Lay Reader = Romans 1:1-7
1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Well we are almost there! Christmas is right around the corner! And you have all of your gifts purchased and assembled and wrapped, right?
As we have prepared ourselves for the coming of Christ during this Advent season, we have been looking at the heart-felt gifts that God gives us. Last time we talked about how Jesus’ name is above every other name – he defines our situations even when he doesn’t change the circumstances themselves. This week we are looking at how God desires a relationship with us.
Our text today comes from the Gospel of Matthew. We get to track with Joseph this week. And this is a fascinating passage. We don’t talk about Joseph all that often because he doesn’t figure prominently in Jesus’ ministry the way Mary does, but this text is his time to shine. Let’s try to think about Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective.
First, how many people would believe Mary that she was pregnant because of a Holy Spirit-provided immaculate conception? Is that explanation gonna fly? I don’t think so!
So Joseph thinks Mary has committed adultery. He was within his rights to denounce her publicly, and she could face serious consequences from the community. But he resolves to dismiss her quietly instead of shunning her.
But when the angel confirms Mary’s story and he agrees to stay with her, do you know who becomes the community pariah? Joseph. In the eyes of the community, the only reason he would have stayed with her was if he was the father. So instead of the community being angry with Mary, now they’ll look at him with disrespect. The angel tells Joseph, in essence, to take the misplaced shame that the community would heap on Mary and instead voluntarily take it upon himself.
So let’s give Joseph a little credit here and listen to his moment in the spotlight.
18Now 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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
There are always some less than desirable corners of the family tree, right? Do you have that wing of the family that you wouldn’t lift up as a model for others?
I have an uncle who is a wanderer, and that left three of my cousins with an absentee father. The rest of the family did what we could to provide love and support, but it’s not the same, right?
And I only bring that up because we’re talking about God’s desire for a relationship with us. But I believe many of us subconsciously (or even consciously) believe that God is an absentee father. Sure, Jesus came in person, but that was two thousand years ago. Nice for those people, but two thousand years is a long time to be absent!
Many of us believe God can’t or won’t be involved in our daily lives. Maybe God shows up on special occasions – sometimes. Maybe we can learn from Jesus like studying a famous person or a saint or learning from a great teacher.
But do you believe that Jesus is with you on a daily basis? Or do you deep in your heart of hearts believe Jesus is more of an occasional visitor? Someone who says nice things, but only occasionally shows up for real?
I love how The Message translation renders John 1:14. It says about Jesus, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” My uncle, as an absentee father, lived several states away. He didn’t move into the neighborhood. He traveled as far away as he could. But here we see that Jesus “moved into the neighborhood.”
Our younger son plays with a few boys close to his age on our cul-de-sac. He didn’t know them before we moved houses. He only knows them because we moved into the neighborhood. That allows a relationship to form.
If Jesus is moving into your neighborhood, he wants to have a relationship with you. He doesn’t want to be an occasional visitor, an absentee father, he wants to be around you day-in and day-out.
Psalm 113 puts it this way: “You who serve God, praise God! Just to speak his name is praise! Just to remember God is a blessing—now and tomorrow and always. From east to west, from dawn to dusk, keep lifting all your praises to God!”
God is with us from the east to the west, from the first rays of the rising sun to the last glimmer of the sun going down behind the mountains, now and tomorrow and always. That’s not an absentee father. That’s not a distant, disinterested God. That’s a relationship. God didn’t make you and then release you into the wild for observation. He’s with you on the journey.
That was true of God even in the Old Testament. But as we celebrate the birth of Jesus we get to up the ante quite a bit.
The Heisman Trophy is awarded to college football’s most outstanding player each year. This year it went to Louisiana State University’s Joe Burrow. But Joe isn’t from Louisiana. He didn’t even start college at LSU. He’s from a struggling part of Ohio. And he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
In his acceptance speech this year, Burrow talked about his home town. He said, “Coming from Southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area. The poverty rate is almost two times the national average, and there’s so many people there that don’t have a lot…I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and in Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. And you guys can be up here, too.”
Some people were inspired and challenged by his words about Athens County, so they started an online campaign to donate to the local food bank. And donations have been coming in from all over Ohio – AND Louisiana from people who appreciate their university’s Ohio-born quarterback. In the first two days they received more donations than their typical annual budget.
But, as he hoped in his speech, he also gave a new sense of hope to many of the kids from his hometown. A third grade special ed teacher reported that one of her students proudly announced, “I go to the food bank!” Instead of being ashamed, she was proud and hopeful thanks to Joe Burrow’s words and the response of two states thousands of miles apart.
All of that is happening right now because Joe Burrow didn’t forget where he came from. He didn’t stop caring about his home town. He didn’t forget who he left behind when he followed his dreams and talent for football. And he wasn’t ashamed. He wanted others to know about it.
So, where did Jesus come from? Where was he born? What’s Jesus’ home town? We already heard, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” He was born in a little town in Israel. But more importantly, he was born on earth to a human mother. We are from Jesus’ neighborhood! And, like Joe Burrow, Jesus hasn’t forgotten where he came from. Jesus isn’t ashamed of our run-down lives. Instead, he wants to advocate for us.
So before Jesus, the Israelites knew that God was very different from them, but God wanted to be with them. God wanted a relationship with them. With the birth and life of Jesus, things are different. Jesus was God, yes, but also human. He’s from our neighborhood. He’s one of us. He sees us as his home town neighbors. He hasn’t forgotten. He wants to advocate for his home town neighborhood.
Who do you brag about or mention from your home town or your tribe? I can say I went to the same middle school as Drew Brees, who’s an NFL quarterback. I can say that I was good friends with Zach Duke, a major league pitcher. I get to point out that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor just like me. Well…not just like me, but same denomination!
Or in my family tree I can point to such upstanding citizens as Jesse James and John Wesley Harden – oh, whoops, those are gunslinging outlaws. But “infamous” still has the word “famous” in it!
We like to claim the family and friends and neighbors and even distant connections that are interesting or noteworthy, right? Well we can claim that we’re from the same neighborhood as Jesus. We can claim that we’re friends of Jesus. It’s hard to get any name drop bigger than the Son of God, right?
Jesus claims you, and you can claim Jesus. No matter what anyone says to you, no matter how anyone tries to bring you down, no one can take Jesus away from you. And he hasn’t forgotten you.
I think Max Lucado’s children’s book You Are Special captures why all of this matters to us personally. In his story, the Wemmicks are wooden people. And every day the Wemmicks look at each other and place stickers on each other based on what they see. The ones who are clever or talented or beautiful receive gold stars from the other Wemmicks.
But those who have chipped paint, or who are clumsy, or do things a little differently? They receive gray dots from the other Wemmicks. Punchinello didn’t receive gold stars. He always got gray dots. In fact, he had so many dots that sometimes the other Wemmicks gave him more gray dots because they thought his other gray dots were ugly.
One day Punchinello met another Wemmick who didn’t have a single sticker. No gold stars. No gold dots. Some tried to give her gold stars, but they slid off. Some tried to give her gray dots, but they didn’t stick on her either. When asked, she told Punchinello that her daily visit with Eli the carver made her dots fall off.
So finally Punchinello worked up the courage to visit Eli. And even covered in gray dots, Eli immediately recognized Punchinello, because he had made Punchinello. Eli told him that the stars and dots only stick if they matter to you. They don’t matter to Eli. Eli asked Punchinello to come back again tomorrow for another conversation. And that’s when the first gray dot fell off of Punchinello. They didn’t all fall off at once. But every day he came to spend time with Eli made more of them fall off and refuse to stick.
The one who formed you wants to have an ongoing relationship with you. In fact, he sent his only Son to live in our neighborhood. The more time we spend with the one who formed us, the less the judgments of other people will stick to us.
If people praise you, the more time you spend with the one who formed you, the less pressure you’ll feel to keep up with your own reputation.
If people denounce and shame you, the more time you spend with the one who formed you, the less those statements will hurt your heart.
Whether you feel you deserve gold stars or you feel you deserve to come before your maker covered in gray dots, the one who formed you sees past those stickers to see your original shape, your intended form. The more time we spend with the one who formed us, the more we will look like that intended form.
That’s what we get out Emmanuel – God with us. That’s what we get out of a God who moves into our neighborhood. That’s what we get out of a relationship with Jesus.
When I pick up our son Charlie from school, I usually get an excited shout of, “Dad!” And he runs over to jump into my arms for a hug. It might go downhill quickly from there, but that first moment causes my heart to leap. No one else looks at me like that.
Or have you ever had a dog? They tend to greet you with gusto whenever you get home, right? No one looks at you like a dog does when you get home. It might cause your heart to leap.
No one sees us like Jesus. No one looks at us like Jesus. When the eyes of your Creator and Savior see you with love and joy, it causes your heart to leap. That’s the gift of relationship with God.
Take a hint from Punchinello. Go spend some time in Eli’s house. See how the one who formed you looks at you. It will cause your heart to leap. I don’t think you’ll find that kind of gift anywhere else this Christmas. Amen.