Sunday, December 21, 2008

God With Us

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.”

                        Matthew 1.23

A Moral Quandary

Matthew cites this prophecy (Isaiah 7.14) in a context that believers who feel pushed to the social and religious outskirts will find most interesting. Mary’s extraordinary pregnancy puts Joseph in an awkward situation. He’s indirectly been handed the awesome task of protecting the mother of humanity’s Redeemer. His familiarity with Isaiah’s prediction that Christ will be born of a virgin allays any knee-jerk suspicions about Mary’s chastity and credibility. Yet Joseph’s Scriptural knowledge likewise places him in a moral quandary.

Judaic law sentences women like Mary to death. (Deuteronomy 22.23-24) Once Mary’s condition forces her “out,” religious hysteria will rise against her. Her defense—based on faith in God’s promise—will shrivel under the glare of Bible literalists who value conformity over belief. As a product of his environment, it’s difficult for Joseph to shake lingering unease about what’s right. Trapped by faith on one side, religion on the other, he decides to resolve the issue with discretion. Matthew 1.19 says, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Today, we call people who adopt his out-of-sight, out-of-mind compromise “closeted.”


Although Joseph’s case is unique, his turmoil is not. Many of us deal with anguish about what our situations require—standing on God’s promise of acceptance or buckling to religion’s threats of rejection. In other cases, we confront ideologies of a pagan culture that scoffs at anyone whose faith defies its success and pleasure principles. We see this in 1 Kings 18, where Israel has fallen into idolatry and, as a result, hard times. The prophet Elijah challenges them. “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” Whether, like Joseph, we’re at odds with our religious upbringing or, like Elijah, at odds with our community, our dilemma is the same: faith versus conformity. Wavering between two opinions isn’t an option. Faith is the only way to go. Any doubt of that vanishes when we watch God step into Joseph’s crisis to turn his thinking around.

Immanuel Heirs

Satisfied with his compromise, Joseph goes to bed. But he remains troubled about how to maneuver his plan. Sparing Mary’s humiliation—as well as her and her Son’s lives—won’t spare him explaining things to his family. He can’t hide the truth from them forever. An angel visits Joseph’s dreams, telling him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what’s conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1.20) The crux of God’s message to Joseph is this: “Take courage in what you know is true instead of worrying about what you’re told is right.” And here Matthew underscores the truth of the matter with Isaiah’s prophecy. Mary carries the living presence of God—Immanuel, “God with us.”

Romans 8.17 says we’re “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ,” meaning we inherit the “Immanuel” family name. We embody God’s presence. He’s with us now and always. Hebrews 13.5-6 invokes His promise as our source of courage: “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’” Joseph awoke to a new plan based on the courage of his convictions and nothing thereafter lived up to his prior fears. His family embraced Mary. She and her Baby met no harm. Joseph suffered no backlash for standing beside her. Waking to know God is with us frees us of compromise. As Immanuel heirs, two traits define us: undying faith in our Father and unyielding resistance to fear.


Joseph went to sleep with one plan, but after an angel visited his dreams, he woke up to another.

(Tomorrow: Joy for All)

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