“God Is With Us”

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-15; Matthew 1:18-25

SANTA LETTERS

I’m going to read you a few letters that kids have written to Santa.  These are just a few letters that I found online from parents that scanned pictures of their child’s letter before sending it along to Santa.  These letters represent four different “genre’s” of Santa letter:

1.     The quintessential “greedy” or “ambitious” Santa letter  (Blake)

2.     The straight-shooter, making no excuses  (Max)

3.     The challenger – this was me when I was a kid and asked Santa for a telephone pole, just to see if it was possible.  It’s also this child’s approach.  (Elisha)

4.     The skeptic.  This child is looking for a sign that Santa is real.  He doesn’t want any toys, just something to give him hope.  (Deaven)

CHRISTMAS PRESENCE

Those Santa letters are quite entertaining – actually, I’ve found that it’s almost always entertaining to ask a child what they are asking Santa for this Christmas.  Some kids have some very interesting ideas about what Santa Claus is capable of.  A running theme in (almost) all of the letters to Santa are two things:  hope and presents.

After all, aren’t hope and presence what the seasons of Advent and Christmas are all about?  These seasons are all about the presence that we give, and especially the presence that we receive.  During these seasons and every season of our lives, it is the gift of presence that makes all the difference.

However, unlike what those kids are looking for in their requests to Santa, the kind of presence that I am talking about can’t be found underneath the tree on Christmas morning.  I’m not talking about presents that can be unwrapped, but presence that has to be experienced.

If you haven’t already figured out what I’m talking about, you may be fairly confused or at least think that I’ve got terrible grammar.  You see, what many children are filled with right now is hope for Christmas Presents.  But what is promised to us as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ is Christmas Presence.  When you seek meaning and hope in the Christmas gifts under the tree, you ultimately find them to be empty.

SCRIPTURE – IMMANUEL

Presence is a central theme of both of the scripture passages that Ted read this morning.  Both of the passages reference a sign of God’s continued presence with God’s people – and that sign is Immanuel, Hebrew for “God is with us.”

Isaiah

In the passage from the Book of Isaiah, we find ourselves in the midst of a fairly intense conversation between Ahaz, the King of Judah, and the prophet Isaiah.  Ahaz is seeking counsel about an impending military strike from Ephraim and Aram against Jerusalem, which was the capital city of Judah.  The impending attack on Jerusalem is a major threat against the welfare of the nation as well as the promise from God that a descendent of David would always reign in Jerusalem.  If Jerusalem is destroyed or captured, then the whole future of the people of Judah would be in question.

Isaiah invites King Ahaz to be reassured of God’s divine protection with a sign from God, but Ahaz won’t ask for a sign – claiming to be too pious to make such a request of God.  Finally, Isaiah gives up and gives Ahaz a sign anyway.

This is where I know that Isaiah is a prophet after my own heart, because he chooses to go for an object lesson.  As he looked around, he saw a pregnant woman, and she and her growing child became his illustration for the presence of God. 

Some scholars have suggested that this woman was was Ahaz’s pregnant wife, or perhaps Isaiah’s wife, but I like to think it was a stranger who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.  “Do you see this young woman, Ahaz?  She is pregnant with a son, and she will name his son Immanuel – he will be a sign that God is present here in Judah.  Before he reaches the age of physical and mental maturity, the threat that Judah now faces will be no more.”

Faced with the unknown future of his people, his beloved land, and himself, King Ahaz receives a sign from God in a child, yet to be born:  Immanuel.  I am with you.  The reassurance of the constant presence of God among God’s people.

Matthew

Immanuel is mentioned again in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be in the place of Joseph in the birth story of Jesus.  The story begins abruptly after a detailed recounting of Jesus’ genealogy.  Mary is pregnant but not married, and her fiancée Joseph is confused and concerned.  Faced with the choice to figure out how to proceed, we are told that Joseph goes above and beyond the letter of the law and decides to divorce Mary privately, rather than come out about Mary’s pregnancy publicly – which would shame her at best, and give her a death sentence at worst.

The moment Joseph makes this decision and is able to finally get some sleep, an angel comes to him in a dream and shakes everything up again.  The angel basically says to Joseph, “I know this is not what you expected, Joseph, but it’s going to be okay.  God is about to do something wonderful, despite the fact that according to Jewish custom and law you are in a rather precarious situation.”[1]  Ultimately, we are told, Joseph chooses to trust the angel and follow God’s leading, regardless of how terrifying and puzzling it may be.

Then the Narrator gives the gospel readers a little bit more information and points to the prophet Isaiah.  Like that child named Immanuel that Isaiah pointed to, this child – Jesus – will also be known as Emmanuel.  He will also serve as a sign that God is present with us.

GOD IS WITH US

I was struck that, in both of these passages, the promise of Immanuel wasn’t a promise that “everything’s going to be okay.”  Ahaz still had to face the military invasion on Jerusalem, and ultimately faced additional attacks that crippled Judah and their autonomy.  But all along, the people of Judah were promised that God would remain present with them.  I wonder how often Ahaz may have thought about that child named Immanuel, or if he watched him grow and mature, all the while being reassured of God’s presence in the midst of struggle.

Joseph’s dream was just the beginning of a long and difficult journey.  In fact, being reassured of God’s presence and action in Mary’s pregnancy made Joseph’s life a whole lot more complicated.  He’d resolved to quietly dismiss Mary and move on with his life, but God had a different plan and called him to trust in the promise of salvation and walk faithfully into the unknown.

The hope that we receive through the seasons of Advent and Christmas is that God is with us in the midst of our greatest fears.  We need to be open to receive the sign of Immanuel – “God is with us” –  especially in times of darkness, struggle, difficulty, sorrow, and confusion.  Immanuel isn’t a sign that “Everything is going to be easy,” but is rather a sign that “Everything is going to be okay.” 

The Advent and Christmas seasons are all about presence.  It’s about knowing that, whatever is that God is unfolding around us, whatever the crazy adventure that God is calling each of us to be a part of, no matter what might lie ahead of us or lie in our way…  God is with us here and now.

SIGNS OF PRESENCE

I want to offer you an open-ended question, and I want you to take a few minutes to answer the question.  What are our signs that we see today of the presence of God?  Where have you experienced Immanuel in your own life?

Each of you received a blank “sign” in your bulletin this morning.  I want you to take those signs out now, and on that sign I want you to write a word of phrase that represents a sign of God’s presence that you have experienced in your own life.

After you have written down your word or phrase, I invite you to turn to the person or people sitting near you and, if you are comfortable, share what you have written down.

After the service, if you are comfortable, I invite you to put your sign on the tree in the sanctuary so that everybody can see the various signs of Immanuel that we have shared.  While our trees at home are probably already filling up with presents underneath, I hope that these signs of Immanuel will be reminders of a different kind of presence this Christmas.



[1] From Aaron Klink in Matthew 1:18-25, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting On The Word Year A, Volume 1, Fourth Sunday of Advent  (Lousville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 94.

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