Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God Is With You” (Matthew 1:18-23)
December 22, 2019
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I am embarrassed to admit this but once in a while I scroll through various postings on the website for BuzzFeed.  BuzzFeed is mental bubblegum— no nutritional value whatsoever but sometimes exactly what you need for a moment.  Recently BuzzFeed had a posting entitled “The 23 Most Painfully Awkward Things That Happened to People in 2019.”  One was a customer service moment in which the representative on the phone meant to say, either “Hold on for a second” or “Give me a minute” but accidentally combined the two and said, “Hold me for a second.”

Another post had a photo of a man in a hospital who had just had a severe allergic reaction to walnuts, so on a bright red wristband in large black Sharpie written letters was the word “NUTS”—the patient later admitted, “Everyone in the hospital looked at me like I escaped the psych ward.”  And a third was a confession about an awkward moment at a funeral, “I was sitting at this funeral surrounded by people crying and mourning and I’m playing the video game Mario Kart on my phone and did not realize my headphones were not connected”—oops.  Maybe some of you peruse BuzzFeed during my sermons…if you do, no need to tell me.

During the holiday season in the midst of all the office parties and shopping trips and family gatherings and church services there is something that still often lurks below the surface for many people, something challenging and overwhelming that rears its head in a more pronounced way this time of year, something most people who struggle with it refuse to acknowledge or admit: loneliness.  Loneliness during the holiday season is especially tough.  Such loneliness may mean you prefer to play a video game on your phone than interact with others, even at a funeral.  Loneliness may be so intense that your wristband with the word “NUTS” on it may have nothing to do with a walnut allergy.  Loneliness may mean maybe you actually meant to tell the customer, “Hold me for a second.”  There are exceptions of course, as some people would much rather be alone because in their view, as the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre put it, “Hell is other people.”

But for most people who struggle with loneliness the holidays are particularly challenging, as described in an online article for Psychology Today:

Lonely people dread the holiday season more than any other time of year.  Watching everyone around them connect with those they love makes their own feelings of emotional isolation even more profound.  Indeed the holidays can make loneliness feel especially excruciating.  Loneliness is not an objective or quantitative measure of friendship or companionship but a qualitative one; a subjective feeling of deep emotional or social disconnection (or both).  Many people might be married but feel extremely lonely.  Others might find themselves amidst large gatherings yet still feel distant, unengaged, misunderstood, or unseen (Guy Winch, 12/4/13).

Odds are some of you here today, even in the midst of all these people, even at church, still feel really, really lonely.  If you feel alone, you not alone, pun intended.  Think for a moment about all the popular songs over the years that have expressed this—from Hank Williams (“I’m so lonesome I could cry”) to Roy Orbison (“Only the lonely know how I feel tonight”) to the Beatles (“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”) to Simon and Garfunkel (“A winter’s day in a deep and dark December, I am alone”) to Crosby, Stills and Nash (“Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud, ‘I am lonely’”) to the Backstreet Boys (“Show me the meaning of being lonely”) to Green Day (“I walk a lonely road, the only one that I have ever known…I walk alone, I walk alone, I walk alone”) to Taylor Swift (“This is how the world works—you gotta leave before you get left”).  Whether you are the one who leaves or the one who is left, you still end up alone.

Loneliness impacts people of all ages—from toddlers feeling lonely in their crib, to a kid on their first day at a new school, to a middle schooler with acne and braces making that terrifying walk into the school cafeteria hoping to see someone there to sit with, to a high school student finding out on social media they were the only one not invited to “that” party, to a college student wounded by a hook-up culture that promises so much freedom but leaves you isolated and hurt, to a single parent who never thought their life would turn out this way, to a middle aged executive who has reached their career goal only to learn that it can be very lonely at the top, all the way to elderly widows and widowers who wish their families would visit them more often and are afraid of dying alone.  You get the picture.

And yet that is exactly where God meets us.  When it came to reaching out to a lonely world filled with lonely people God did not send a text or email or Snapchat or Instagram.  God sent something much more personal, actually Someone much more personal, as we see clearly in today’s gospel passage:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us” (Matthew 1:18-23).

The prophet whom Matthew mentions in this passage is the Old Testament prophet Isaiah whose ministry in Israel lasted over fifty years and who prophesied seven centuries before Jesus’ birth about Jesus being Emmanuel, “God is with us”, (Isaiah 7:14).  And indeed on “a winter’s day in a deep and dark December” Jesus was born to a lonely world to bring the good news of the gospel that God is indeed with us—that God is indeed with you—always has been, always will be.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry Jesus demonstrated again and again that “God is with us”, especially with lonely people like a blind man sitting alone on the side of the road, and a tax collector sitting alone at his booth, and a lonely Pharisee named Nicodemus on a rooftop at night, and one woman caught in adultery standing alone before her accusers and another all alone at a well in the middle of the day.  Jesus did this every day of his earthly ministry, personally communicating to all the lonely people, “God is with you…God is with you…God is with you.”

And yet on Good Friday Jesus, Emmanuel, found himself standing alone before Pilate, standing alone before a crowd who wanted him dead, standing alone before a world that just didn’t get it, and still doesn’t.

And even on the cross Jesus reached out to the lonely, assuring the criminal crucified next to him, a criminal doubtlessly forsaken by his family because of the shame he had brought upon them, “It’s gonna be okay…truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  And a few moments later Jesus, Emmanuel, God is with us, died.  That evening Jesus’ body taken down and placed alone in a tomb.  And it looked like God was not with us anymore.

But after his resurrection on Easter Sunday the Risen Jesus continued to reach out to lonely people.  The first person he revealed himself to that morning was Mary Magdalene, who was lonely because of her notorious reputation, and the Risen Jesus called her by name, “Mary” (John 20:16).  And later the Risen Jesus met Peter, who had denied Jesus three times, Peter who even in the midst of the other disciples felt alone because of his shame for letting Jesus down in his darkest hour, and Jesus restored him and recommissioned him on the spot, “Feed my sheep, Peter.  You gave up on yourself but I’ll never give up on you.  Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).  And the Risen Jesus remains Emmanuel, “God is with us.”

I’ll close with a true story about a Christmas pageant very different from the one here today at Christ Church.  Several years ago a Christmas pageant was held at a nursing home, full of elderly people who felt lonely most the time—participants in this Christmas pageant ranged in age from 85 to 95.  A group of these elderly people dressed like angels, confused and disoriented, slowly shuffled forward to the front of the room in their angel costumes made of sheets with holes cut out to make room for their heads and halos.  And then Joseph and Mary struggled down the aisle, inch by inch, and when Joseph got too winded, one dressed as the angel Gabriel brought a wheelchair and gently guided Joseph the rest of the way.  Finally Mary, with her wobbly gait, arrived at the front leaning on her walker.  Slung in between the walker’s supports was baby Jesus, gently rocking back and forth.  And as the Holy Family reached the crèche, the infirm angels broke into song: “The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn”—“a new and glorious morn” of God’s loving presence in a lonely world.

The gospel is good news for the lonely because Jesus Christ remains Emmanuel, “God is with us”—Emmanuel, “God is with…you.”