"They shall name him Emmanuel"-Sermon for Advent 4, Matthew 1:18-25
My wife recently shared with me a Christmas sermon from some years ago preached by the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, who is currently the Vicar of St. Martin’s in the Fields in London. And, in that sermon, Dr. Wells pointed out two very small words…both prepositions…that likely we don’t give much thought to…at least theologically speaking. And, the two words are “for” and “with”…for and with. And, in his sermon, Dr. Wells used one example to describe the word “for” that really resonated with me. And the example is of that person who works so hard to make Christmas just perfect for friends and family…being sure that the presents are bought and wrapped…and not just presents but the perfect presents that are either desired or have meaning for the one receiving them. The person who hosts the Christmas meal…sends out the invites, does the grocery shopping, cleans the house, makes sure everything is merry and bright, slaves away in the kitchen…making a meal that the finest restaurant would be proud to serve. And, then, this person is also the one who cleans it all up at the end of the day. All of this good, hard work, again, lovingly done for their loved one. However, once it is all said and done, this industrious, creative and caring person falls to pieces in utter exhaustion…and comes to the disappointing conclusion that, in all the time spent doing for others, there was no time left to spend any time with…there’s that other word…actually with the people they were doing it all for, in the first place. And, of course, the irony is that the whole point was to create the space and experiences that were supposed to lead to meaningful and joyful time spent connecting with those this person loves most…but, again, in all the doing for…the being with got nudged out.
And, as the people of St. Julian’s, that’s all of us, are industrious, hard-working, service-oriented folk, who love and care a lot about people in particular, we might, also, be described as “for” sorts of people. That is we do a whole lot for others. We serve meals and carol and “trunk or treat” for the people at Lakeline Station. We raise significant dollars and take on transformative work projects for our friends in Navajoland. We provide pastoral care to many, many people in crisis or transition for those at St. Julian’s and beyond who are in need or want. Our Sunday School teachers create lesson plans and show up week in and week out for our children. We provide beautiful worship, which requires much time and attention and people power…from the altar guild, to the music ministry, to the ministers of worship, to the Bishop’s Committee, to the tech people, to the clergy…and all for those who might be present on any given Sunday…that they might experience something of God’s salvation in Christ in the prayers and songs offered up to God each week from this special place.
And, friends, you might understandably be thinking where I am going here is to knock the idea of doing for others or minimize its importance in some way…and I surely am not! Every single thing we do for others out of and in the name of love…God’s own love…as it flows in and out of us in acts of service and hospitality…are good and Godly. Such selfless giving is to be honored and appreciated. Our doing “for” matters…and often it matters a whole lot. I’ll even say that every single time we give of ourselves that we might be a blessing to others is kind of like a mini Christmas. For, through such loving deeds, such sacrifice of time, energy and resource for those beyond ourselves is a birth of sorts. God’s love birthed into our world that makes transformation possible…light shines in the darkness…hope and possibility and new beginnings emerge. Human lives are often immeasurably enriched by our doing for. So, let’s keep it up!
But…another important theological word…but…let us also not forget with. I am sure that you recall that in one of our Old Testament lesson this morning, the prophet Isaiah gives the long-expected Savior the title Emmanuel. Further, that same prophecy is echoed by the angel that comes to Joseph in a dream to tell him that the child he will raise with Mary is a gift from God for the very life of the world. And, Emmanuel means…God with us. Yes, Jesus does so much for us. Jesus comes to our world at Christmas, which comes soon and very soon, for the very salvation of the world. The Babe of Bethlehem will grow into a person who will give his life on the hard wood of the cross for sin and deaths defeat…for you and for me and for all of creation…that in the fulness of time…love and life will stand, at the end of all things, for eternity. Jesus, like how I described the people of St. Julian’s, is most certainly a “for” sort of person. Jesus’ whole life from Christmas to Easter…all of his teaching, loving, healing, friendship-making, and, most especially, his death and resurrection are for…again for us and for the very life of the world.
But, in this in-between time, this time between the defeat of sin and death at Easter and Jesus’ second coming, when this world will be set to rights and life and love are firmly established finally and forever…in this in-between time…we must remember and lean on that most glorious title, Emmanuel, given to our Savior in an ancient prophecy and then, again, at his birth. That title which is more than just a reminder…but a promise that God is with us…that Jesus stands with us…even now. The Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, is with us…with us most especially when life is hard…when the darkness seems to be settling in…when feeling ourselves lost and lonely…when the budget is tight and the diagnosis is not what we hoped…when the one’s we love most are struggling the most. In all of these sorts of experiences in this in-between time, Jesus, our Emmanuel, is with us. And, friends, this is not some proverbial emotional crutch. For those among you, those within our own family of faith, have told me when experiencing unimaginable loss…when wandering for long stretches in life’s wilderness like moments…when facing huge professional upheaval and change…you have told me…that knowing, feeling, and experiencing Jesus with you…holding you…lifting you up…has been the sustenance required to carry on…to put one foot in front of the other…to keep moving forward. Emmanuel, God with us, has been described to me by some as even life-saving.
Jesus born into poverty…born on the floor of a cave among blood, sweat, and sheep manure…born through the womb of a teenager, in the presence of a carpenter, in an inconsequential corner of the known world…Jesus, the very creator of heaven and earth, born into such vulnerability…is intended as a promise that God is with us…that Jesus is with us, most especially, in our own most vulnerable moments. Thus, even when considering all that Jesus has done for us, perhaps this promise that his is always with us…his faithful and never-ending loving, empowering, and life-giving presence with us…whatever twists and turns our lives might take…is perhaps the greatest gift of all.
And, likewise, for all the good we do for each other and those around us at the holidays or on any day…and I take nothing away from that…but perhaps the greatest gift we can extend to one another is to just be with each other. To not let all the doing for get entirely in the way of being with. For time spent with each other…the gift of ourselves, if you will…is the most precious gift we can ever extend to one another. And, when we do so…when we prioritize quality time spent in each other’s good company…really attending to each other, listening to each other, sharing life’s journey with each other…what follows is not exhaustion…but nurture and hope and purpose and renewal…energy found in the power of love that flows back and forth between us in the time spent with each other. In doing so, we literally become for one another an expression, an extension, a living incarnation of Emmanuel, God with us, as the very love we share when with each other is God’s own love…born into the world at Christmas…and born afresh in each love-suffused moment spent with each other. Amen.