“The Mystery of Immanuel”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The beginning of Jesus Christ was of this sort:” God gets mixed up with His creation. He is not content to sit back and let people destroy themselves and each other. He has bound Himself up with His creation from the very beginning, ever since He formed Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from Adam’s rib. There was happiness in that place. Joy and contentment and peace in the presence of God were all that they knew. But then there was sin, and then death. Then there was no longer any room for them in the Garden that God had created for their pleasure. The angel at the entrance made sure that they did not eat too hastily from the Tree of Life, which would mean dying forever, but never dead. But even in that fearful moment, going into a world that was now against them, the promise was there, in the curse on the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15, ESV). Eve believed that promise and said when she gave birth to Cain: “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1, ESV). But Cain was not the One. Neither was Abel. The creation had to wait for another woman and another Son. Four thousand years or more passed before the offspring came who would crush the head of the serpent. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5, ESV). God always makes good on His promises.
And the beginning of Jesus Christ was of this sort, meaning not of the normal sort. Adam was the father of Cain. There never was a son born who did not have a human father. Until Jesus. His mother Mary was betrothed to the man Joseph. They had entered into a legal relationship. Even though it wasn’t the full marriage, it still could not be ended except by divorce or death. And before they lived together as husband and wife, Mary was found to be pregnant. Found, presumably, by Joseph. Perhaps the scandal is lost in our promiscuous age, but Joseph finds out that the woman who is legally his wife, though they do not yet live together, is pregnant. Joseph knows how these things happen. No matter how devout Joseph was, no matter how eagerly he might have been waiting for the Messiah, it was just a little outside his ability to believe that this child had no other human father. It took an angel of the Lord to convince him that this pregnancy, this beginning, was not of the normal sort. No, the beginning of Jesus Christ was of this sort: Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “you should not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters of Mary’s womb, and God created something out of nothing (Genesis 1:2ff.): a human body for the eternal Son of God.
And God joins Himself to our itching flesh and our hot-rushing blood and it means God with us. Not above us and not only among us, but with us, joined with us in everything that makes us human. It is true that our humanity, as we have known it, is defined by sin, but His is not. His is the humanity of the original creation, as well as of the new creation. And He meant-He means-to take our sin-filled humanity on Himself and to give us His humanity for our own. God with us means God for us. God for you. And so the beginning of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was of this sort: a beginning in real human flesh with a real human soul, in the womb of a woman chosen by His Father.
And so we come to the edge of the mystery of Immanuel, “God with us.” We can talk about it. We can say what happened, but we can never really say how. It is beyond all understanding that the almighty God, creator of all that exists, could actually become part of His creation and get mixed up in it. How that could happen, and what it means for God, I have no words for. But I do know what it means for you and what it means for me. It means that as we stumble around here in our darkness, mumbling our pitiful prayers and fumbling with our hymnals, Jesus Christ is here with us. Jesus Christ is here with us. How often does that wondrous fact actually move through our ear-holes, into our brains, and into our hearts? Has it affected us at all? Do you realize, do I realize, what we are saying when we say God is here with us? That where two or three are gathered, there is Jesus in the midst of them? In the midst of us? This is the holy God, before whom angels hide their eyes and mere humans fall on their faces in the dust! We should be struck with the sheer absurdity of it all, that God and man should be united in a single person. Further, that He would actually be among us sinners. Maybe we need Isaiah’s vision in this place: Yahweh sitting on His throne and His robe filling this temple; burning angels with six wings covering their faces and feet and flying around calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is [Yahweh of armies]; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3)! Maybe we need the very thresholds and foundations of this temple shaken with the voice of God Himself, and this house filled with the smoke of His presence. Perhaps then we might realize in whose House we are, in whose presence we stand. I might not be so indifferent then. I might actually cry out with Isaiah, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, [Yahweh of armies]” (Isaiah 6:5)!
But, despite what Isaiah deserved, despite what we deserve, “God with us” does not mean that we die. Another name for Immanuel is Jesus, and His Name does not mean “for He will finally give His people what they deserve.” The name Yehoshua means, literally, “Yahweh is salvation.” He is called that because that is what He does. As the angel promised, He saves people from their sins. God with us is God in the messes we call our lives, God in the messes we call our families, God in the mess we call our church. Since God has come into the midst of our messes, will our lives and our families and our church stay the same? Can they stay the same? And if they do stay the same, I guarantee you it is not God’s fault. So there’s only one place else to look. Repent. God has come among you, and you haven’t cared enough to clean up the sin for which He died. Repent. God is with you and things in your life go on pretty much as they did before. You still come into His House tired and apathetic, as if it were just one more errand to run in the last two shopping days before Christmas. Repent. There is nothing else for you to do. You cannot make up for it.
And so we move a little further into the mystery of Immanuel. God with us, sinners who screw everything up and don’t even care most of the time. God against us in our sin. God for us in His virgin-born, crucified, and risen Son. God in us with His Spirit for new life. New life, not the old life. You have died to sin, how can you live in it any longer? “Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14, ESV). Sin will not be your lord, because God, your true Lord, is with you. O come, O come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel. “O Emmanuel, our king and our Lord, the anointed for the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God” (“O” Antiphon for Dec. 23, LSB 357).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.