“Where Is God? Answer: Immanuel” (Matthew 1:18-25)
Where is God in the midst of all of this? You hear this question all the time these days. Whenever there is a tragedy in the news, you hear people asking this question. “Where is God,” and then fill in the blank. Where is God when a tornado levels Moore, Oklahoma, or a typhoon devastates the Philippines? Where is God when there is a terrible school shooting–in Connecticut, in Colorado–and innocent children die? Where are you, God? Why did you let this happen?
Or let’s bring it closer to home. Where is God when a dear friend, as active and vibrant as all get out, and the most dedicated of Christians–when she suffers a stroke? Does God not care for her? Where is God when our loved one finally gets the surgery he needs to relieve his chronic pain–and then he falls, and now he needs to have another surgery, this time perhaps even riskier? Why did God let this happen? Or let’s make the tragedy more relational than physical: Where is God when your spouse leaves you for no good reason? Has he forgotten me? Why did he let this happen? Where is God when he must know that our little congregation is struggling, hurting for members and attendance and offerings? We’re being faithful in our doctrine and practice. So why isn’t God blessing our church with growth?
These are tough questions. They deal with the tough reality we face in our world, in our church, and in our lives. Where is God in all of this? There are no easy answers to this question. Oh, there is an answer, and we’ll get to it this evening, but that doesn’t mean God instantly does away with all the pain and loss and grief we experience in life. But there is an answer to our question, and it is a good one. In fact, it is a great one, much better than anything we could come up with. And it has everything to do with Christmas.
Where is God? Why did he let this happen? You know, we’re not the first ones to ask this question. Indeed, it is a perennial question, one that people ask every time they are faced with a tragedy or a crisis or a terrible situation in their life. Imagine this situation: You’re a man engaged to a young woman, a woman you think is a very devout and godly person. You’re looking forward so much to your life together. But then, quite unexpectedly, she turns up pregnant. And you know, you absolutely know, that you could not possibly be the father. No, you have conducted yourself in an honorable manner, as a gentleman, holding off on intimacy until the proper time. Yet even so, she is definitely pregnant. This comes as a shock, of course. You feel betrayed. How could she do this to me? I feel humiliated, angry even. Now I’ll have to break this off. Here I thought God was guiding my life, our life. Why did he let this happen? God, where are you in this lousy, miserable situation?
So could have been the thoughts of a man named Joseph. He was faced with a personal crisis. His betrothed, Mary, was the young woman who had gotten herself pregnant. His betrothed had betrayed him. This was the only conclusion he could reach. And in every other case but this one, he would have been right. But such was not the case. Joseph didn’t know where God was in all of this. He didn’t have an answer to his questions, not a good one. But it turns out that God was indeed there, with Joseph, and God was going to bring something good out of this bad situation.
An angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Now of course this is a totally unique answer, specifically for Joseph in his particular situation, because this is a totally unique child that is going to be born. But the point for us, in terms of the “Where is God?” question, is that God was at work, working things out for Joseph’s good–not to mention, for the good of the whole world–even though Joseph couldn’t see it at the time.
Let’s look a little more closely at what the angel told Joseph, to see why this is good news for Joseph and for us. First, the angel calls him “Joseph, son of David.” What’s up with that? Well, it means that Joseph is a descendant of the great King David, who lived about a thousand years earlier. And the Lord had promised David that one of his sons, one of his descendants, would be the greatest king of all, ushering in an everlasting kingdom of blessing. That son of David would be the promised Messiah. Now here the angel calls Joseph “son of David”–not that Joseph himself would be the Messiah, but that child that Mary would bear? He would be the Messiah, the Christ, the promised king of glory. And although Joseph is not the child’s physical father, by his naming the child, Joseph will make him his son legally, and thus an heir to the throne of David, which the Messiah must be.
And then there’s the name that the angel tells Joseph to name the child. “Jesus,” that will be the baby boy’s name. Now there would have been a lot of baby boys back then named Jesus. It was a fairly common name. In the Hebrew, it’s “Yeshua,” a form of the familiar Hebrew name “Joshua,” one of the great leaders of Israel’s past, and thus a popular name for Jewish boys. But this Yeshua, this Jesus, would really live up to his name. For the name Yeshua or Yehoshua means “The Lord saves.” In other words, the name Jesus literally means “Savior.” The baby is given a name to fit his mission. For he comes to be the Savior, Joseph’s Savior and your Savior–indeed, the Savior of the world! And what does he save us from? From our most basic, most serious, all-encompassing problem, which is our sins.
“You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This is our root problem, the one that leads to all the other problems and troubles and tragedies in our lives and in the world. It’s the sin problem. It affects and afflicts every one of us. The end result is death. Our sins consist of everything wrong that we do against God’s will. This is what causes all the pain and heartache in the world–sin. It’s why this whole world is so screwed up. It’s the guilt cloud hanging over us. It’s the shroud of death that envelops us. If there’s going to be an answer from God that is strong enough to deal with death and tragedy, it must be one that gets to the root of the problem, which is man’s sin.
That’s why this baby is born, to do just that. This Jesus will live up to his name. He will be “Savior.” He will save us all from our sins by taking that big bundle of sin upon himself. From the wood of the manger he will go to the wood of the cross. There this Jesus will die a sinner’s death, in our place, freeing you from the judgment for sin marked out for you. Christ comes to set you free. His death means your life–eternal life, as shown in Christ’s mighty resurrection, to which you have been joined in your baptism.
Are you beginning to see the answer? The answer is much bigger than God just preventing this or that individual tragedy. God’s answer gets to the root of all tragedies and all pain and all sorrow. It’s a bigger answer than we would have thought of, and ironically it comes in the form of this little baby, the one named “Jesus,” “Savior.”
Where is God in all of this? Here’s the answer. The gospel writer, St. Matthew, tells us: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”
“Immanuel”–that’s it. Again to the Hebrew: “Immanu,” which means “with us.” “El,” which means “God.” “Immanuel,” the “with-us God.” It’s this baby boy Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. Do you want to know where God is? Look for a baby in manger on this night. Unusual place for a king to be born, but there he is, in a cattle stall. Where is God? You can see him later healing the sick, making a lame man walk and a blind man see. You can see him raising a father’s little girl and a widow’s only son–raising them from the dead. This is God with us, Immanuel, doing what only God can do and showing us what is in store for us, on the day when Christ returns. Where is God? You can find him–well, you can find him here, now, in this church, where he promises to be with his people, to forgive their sins and strengthen their faith and form them into a community of love and care and support–especially for those times when we’re hurting and wondering where God is. Yes, in the church, where Christ is present with his people–this is where God is today.
Where is God in all of this, in the midst of all the tragedies and turmoil of this life? There are no easy answers, not ones that magically do away with the pain and the heartache. But there is an answer, nevertheless. The answer for Joseph is the answer for us. God’s answer is the one comprehensive answer, the one that gets to the root of all the problems all at once, all wrapped up in one bundle. It’s this little bundle of joy, born on this night, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and his name is Jesus, “Savior.” Where is God? Answer: “Immanuel,” “God with us.”