FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
TEXTS: Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25
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. —Isaiah 7:14 (NRSV)
When Walt Disney drew his first cartoon, he probably didn’t envisage all the animated films that were to be made. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t foresee all of the stuff that would come from those films—action figures, toys, TV programs, books, recordings, “Disneyland” theme parks, and so on.
When Colonel Sanders sold his first piece of fried chicken, he probably had little idea of just how many branches of KFC there would be in the world one day (and how many imitators).
That’s the way it is with good ideas; they may start out small, but they just get bigger and bigger! Or to put it another way, if an idea has promise, you can expect it to grow.
In today’s Hebrew Scripture text, there is an example of something like that—of a promise that began in a small way and just got bigger and bigger. In the time of Isaiah the prophet, Judah and its King Ahaz were under threat from two neighbouring kingdoms. Ahaz and his people were—frankly—terrified. So God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz with a message: “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” (Isaiah 7:11)
“Do not worry, O king,” Isaiah said. “God will not let you be destroyed. God wants to show you that he is on your side—so, ask for any kind of proof you like, and the Lord will provide it.”
But Ahaz refused to put God to the test. He may have been more afraid of God than of the two kings who were threatening him.
After Ahaz declined the offer, God promised him a sign anyway: the sign of a young woman who would bear a child called Immanuel, a name that means “God is with us.” Before this child is old enough to know right from wrong, Isaiah said, Ahaz’s two enemies would be defeated.
This promise was fulfilled in Isaiah’s time when Isaiah’s wife bore him a child, and—just as God promised—the hostile kings were indeed defeated. Interesting (isn’t it?) that God would send a small child to be the sign of a great promise.
This promise of Immanuel—God’s promise to care for his people—began in this small way, but it became bigger and bigger. It outlasted both Isaiah and his son. The sign—or the promise—of Immanuel would grow into a legend. And through the generations that followed, it remained a beacon of hope for all God’s people.
In today’s Gospel reading, we heard how a young woman named Mary became the mother of a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. And we read:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matt. 1:23)
A life was about to unfold which could truly be given the title, “God is with us.” Think of some of the events from this life and how they fulfilled that name.
Think of John the Baptist baptizing people in the Jordan River. Jesus steps forward to be baptized, the heavens open, and God’s voice is heard: “This is my beloved Son.”
Immanuel! God is with us.
Think of Jesus preaching on a hillside nearby Capernaum: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt. 5:3-4) Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers, and those who desire what is right.
The people are astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because he speaks as one who has authority (Matt. 7:28-29). Immanuel! God is with us.
Think of Jesus calming the stormy sea with a command. The disciples ask, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27) Immanuel! God is with us.
Jesus points out that the wedding guests do not mourn while the bridegroom is with them (Matt. 9:15). Immanuel! God is with us.
Jesus walks on the water and those in the boat worship him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). Immanuel! God is with us.
During Advent, we are reminded that we live in the “in-between” time: the time between the first coming—the first advent—of Immanuel and his second coming, his second advent.
Even as we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem long ago, we also wait for his return. Jesus has already come—and yet he is on his way. Even as Christ’s work on earth is being completed, the Kingdom of heaven is still to come.
Paradoxical? I suppose it is. Enigmatic? We know it is.
Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away …” (Matt. 9:15). And he would be. Taken away in death—and yet he would rise again. Taken away into the clouds, he promised to return in glory to bring the whole earth into God’s eternal kingdom (Acts 1:9-11).
“I am with you always,” he assures us, “to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) Not with us in the way he was, to be sure. And not with us in the way he will be—but still with us! We can still rejoice in the name, “Immanuel.”
Immanuel! God is with us. He is with us in the gathering of Christians for worship. He is with us in Holy Communion. He is with us in the carols we sing, in the prayers we say, in the love we share.
He is with us in triumph and in defeat, in glory and in shame. He is our companion through all the days of our lives—even when others desert us or are driven away.
He plays on the floor with our children, and is the unseen guest at every birthday party, every wedding anniversary. Immanuel is present with us, always. At the cradle and at the deathbed, Immanuel waits with us.
In some ways, I think, Advent is even better than Christmas. If Christmas celebrates the first coming of Christ, Advent celebrates the presence of his Spirit with us as we wait for his return. That is our tradition, after all. We believe in the promise of Immanuel. And—however we imagine it—we wait for the day when Christ Jesus will return.
That little promise of Immanuel to Isaiah so many centuries ago grew into the greatest promise the world has ever anticipated: the promise of Immanuel—the promise of God, to be present with us.
May God bless us all, as in faith we watch, and as in hope we wait. Amen.