing, but the law of his people would mean having Mary and her unborn baby stoned to death, so he privileges compassion over law. He tries to maintain his own righteousness while also protecting her. He tries to “put her away quietly." It’s the best plan that Joseph can come up with to keep himself clean in a messy situation.
But here’s the thing about God being WITH us. God isn’t embarrassed by the mess. Instead, God blesses it. God sends an angel to say: “Don’t be afraid of the mess. Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, and to connect your life – forever – to my unconventional plans. Because they are my plans. This has always been my plan: to be God WITH you. To be the God who does not stand at a distance, but who enters into the human story, in the middle of the mess, and saves you by not leaving you alone to figure out this mess by yourself. The mess doesn’t have to be scary because I am WITH you.”
And so, Joseph does as the angel commanded, he dives into the mess with Mary, and that response reveals the second lesson about God being WITH us. WITH describes a relationship of partnership – a relationship in which God doesn’t just come in and take over. Jesus is not simply God FOR us – managing everything while we stand on the sidelines. He is God WITH us, which means we have a role to play as well… just like Joseph did. The angel’s message to Joseph wasn’t just to reassure him – to tell him: “this is the plan, don’t worry.” The angel gave Joseph an assignment: “take Mary as your wife… she will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.”
The Salt Project’s commentary this week, raises a question about what Joseph’s fear was really about, because the angel did not simply tell Joseph not to be afraid. The angel said: “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” So maybe his fear has to do with stepping into what God is doing through Jesus. “Perhaps Joseph is afraid of overstepping his calling, unable to see a role for an ordinary man like him in God’s glorious plan of redemption. Perhaps he considers himself unworthy of being the stepfather of God’s child (!).”
But Joseph’s worthiness isn’t the important factor here. God’s saving plan is to be God-with-us. And that means that Joseph has a role to play: in creating a family for Jesus, and providing protection to his vulnerable human life, and supporting Mary in her role, and in giving the child of God a name: Jesus – the one who saves. Joseph didn’t bring about the miracle, but he is still given a job that allows him to cooperate with God’s saving work in the world.
This messy, co-operative understanding of God’s decision to be “with us” is relevant for all of us, in a way that we will get to witness in the sacrament of baptism in just a few minutes. When baby McKinley, her parents, and sponsors come to the font, we will all get to participate in the mystery of God’s unconventional, interactive saving work of being God-with-us. As I pour the water over McKinley’s head, and speak the words of God’s promise to her uncomprehending ears, God will be working a miracle in her life.
God will be saving her, sealing her with the promise of God’s Holy Spirit and including her forever in the community that knows God is with us.
And that salvation will be entirely consistent with the story of God-with-us that we heard read today.
First, because it will be messy, and I don’t just mean the water that we are going to get on our church clothes. McKinley’s life will have it’s share of mess. This water has no protective magic. McKinley is not being inoculated against all suffering and struggle today. But that’s precisely why her baptism matters. Because today she is receiving the assurance that she will not go through any of the particular messiness of her life alone. She will always have God with her, intimately connected, sharing in the brokenness and pain that are part of what it is to be human.
She will also have the family of God, because we all have a role to play in God’s saving work in her life. Just as we heard in the story of Jesus, God to the one who performs the miracle, God is the one who saves, but God’s plan of salvation looks like God-with-us.
God gives us all a part to play. McKinley’s parents, and sponsors, and our whole congregation are going to make promises to her today: promises to teach her, support her, and pray for her. In McKinley’s baptism we ALL get to experience God-with-us, calling us into the divine and human work of doing God’s saving work in the world.
I guess, as it turns out, that pronoun is pretty important too. Jesus, Emmanuel, is God with us.
Not with me. Not with you. Not with McKinley – not alone. We are all bound together in the family of God through the saving work of Jesus.
God. With. Us.
Thanks be to God.