December 2019

Immanuel, God Is with Us

4th Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2019
– Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

When the prophet Isaiah, speaking in God’s behalf, urged Ahaz, king of Judah to: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God,” the king said, “I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.” Now at first this seems like the noble reply of one who needs no signs and wonders to validate his faith, similar to the reply Jesus made to Satan when tempted in the wilderness. He said, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” (Matthew 4:7) But, unlike Jesus, Ahaz was not facing God’s adversary. Isaiah represented God’s eagerness to support the king and his people that they might be instruments of God’s will. All he had to do was ask.

Ahaz had every reason to ask, for his people were in trouble. The Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser, was advancing his forces against the nations of Aram and Israel (comprising the Northern federation of Jewish tribes that separated in 922 BCE from the Southern federation known as Judah). The kings of Aram and Israel formed an alliance to oppose Assyria. When Ahaz refused to join them, and even considered throwing his lot in with Assyria, they plotted to overthrow and replace him with a vassal of their choosing. Isaiah tried to persuade Ahaz to resist them without allying himself to Assyria, but grief and fear compelled the king to do otherwise.

Often grief and fear will disillusion us about God. We lose sight of our faith amid the presence of tangible evils and spiritual despair. We confront competing notions of truth wondering what is real and fake news and whose side God is really on. Eventually the northern tribes of Israel and Aram would be absorbed into Assyria, with Judah relegated to a colonial subject. Yet even amid the king’s fog of faithless uncertainty, the prophet could still see clearly and find cause for hope; for “behold,” he said, “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” (Isaiah 7:14) meaning “God is with us.”

What does it mean that God is with us? Among Christians there are at least two schools of thought and responses to this question.

The first, and more traditional, is that humanity’s fall from God’s grace was so damaging that we had completely lost sight of our way back to God; and that Satan, who had also fallen away from God, now reigned over the earth and the hearts of all humanity. Only one divinely chosen and conceived unlike the rest of us could restore the breach. And so, Matthew and Luke’s gospels changed the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy from one of a “young woman” bearing God’s chosen one to that of a virgin bearing a child, whose name would be called Immanuel (Matthew 1:23)

The second response is akin to a more Jewish messianic notion, that the Christ was born into this world like the rest of us, yet endowed with a spiritual sensitivity that intimately reflected and embodied the will of God. It is a belief that humanity’s fall did not sever God’s image and breath of life bestowed upon us, granting us, therefore, the capacity to know God’s presence among us and follow it as those who know the sacred light that will lead them out of darkness.

Which answer is correct? Which is real or fake news? Children of God, let’s not get so mired in muddy details that we fail to discern the good news shining forth in both. Let’s not get so inflated in our worldly sense of greatness or deflated in our worldly sense of insignificance that we fail to notice the divine sense seeking recognition within our souls. For while we may consider ourselves debased and unworthy of God’s grace, God regards us as coins of great value worth searching diligently for, or lost sheep so precious that the Shepherd would leave the flock to find us and rejoice at our redemption.

While each of us now and then enjoy our solitude, no one should feel lost, abandoned, alone and unworthy of God’s company and love, especially during this time when we celebrate God with us.

While the world is constantly asking, pleading, begging for a sign from God, Jesus turns to you and replies, “You are the light of the world,” (Matthew 5:14). “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to [God] in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

In other words, let all who see and know you also know that God is with us. Amen.