Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:
Sunday’s Epistle lesson has been called a “Christmas Creed.” The essence of that creedal statement is what Paul wrote about Jesus, “Who as to His human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead.”
In reading Sunday’s lessons of prophecy, fulfillment and creedal statement, I am struck with the difference between writing those words — then — and reading those words — today. Isaiah sang his songs and spoke his prophetic utterances with a powerful conviction: “This is the word of the Lord!” We can sense from some of his words a marvelous anticipation. I described it last week as the anticipation a child has for a Christmas wish list — especially one that has already received parental approval. The child knows the gift is coming. He can already shoot the basketball in his mind. She can already ride that bicycle in her dreams, with hair flowing in beautiful billows in the breeze. Because dreams, visions and anticipation are always more perfect than reality, the ball goes through the hoop every time and the bicycle-rider never falls.
When Matthew and Paul wrote, it was from one perspective that is shared by us — that of post fulfillment and post Easter, but also from a different perspective that of Jesus’ contemporaries. We read their words and tend to think of the messages as coming to them. We read the translation of “Immanuel” as “God with us,” but sometimes we think that “us” means Isaiah, Matthew, and Paul, so we transpose it to “God with THEM.” God’s mission, our work and the work of the Holy Spirit in our day, is to help each person know that Jesus is God With US — right here, right now.
Sunday’s Gospel lesson provides one way to do that. Each year, at every Christmas pageant, every school, Sunday school or day care program, and again on Christmas Eve, we read or hear the old, old story as told by Luke. If we read the story from Matthew at all, we sort of interpret it with those better-known words from the other Gospel. When Matthew wrote his Gospel, he wasn’t writing “another” Gospel. He was telling the story of Christ’s birth to an audience which he did not anticipate ever hearing or reading the story from Luke. If his story were all that we had, what would we know?
For one thing, we would know that Joseph was a descendant of David, and that Jesus is the legal, though not genetic son of Joseph, and, therefore, also a descendant of David. We would know that Joseph learned that Mary was with child before they were married and at a time when the child could not possibly be his. We would know that, because of this, Joseph decided to have legal papers drawn up to break his engagement with Mary. He would have done it privately because he was both righteous and compassionate. He did not want her to be stoned or even publicly ridiculed.
We would know that an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him the real facts behind these particular “facts of life,” that he should go ahead with his marriage plans and eventually name the child “Jesus.” We would know that, as a result of that dream, Joseph showed exemplary faith and obedience to God and a remarkable amount of personal patience and restraint. He took Mary as his wife, accepting all the responsibilities that meant to him, and granting any rights and privileges it offered to her, while delaying the rights and intimate privileges it would normally mean to him.
It has been said that Joseph is probably the most misunderstood participant in the Christmas drama. Yet, as Leonard Sweet observed, “He opened his heart and spirit, his home and his whole future, to the intrusion (it must have seemed more like an invasion) of the divine.” In Matthew’s story, Joseph is a model for all who are called by God to serve in supportive roles. One lesson we can learn from him is that our many supportive roles are worthy of as much praise as are the far-fewer “lead roles” in life — especially if we joyfully fulfill them in faith and obedience to God and acceptance of His Word.
No Christmas story is a story of how God came to be with them. “Immanuel” is our Christmas reference to the son of David and Son of God who still, as always, comes to be with us! While His birth, life, teaching, crucifixion, death and resurrection are historical activities, having taken place years ago, in another era and another culture, they are nonetheless events for us — fulfilled by the One who is still with us and in us. They mean our forgiveness today, our faith today and our faithful living today.
“Cast out our sin and enter in,” wrote Phillips Brooks; “Be born in us, today,” and he concluded, “Oh, come to us, Abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel!” Martin Luther wrote the same kind of thought in his carol: “Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child, Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled, Within my heart, that it may be A quiet chamber kept for Thee.”
As much or, perhaps, more than any other time of the year, Christmas is a time to welcome the intrusion of the Holy Spirit into our lives and plans and futures — a time to make room for Christ in every part of our homes and families. Let’s make it a time for people to see Christ with us, by opening ourselves so wide to His intrusions that they cannot help seeing Him in us. While we remember the little Christ, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, let us pray that He make us “little Christs” to our neighbors in all our speaking, doing and living, so all can see and believe that our God is indeed God with US!