On the First Sunday of Advent, we found ourselves at the end…literally. Remember that stuff about the unknown day and hour and one being taken and one being left? Then, the next week, we met the locust-eating, camel hair-wearing, ax-wielding, wilderness-dwelling, fiery preaching John the Baptist. And just last week, we left John in prison, doubting the certainty of his own message: “Are you the one who is to come?” Then today, we have…an angel, and Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus! Finally, something Christmasy!
So let’s talk about King Ahaz! Now, I know you’re all incredibly well-versed in the pre-exilic history of the ancient Israelite and Judean monarchies. But let’s recap: It would be a gross understatement to say ancient Israel’s history was messy. By the time of Isaiah, the once-united kingdom of Israel had split into two: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. And they didn’t exactly get along very well. So much so that the king of Israel was scheming with the king of an allied nation to overthrow Ahaz, his counterpart in Judah, and replace him with someone they liked and that would support their agenda. You can imagine how that made Ahaz feel.
Enter the prophet Isaiah, who comes to reassure Ahaz, but Ahaz doesn’t believe him, so Isaiah counters with God’s second offer: Pick a sign, any sign, and God will do it. Still, stubborn Ahaz refuses, so God 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 – whose name means “God-with-us.”
In the midst of a military crisis, God comes to God’s people with a word of hope and enduring presence. If only that’s where the story ended…because Ahaz didn’t, or maybe he couldn’t, trust God’s sign. He knows military might and political maneuvering. Divine promises…less so.
But the message of Isaiah, the promise of Immanuel, the invitation to trust in God, didn’t go unheard. This is the same message offered to Joseph, years later, pointing us back to Isaiah’s ancient words. God’s promises to be with us will not be stopped just because we don’t – or we can’t – trust them.
If anyone had reason to doubt this promise, it’s Joseph. Matthew describes him only as “a righteous man.” Translation: Joseph followed the rules, and he liked predictability. He disliked controversy and conflict and drawing unnecessary attention to himself. So you can imagine his shock and horror to wake up one day to find his life turned upside-down: his fiancée is pregnant and he’s not the father. To break it off with Mary is to subject her to a life of “public disgrace” – most assuredly meaning homelessness, begging, or even prostitution to survive in a patriarchal first-century world. To draw attention to the truth of her pregnancy is to subject her to death by stoning according to law and to subject himself and his family heritage to shame and humiliation. Truly, no decision is a good way forward.
And yet, at the center of a personal crisis, in the midst of a mess he didn’t create or want, Joseph did as the angel commanded him…he receives and trusts the promise of Immanuel – God with him, even in the mess, even when his life has turned upside-down, even when he would have every reason to run away and retreat to safety and seclusion.
I don’t know about you, but that’s a reminder I could use: In the mess and upside-down-ness of life, when it feels like everything is falling apart, there is God – the promise of Immanuel – God with us.
God with us. That’s the key for me. This is not about God with me or with you but with us, together, reminding us of who we are meant to be: a people who live in community with each other and in relationship with God. If it were just about me or you, there would be no point in this – gathering together as church, the ecclesia as the New Testament writers called it, literally the assembly – more than one.
There’s something powerful in coming together, even in the midst of crisis or grief or loss, when it feels like everything is changing or our world is slipping out from under us, when the only thing we’re certain about is uncertainty. I can’t help but think of our gathering here for Shirley Calhoun’s funeral and watching the video of the greetings we recorded for her only a week or so before. Even when Shirley couldn’t come to us, we brought us to her. And when Shirley died, we gathered as us to remember her life and the promises of the God she trusted in.
Loss is inevitable, and messiness and uncertainty are an unavoidable part of life. But we don’t have to face them alone. As Karoline Lewis writes, “The darkness continues. But together we sing, we light candles, we share meals, we give gifts, and we celebrate – all of which help us see the sign so easily overlooked when we are alone.” That sign is Immanuel, God-with-us, and the most tangible way we experience God-with-us is through other people.
The 16th-century Spanish mystic and saint Teresa of Ávila captured that well in her famous words: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” Ours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good. Ours are the hands through which Christ blesses all the world. When we are gathered together, God helps us perceive and feel God’s presence in ways we can’t imagine or feel on our own. Think of our Blue Christmas service that makes sacred space for solidarity in our grief, or our caroling to homebound members, or our Sunday School Christmas programs that tell us the good news of great joy year after year, and so much more.
Soon we will celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus – the definitive God-with-us moment. But God-with-us is a promise bigger than Christmas alone. It’s an Advent promise that is both ancient and timeless. It’s a promise that reminds us of the ways God continues to enter into our midst in a season of Advent – literally “coming,” as in ongoing – a promise rooted in and moving through history. The Advent promise of Immanuel points us to an ancient promise spoken to a Judean king, and it points us to the singular moment of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus. Still today, this promise points us to all the ways we know and experience God: in our singing in harmony, in our praying for each other, in our partaking of this meal of holy communion.
This is the promise for God’s people yesterday, today, and tomorrow: God is with us still.