His Name Shall Be Called: Emmanuel
All throughout the season of Advent, the weeks before this night as we’ve been preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we’ve been studying some of the names for Jesus we draw from the writing of the prophet Isaiah: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Each week we asked ourselves what it means to call Jesus by these names. What does it mean to follow one who bears these titles?
Tonight we’re thinking about another name for Jesus, which also comes from Isaiah’s writings: Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Isaiah writes, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Centuries later, Matthew, writing his account of Jesus’ birth, sees Isaiah’s words fulfilled in the Christ-child. And there, in just this one spot in the gospels, Jesus is called Emmanuel, God-with-us. He’s never referred to by this name again. Jesus is never known by the name Emmanuel; it’s not like a nickname he’s called. And yet, Matthew’s name for Jesus is so powerful and compelling that followers of Jesus have continued to use this title for him ever since. All these weeks, building toward Christmas, we have been singing of Emmanuel: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” “Emmanuel, Emmanuel … God with us, revealed in us – His name is called Emmanuel.”
I get it. I’m with Matthew. God is with us. In Luke, an angel announces the new, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” To us is born the child Jesus. Yes, surely the baby is Mary’s, surely we did not do the hard work of carrying and laboring and delivering Jesus, but the angel says the child is for us all the same. A savior born for us, good news for us: God is with us.
The whole of the scriptures is a love story – the story of God’s amazing love for us, and the story of God’s hope for relationship with us. Over and over, the scriptures tell of ways God tries to connect with us, speak to us, call to us. What would you do to be near someone you loved? What would you do to let them know you loved them? What would you do to be able to spend time with someone you love who is far away?
What God does is come to us in person. At Christmas, we celebrate what we call the Incarnation. Incarnation means the embodiment of God. It means God comes to us in-the-flesh. God is embodied in the person of Jesus. At Christmas, we celebrate the event of God’s incarnation in the Christ-child.
Even though the word Emmanuel doesn’t show up in the gospel of Luke, Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth gives us the sentiment, the meaning of God-with-us from one end of the text to the other. God is with Mary and Joseph, as first they learned of the child Mary would carry, then as they make their long journey, as Mary gives birth in a precarious setting, as strange people show up and make themselves part of the story, as Mary treasures every moment. God is certainly with the shepherds. They’re unlikely candidates, maybe, to be the first recipients of the news of Jesus’ birth. They’re no one special. We don’t even know their names or how many there were. But God chooses them, surely a sign that God is with and for them, for those on the margins, for those who are usually left out, for those who are poor and lowly. God is with them.
God is even with those who won’t listen, who won’t open the door, who don’t have any room. With Herod, and Quirinius, and Emperor Augustus, and with every person who turned away Mary and Joseph, too busy, too proud, too important, too stressed to notice what was happening.
We also have to think about the “us” in this phrase “God with us.” Sometimes, we get confused, and we begin to think that Emmanuel means “God with me,” as if we are the only ones in this extraordinary relationship with God, even as we can trust that we are each uniquely precious to God. All sorts of damage and harm and violence in the world is done in the name of believing that God is with me but not with you. Emmanuel is definitely God with us. And the very Christmas story we cherish and celebrate tonight helps us understand who the us is exactly.
The Christmas story is God trying to get our attention. Centuries of God’s people not getting the message lead God to try the clearest message yet: God is with us in the flesh! And so we read about God’s elaborate, majestic, powerful gesture: “Hey, shepherds, look over here – there’s an angel! There’s a whole sky-full of angels! Hey, Mary and Joseph: Look, here’s some shepherds! They came because angels sent them! Hey, you, reading this story, hearing this word proclaimed: Here’s a neon sign! Here’s me in the flesh! I AM WITH YOU!”
We’re getting the message, God! How will we respond? Herod hears “God is with us” and we’ll see him respond in fear and anger. He doesn’t want God to be so close. How close do we want God? The shepherds hear “God is with us” and they want to see for themselves, and they want to tell all about it, and they rejoice at the goodness of God. Is the news good enough for us to tell about it? Mary hears “God is with us” and she treasure and ponders over every detail. She knows that the world is changing, that God in the flesh means nothing can be the same. What changes for you if you know, if you trust, if you open your life to God with you?
God is with us. This child we celebrate is for us. The gift from God is for us. This story we tell is for us. As close as we want. Right in our hearts. Moved in. Changing our lives, and changing the world. “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” God with us. Amen.