O Come, O Come, Emmanuel - Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:18-25
We found ourselves there in the craziness. We had decided that we just wanted the experience. People were everywhere. We could not even see our destination. We had checked it out earlier and it didn’t look too bad, but when we arrived, the crowd had more than tripled. There was a great police presence there to try and keep order. We were forty-five minutes early, some folks had arrived days early. It was crazy, but there Anita and I were lined up along the wall of Target, waiting to get into Best Buy at midnight when the Black Friday sales began. As we were standing there, I got to thinking about waiting. It was amazing to see how many people were there waiting, because as a society we are generally people who do not like to wait. Yet here we were, amongst hundreds of folks waiting to get into Best Buy.
In a society where we do not like to wait—we have instant communication and internet with “smart mobile phones,” we have instant coffee, instant credit, instant messaging, instant breakfast, and so on, we want things immediately and instantly—why in this instant online shopping type of world, are do so many folks line up and wait hours, or even days, for a Black Friday sale?
Could it be that they think that what they will find in that store, that bargain they are trying to guarantee themselves to receive, will be what brings them instant gratification? Maybe they wait because they feel the item will fill the void in their lives, save them, or give them peace? Only later do they get home, open the box, assemble the item, and find out, “oops” this blu ray player is wired, not wireless—so they have to go back to the store and exchange it for one that is wireless; they take it home, install it and find out, “oops,” it requires a wireless network adapter—they go back to the store, pick up a network adapter, install it, and find out “oops” it has to be a specific model and brand of adapter, and so they have to go back to the store once again and make one more final exchange—and by this time, any “instant gratification” that was to come out of waiting is long gone—and any “peace” is now “instant frustration.”
However, waiting for something that would bring peace, joy, and happiness is nothing new, it has been going on for thousands of years. However, the people of Israel were not looking for a $199 42-inch flat screen television, a $40 4-piece luggage set, a $20 pair of women’s boots, a $70 table saw, or a $700 washer and dryer set—they were looking for a Savior, a Messiah—they were looking for someone who would lift them out of the doormat position they found themselves in, being conquered by one nation after another, some of those times being able to remain in their home country, other times being drug into exile and scattered about. They were looking for hope.
Sometime before 800 AD, an unnamed monk or priest composed the words to what is possibly the longest enduring song of the season[i]—it is considered by some to be a Christmas carol, but for those, like us, that celebrate the season of Advent prior to Christmas (that is for those of us who do not have to have “instant Christmas” right after the turkey feast—or maybe while the turkey is in the oven), it is one of the few Advent hymns that many congregations know…we sang four of the seven verses just moments ago—“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each of the seven verses of the hymn carries with it one of a variety of understandings of just who the Messiah would be, pulling images from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Through the course of this season of Advent, we are going to focus in on four of those understandings, looking at the envisioned role of the Messiah for the people of faith.
We begin this week with verse one, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” In this first verse, the author of the song stretches back to the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah was counseling King Ahaz of Judah (the Southern kingdom of the divided nation of Israel). Assyria, the power nation at that point was a threat to any independent nation. Syria and Israel had formed an alliance, and asked Judah to join them. When King Ahaz refused to join up, Syria and Israel threated to attack Judah. This pushed King Ahaz to consider teaming up with Assyria. As Ahaz considered this, Isaiah came in and told him to trust in God, to know that God would deliver them. Ahaz was unsure, so Isaiah suggested that Ahaz come up with a sign to request of God, but Ahaz refused, stating that he would not put God to the test.[ii]
Was Ahaz really trying to live faithfully to God by refusing to put God to the test? It’s possible, but not necessarily true. Maybe Ahaz was hesitant to put God to the test because he was afraid that he would have to put his whole trust and Israel’s whole fate into the hands of God, and not the might of soldiers. With Ahaz’s refusal to ask for a sign, Isaiah said, “That’s not a problem, you won’t ask for a sign, I’ll tell you what the sign is going to be…this is how you will know that God is in control, “…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.”
The author of the Gospel of Matthew picked up on this promise in his account of the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. Joseph and Mary had been engaged, but had not slept together. Then Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, claiming that she had not slept with any man, but had become pregnant through the very power of the Holy Spirit descending upon her. You can imagine Joseph’s reaction to that claim, much like anyone else that heard the claim, much like any of us would respond to a young girl telling us the same thing. Joseph, hurt to the core, probably said, “Yeah, right Mary, pregnant from God. Look, I love you, I always have, I respect your family, but I can’t be part of this, you’re being pregnant before we actually have gotten married, it will destroy our reputation, it will destroy me, no one will want to come to me for their carpentry work. Look, I do care about you, so we’ll do this discreetly.” No sooner had Joseph determined this, than later that night he had a dream, and in that dream an angel from God appeared to him 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 form their sins.’” Then Matthew stretches back and captures this scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, and claimed the promise, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
Have you ever felt alone? Completely and utterly alone? Outnumbered? Outcast? Deserted? Hopeless?
That is probably how Ahaz felt, as first the threat of Assyria loomed on the horizon; and then, when he refused to join a questionable coalition, Israel and Syria threatened? Ahaz felt left out in the cold, with tons of troops threatening his people and his throne.
That is probably how Joseph felt. He was engage to Mary. They were to be married. Suddenly he finds out that she is pregnant, and they had never been together. Where was he to turn? If he stayed with her, he would most likely be considered a laughing-stock or a man of questionable ethics. He might even be considered desperate, for what man would put up with a woman that slept around on him?
When do you feel alone?
Maybe it is at school, when your friends are making plans to get high or get drunk, and you know you refuse to travel that path?
Maybe it is at work, when everyone else takes advantage of the boss being on vacation and goof off, while you still try to get work done?
Maybe it is a friend that has lied to you, or worse yet, stabbed you in the back?
Maybe it is having to take a stand against a popular point of view?
Maybe disaster has struck, a tornado, a flood, or fire wiping away every possession to your name?
Maybe your job has transferred you to a place where you know no one?
Maybe you have been laid off from your job?
Maybe a loved one has just recently passed away?
If we can identify with any of these, then maybe we can understand how Ahaz or Joseph might have felt. Yet, if we have experienced, or are currently experiencing any of these feelings of loneliness, desertion, or isolation, then we are also in need of hearing the promise to both Ahaz and Joseph: “…a young woman, a virgin, shall bear a child, and he shall be called Immanuel, Emmanuel, God is with us.”
My brothers and sisters, that is the promise of this week of Advent, the promise of the first verse of the hymn: “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.”
The promise is that in Jesus, God has come to be with His people. God is with us, God is in our midst. In Jesus, the glory of Eden has been restored. Remember Eden, prior to the fall, God came down and walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. They were able to bask in the very presence of God…that is until their sin separated them from Him…and sense then we have sought to fill that whole, that emptiness, that loneliness with all sorts of things…yet in the promise of Emmanuel, we have that curse reversed.
God is with us. We do not have to feel lonely, we are never truly alone. Matthew picks up this promise in the first chapter of his Gospel, and carries it through to the end, when Jesus is telling his disciples that they are to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations…Jesus is sending them down a rough road, one of persecution, torture, imprisonment, and loneliness, and yet He promises them that they will not be alone, “and remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”[iii]
My brothers and sisters, that promise extends to us…no matter where we are, not matter where we go, God is there…the Psalmist writes: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee form your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there you hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”[iv] There is nowhere that we can go that God is not…God is with us…Emmanuel has come…praise be to God. It makes you kind of wonder, if God had used newspapers, internet, any variety of other means of publicity to leak out the news of Jesus’ birth, just how many folks would have been lined up at the manger. However, God didn’t release the date and time of the special arrival in advance. That night he set out a star, and sent forth the angels…and while we aren’t lined up, we still gather at the manger each year, celebrating that Emmanuel has come and we sing out “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” as we anticipate the return of “God is with us.”
Today we celebrate a meal in which Christ has promised to continue to be with us…when we break the bread, we break and share in the body of Christ, when we drink the cup, we drink the cup of salvation, Christ’s blood spilt for the forgiveness of our sins. In this meal, we celebrate that God is still with us…we celebrate His arrival in Christ, and we anticipate His return, and in the midst of it all, we are filled with His Spirit, fed and nurtured by the very presence of God himself…Emmanuel…God with us…and unlike whatever deal we may have found on Black Friday that, trust me, will one day disappoint us, maybe already has, Emmanuel, God with us, will never fail, never break, never wear out, never leave.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.