Incarnation 3: Emmanuel

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 13, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s the Third Lord’s Day of Advent. It is developed in conversation with Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book Incarnation.

Today’s sermon builds upon Isaiah 7:14-17; Matthew 1:18- 25; Hebrews 1:1-3.

You can worship online with BBUMC through Facebook, the church website, or YouTube.

Mini-Sermon from the 11 am Christmas Program Worship
Icon of the Nativity

What would you do if you were on a flight, and the hair of the person in front of you was covering your seatback video screen?

We’re all good, Christian folk, right? So, perhaps we’d tap the person gently and say something like, “Excuse me. I am frustrated that your hair is hanging over my video screen. Can you please move it?”

Sure, that’s a way. But a Fox News story from this week reports about a video posted to the social media site, TikTok, that displays one woman’s reaction to this experience. Now, it’s social media, so it could have all been staged, but here’s what she did. She put gum in the woman’s hair, making sure to really press the hair into the gum, from multiple angles. Then, she snipped off chunks of hair with nail clippers. And then, she stuck a sucker in the woman’s hair. And finally, she dipped the woman’s hair in her coffee mug before repeatedly flipping the woman’s hair back over her seatback. And some of the comments on the video praised the woman, saying, The hair-flipper got what she deserved, and I’d do the same thing.

Let’s just let that image rest for a little and turn to what God’s incarnation in Jesus means.

In the year 735 BCE, the prophet Isaiah comes onto the scene about 275 years after King David unified the twelve tribes of Israel into one nation. But within a generation, after David’s son Solomon’s reign, the nation had fractured into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. Sometimes the two kingdoms got along and worked together, most of the time they did not.

In Isaiah 7, trouble was brewing. The kingdoms of Israel and Aram had joined forces. They were trying to convince Judah to join with them in fighting against the growing superpower, Assyria. But Judah’s King Ahaz wouldn’t go for it. So, Israel and Aram decided to try to conquer Judah, so that they could force its people to fight Assyria with them. At this threat, Ahaz, and all the people of Judah, were terrified – Isaiah tells us their hearts were shaking like trees in the wind (Is 7:2). They didn’t know what to do, or how they’d survive this looming attack. Likely, there were some political leaders who wanted Ahaz to make the deal, to join with potential enemies against a greater enemy, and some who didn’t.

But God sends Isaiah to King Ahaz with a message: “Be careful. Don’t fear and don’t lose heart” (Is 7:4). But Ahaz was still worried, and so God spoke to Ahaz again through Isaiah: “Ask a sign from the Lord your God. Make it as deep as the grave or as high as heaven” (Is 7:11). Even with this clear invitation, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign; he doesn’t want to put God to the test. But, God offers a sign anyway:

“The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. He will eat butter and honey, and learn to reject evil and choose good. Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.”

Isaiah 7:14b-16, CEB

In the midst of dark and terrifying days filled with political division, and fear, God offers the people of Judah a sign of hope: Immanuel – which means, “God with us.”

We have to first hear this as a sign for Isaiah, Ahaz, and the people of Judah, which means we can’t jump immediately to Jesus. This isn’t a multigenerational, long-vision hope. God says, “the young woman is pregnant.” We don’t know who this woman was – maybe a wife of Ahaz or Isaiah – but everything about this passage suggests that a very real woman is actually, at that moment, pregnant. And her child would be called Immanuel – a sign that God was with them. God promises that, by the time this woman’s child grows up to the age of reason and responsibility – 12 or 13 in that day – the threat of Israel of Aram will be no more. And history proves God right. Thirteen years later, in 722 BCE, the Assyrian army wipes out the nations of Israel and Aram, obliterating their threat upon Judah. God gives Ahaz hope, so that he can endure and then thrive. God revealed God’s presence as with them in the midst of struggle, fear, and division, so that they could live with hope of an alternate future.

Now, let’s skip forward seven hundred years to the time when, as Matthew tells us, “the birth of Jesus Christ took place” (Mt 1:18). Rome had conquered much of the known world, including the historic land of Israel. There was political division and turmoil. There were threats of violence and insurrection, as groups of Jews tested the waters of rebellion. And the poor, like Jesus’s own family, struggled under the weight of Roman authorities that cared little for their plight. Jesus is born into a world of division, fear, and uncertainty.

Matthew tells us that Jesus’s birth fulfills God’s promise through Isaiah, that a young woman will become pregnant, give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel (Mt 1:22-23). (Note that Matthew’s quote of Isaiah is slightly different, for unknown reasons). But here’s the interesting thing: Matthew is the only gospel writer to make this connection with Isaiah, even though, as our singing of “Emmanuel songs” today has shown, we have taken this connection very much to heart. Matthew takes Isaiah’s promise of God out of its original context, inspired by the Holy Spirit, and applies it to the birth of Jesus to interpret what Jesus’s birth mean. Jesus is, at the very least, the sign of God’s presence in the world.

I say “at the very least,” because Matthew’s gospel doesn’t convey a clear Trinitarian confession that Jesus is God’s presence. But later scripture writers, like in the Letter to the Hebrews, will develop the idea of Jesus, Emmanuel, to proclaim, “The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being” (Heb 1:3). Then, in the first few centuries after Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, Jesus’s followers would develop the doctrine of the Trinity: the idea that God is one God in three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And so, we call Jesus Emmanuel, even though there’s no evidence that his mother ever did, because Jesus helps us relate to God, and shows that God can relate to us. Jesus, Emmanuel, makes God touchable and visible. And, Jesus, Emmanuel, proves that God can relate to us: in Jesus, God really, truly knows what it means to be human – to be rejected, to suffer, to grieve, and to die. Jesus reveals God’s full presence to people in the midst of a broken, divided, and hurting world, so they can live with hope of an alternate future.

We too know what it’s like to live in the midst of a broken, divided, and hurting world. In response to threats to safety, security, and fulfillment, like with the people of Judah and Jesus’s people, we are a people struggling with division: “personal rights / mutual care / protest / stand by and stand down”. Some of our family members may be stuck not talking to one another over one disagreement or another. The division in our country, communities, and families is real.

The coronavirus pandemic has only added fuel to the fire of our brokenness and division. There are some, maybe many, who think the whole thing has been overblown, and that the distancing and masks are unnecessary. Some have said that many who have died would have died anyway, as though it’s somehow against God’s will to try to limit the effect of a disease or help people recover from it. But if this were truly the case, then we might also ask, “Why bother with medicine or hospitals at all?” Still others, as we as a church have done, believe that limiting interactions, distancing, and mask-wearing are ways to live into Jesus’s clear calling to love and care for our neighbors.

What’s more, beyond these headline-catching issues, we know and experience many other instances of brokenness and pain – deep cries of surety that the world and our lives are not as they should be. We know the grief that comes from a first Christmas without a loved one present, or the related griefs of bygone holiday traditions. We know the pain of loss, the frustration of failure, and the loneliness, exhaustion, and hopelessness that breed depression. We know the fear of a present that seems more fragile, and a future that seems less certain. If ever there were a year to cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” this would be the year.

But that’s precisely what God has done in Jesus’s birth: God has come directly into the midst of our brokenness, division, pain, and despair to bring us hope of an alternate future. In the first chapter of Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book, Incarnation, he includes this quote from James Stewart’s King Forever:

The world’s dark night may still continue pressing in upon us, but if I have seen Christ, then I know that the darkness of history is now shot through with unquenchable hope and with the final certainty of the glorious outcome of all its struggles. Or to make it more personal, I may go down into the dark, but if I do, I am still in the hands of him who bears the scepter of all the universes and everlastingly makes all things new, here and hereafter, and therefore I am safe forever. (Incarnation, 39-40)

The world’s dark night may still continue pressing in upon us, but if I have seen Christ, then I know that the darkness of history is now shot through with unquenchable hope and with the final certainty of the glorious outcome of all its struggles. Or to make it more personal, I may go down into the dark, but if I do, I am still in the hands of him who bears the scepter of all the universes and everlastingly makes all things new, here and hereafter, and therefore I am safe forever.

James Stewart, King Forever. 1975 (15) in Adam Hamilton, Incarnation. 2020 (39-40).

What a phrase: “the darkness” of life is “shot through with [the] unquenchable hope” of God’s presence in Jesus. In Jesus, Emmanuel, God becomes fully present with us in the midst of struggle, fear, and division, so that we can live with hope and assurance of an alternate future.

Jesus reveals that God is with us, so that we can live with hope, but Jesus, as Emmanuel, also does one thing more. Just as Jesus bears God’s presence into a broken, divided, and hurting world, Jesus calls us, his followers – his disciples – to bear his presence. We are the church – the very body of Christ in the world. We are the way God continues to incarnate, to put flesh on, God for the people around us.

So, what about that woman on the plane now, the one putting gum in the hair of her neighbor? I choose to believe it was staged as a joke. But people said they’d do it too. There’s no possible way Jesus, Emmanuel, would do that, right? But, when we’re slighted, insulted, hurt, or inconvenienced, how will we next respond? That’s our daily question, because Jesus is God-with-us, Emmanuel, giving us hope for an alternate future, and calling us to put flesh on that future today. Our darkness, in Jesus, is shot through with light. How will we show it?

Reflection Questions:

  1. There’s more that can be said about Jesus being Emmanuel – God with us. What does Jesus being called, and being, Emmanuel mean to you?
  2. This sermon only skims the surface of the following ideas: 1) that Jesus bearing God’s full presence makes God knowable and relatable to us, and 2) that Jesus bearing God’s full presence shows that God really knows what it’s like to be human. Both of these are important. Why are they important to you?
  3. Building on #2.1: Have you ever wished or longed for God to reveal Godself fully to you? In what ways does Jesus do this? In what ways does Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection 2,000 years ago, still leave you wanting some fuller, closer, more intimate revelation?
  4. If Jesus seems like an insufficient revelation of God’s person and character (I know it’s a bit heretical, but I think we sometimes feel this way, and certainly people who doubt or don’t profess faith in Jesus don’t see Jesus as a sufficient revelation of God), what more do we need to more fully believe and trust God? Who can you talk to about this question?
  5. Building on #2.2: In what ways does God knowing fully what it means to live as a human in Jesus offer us comfort, assurance, or hope? Does it help to know that God has lived a human life like ours?
  6. I could have chosen to skip all of the Isaiah connections to the name Emmanuel and just preached about the questions above and Jesus bearing God’s presence with us. I thought the Isaiah connection was important to understand the name Emmanuel. What do you think is important about the Isaiah connection?
  7. If I hadn’t developed the Isaiah connection, I could have spent much more time and space developing the idea of Jesus calling us to incarnate his presence for others. As it is, I leave that for us to develop beyond the sermon. What ways have you seen someone incarnate Jesus’ presence for you or others? In what ways have you incarnated Jesus’ presence for others? In what ways might you, this week, incarnate Jesus’ presence for others?

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