The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday in Advent – December 10, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-23
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This Advent season we’re exploring, in our limited hours together, what it is and who it is we’re doing this all for, all this waiting and all this preparing. A child, we have read and heard since we were all children ourselves. A child that goes by many names. As the child grew and began a public ministry, the list of names – the titles and designations – used to describe him, used in an attempt to better understand the “experience” of him, grew. When he died, that list of titles exploded.
But before he was even born, in the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures we Christians claim, and in the narratives of his birth, the list of names is already long:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace; Branch of David, Son of the Most High, Son of God, Son of Man. That last we explored a bit last Sunday. We are trying to better understand what these names meant to those who knew Jesus and to those who lived in the first generations after his death, so that we may understand better who this human being was, so that we may understand better what our lives are supposed to mean in this world because of him.
This morning we examine Emmanuel. Listen for the Word of God … Read Matthew 1:18-23. The Word of the Lord … Thanks be to God.
We are getting way ahead of ourselves as far as the whole story goes. This scripture reading is for Christmas day, Christmas morning, or at the earliest Christmas Eve. The Angel visit, recorded in Luke, a visit to Mary in his Gospel, “foretells the birth.” Matthew’s angel visit, to Joseph, is part of the telling of the birth, itself.
And we actually get a “two-fer” this morning from that passage: Mary “will bear a son, and you (Joseph) are to name him … Jesus.”
By having the Angel instruct Joseph in this way, by having Joseph be the one to name the baby, Matthew records how Joseph acknowledges Jesus as his son when, according to both of the birth narratives that we have, Joseph is not his biological father. All of this is done, of course, to incorporate the child, Jesus, into David’s lineage. After all, Matthew took great pains earlier in this opening chapter to explain how, through Joseph’s line, Jesus, too, is a son of David. The opening verse of Matthew’s gospel states very clearly that the genealogy that follows intends to show that Jesus is from the branch of David as prophecies foretold. Yet, when the report reaches Joseph, we don’t read “and Joseph fathered Jesus,” but “Joseph (was) the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. Our reading deals with that bit of awkwardness with Joseph’s naming of the child, in effect his adoption of the one to be named Jesus.
The name Jesus is a play on words that most of Matthew’s non-Jewish listeners and readers would have missed. “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua.” The Hebrew and Aramaic forms of this name would have reminded Jews of the Hebrew word for salvation, its root meaning “to help” or to save.” Interestingly, in Luke’s version of the visit to Mary, the angel assigns the child other names, many more than Matthew, actually. But both Gospels instruct the respective parent that the child is to be named “Jesus. Matthew further notes “for he will save his people …”
It was, of course, popularly believed that a Messiah would bring salvation to Israel through defeat of its Gentile foes. Far too many Christians are still waiting for a Second Coming that will violently accomplish what they believe God has promised. But, Matthew begins his story by reminding us all that God intends a very different kind of salvation for us:
“The young maiden shall conceive and bear a son,
And they shall name him Emmanuel.”
God will not be found in the might of an army or in the identity of a soldier. God is found in the power of an infant Child. And further, God is not coming. God is with us.
And they shall name him Emmanuel. Immanuel, spelled with an “I” is transliterated to Emmanuel, with an “E,” in the Greek. It is a symbolic name meaning “God is with us,” used four times in the Bible. Once again, this name, this title, this symbolic designation finds its root in the Hebrew Scripture.
In the 8th Century BCE, the prophet Isaiah was sent to King Ahaz to assure him that the threat from Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel would soon come to nothing. As confirmation that his promise was true, Isaiah predicted in the seventh chapter of the book that bears his name, that a child would soon be born to a young maiden and who will name the child Immanuel.
There are two other uses of the name in Isaiah and the final usage in our reading this morning from Matthew. Matthew uses the Greek translation of the Hebrew text called the Septuagint, which translates “young woman” or “maiden” to “virgin.” Matthew may have claimed Jesus was born of a virgin because of this verse, or more likely the virgin birth tradition was already a part of the tradition he had been taught. And although so much has been made of the virgin birth in the Christian faith that followed, it is actually the symbolic name that was most meaningful for Matthew. We’ve argued for so long about an immaculate conception – the if, how, and why of it all – that we haven’t honestly engaged what is most important to Matthew, and should be most important to us.
Believe whatever you need to believe about the rest of verse twenty-three, but ask yourself what it means to say “God is with us.” Matthew does. “God is with us” is a major theme of his Gospel. It begins and ends with it. They shall name him Emmanuel in the first chapter, to ”I am with you until the end of the age.”
God’s promise of presence, that “I will be with you,” and the human response of confidence in that promise, “God is with us” are found, in one way or another one hundred and four times in the Old Testament alone. They almost always appear as a promise of divine presence when someone or another is faced with a dangerous or uncertain task. As Matthew gives the infant Jesus the title of Emmanuel, he claims that this promise is fulfilled in the person of Jesus. His use of Emmanuel at the beginning of his Good News is a move into what is called “incarnational theology,” divine humanity, human divinity.
There is no hint in Matthew’s “source material,” that is in the Book of Isaiah, that the baby about to be born will have any supernatural significance whatsoever. In fact, no role at all is assigned to him. His name is simply a sign. “Immanuel” is a promise that God will be with the nation in the midst of international crisis. For Matthew, then, “Emmanuel” may simply be a promise that God is with us whenever we are faced with dangerous and uncertain tasks. There was no more dangerous a task in the late first century and following than to be a follower of “The Way,” a soon to be Christian. What are our “dangerous and uncertain tasks,” and how might we be helped by believing the deep meaning of Emmanuel?
For Jews in the time before Jesus’ birth and during his life, the Messiah was not a divine figure. Matthew was a Jew in this time and for him Jesus’ life and obedience even unto death, Jesus as Messiah, was what “God with us” looks like. You shall name him Emmanuel.
What about our life? Isn’t it supposed to look like that, too? And what might we be able to accomplish if it was.
Once there was a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Some of the younger monks had left in dissatisfaction, and no new monks were joining. There were but a handful of monks and their leader, the abbot, remaining. They began fighting among themselves, each blaming the hard times on the faults and failures of others.
One day a travelling rabbi stopped at the monastery for a night’s rest. He ate, and prayed alongside the other monks. The next day, as the rabbi prepared to continue on his journey, the abbot drew him aside. He told him of the problems of the monastery and asked him for his observations and for some advice to share with the other monks.
Upon hearing the abbot’s woes, the rabbi was quiet for some time. “Please give me some advice to help my monastery to thrive again,” the abbot begged.
“Your monks will not listen to my advice,” the rabbi replied. “But perhaps they would benefit from an observation. The Messiah dwells among you here at the monastery.”
“One of us?” asked the abbot, astonished. “Which one?”
“Oh, that I cannot say,” he answered. “Share this with you brothers, and in time it shall be revealed to you.”
The abbot thanked him and sent him on his way. He then gathered the monks together, who listened in amazement to the news.
“One of us! But who?” each one asked out loud. Then to themselves they wondered, “It couldn’t be brother Robert – or could it?”
“Surely not brother Henry, but there are times when …”
“Not the youngest, surely. Well … maybe.”
“The abbot himself?”
“Could it be me?”
Soon things began to change in the monastery as each began to see the Messiah in the other and to hear the Messiah’s words in each word spoken.
Soon people began to wander back to the monastery, and in time new monks joined and the monastery thrived.
Imagine, in the weeks that remain before Christmas this year that the Messiah is on earth and walking among us. It could be anyone in your family, your workplace, or your school. How might this change the way you treat them? Pick one person that you interact with frequently and, without telling them, treat them as if they were the Messiah in the weeks ahead. Why do we treat one another so differently than we would if we truly believed that Emmanuel was true? Try it … I dare you.
We’ve “pulled God, and Jesus as God, out of the sky in these past two sermons by exploring the Son of Man and Emmanuel as human possibilities. That’s difficult, if not impossible, for many of us who can only imagine God, and Jesus as Christ, as totally different from us, separate and external to our own reality. But maybe … maybe the Messiah is among us. Maybe we are not only the ones God is waiting for. Maybe we’re the ones we are waiting for. Maybe this year we’ll discover that in new ways in time for Christmas.
Might it be so? Let’s wait and see.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 10, 2017