Christmas is one of those strange times you sing a lot. It’s also a time when you oddly sing words in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and all sorts of languages. A favorite, I think, is the song “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I’ve noticed most people really love the refrain, “Rejoice, rejoice.”
But what is that word really about? What does it have to do with joy?
In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph receives a dream about the birth of Jesus. An angel comes to him and tells him the whole thing, and then also tells him that he should call Him “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” In this, the angel quotes Isaiah 7. We’ve read a lot of Isaiah in this reflection series, but this one is the strangest. The Old Testament can be weird!
Isaiah 7 centers around the king of Judah, Ahaz, and a massive, geopolitical drama; the most powerful army known in human history baring down on the three small kingdoms of Palestine: Syria, Israel, and Judah.
Syria and Israel became allies and wanted to force Judah (that’s Ahaz’s kingdom) to join. If he wouldn’t join their alliance, they would invade and crush them and take the kingdom as their own. The king, though, is stuck considering his next move. Maybe he should join the big dog in the region and gain the spoils after the dust has settled against the other two. Or maybe he has to join an alliance, but then, what good is it to be king if other kingdoms are dictating your life? And, how faithful can his people be to their calling?
Ahaz is left wondering, “Who can I align myself with? Who will be with me while the powers around me build, while the walls come crushing in, and while the chaos erupts?”
Then Isaiah comes to the king saying, “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart grow faint.” He goes on to say, “These kingdoms will fail. You will be okay.” But Isaiah ends his pep talk with these words. “If you are not firm in the faith, you will not be firm at all.”
Isaiah says what God, through His prophets, has always said: Trust in God. Have faith. Remain in an alliance with the God who established your life, your kingdom, your reign. He is the trustworthy One of immense power. Don’t play politics of fear.
God says: Trust me! I’ve established your people. I made your kingdom. You have nothing apart from me. Trust that I am in this with you.
Then, God says, “Ask me for a sign as high as the heavens or as deep as hell. I will give you a sign so you can trust me!”
Ahaz responds, I will not. There’s a law that says not to. He refuses the sign, the call to trust. (Side note: I wonder how often we use religion to avoid God and do what we want and continue in our despair?) Ahaz didn’t want a sign from God. Often, we’re more comfortable with a world in which God isn’t involved.
God replies, I will give you a sign anyway! It will be a baby boy who will refuse evil and do what is good. He will know the good. Those other kingdoms will vanish. Oh, and the boy’s name will be, “God is with us,” because God will be with you. God is moving toward you.
My sign, God says, will be from heaven, and it will go as low as to break the gates of hell. God not only reached His arm into the world to bring justice and loving-kindness, He became the embodiment of justice, hope, peace, and loving-kindness. This is Emmanuel.
Tim Keller writes: “the incarnation is how God becomes soft.” God’s sign is to make Himself touchable. Vulnerable. Killable. Emmanuel from the womb to the cradle to the tomb, God in this mess with us. Experiencing it, knowing it.
Emmanuel is essentially what I think we want from our deepest friendships and relationships, and especially from God, isn’t it? We want God to know, understand, and be present in “this” with us. That is what God is saying. I’ve got you. I’m with you.
For us, the sign is not in the words of a prophet but in the child born the Savior. It also joins two things we often separate, trust and joy, into one singular reality: God with us. In God’s presence, trust overflows. God in our midst invokes joy.
When Jesus commissioned His disciples, He ends by saying, “And, lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age!” (Matthew 28:20 NASB)
God with us this day and forever after. God with us as we live our ordinary lives. God with us in community. God with us on mission. He fills all things and He joins together joy and trust in His presence. How do we welcome God with us?