A Sermon about How Immanuel Has Nothing (and everything) to Do with Jesus

Lord of Love Lutheran Church
18 December 2016 + Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7.10-16; Matthew 1.18-25

Our first gospel text of Advent brought us a cheery end-of-the-world wake-up call, filled with images of rapture and thieves and catastrophic floods. Then we met the homely locust-eating, camel hair-wearing, name-calling John the Baptist and his brash message of repentance in the wilderness — only to find him in a prison cell just a week later, doubting the certainty of his own message about the coming Messiah.

And so here we are today: angels, Joseph, Mary, Immanuel. Finally! Something that sounds familiar and straightforward and, well, Christmasy.

Ah, but not so fast. A careful reading of our gospel text should sound quite familiar…because we just read it…twice. Did you catch it? The angel in Matthew quotes Isaiah. And that quote has nothing to do with Jesus. (Yep, that warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity and straightforwardness was too good to be true.)

The Lord spoke to Ahaz… Who’s Ahaz? Ahaz was king of Judah in Isaiah’s time. So: The Lord spoke to Ahaz… Wait, Judah? Yes, the southern part of the formerly unified nation of Israel, which broke into two after Solomon’s death. You know, it’s probably easier just to explain this all at once.

In Isaiah’s time, the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel were essentially at war. Israel’s king was scheming with the king of an allied nation to overthrown Ahaz and replace him with someone they liked and that would support them. Understandably this makes Ahaz uneasy, so God sends Isaiah to tell him God’s got his back.

But Ahaz doesn’t believe it. So Isaiah comes back with God’s second offer: Pick a sign, any sign, and God will do it to prove that everything will be fine. Still, Ahaz refuses, so God breaks down and picks one for him: The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

A child. A sign of hope. It’s as good as a fairytale, a happily-ever-after ending. By the time the child is old enough to eat solid foods, the text says, the two kings whom Ahaz fears will be no more and Jerusalem will be safe.

But the sign of hope has a twist, just one verse after we stopped reading: God will bring upon Judah the king of Assyria — a vague suggestion of bad news intermingled with the good. While one threat of invasion would soon vanish, another was not far behind.

How then can this child be a sign of hope, if his coming means good news and bad?

A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook this past week. It’s an artist’s depiction of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian boy made famous earlier this year by a journalist’s simple photograph. It’s not hard to find online, but it is hard to look at: Sitting in the back of an ambulance, after being rescued from a damaged building by medical workers, his face and clothes caked in soot and blood, staring out with a look of horror and grief.

In a way, that image came to represent the humanitarian crisis around Syria’s long civil war, which has left half a million people dead and displaced countless others. It seems a far cry from a sign of hope.

“Omran, Angels Are Here” by Judith Mehr

The image my friend posted, however, depicts Omran, seated in his ambulance chair, but surrounded by three angels. Which reminds me of another famous image: an icon of the Trinity, with each of the three persons represented by an angel. In the icon, they’re seated around a table. In the other image, they’re seated, in similar posture, around Omran, comforting him. When you look at the two images side-by-side, it’s clear that the artist of the latter had the former in mind — conceiving of those angels as God’s very presence with Omran in the midst of the devastation he had witnessed.

“The Trinity” (icon) by Andrei Rublev (15th century)

I think this is where we might see some semblance of clarity in an otherwise ambiguous sign of a child that leaves us both hopeful and uncertain. The young woman is with child…and shall name him Immanuel. God-with-us. It’s what God was trying to say to Ahaz all along — not necessarily that everything would work in his favor, but that no matter what happens, God would stick with him and his people.

That’s the sure promise that gives us hope: God (is) with us. Immanuel. Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us of the enduring truth of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, and that promise calls us to trust in God even when the situation seems hopeless, or the details are uncertain, or God’s presence seems really hard to find.

In the Jewish tradition of the seder meal every Passover, this point is made abundantly clear in the Dayenu, a prayer that is sung immediately following the retelling of the Exodus story. “Dayenu” translates as something like “it would have been enough,” as the prayer begins:

If God had taken us out from Egypt, without delivering judgments against the Egyptian people, dayenu, it would have been enough.

If God had delivered judgments against the Egyptian people, without vanquishing their gods, dayenu, it would have been enough.

The litany goes on, tracing the Exodus story of liberation, and building example upon example of God’s faithfulness to act on behalf of God’s people. As one book of the seder liturgy summarizes, “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?” Or to put it another way: How many examples of God’s abiding presence has God shown us? Enough, and more.

The promise of Immanuel is not a one-time occurrence confined to the Christmas story or a political crisis in ancient Judah, although it certainly does manifest itself in specific times and places. It was the sign given to Ahaz in the midst of his fear, and it was the same sign that resurfaced in Joseph’s dream and angelic reassurance in the midst of a personal crisis that threatened his relationship and even the very life of his soon-to-be wife.

Immanuel is a profound, eternal truth of God’s promise to meet us where we are and to be with us, always.

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