Presence: The Promised Presence

Today we begin our Advent Conspiracy. As I mentioned during communion, we are encouraging everyone to give “one gift less” and offer the money we save as a collection that will go to help others. %75 will go to Living Water International and %25 will be given to the Gateway Domestic Violence Center.

As the video during communion stated—we spend almost a trillion dollars at Christmas. Think of that for a moment.

Let this sink in.

When we began participating in Advent Conspiracy ten years ago, people spent one hundred billion dollars at Christmas. In ten years notice how much this has increased! The one figure that has been constant is the cost to provide fresh water globally is still 9 billion dollars.

Its such a small amount to provide water for those who cannot have clean water, and yet so much is spent at Christmas.

This was never meant to be a day when we focused on “presents.” It was a day to celebrate “presence.”

Our reading today by Carlos and Luz (Matthew 1:18-25) reminds us of this. Can you imagine what it was like to be Joseph. His fiancé, Mary, shares with him (or it is told to him) that she is pregnant. This would be difficult to do in the ancient world. The couple would never have been allowed to be alone together. If a fiancé was pregnant it either meant that they had snuck around together and done something unacceptable in their community. The other option would be that she was raped (and this could have been a common problem with Roman soldiers). Either way, the whole thing reeked of “scandal.”

Even worse, she claimed that the Holy Spirit did it. No one expected this, for the Messiah was not understood to come this way. He was to come as a warrior, heavenly king, or priest. He would not have come as a scandal, and definitely not born like one of those Greek demigods who was the product of a god’s lust with a human female. Her claim would not have been on anyone’s radar—and Joseph would have had little ability to process this. He couldn’t go to a rabbi for advice because they were not expecting God to come this way.

Joseph is a construction worker. He may have been older but could very well have been a young male, close to Mary in age. We know that he was a good man. God knew who to choose to raise Jesus—Joseph went to synagogue every Sabbath, traveled to the temple every Passover, and would have taken his turn reading scripture in the synagogue. Matthew wrote that Joseph was a righteous man. However, Matthew uses righteousness differently. If he meant righteous like we use it today, Joseph would have followed the law/Torah without deviating from the letter of the written code. He would have drug Mary publicly before the people and either had her stoned or stripped her clothes off and sent her away. That is what you did back then when someone humiliated you. Eye for eye—humiliation for humiliation. It’s how many of us see laws. To be righteous means to obey the law, even if it means being harsh.

However, Matthew saw righteousness differently. Jesus claimed that righteousness meant using mercy in the Torah (Matt 5:1-20), showed compassion to our enemies (5:43-48), and treated others like we want to be treated (7:12). Later Jesus told a rich ruler that to get to heaven he needed to give to the poor (Matt 19:21), a lawyer that loving God and neighbor was the key to Torah and prophets (22:37), and a group of corrupt religious leaders that they missed the boat because the law required mercy, justice, and faithfulness (23:23). For Matthew righteousness meant understanding Torah with compassion.

That is what Joseph wanted to do. He was going to avoid humiliation for Mary and divorce her quietly.

He might have been shunned.

He might have been blamed.

He might have been called “unmanly”

But—Matthew was showing us that Jesus brought a different righteousness. Righteousness did not involve my rights, but justice, compassion, and the rights of others.

However, Joseph did not have the chance to act—because in a dream he was told to take Mary and raise the child. This child would be a reminder that God was present, God was near, God was “Emmanuel” or with us.

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

He aquí, una virgen concebirá y dará a luz un hijo,
Y llamarás su nombre Emanuel, m que traducido es: Dios con nosotros. Y despertando José del sueño, hizo como el ángel del Señor le había mandado, y recibió a su mujer. Pero no la conoció hasta que dio a luz a su hijo primogénito; y le puso por nombre JESÚS.

When he woke—he took her. Amidst the scandal, the shame, the accusations, and the “failing to be a real man…” Joseph chose to obey and trust God. Yet he led this new family. After Jesus was born he later slept with Mary and they had a large family (4 more boys and 2 or more girls). No Mary was not a virgin all her life, and yes this large family was blessed by God and later may have been evicted and homeless. Yet this is the family where Jesus, and other leaders lived.

It must have been hard for Joseph to do this. He had to have faith. The verse quoted by the angel came from Isaiah 7:14. In that story the corrupt king of Judah, Ahaz, was shaking like a leaf. The Syrian and Israelite kings were pounding on his door and threatening to take his city in war. He was wavering and wondering if he needed to trust the mighty Assyrians for help. But Isaiah the prophet, and his son Maher
Shalal Hashbaz, met him at the aqueduct and told him to trust Yahweh. Ask God for a sign, because God will give you a sign to prove you are not alone.

Therefore Yahweh will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

Por tanto, el Señor mismo os dará señal: He aquí que la virgen concebirá, y dará a luz un hijo, y llamará su nombre Emanuel. Comerá mantequilla y miel, hasta que sepa desechar lo malo y escoger lo bueno. Porque antes que el niño sepa desechar lo malo y escoger lo bueno, la tierra de los dos reyes que tú temes será abandonada.

Isaiah 7:14-16

Isaiah and his wife would have a baby and before the baby would be 2 years old, Ahaz would be safe and secure. Isaiah reminded the king to trust that God would not abandon them. This verse, like the one quoted to Joseph, was a reminder to be faithful because God is with us.

Throughout the Bible God promised to be with people. In Exodus, amidst the horrible treatment of the Israelites by their Egyptian king, Moses came and shared that God was not blind—God heard their cries, and God would act.

Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites,  and Aaron told them everything Yahweh had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed. And when they heard that Yahweh was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

Y fueron Moisés y Aarón, y reunieron a todos los ancianos de los hijos de Israel. Y habló Aarón acerca de todas las cosas que Jehová había dicho a Moisés, e hizo las señales delante de los ojos del pueblo. Y el pueblo creyó; y oyendo que Jehová había visitado a los hijos de Israel, y que había visto su aflicción, se inclinaron y adoraron.

Exodus 4:29-31

Notice, that when they heard God was concerned—they worshipped. True worship can happen when we believe and know that God is present. Throughout Deuteronomy Moses will tell the people that God is with them. When Joshua took over as leader he began with a basic speech—“Don’t be afraid—God is with us and will not abandon us.” This was the message that Joseph was told—“God is with you…with us..”

I think it is interesting that Joseph could have said no—but he didn’t.

Would God have found another way? Sure. But God didn’t have to find another way. Joseph made the decision to obey. What world altering event will happen because we choose to obey?

Today, we begin Advent Conspiracy encouraging you to focus on Presence, rather than Presents. Think back to 2008 when we started this whole movement at Agape. We were part of the few churches signing up with Advent Conspiracy and attending the trainings on how to do this. Now, 10 years later, notice what God has done. Over $33,000 collected—10 water wells installed, and the most recent one in Uganda at a high school. $10,000 donated to abuse services, and child trafficking on lake Volta. God has done much through this little church. Our children remember that we gave a well in July when the report is sent to us. They may have forgotten what they got from Santa, or may be done with the gift, but they do not forget the well.

But Christmas is also about “Presence.” This past week I have been praying with people from some of the community organizations where I volunteer. Someone will mention, “Pastor Ron, you really need to pray for me/us,” and I respond with—“OK, let’s do it now.” Friday, the group where I attended, we stood up and I asked anyone who felt led to share a blessing. The guy from the Congo let a beautiful prayer about the Lord, and the power of the Spirit. Another guy shared a blessing from the Koran. Others just offered a blessing of peace. It was beautiful.

This is what it means to bring Presence.

Who do you know this week that needs Presence? This is what you do, I do, we all do.

Can we offer a prayer for someone?

Can we ask how someone is doing? Can we tell them we will pray for them?

Can we tell someone the story of the birth of Jesus? He came to a small house, was put in a feed trough, and was visited that night by a group of dirty shepherds. That is what it means to bring Presence.

While the rest of our community is thinking about their “Presents” can you and I offer “Presence”?

Can we tip a food server a little more this week?

Can we talk to the barista, checker, gas pumper, mail carrier, or a neighbor? Can we show them that this season is a reminder that God has not abandoned us?

Remember—Jesus is present in you, so that you can bring Presence to others!