Monday, December 24, 2007

Emmanuel -- God is With Us

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

The wait is over. If you’re not finished with your Christmas shopping, it’s too late. By the time we’re finished singing the last carol, the stores will all be closed. In fact, even Starbucks will be closed. And so it’s time to put aside the hustle and bustle of a season that starts earlier every year.

Now that the day is here and the children are eagerly eyeing the presents under the tree, hoping that their every wish will be fulfilled, it’s time to stop and consider the true meaning of Christmas. It’s the kind of question Charlie Brown was asking. He didn’t find it in the pageant or in hunting for Christmas trees. Finally in desperation he cried out, begging for someone to give him an answer that made sense. It is at this point that
Linus steps out and tells the story of the First Christmas from the perspective of St. Luke.
We have come here tonight because, like Charlie Brown, we need to hear that Christmas is more than food, aluminum trees, and bright lights.


Both of the Bible’s Christmas stories speak of light shining in the darkness. During our journey through Advent we may have felt this darkness pressing in on us, and yet we’ve also heard promises each week about this light that will disperse the darkness and bring hope of a new beginning to our lives.

Yesterday we sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," and in the second verse we sang:

"O Come, thou Day-Spring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here,
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and deaths deep shadows put to flight."

The question is: Where will this light come from? Where should we be looking?
Isaiah and Matthew tell us to look for a child whose name will be called Emmanuel, which means "God With Us." This child, who is called Emmanuel, is the light that will "disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and deaths deep shadows put to flight."

Now Matthew and Isaiah seem to have different things in mind. One speaks of a child to be born in the 8th Century B.C.E. whose birth will bring hope to the people of Judah – perhaps an heir to the throne. Matthew takes this passage from Isaiah and speaks to his own day. In both cases, however, the writers address the eternal longing we have to be in the presence of God. In this little child, Matthew says to us, God is present, and by receiving this child into our lives we will experience oneness with God.


Too often we get caught up in the how of this passage and miss the point. If we focus on the science of whether a virgin can have a child, then we have lost sight of the mystery that is God.

Theologians speak of the incarnation – the idea that God is so completely present in a human being that when we see this child we can say – there is God. When we see him, we can know God intimately. Now theologians have been arguing about how this happens for the past 2000 years, but ultimately it is something we must receive as a mystery of God.

One way of doing this is to see the incarnation in sacramental terms. Pope John Paul II described it this way. Jesus is the "Sacrament of the Invisible God -- a sacrament that indicates presence. God is with us. God, infinitely perfect, is not only with man, but he Himself became a man in Jesus Christ."1 The invitation of Christmas is to see in Jesus – from the beginning of his life to the end, the visible sacramental presence of the invisible God. When we look at his life and listen to his words, then God is revealed to us. And that is what Christmas is all about – the unveiling of the invisible God.

Matthew doesn't tell us anything about stables or shepherds. That’s in Luke. But what Matthew does is remind us about how scandalous this birth really was. Joseph was on the verge of putting his wife away, since they were not yet married and she was pregnant. This isn't the way you would expect God to be revealed. Even if God didn't choose to make a grand entrance, you would at least expect it come off without a scandal.

But that’s the point – for God to be revealed to us is a scandal – what some people call a scandal of particularity. It could have been different, but it has happened in this way. But whatever the case, when God is present, unsettling things happen. As William Willimon points out, "when God is with us, God is not with us in placid, nondisruptive ways. God's intrusions among us cause consternation and difficulty."2 And such is the case of this birth. It has caused great consternation.


And why must this revelation of God happen? The answer of scripture is simple – we have lost our way and we need someone to lead us back to God. For whatever reason, it is our belief that God has chosen this way – through a child – to point us back in the right direction. I think songwriter and poet Michael Card, gets it right:

He is no longer the calm and benevolent observer in the sky, the kindly old caricature with the beard. His image becomes that of Jesus, who wept and laughed, who fasted and feasted, and who above all, was fully present to those he loved. He was there with them. He is here with us.3

This is the message of Christmas: Emmanuel is here and God is with us. And as Matthew writes in the conclusion of his gospel, even in his departure Jesus – Emmanuel – will always be with us. That is a worthy thought for a Christmas Eve – God will never leave us nor forsake us, even as we experience the difficulties of life. Yes, God has visited us and we’ll never be alone again.

1. John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 7.
2. William Willimon, "Unto Us a Child," in Pulpit Resource, 26 (Oct., Nov., Dec. 1998): 47.
3. Michael Card, "Immanuel," in Calvin Miller, ed. The Book of Jesus, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 242.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2007

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