God With Us

Matthew 1:18-25

I wonder what your favourite Christmas film is. We had a Christmas get-together at work recently, it included a quiz where we had to guess the highest grossing Christmas films of all time. It did inevitably lead to arguments about what counts as a Christmas film. However, I was not surprised to find that among the top 10 was the 1990 film Home Alone. It was certainly one of my favourites when I was a young lad.

If somehow it has passed you by, it is the story of young Kevin who is accidentally left behind when his parents go away for Christmas. Kevin thinks he has magically wished them away, and the film unfolds the story of all that he gets up to in their absence. I heard recently that there are plans for a remake of Home Alone. That happens from time to time doesn’t it? Favourite stories get reimagined for a new audience, a new generation, a new context. This year has seen new versions of Watership Down and The Lion King, and apparently this Christmas Worzel Gummage is to reappear on our screens.

I always find it very interesting to see what new things emerge when a familiar story is retold by a different director, a different storyteller, with different actors in the principle roles.

Our four gospels can be understood in this way. One story told four different ways, by four different storytellers, four different directors if you like, selecting which episodes and which characters to include. I love the fact that our scriptures allow space for this; space for different storytellers, different audiences.

Christmas is a time when the gospels tend to merge into one a bit, with shepherds and Magi bumping into each other in the same scene. I’m not going to be a killjoy and complain about that. It would be a shame if the school nativity play required a choice of either shepherds or wise men. School nativity plays are a wonderfully chaotic fusion not only of multiple gospels, but all sorts of other things too. I played a spaceman in mine.

However, there’s something wonderful about hearing the storyteller’s voice when we consider a gospel on its own. I think it can be helpful to imagine Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as four film directors, each telling the story in their own way. Perhaps we can even imagine Jesus being played by a different actor in each version.

Well this morning we had the first scene from Matthew’s gospel. The opening credits have already rolled, the scene has been set by a voice-over from someone like John Hurt or Ian Mckellan recounting Jesus’ family tree:

‘Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah…’

…and so on and so on until Joseph. At which point I imagine the camera focussing on Joseph himself. Asleep, but not sleeping soundly. Tossing and turning, still processing the news that his fiancée is pregnant, apparently with another man’s child.

In the first few scenes of this story, Joseph is the main character, the story is told almost from his perspective. This morning’s reading is the first of three times within the space of two chapters where he is visited by an angel in his dreams. Every time he responds faithfully and decisively, but by the time chapter two comes to an end Joseph’s part in this story is done. He never gets another mention.

Because this isn’t a story about Joseph. It’s the story of the one about whom the angel says this:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

And with those words, spoken in that very first scene the director introduces one of the central themes of the film. Here, in Jesus, our main protagonist, we see God. God with us, God among us, God as us. This is one of the main pieces of good news that Matthew wants us to hear. It’s a thread which will run throughout his version of the story.

The good news according to Matthew is that in Jesus we have the reassurance that God is with us. And it’s that reassurance that I want you to take away this morning. It is an idea which will doubtless continue to give scholars plenty to chew over, but for you and me this morning I think it speaks to a universal human need. I think that need to not be alone is something shared by all of us, even those of us normally prefer our own company.

Many of you will have seen on BBC Breakfast the story of 78-year-old Terrence, who had spent 20 Christmases on his own, overcome with emotion as students from the local college brought him a Christmas tree and sang a carol at his door. The nation shed collective tears at his story.

In Home Alone, Kevin is excited at first by the freedom he has when left to his own devices. But the novelty soon wears off, and gives way to fear and loneliness. When he is finally reunited with his mum on Christmas day, his reaction is one of sheer joy.

They shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

This morning I was listening to a reflection on our gospel reading:

The mystery of incarnation is not just the Christmas event that we will celebrate on Wednesday. It is something we can experience in our day-to-day life. God comes to dwell among us every moment, and we have only to open our hearts in trust to welcome that precious presence.

Christ is revealed to us every day in the people we meet, revealed to us in the whole created order. So I believe that when 78-year-old Terrence was so overcome with emotion, it was because the love he experienced was nothing short of the goodness of God being poured-out for him through those kind young people.

Mid-way through Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say “When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there”. Well here we are, gathered in his name, so let’s be assured of that promise that he is here among us.

So this morning, and this week let’s bring our attention to his presence and notice the reminders that we have that he is here among us:
When we enjoy friendship here together let us remember that as the church we are his body.
When we light a candle let us remember the light of his presence among us.
When read the Bible let us remember that the Word became flesh.
When we sing and when we pray let us do so in the knowledge that we are engaging in a conversation and let’s listen for his response.
And in a few minutes time, let us approach his table to share in that physical eatable drinkable picture of his presence here with us.
Let’s remember, in the words of John Betjeman’s ‘Christmas’ poem, that God was man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine.

Whatever lies ahead for you in 2020, I would like you to know a simple yet extraordinary truth. A truth spoken in the closing scene of Matthew’s gospel, just before the credits roll, the final words spoken by Jesus echoing scene one. Words he says to his disciples, words he says to us – “remember I am with you always”.

Thanks be to Him.