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Long long time ago, there was a young girl who lived in the village of Nazareth. Her name was Mary and she was a simple, sweet girl whose family was not very rich or famous. But the one thing her family was very proud of was the fact that they could trace their ancestry to King David. As was the custom at that time, Mary was betrothed to be married to Joseph, a carpenter. His family was also not well-to-do. In fact, woodworkers were considered one of the lower classes in that society. But he had a stable job and he was widely known among the villagers as a kind, caring and dependable man. His family was quite ordinary and did not have a high status but surprisingly, they could also trace their ancestry to the line of David. So everyone agreed that Mary and Joseph was a good match.
However, before the wedding could take place, Joseph received news that Mary was pregnant. He was shocked at the news. “But how can that be?” he wondered. When he met her, Joseph thought Mary was such a sweet person and he was sure she would make a wonderful wife. In fact, he was looking forward to their new life together. But now, all their hopes and plans have been dashed. He didn’t know what to think. He felt lost, angry and deeply disappointed. But being the kind and fair person that he was, he decided not to kick up a big fuss. He would annul the engagement quietly to save Mary from any embarrassment or harassment. After all, she could be stoned if the villagers wanted to make a big deal out of her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. At the very least, she would be despised by her relatives and fellow villagers. And no one deserved that, especially Mary. He wasn’t sure whose baby she was carrying and by right, he should have been outraged. But Joseph somehow felt protective over her. He was just disappointed that she wouldn’t become his wife.
Just after Joseph had decided to annul his engagement to Mary, an angel appeared to him while he was sleeping. He didn’t know it at that time but the same angel, Gabriel, had appeared to Mary some months back to tell her that she would become pregnant with the Son of the Most High — the Son of God. Imagine Mary’s utter shock at that time! In bewilderment, she had asked the angel how that could happen since she was a virgin. All the angel told her was “Don’t be afraid because you have found favor with God. We are talking about God, right? Nothing is impossible with God.” And Mary just accepted what the angel said, strange as it was, and trusted that God would work things out, even though it seemed such a weird yet wonderful plan.
Well, this same angel, Gabriel, assured Joseph that this baby was not conceived the usual way but through the power of the Holy Spirit. And he encouraged Joseph to take care of Mary and the baby, instructing him to name the baby ‘Jesus’. He also said the baby shall be known as Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’, as prophesied many years ago by Isaiah. Joseph knew that if what the angel said was true, he had to protect Mary. Imagine what would happen if the villagers were to question her about the pregnancy! “Whose child are you carrying? Tell us who the father is!” How was she going to explain whose baby it belonged to? Even if she told the truth, no one would believe her. In fact, they might feel even more inclined to stone her, as she would be claiming to be pregnant with the Son of God!! What blaspheme!! “How could this woman say such a thing? Has she gone mad?” they would say. Joseph couldn’t explain it but there was something strange and wonderful about the angel’s words. Perhaps the most wonderful part of this new revelation was that Mary would still be his wife. He wasn’t sure why but he felt an overwhelming sense of love and protectiveness towards her. So like Mary, Joseph accepted the angel’s words and trusted that God had a much bigger plan.
People often think of the nativity story as a heartwarming narrative with a fairy-tale quality. But frankly, if you look more closely at the details, it was quite a crappy situation to begin with. Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married but she gets knocked up before the wedding and the baby is not even Joseph’s! What is even crazier is that Mary was supposedly a virgin and the angel told her the baby is the Son of God! How insane is that?! So Mary, through no fault of hers, gets pregnant out of wedlock and risks being despised and gossiped about by her relatives and neighbors, at the very least. Of course, if things got out of hand, they could even justify stoning her, especially if she was claiming to be carrying the Son of God. And Joseph, through no fault of his, inherited a pregnant wife and a baby that was not his. From a purely human standpoint, that’s a pretty messed-up situation to be in, don’t you think?
So how could Mary and Joseph remain so calm at such mind-boggling news? How could they just accept it at face value? Surely they had loads of questions? Surely they could sense what an upheaval this would bring to their plans and their lives. What about you? Have you ever felt like this before? I’m sure you have experienced some kind of upheaval in your life at some point. Perhaps things seem to be going well — your job is stable, your relationship seems to be doing okay, you and your partner are making plans for the future….and then something unexpected happens. It could be an illness, a job termination, a family crisis or a break-up in the relationship. Whatever it is, it throws your plans up into the air. You feel like your life has been turned upside down. And you don’t know what to think. You feel lost, angry and deeply disappointed.
I’m sure all of us have experienced upheaval in our lives in some way or form. Maybe for some of us, 2013 has been a great year. Things have been going well for you, opportunities are opening up and you are looking in anticipation to the new year. If so, that’s marvelous. But maybe for some of us, it’s been a really tough year. Maybe you lost your job or someone special to you. Perhaps you’ve had to battle health issues or grieve the loss of a relationship. Maybe in some small way, you can understand how Mary and Joseph might have felt when they were told, “Sorry, there’s been a change in plans.” Can I ask you: in times when things don’t go as planned, in times when your hopes are dashed, do you ever wonder if God is really here?
At Christmas, we often talk about the special wonder of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us. But what does that really mean? Hasn’t God always been around? Well, yes. In fact, even in the Old Testament when Moses asked God for his or her name, God said, “I AM.” What God means is, “I exist. I AM here. I AM who I am. I do not change. I AM the all-powerful God who created you and gave you life. Even when everything around you disappears, I AM. I do not change. I will always be here. I am enough for you. ”
So what is so special about Jesus being Immanuel? How is it different from I AM? When we hear the phrase “God with us”, we often think of God’s presence here with us. And yes, it absolutely means that. But the beauty of this phrase is that it means something more. It not only means God’s presence here with us, it also means God lowering himself to be with us, to be at our level, to stand with us — fully human yet fully divine. It is like God putting herself in our shoes. Can you imagine that? God, the creator of heaven and earth, humbling herself and saying to us, “I understand. I really do.”
Perhaps it was the wonder of God’s presence and the mystery of ‘Immanuel — God with us’ that silenced all the questions that must have been running inside Mary and Joseph’s heads. When I think about their situation, I am very curious what role faith plays in their lives. When you think about their calm response to a shocking upheaval in their lives, does the word “faith” ever cross your minds?
Christians talk about faith all the time. But can I ask you: what is faith? Is it trust, belief, relying on God? When you say someone has faith, what does that mean? Recently, in our cell group, we’re doing a series called ‘Experiencing The Heart of Christianity’. This is based on a book written by Marcus Borg, ‘The Heart of Christianity’. There is a chapter in his book where he explains the four dimensions that make up the word ‘faith’. And I thought you might find it interesting as we ponder the mystery of Immanuel – God with us.
Borg says in the history of Christianity, the word ‘faith’ has four primary meanings. The first is more a matter of the head. The other three all understand faith as a matter of the heart.
Faith as Assensus
The meaning of the Latin word assensus is explained by its closest English equivalent: “assent.” This is faith as belief—that is, giving one’s mental assent to a proposition, or believing that a claim or statement is true.
Faith as Fiducia
There is no close English word for faith as fiducia.
Fiducia is faith as “trust,” like radical trust in God. Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean. Recently, I was at the beach and did plenty of fun things. One of the things I enjoyed doing most was just floating on the water face up. Have you ever done that before? There is this amazing sense of quietness, peace and stillness. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float. I didn’t come up with this metaphor all by myself. The credit goes to the great philosopher, Kierkegaard. Faith as trust is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Trusting that God will hold you up. Faith is trusting in God as the one on whom we rely, our support and foundation, our safe place.
We can also have a clearer understanding of this meaning of faith by thinking about its opposite. Do you know what the opposite of faith is? The opposite of trust is not doubt or disbelief, but mistrust. More interestingly, the opposite of faith is “anxiety” or “worry.” We hear Jesus saying this time and again. He says, “Consider the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Four times in the extended passage in which these familiar lines appear, Jesus says to his hearers: “Do not worry,” in other words, “Do not be anxious”— and then he adds, “You of little faith.” Little faith and anxiety go together. If you are anxious, you have little faith.
When I say that, I don’t mean to provide yet another failing for which to tell ourselves we’re not good enough, but what I would like to highlight is the good news implicit in this realization. When we grow in our faith, in our trust in God, trust casts out anxiety. Can you imagine a life with less anxiety, less worry? Wouldn’t that be great? Would there then be more space in our hearts to love? Faith as radical trust has great transforming power.
Faith as Fidelitas
Its closest English equivalent: faith as “fidelity.” This has the same meaning as “faithfulness.” Faith is faithfulness to our relationship with God. Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, thecommitment of the “heart.” Fidelitas refers to a radical centering in God. It means paying attention to our relationship with God—just as faithfulness in a human relationship means not only “not straying,” but being attentive to the relationship. We are attentive through the means of worship, prayer, ministry, and a life of compassion and justice.
Faith as Visio
As the closest English word, “vision,” suggests, this is faith as a way of seeing. It is not about what we can see physically around us in this present moment. It is more like a vision of what is and will be. You know how in Hebrews 11:1, it says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In particular, this is faith as a way of seeing the whole, a way of seeing “what is.” It is seeing God for who God is and trusting that God will move in God’s way and time.
So with these four definitions, you can see that faith is both a matter of the head and the heart. Faith is not just affirming a set of beliefs in our head. Faith is much more than that. In fact, three out of four of these definitions have to do with the heart. And when we say ‘heart’, we mean a deep level of the self, a level below our thinking, feeling, and willing, our intellect, emotions, and volition. The heart is thus deeper than our “head”, deeper than our conscious self and the ideas we have in our heads. Faith concerns this deeper level of the self. As Borg says, faith is the way of the heart, not the way of the head. Do these four elements of faith give you a deeper understanding of what constitutes faith? When we were looking through these four descriptions, did you resonate with one in particular? Was there one that feels rather foreign to you? We often talk about growing as people of faith and I wonder if understanding the combination of these four definitions might help us grow as we look forward to the exciting challenges and possibly, upheavals of the coming year?
There are very few things we can be certain of in this crazy world. There are too many things that are not within our control or expectations. Sometimes, like Mary and Joseph, things don’t go as planned and we are taken by surprise. Sometimes we don’t understand why and we feel lost, angry, disappointed, and we grieve. Many times, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Well, I don’t have many answers to life’s upheavals. The only thing I know is that there is one certainty we can have in this crazy world. Just one. And that is Immanuel — God with us. God with us…in the fullness of his presence; God with us….in coming down into our world, putting herself into our shoes and standing with us.
Can I ask you as you look forward to the coming year, what are your worries or concerns? Are there things that you are excited about? Are there things you are anxious about? Well, I do. I am excited about the coming year but I’m also full of trepidation over what these changes entail. Can I ask you when you get anxious, what do you do? For me, in times when I get anxious, I recall. I look back at my life and recall all the times when God was here with me. Like the time I was running away from God because I thought my sexual orientation wasn’t acceptable to God but God proved me wrong…..God with us. Like the time I was being wheeled into the operating theatre for major surgery…..God with us. Like the time my heart was broken when the girl I was with decided to marry someone else — a guy, and I thought my heart would never be whole again…..God with us.
What about you? If you were to look back at your life, can you identify the times when you could say with certainty, “God with us”? As a church community, we are looking at a time of transition in the coming year as we move to our own new building. As we work through the exciting challenges and unexpected upheavals ahead, can we recall God’s faithfulness over the past 10 years and say together with faith, “God with us”? Together, can we look through the eyes of faith — faith as belief, radical trust, faithfulness and vision, and trust unreservedly that God is with us?
We celebrate Christmas because it reminds us of the coming of Jesus, Immanuel. When the angel told Joseph this child was to be known as Immanuel, God was basically announcing to us in no uncertain terms, “I AM. I exist. I AM here. I AM who I am. I do not change. I AM the all-powerful God who created you and gave you life. And now, I want you to know I am right here with you. Even when everything around you disappears or changes, I AM. I do not change. I will always be here. I am enough for you. ” Amen.