Today’s Gospel reading brought us this familiar passage from Matthew 1:18-25, on which many a Christmas pageant has been based:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
But our sermon did not go down that road. I think our priest is leaving that for the children at our Christmas pageant this week. Instead, we took a closer look at the cited passage from Isaiah 7: 10-17, which was our Old Testament reading:
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”
Our priest put this passage in historical perspective, and explained that King Ahaz was struggling with how to protect Jerusalem and Judah from impending attack by two neighboring kings who were seeking to form a coalition against an invasion from Assyria. At the time, this prophecy could have been a promise that the two kings that King Ahaz was worrying about would not succeed in their schemes, because God would protect Judah.
Our priest pointed out that Isaiah’s quote refers to a “young woman,” and so did not necessarily predict the miraculous virgin birth of the Gospel. For an alternative interpretation, our priest asked us to imagine the prophet speaking to a crowd, looking for a way to impress on his audience the timeframe of his prophecy. He might have spotted a young woman and pointed her out to make the point that before this woman could bear a child and have him grow up, God’s promise would be fulfilled.
That image got me thinking about the concept of each one of us being “Immanuel.” Not that I think we all are God, but I do believe that we all can do God’s work in this world. And, it seems, at least to some extent and at least for now, God is relying on us to do just that. We are the ones who must “[h]eal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, [and] drive out demons”–or at least do what we can to help others.
About 18 months ago, the concept of Christians being “the body of Christ” crystallized for me when I couldn’t be with someone I wanted to encourage, and I had to rely on another friend to pass on my support. When I was texting, “Give her a hug for me!” it struck me how I was counting on our mutual friend to really be there for me. And then it hit me. That’s what it means to be the body of Christ.
God counts on us to do His work in the world, to be the hands that help, the ears that listen, the shoulders that share burdens. When we act as the body of Christ–loving our neighbor, helping those who can’t help themselves–we can make God real for others, just like my friend could make my support real when I couldn’t be there.
Going from this understanding of “the body of Christ” to a similar take on “Immanuel” may not seem like a very big step, but to me, “Immanuel” carries bigger promises of salvation and peace on earth. Salvation certainly is God’s exclusive domain, and I really don’t see any chance for world peace without divine intervention. But maybe that’s the message of hope that I needed to hear today.
I’ve already admitted that I am not a strong believer in “the second coming.” So, where does that leave the world if I don’t believe that people will set it straight and I have a hard time believing that Jesus will “come back” to save us? Maybe Immanuel is the answer.
I do believe that God can and does work through people. I have been blessed with too many “angels” in my life to think otherwise, and have heard too many true stories of miraculous encounters with just the right person who said just the right thing or knew just what to do. So, maybe God can work bigger miracles–even world peace–through us if we accept our mission of being Immanuel.