December 19, 2010

“God With Us”

10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 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 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman’u-el. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when 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.   Isaiah 7:10-16

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, 4 and Ram the father of Ammin’adab, and Ammin’adab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Bo’az by Rahab, and Bo’az the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uri’ah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehobo’am, and Rehobo’am the father of Abi’jah, and Abi’jah the father of Asa, 8 and Asa the father of Jehosh’aphat, and Jehosh’aphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzzi’ah, 9 and Uzzi’ah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezeki’ah,
10 and Hezeki’ah the father of Manas’seh, and Manas’seh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josi’ah, 11 and Josi’ah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoni’ah was the father of She-al’ti-el, and She-al’ti-el the father of Zerub’babel, 13 and Zerub’babel the father of Abi’ud, and Abi’ud the father of Eli’akim, and Eli’akim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eli’ud, 15 and Eli’ud the father of Elea’zar, and Elea’zar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; 19 and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; 21 she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
Matthew 1:1-25[i]



In this lesson from Isaiah, chapter 7, we hear of a crisis.  King Ahaz of Judah, has been threatened with destruction if he did not join into an alliance with Syria and Ephraim against Assyria.  Yet the King is not friendly with either Syria nor Ephraim.  What’s a King to do?


Like most regional crisis in the world, things got worse before they got better.  Syria and Ephraim are in league against Judah, and the King is afraid. Unwilling to trust in God’s protection, he seeks an alliance with Assyria; this will eventually come back to bite him, making Judah a vassal state of the Assyrian empire.  Still, the Lord gave Ahaz a sign: “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” 


In most cases, when God Almighty provides you with a sign, it is clear, bold, and makes you have hope about the future.  A young woman shall have a child.  That is the sign.  You wouldn’t think that this is a very powerful sign.  Young women have been having children since the dawn of time, with no more cosmic significance than any old run of the mill calf born of a heifer.  In this case, the sign is that the young woman will see to it that this child has a very unusual name.


I cannot tell you if it was a popular name.  Apparently the popularity peaked in 2005 when 619 children out of 1,000,000 received this name.  In biblical times, I cannot tell you.  Perhaps it was a family name.  Family names are popular.  It may have been why the name came up, I don’t know.  The name does mean something, many names do.  I just got a new puppy.  He’s a hunting dog, a Brittney, so I named him Nimrod.  It says in the bible in Genesis chapter 10 that Nimrod is the grandson of Noah and was a mighty hunter.  It remains to be seen if the dog will live up to his name.

Sometimes people name children after famous people.  A baby, with the first name Abraham and the middle name Lincoln.  What a burden.  Here we have a child whose name is “God with us.”  I do know is that there is a time frame in the life of most children when the idea of a ‘divine spark’ present in the child would be unthinkable.  The terrible twos may be one time frame.  Adolescence may well be another.  “God With us.”  We should have named this child “God help us.”


Immanuel, popular or not, was the name given to a child.  This name, which of course means “God with us,” later took on messianic significance.  Isaiah goes on to say that by the time that this child is weaned, the kings of Syria and Ephraim, whom Ahaz fears, will be dead.  This is a prophecy that states a promise that God will intervene in history, and not distant history, in our lifetime.


For us, these are the words St. Matthew cites as proof that the birth of Jesus fulfills the prophets message.  What we didn’t read this morning was the preface to our reading.  It is a genealogy.  Never popular readings, these genealogies, with hard to pronounce names and all have pretty much been unwelcome in the lectionary.  President Eisenhower’s family had the practice of actually reading their bibles, but, he said, “we were allowed to skip over the genealogies.” 


This genealogy was put here for a purpose.  You only drag out the genealogy if you want to substantiate who you are and, as my inlaws from West Virginia say, “who your people are.”  For a long, long time I was Allen Fogle’s son.  Now I am Paul, or Thomas, or Andrew’s father.  Some of you have been elevated to the position of grandfather.  Even, there are times when we might rest our laurels on the tentative connection of a second cousin.  Genealogies allow us to make connections beyond what is immediate and clear.


Joan Chittister describes Advent as “the season that teaches us to wait for what is beyond the obvious.” Beyond the obvious is God entering the world as flesh, blood and bone. The response is jubilation. Thus, the pivot of history is proclaimed: “I am bringing you good news of great joy.”  The pivot is the Incarnation.  The pivot is this central tenet of faith: God is with us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.


The incarnation may be seen as an endorsement of human beings.  I suppose on one level that is true.  Yet, it is abundantly clear [at least from a scriptural perspective] that the God of the universe, the creator of heaven and earth and all that is therin is not all that interested in being a human being.  It is not an endorsement of the ‘Human condition,’ but rather a remedy for it.


Did you notice when we read the genealogy from chapter one of Matthew’s gospel that something goes awry, repeatedly?  Eldest sons have to be consistently overlooked because as culturally proper as it is to ‘bet the farm’ on the oldest child, these oldest children have regularly disappointed.  Cain?  Not mentioned.  Where is Ishmael?  Only Isaac gets press.  How about Essau?  No Essau?  Only the thief Jacob.  This plan for a patriarchal system and the power of lineage is not working out as well as it was planned.  Human beings have a way of foiling the best laid plans.  People are simply difficult to work with.


Some of my favorite advice to seminary students came from a man who is now the Bishop of Northern Alabama in the United Methodist Church.  He was walking across campus one day when a senior told him that he wanted to go to seminary.  “Why,” the bishop asked.  “Because I want to help people,” the student said.  The bishop froze in his tracks, stared at the boy and said, I kid you not, this is what he said:  “Have you met any of these people you’d like to help?”


God does not come down from heaven, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth, because God believed that all creation is good (which is scripturally confirmed), or that humans are wonderful.  No, God becomes flesh and blood and bone so that in Christ humanity might be saved.  


Christ’s real name is, of course, Jesus.  This means, ‘he will save.’  Jesus is the source of our reconciliation with God, “that at last we may attain to the blessed immortality and crown of glory prepared for thine elect in Jesus Christ, the King of Glory and God of immortality, in whose name we most humbly crave these graces to be poured upon us, we most miserable sinners.”[ii]


Christ is not Jesus’ middle name.  Christ is rather yet another title.    It means “the Anointed One.”  It means “the Messiah,” and in the case of this one Jesus who is called the Christ, the title became more than a title, it became more than a reference to the Messiah in a general sense.  It came to be used only with this one:  Jesus of Nazareth, who was and is the Messiah, who is ‘God with us.’  One of the purposes of Advent is to remind us that even this ‘first’ coming serves in God’s salvation history.  Immanuel restores our relationship with God. 


Let us Thee, though lost, regain,

Then the Life, the inner Man;

O! to all Thyself impart,

Form’d in each believing heart.


Hark! The herald angels sing,

Glory to the new-born King.



Sometimes people want to know how the bible applies to real life, or what it is that you are supposed to do with the text.  Advent texts are not so much about doing something, but believing something, and then and only then can you understand the significance of everything you do.


Part of Advent is recognizing the mystery that God is indeed with us, a real presence in this bread and wine, a presence when we care for one another and God’s creation.  And, we recognize that this coming presence is not fully completed.  Do we want God to be with us?  Yes.  Is God present?  Yes.  Are we ready for God’s presence?  No.  That is why, in the church,   Advent is so important.



[i] These texts affirm the theological idea of the Incarnation.  The Incarnation is the most important idea in all of the Christian faith.  When we will sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in a week or so, we will be singing about the incarnation:


Christ, by highest heaven adored,

Christ the everlasting Lord,

late in time behold him come,

off spring of the Virgin’s womb;


veiled in flesh the God-head see;

hail th’ incarnate Deity,

pleased with us in flesh to dwell,

Jesus, our Emmanuel!”


What is not included in our hymnal are the late verses of this hymn:


Now display thy saving power,

Ruin’d nature now restore;

Now in mystic union join

Thine to ours and ours to Thine.


Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;

Stamp Thy image in its place;

Second Adam from above,

Reinstate us in Thy love.


Let us Thee, though lost, regain,

Then the Life, the inner Man;

O! to all Thyself impart,

Form’d in each believing heart.


[ii] From “A Prayer for When God Threatens His Judgment,” The Liturgy of the Church of Scotland, John Knox’s Book of Common Order, 1840, p. 51