Happy Christmas! Though according to the Church that’s humbug since officially ‘Christmas’ doesn’t start till Christmas Eve. However, I wager that Ian & Ann’s house is already substantially decorated inside and out, causing significant light pollution for any nearby stargazers – and sending off-course any modern-day wise men.
We’re on the last Sunday in Advent…and it’s almost Christmas. That strange in-between time. We’re decking the halls, getting all nostalgic and Charles Dickens. 9 lessons and carols. The odd beer and brass band. Jack Frost is nipping. Chestnuts are roasting. Peace, joy and love abound. A time of continuity with the past and hope for the future…
And yet, and yet, we know how the story carries on don’t we? That you can’t have God in a nappy, in swaddling bands, lying in a manger, without having God on a cross too. Or have Simeon declaring the child as being a light to the nations without him also telling Mary that her heart will be pierced (1).
Our readings today reflect that to some extent. There’s an ambiguity there: God is coming, so rejoice. God is coming, so watch out.
And we have that odd thing with the names. Matthew says: All this took place to fulfil the prophecy that a virgin would conceive and give birth to a son and he’d be called Immanuel. But Mary & Joseph didn’t call him ‘Immanuel’ did they? They called him something else. They called him ‘Jesus’, like they’d been told to by the angel. Perhaps the Angel of the Lord was in an area with poor signal strength? If he were at our house then he should have been standing at the kitchen door to get the e-mail in time.
So, let’s roll back to the passage in Isaiah. It’s one of those 9 lessons in a Carol service but strangely we don’t often look at it.
At the time of Isaiah, the country is divided in two. Israel to the north has aligned itself with Syria. Judah to the south is under pressure and thinking of cosying up with Assyria. Assyria’s the one with Nineveh in it, which Jonah really didn’t want to go to. Assyria, the evil empire of its day, which tortured its captives, scattered defeated nations and imposed its language on all whom they conquered.
Isaiah keeps telling Ahaz, the King of Judah, to trust in God, that Assyria will be a nightmare and cause infinitely more problems than it solves. But the King does exactly the opposite and invites Assyria in…
In exasperation Isaiah says that in a relatively short time, by the time an already unnamed but pregnant young woman has weaned her child, the threat from Israel and Syria will have gone. But, in contrast, Assyria will be there to wreak destruction for the long term.
…God with us…
Names in the Old Testament had meanings and that baby child was called ‘God with us – Immanuel’. He’s called that because God will bring Judah deliverance from Israel and Syria. He will bring life and salvation. So, rejoice.
But he’s also called ‘God with us – Immanuel’ because Assyria will now come in and tear everything up with which they are familiar. There will be a purging. So, watch out.
The child Immanuel is symbolic of both those things. Salvation and purging. Similarly, Advent is supposed to be a time when we think about both the first and the second coming. Celebrating the joy of the new human life of Christ and the salvation he brings, as well as a time of fasting and reflection for the judgement to come.
… or Jesus, God saves?
So, Matthew is keen to show his readers how rooted the life of Jesus is in the Hebrew scriptures and he does it throughout his Gospel. But Isaiah had a specific moment in time in mind when he gave that prophecy. He’s talking about his ‘here and now’, a time of particular political and military threat. Not hundreds of years in his future.
In Isaiah the child is called ‘Immanuel’, not ‘Jesus’. And it’s a young woman, not a virgin. In Matthew, the name ‘Jesus’ is from the Hebrew Yeshua, or Joshua, meaning ‘God saves’. So, not Immanuel ‘God with us’ but Yeshua ‘God saves’.
So, is Matthew overdoing it? Over-stretching the point in making a connection with Isaiah?
See I am doing a new thing
To find the answer, we need to look elsewhere in Isaiah to get some clues. There’s some remarkable verses in Isaiah 55 which I’ve shared with you before: As the rain & the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth & making it bud & flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
And in Isaiah 43: See I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
It seems to be suggesting that God can perpetually accomplish new things in new ways with his Word. That his Word can be continually re-used and re-applied and produce new fruit, new meaning. So, is that what Matthew is doing here? Re-imagining God’s word and applying it to his current context? I think he is.
Afterall, what Jesus did on earth personified this didn’t it? As the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, Jesus physically demonstrated the continuity of God, his unchanging love and mercy that we can always count upon. But he also showed us the God of surprises too. He changed what we thought about God and challenged the pre-conceived ideas that he came across in both society and religion. In physical, bodily form – as the body language of God – Jesus re-imagined God for us.
God ‘saves us’ and is ‘with us’
So, God ‘saved us’ (Jesus) by being ‘with us’ (Immanuel). ‘Jesus’ and ‘Immanuel’ at the same time. Living up to both names. And, of course, ‘dying’ to both of those names too.
God with us. God in Christ. We can touch him, eat with him, have our feet washed by him. So close that we can’t escape his scrutiny but so close that he can’t escape our suffering either. Jesus and Immanuel together.
And if Matthew can re-imagine God’s Word and apply it to his situation then couldn’t we, shouldn’t we, too? Is God not doing something new now? Is he not still challenging pre-conceived ideas? And is his Word not coming back full of fruit and promise now? Are we not able to perceive it?
If Christ was born as Jesus in a few days from now, rather than 2000 years ago, where would it happen, I wonder? Would it still be in Bethlehem – or could it be somewhere like here, like Heywood? If we saw a young, very pregnant Mary, new to the area, would we definitely notice something different about her – or would she just blend in with any other teenage soon-to-be-mums? Would she be homeless, living with her partner in whatever shelter they could find? What would be our equivalent of the stable? Who would be our present-day shepherds? Would we have any idea at all that something extraordinary was about to happen? (2)
I imagine the people of Bethlehem were just the same. Completely unaware of the impending miracle in their midst. I imagine God at work in the lives of those around us now – and for the most part we have no idea about that either. Little miracles happening all the time. ‘Immanuel’ in our day-2-day…
But then, that’s us isn’t it? You and me? Because, of course, God is with us, in us already. Incarnate in you and me. This Christmas, and after, look for the Christ in the people that sit beside you, that we see on the streets or in the shops. Be aware of the Christ in the creation that is around us. We just need to look and to listen.
Christ in everything and in everyone
It’s Christmas and it’s Advent. An ambiguous, in-between time of preparation and joy – and of sadness as well for those who’ve lost loved ones. But let us re-imagine God’s Word dwelling among us now. Showing us, as ever, his love and his mercy – but always doing something new and surprising too. None of us are alone because Christ is everywhere, in everything and in everyone (3).
So, as we’re hanging up our stockings on the wall, ‘God saves’ and ‘God is with us’. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. Happy Advent! Happy Christmas! Humbug! Amen
‘The body language of God’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St James’s Heywood, on Sunday 22nd December. It’s based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1: 18-25. For Ian’s next reflection, ‘Wade in the Water’, please press here. For more by Ian please press here.
- Adapted from https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=13
- Think of Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Census at Bethlehem’ where we’re hard pressed to spot Mary & Joseph in everything else that’s going on.
- Please read Richard Rohr’s ‘The Universal Christ’