The challenge of Immanuel today – 22 December 2019

1 Jan 2020 by Karyl Davison in: News

Isaiah 7:10-16

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13 Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Matthew 1:18-25

18 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


Reflection:  Immanuel.  It is among the most important, radical, and transformative of words – God with us. 

It is the word anticipated for centuries by people in slavery, on dangerous journeys through the wilderness, in exile, and living under the hand of brutal political oppression.  It is a word longed for by suffering, lonely and marginalized people in every age.  It is a word, spoken by prophets and poets and angels appearing in dreams of frightened and perplexed people.  Immanuel – God with us.

Our reading from Isaiah sees Ahaz filled with a paralyzing fear.  Two neighbouring states have teamed up to attack Judah and as the text says “the heart of Ahaz’s people shook as trees of the forest shake before the wind.” 

God sends Isaiah to Ahaz to assure him that all will be well, but he is too frightened to trust the promise transmitted by the prophet.  So God speaks directly to him and invites this anxious king to ask God for a sign to seal the promise. 

But Ahaz is too fearful even to take God up on this offer.  Exasperated Isaiah takes Ahaz by the hand and points to the sign that has already been given – “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son.”

But what use are a young pregnant woman, and her infant son?  What Ahaz needed was a couple of divisions of soldiers, experienced in battle.  But God’s promise is that this infant son is Immanuel, and in his name will be power to give courage that will stiffen the resolve and hope of a frightened king and his people, and all frightened people, under all sorts of threats, all sorts of oppression and uncertainty. 

Our Matt reading features some fear-filled people too.  It’s a story of a young, unwed mother at a time when such a situation almost always resulted in divorce and shame.  It’s a story of a man being visited by a divine vision telling him not to be afraid. But in this story, neither of them are so frightened that they turn their backs on God’s promise.

It seems clear that the writer of Matthew understands Jesus to be the fulfilment of God’s promise in Chapter 7 of Isaiah and repeats the words in his account of Jesus impending birth.    “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

And so, drawing on the Isaiah narrative, Mary’s son will follow in the line of David, confirmed by Matthew’s genealogy (which precedes this passage.) 

Matthew’s emphasis, however, is not on Mary. It is on Jesus as Emmanuel. Not only does Jesus come from God, Jesus will manifest God’s presence with the people he is coming to save.   This opening reference to Jesus as God’s presence serves as a bookend to the resurrected Jesus’s promise to be with the disciples until the end of the age in the last line of the gospel (Matthew 28:20)

The idea that God is with us may seem commonplace to us now, since we’ve heard it so many times, but for the ancient hearers of the Gospel, it must have sounded radical, or even scandalous.   Yet, we believe that it reflects the intense longing within God for right relationship with humanity and the rest of creation. God’s unfailing, unconditional love is evident in both our readings this week.

Isaiah speaks a prophecy which offers a sign of God’s care and willingness to protect God’s people to a king who has largely ignored God’s law. And Matthew describes Joseph’s love and care for Mary, which becomes something of a metaphor for the love of the God who is about to step, yet again, into human affairs and experience.

And yet when we look at our world, this world that has seen God’s love in Jesus, love seems in short supply.  When governments negotiate, when corporations strategise, when soldiers march, or when the weak and poor struggle to survive, what place is there for love?

Yet, love is the only command we have been given as followers of the Christ. In truth, if love was the driving force behind our voting, our business dealings and our consumption, our dealings with friend and enemy, and our awareness and care of the most vulnerable, the world would be a far more whole place.

How might a policy of love actually work out practically in the world, though? Perhaps if followers of Christ in places of influence began to embrace dialogue, collaboration and the quest to listen and understand, that would be a powerful first step.

And if all followers of Christ chose to operate from love in whatever capacity we may engage in social and political structures – whether voting, volunteering, contributing, lobbying, petitioning, negotiating or communicating with leaders, this could have a transforming impact on the systems that operate in our world. Such a policy of love would inevitably impact economic realities (poverty and the gap between rich and poor) climate change, conflict, health care, immigration and xenophobia concerns, crime, exploitation and human trafficking in positive ways, because we could no longer remain uninvolved in the struggles of our world, and we could no longer choose the methods of expediency, dominance and self-service in our responses to our world’s need.

The Advent challenge is for us to follow Christ in becoming – individually and together – Immanuel in our broken world. The incarnation continues through those who follow Jesus if we take Christ’s call seriously!

Simple acts of service, inclusion and grace that easily manifest God’s love. Awareness of, and care for, those who have significant need is a visible reflection of God’s care. Our Christmas hampers, toys and gifts proclaim God’s presence and love to those who give as well as to those receive it.  Caring for children and their families, making them part of our family also offers healing presence.  Preparing disengaged young people for work offers transformation.  Standing for action on climate change is a powerful reflection of solidarity with God’s creative love. 

Whatever the actual actions we may choose to do, the key to experiencing Immanuel again this Advent, is to offer ourselves to be “little Immanuels” in practical ways in our own community and in our world. If we can lay aside any possible benefit we may receive – whether church growth or personal satisfaction – so much the better!