"Shall name him Immanuel"-Sermon for Advent Lessons and Carols, Isaiah 7:1-15
One of the great gifts of Lessons and Carols is that we get to hear from scripture the arc of the whole story…the old, old story of God’s never-ending love affair with God’s people and really with all of creation. The story, of course, begins with humanity’s fall…which is a theological story…not a historical story. And, it describes for us in archetypal language and symbols the condition and predicament in which we find ourselves today, which is being chained and ever controlled by that DNA level “Instinct of Self-Preservation” that pervades and directs our choices…always creating some degree of separation…of disconnection…of discord…between ourselves and the living God…between ourselves and other people…and between ourselves and the created world all around us. And, that is what we find at the heart of the great temptation that lies before the humans in Genesis chapter 3…before Adam and Eve who represent all of us…for if one is like God…then one is presumably preserved for ever. If God is indeed from everlasting to everlasting, then being like God or being a god is the greatest assurance of self-preservation one can achieve. Thus, when push comes to shove, I choose me…if not all of time…much of the time. And that self-interested directive, that we call Sin with a capital S, that holds sway in human hearts is the beginning of division…self over other…the beginning of enmity…the beginning of us versus them…of tribalism…of hoarding…of choosing teams…and you see where this goes…as one Collect in the prayer book reads…a sorely divided world…a world at war with itself in too many ways to count.
And even if what I describe remains our reality…a world were self-interest has created haves and have nots…a world where what side of a boarder you are born on pre-determines your opportunities…a world where what side of the interstate you are born on impacts your health and health outcomes when facing things like a pandemic…even if a fallen and divided humanity still seems the order of the day…in the story we hear today from scripture…specifically the part of the story describing human brokenness…is just the beginning…found only in chapter 3 of the very first book of the bible…with 72 books and 1,186 chapters yet to follow.
And, what indeed follows, reveals to us the most wonderous of all things…that God has not and will never leave us alone to suffer at our own hands. In the fullness of time, God will not allow the present darkness to stand…human brokenness to prevail…our sore divisions to last. For the story actually ends with the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth. One in which every human, from every tribe and language, stand together, with God at our center, united by unbreakable bonds of affection that are empowered by love alone. As Revelation, the final book of the bible, poetically reads, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Thus, the great arc of scripture, the greatest story ever told, God’s love-life in the very midst of human brokenness, promises us that God is always with us…especially in those places and moments when human sin seems to have divided and torn apart so much that surrounds us. That’s what the new born babe, Jesus’, title, Emmanuel, means…God with us. A title given to Jesus some 1000 years before he is born in the 7th chapter of Isaiah. God with us…providing wisdom for the ordering of our private and public lives in ways that are other, rather than self, directed. Providing supernatural strength, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to choose justice, choose connection, choose love…even when that requires risk or sacrifice. Providing God’s own abiding presence that fills our hearts with hope when feeling isolated or alone or sad. I can’t tell you the number of times that so many of you, who make up our family of faith, have told me…sometimes through tears…that your faith in God’s goodness, provision and presence…your actual felt experience of God’s goodness, provision and presence…has carried you through crisis, great transitions, and unspeakable loss. God is with us even now in the challenges that beset us in the times in which we live…and God will be with us even to the end of time itself…when love will finally and forever be all in all.
Thus the prophet Isaiah says to God’s people, Israel, surrounded on all sides by those who would destroy their little kingdom and send them into captivity, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together…Cry out…Get you up to a high mountain…Lift up your voice with strength…Lift it up, do not fear…See, the Lord God comes…He will gather the lambs into his arms…and carry them in his bosom.” And, the prophet Micah tells us that out of little places, little communities like Bethlehem…overlooked as having little to offer…that greatness…unimaginable greatness…will come. And Luke the Evangelist tells us the story of God’s revelation to a poor, teenage girl, living in some inconsequential corner of the known world, that through her life the light of life will enter our world…so he tells her to not be afraid for nothing is impossible with God. And the Evangelist Matthew tells us the story of God’s revelation coming to a carpenter, just an ordinary man, in his dreams…that he will raise a son who will save all people from our sins…and, echoing Isaiah’s words some 1000 years prior, the child will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us. And the Evangelist Mark tells us that now the time is fulfilled…for the Good News walks among us…God’s victory over the powers of sin and death has and will be the final act in history through the advent of Jesus…through his birth at the first Christmas…through his life and teachings that inspire and shape our own living…and finally through his death and resurrection, which from eternity’s perspective, has already overcome the sin and death wrought by human self-interest…described way back in chapter 3 of Genesis…where this morning’s story began. This circle is made complete and cannot be broken.
Thus, may the words of scripture, which we read, mark and inwardly digest today…shared with us so beautifully by our own loved ones today…fill us, in our present…fill us from the top of our heads to the bottom of our toes…fill us with hope, hope, hope…as we face our future together…for God in Christ, our Emanuel, is with us. God has ransomed captive Israel along with all of us…and God’s love stands alone in that future we face together. This has been ordained, as our scriptures have foretold, from before time and forever. Amen.