Advent 4A: God With You
Parents typically give the naming of a child a lot of thought. Sometimes the discussions go on so long that you run across a couple in the maternity ward who, even the day after the child’s arrival, still don’t know what to name him or her. That always takes me aback a bit. You’d think after all those months this would be one detail that would have long-since been taken care of and agreed upon. But the fact that it sometimes isn’t bears witness to how seriously we take this business of assigning names.
Even so, however, kids sometimes rebel against their assigned monikers. Back when I was in elementary school, the two kids I knew whose real first name was “Harold” were known as “Chip” and “Butch.” And some of you have made such choices as well, as pastors discover sometimes when they go to visit people in the hospital. You go to the front desk and ask for the room number of Jeannie VanderHyde only to have the receptionist say, “We don’t have anyone by that name here, but we do have a Wilhelmina VanderHyde–could that be her?” Sure enough, it is!
Based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we know that when it came to naming the most famous person in history, God himself left nothing to chance. Mary and Joseph were told directly by no less than one of God’s angels precisely what to name the wonder child whom Mary mysteriously had conceived within her womb. The name was to be Jesus. It was a form of the old Hebrew name “Joshua” and so meant something along the lines of “Yahweh saves.”
Apparently it was a fairly typical name back then. You don’t see it so much today anymore, except for some of those baseball players from Mexico or Latin America who have “Jesus” printed on the back of their jerseys. That’s always rather arresting to see. But in Europe and North America, it’s pretty uncommon to meet up with anyone named “Jesus” anymore.
But precisely because we know this text so well, we may glide right overtop a curious wrinkle in verse 23. No sooner is Joseph instructed about this name of Jesus, and Matthew then inserts his own commentary to say that this would fulfill what Isaiah had said about a certain child being called “Immanuel.”
Immanuel? Where did that come from? How does that tie in with calling the child “Jesus”? Think of it this way: suppose you were reading a story in which an elderly woman is talking to her pregnant granddaughter. “Now listen, my dear, I would ask that you name this child after your grandfather and so give him the name Nelson.” Suppose the young woman agrees. “OK, Grandma, his name will be Nelson.” But what would you think if the narrator of the story then wrote, “And so this fulfilled a prediction once made by the pregnant woman’s father that her firstborn would be named ‘Wallace.'”
Well, which is it: Nelson or Wallace? And if it ends up being Nelson, then what does Wallace have to do with anything? So also in Matthew 1: the angel says to name the baby Jesus, and Matthew turns right around and says, “That’s right: he’s little baby Immanuel.” How does “Jesus” relate to “Immanuel”? They are significantly different names.
Furthermore, if you look at Isaiah 7 which Matthew quotes, you will see that there is nothing in that text that even hints at the name of “Jesus.” So what was the connection in Matthew’s mind between these two very different names? After all, from here on out in Matthew’s gospel, Mary’s son will be called “Jesus.” He will never again be referred to as “Immanuel.” In fact, you can read Mark, Luke, John, and the whole New Testament and you will never again run across this word! It occurs in only Matthew 1. Why? Where did this come from and what does it mean?
Let’s begin by backing up into the first part of Matthew 1: the part we all skip when reading the Bible for devotions. As we have noted together before, that extended family tree or genealogy of Jesus was included by Matthew for several key reasons. First, it helps to establish Jesus as a true descendant of David. That was important for Matthew’s Jewish readers because being a Son of David was one of the first credentials the Messiah or Christ would have to produce in order to be credible. But Matthew uses that genealogy to say also that Jesus was finally more than his ancestry could produce. His importance went beyond the Jews alone, which is why Matthew was clever enough to insert the names of four women.
Women did not typically appear in Jewish family trees at all, so if you ran across a woman’s name in such a thing, you’d know it was put there intentionally. In the case of Matthew 1, all of the women mentioned were significant not only because they represented some of the skeletons in Jesus’ family closet but also because they were all non-Jewish, foreign-born women. It was Matthew’s way of telling his readers that Jesus as God’s Christ would go on to embrace the whole world and not only one small part of it.
But Matthew pulls another surprise in verse 16 when he breaks the standard pattern of a genealogy by failing to identify Joseph as Jesus’ father. After fifteen whole verses that repeated the line “the father of, the father of, the father of,” suddenly in verse 16 Joseph is “the father of” no one but is instead listed as “the husband of Mary.” That is an irregularity but it is a holy irregularity that points to the profound mystery of Jesus’ birth. But the point for now is that according to Matthew 1, Jesus is David’s son, he’s Mary’s son, he is the Christ. But we still don’t have any clue where “Immanuel” enters the picture.
But perhaps that is because in Matthew’s mind, “Immanuel” sums up everything there is to say about this one known as Jesus. All of Jesus’ other names and titles add up to the reality of Immanuel, of God-with-us. None of Jesus’ other credentials matters unless it is somehow true that in this man dwells also the fullness of God. If God is not with us through Jesus, then God cannot save us through him. If God is not bound up with this person, then God remains aloof from the very misery and sin from which we need rescuing.
Because if God is with us, then God is for us. And as Paul will later memorably write in Romans 8, if God is for us, then who could ever be against us!? This is what we need to know at Christmas and at all times. We need to know that God is with us and God is for us; that God is with us and for us not in some wispy spiritual sense but really and truly. We need to know that God is with us and for us in the nitty-gritty world in which we eke out our existence. There is a good reason why, unlike so very many other religions, Christianity never developed a tradition like “transcendental meditation” or other techniques whereby people are encouraged to find ways to have out-of-body, other-worldly experiences.
Back in the 1960s, after being profoundly influenced by Eastern mysticism, John Lennon and The Beatles recorded a song that embodied the desire to transcend reality so as to enter another realm altogether. Part of the song says, “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup, they slither as they pass, they slip away across the universe.” This is then followed by the chanting of a mind-altering mantra, “Jai guru de va om,” followed by the repeated refrain, “Nothing’s gonna change my world, nothing’s gonna change my world.” The idea is that we need to escape this world through focused meditation of the mind, finally achieving a state where ordinary speech becomes meaningless like rain in a paper cup. Because if you can transcend reality, then you get up into a plane of existence where nothing can shake you, nothing can change the world you have created for yourself by entering this trance.
Christianity, of course, has a long history of prayer and of meditative prayer. And there have been some famous examples of Christian mystics who claimed to have received heavenly visions and ecstatic experiences. But that is not the shank of the Christian experience and that is because nowhere in the gospels can you find Jesus instructing his disciples to pray their way out of this world.
Jesus’ most famous of all prayers includes petitions for daily bread, for the forgiveness of people who have ticked us off, for the will of God to be done and for God’s kingdom to come right here on earth. It’s the kind of prayer you expect from someone who came down to this earth to do ministry. So in a sense, you could say that Jesus taught us to pray with our eyes open. If you cannot pray for the people you work with every day; if you cannot pray about what you read in the news any given evening; if you cannot see actual faces when pondering the matter of forgiveness, then you have nothing to pray about. Period.
You see, Matthew knew what he was doing when he invoked the name Immanuel, God-with-us. After all, Joseph had just had a very spiritual, ethereal dream. It was exactly the kind of vision and experience that could lead a person to focus on other realms, on other planes of existence. It was a dream of angels and filled with talk of the Holy Spirit and of mysterious goings-on. In short, the dream was a little like the way Christmas gets celebrated today. Christmas is a special time, a different time, an unusual time. We do odd things like bring trees into the house. We make our neighborhoods look pretty in ways we never do otherwise. We play music that soothes even as we do our best to become like little children again. But it’s all temporary. We wouldn’t even want the Christmas season to last a whole lot longer than it already does. In the course of our rough-and-tumble world, Christmas seems more like a dream by which to escape life than it seems like real life itself.
But Matthew doesn’t want Joseph or any of us to get stuck in the dream. Matthew wants to bring us back down to earth, back to our waking reality, by invoking the name of Immanuel. Because if the Jesus, whose name was given to Joseph in a dream, is to do us any good, he’d better meet us and be with us in all those times when dreams end and when the crushing weight of a miserable world comes crashing down around our shoulders again. If he is only Jesus, the one who saves us from our sins, it would still be too easy to turn him into the one who also saves us out of the real world. But if he is Immanuel, then we realize we don’t have to go anywhere to meet him other than the hurly-burly reality of our Monday mornings and our Thursday afternoons. We don’t have to go find him in some other realm because he has already found us in exactly this realm and this world.
In the Orthodox Church tradition icons play a key role. A while back I learned from an Orthodox friend that in Orthodox iconography, saints (and certainly Jesus himself) are always shown as looking out directly at you with both eyes. If you ever seen an Orthodox icon in which some person is shown in profile (and so you can only see one eye but not both), then you know that this is a non-Christian person. People in profile, people whose face and eyes are partly hidden from you, are suspicious. You don’t know what they are thinking or where they are looking. But in icons, Jesus is always staring straight at you with both eyes. His gaze pierces right through you because he is looking right at you.
Christmas is about God’s being with you when the bottom falls out, when the job is lost, when the marriage fizzles, when the children do not behave. Christmas is about God’s being with you when the hour of death approaches. Christmas is not about what happens when your dreams all come true but about what happens when your worst nightmares come true, too.
This morning I have no clue what motivated all of you to come here. I surely have no clue as to how any one of you is feeling right now. I can’t peer past your eyeballs, can’t see underneath the veil of good cheer you are maybe wearing like a mask this morning. Even some of you to whom I feel the closest have thoughts and emotions churning inside you just now that I could not even begin to guess at. But I’ve been around enough to know that for every person here this morning who really does feel downright joyful, there are probably two other people who are feeling rather unhappy, if not just plain rotten.
But I can’t see all that. And even if I could, I would not understand it all and I surely could do little to take care of it all. But that’s because my name is not Immanuel. Christmas, however, tells us there is One who bears that name. There is One who represents the deepest truth of what it means to say “God with us.” Because it also means “God with you.” It means there is One who meets and encounters you not just in the pew here in this pretty place but also out on the streets and in any number of life’s ugly places.
Immanuel is God-with-you in the cancer clinic and in the nursing home. Immanuel is God-with-you when the pink slip comes and when the beloved child sneers, “I hate you!” Immanuel is God-with-you when you pack the Christmas decorations away and, with an aching heart, you realize afresh that your one son never did call over the holidays. Not once. Immanuel is God-with-you when your dear wife or mother stares at you with an Alzheimer’s glaze and absently asks, “What was your name again?”
Ever and always Jesus stares straight into you with his two good eyes and he does so not only when you can smile back but most certainly also when your own eyes are full of tears. In fact, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with you” even in those times when you are so angry with God that you refuse to meet his eyes. But even when you feel like you can’t look at him, he never looks away from you. He can’t. His name says it all.
In one sense, it is funny, odd even, that Matthew moved so quickly from the announcement that the child’s name was to be Jesus to then calling him something totally different. But in another sense if Matthew had not been able to make that connection, then there would have been nothing so special after all about even the name Jesus. In that case, even today maybe we’d know about as many people named “Jesus” as we now know people named “Joe” or “Charlie.” If there were no truth to Immanuel, we might today know lots of Jesuses, but we would never have known the One and Only Jesus who caused the world to turn the corner from darkness into light.
Names really do matter. God made sure to name his Son “Jesus” and it has gone on to become the most precious of all names. But only because of that one other name: Immanuel. God with us. God with you. If there is any true jolt behind the phrase “Merry Christmas,” it is the jolt of Immanuel. May God be with you indeed, my friends. Amen
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