Saturday, December 22, 2007
The conditions late in the first century before Christ and the first century of the Common Era were times of tremendous upheaval in what we call the Holy Lands. The Jewish people had been promised one who would come and rectify all the ills of the world. The prophet Isaiah in the last part of the 700’s BC had prophesied that a leader would come to lead the people of Israel to greatness once again. This anointed leader would not be like the other kings of Israel or like the kings of nations around Israel. He would be God with us, Emmanuel.
That is a tall order. But that is what the people waited for—the Messiah, the Anointed One, in Greek is he was called, Christos. Now in the first century day there were many christos—there were kings all around who had that title. But this Christos—this Anointed one was to be from the line of David, the greatest king that Israel had ever had. He was to be a direct descendant of King David. And it is for that reason I read the first part of the Gospel reading for today—the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t make any sense without all of these “begats”. The whole point of Matthew’s Gospel is to remind his Jewish-Christian followers that Jesus was the descendant of David and therefore the Messiah.
In Greek the opening words of this Gospel parallel the opening words of the book of Genesis. We can’t hear it in English but in Greek, the word in Greek for “begat” is the same word for Genesis. “In the beginning” is the same as “the birth of” and it comes out saying the same thing. The people who heard Matthew’s Gospel would have understood the Gospel in the same way as they heard that Moses had proclaimed Torah. The Messiah was to be the New Moses—the bearer of a New Law of love. He was to be God-with-us. Emmanuel.
For the people of the First Century to have God-with-us meant that they would not be under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Some time in the century before Jesus was born, there was an idea that many people believed was that when the Messiah came, God, God’s self would be the ruler of Israel. And with God on the throne, other nations would come streaming to Israel’s doors in tribute to their King. The image of the time of God-with-us had been distorted into the end of the world when time would come to a stand still and God would reign and heaven on earth would commence.
I believe that to be a distortion of what Isaiah had meant some 700 years before, nonetheless, many of the believers of the first century understood this as the cataclysmic justification for wars and revolts. Isaiah foretold of one who was to come—born of a young woman—please note, not a Virgin in the biological sense--who would be God-with-us.
This God-with-us was to be a leader, but he was also to be one who taught others how to live. Isaiah does give us many different images of what Emmanuel was to be. “A bruised reed, he will not break.” He will be “Wonder-Counselor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace.” They had an idea of what kind of leader he would be. But I would suggest that we in the Twenty-First Century do not know what Emmanuel means, especially in the mainline Protestant –or even in the catholic theologies that I hear bandied about these days. I DO hear descriptions of who God-who-is-to-come from more fundamentalist traditions that are quite disturbing to me. And with the depression of what I call Apostolic Christianity—that which is founded and stems from the teaching of the Apostles rather than on imaginations that have come up with rather recent descriptions of Emmanuel in such traditions as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of the Latter Day Saints or many of the independent Christian churches—I am concerned that we need to have some idea of what God-with-us means.
The Christ that comes as Christmas is the God who stays with us. And while we relive and reenact this Advent anticipation each year, it is not a matter of Christ is coming again that is important. It is how we prepare ourselves to see the God-with-us throughout the year and each day of our lives that is important. Joseph named the child Jesus, Yoshuah—one who saves. We all know the saving power of God. We have all become one who has put away the requirements of Mosaic Law so that we can know the freedom of Christ in our lives. And yet all too often we live lives of enslavement—lives so invested in work, family, relationships, promises, etc. that we have lost our ability to free ourselves to remember the love and joy that those relationship used to have. We have forgotten the simplicity that God-with-us reminds us of—the kind of unfettered loving that first moved us to love.
Joseph did not put Mary away because his dream spoke a reality that he had forgotten—a reality about relationships that had gotten so intertwined with the laws of righteousness that the original feeling of the freedom to care had been lost. And I would suggest that the reason that people go nutz around Christmas time is in their trying to conjure up that simplicity for themselves. We buy more and more. We give more and more and we enjoy it less and less. And I would suggest that even in our alms giving we have lost the sense of loving that comes when giving things away.
Emmanuel is the God who is with us at all times to remind us of the reason for the season. The God that we worship is one who is with us spiritually and physically in the kindness that come at every moment of our lives.
I met a former parishioner in the mall on Friday. I haven’t seen him for almost 4 years and didn’t know he had gone on a vacation last spring and had had a heart attack and almost died. He was better now. But he said he knew the prayers of those who loved him. He said they were palpable and lifted him and his wife up during those very desperate times. He knew that God-with-us was in the prayers of those around him when he could not pray himself.
I have heard stories like this before. Emmanuel is the God we draw into our lives with our prayer. Emmanuel is the God who stands beside us when we are alone. Emmanuel is the God who when we are feeling either the most deprived or the most exposed rubs shoulders with us and reminds us not only of the fidelity of the Divine, but of the fidelity of those who are God-in-skin for us.
One of the greatest fears that we Christians often have is “becoming gods ourselves.” We cling to humility because we do not want to transgress the First Commandment. But sometimes I think we need to think a bit more of ourselves in the light of God’s call to be God’s hands and hearts to the world. We need to be more willing to step into the shoes of God-with-us, to be Christ’s hands to the world. We need to trust God a bit more to be about “the Father’s work” in the world. We need to step up to the plate and accept the role of Emmanuel for others.
This does not mean that we become God. It merely means that we have been willing to take on the role of Christ to the world because we have been loved and saved by him.
Embracing Emmanuel calls us forth to minister to one another with confidence that we are doing the work of Christ. Being willing to live in a world in which God is with us all the time means that there is so much more freedom, so much more simplicity, so much more peace in our lives. And in the midst of all our hustle and bustle over the next few days, I would invite you to take some time and allow yourselves to think on how you are making Emmanuel present to those around you. Slow down! Rest a moment! Pray! Spend a bit more time loving even if you don’t get everything done.
Meeting Emmanuel is by far more important. Amen