Texts: Isa 7.10-16; Rom 1.1-7; Mt 1.18-25
One of the things that highlights the slipperiness of time is the Beloit Mindset List. Every year since 1998, three Beloit College professors have put together a list of cultural touchstones that shape the lives of the year’s incoming college freshman class. Each year, this list shows in human terms what 18 years looks like. Here are some highlights from this year’s list. For the class of 2020:
- There has always been a digital swap meet called eBay
- West Nile has always been a virus found in the US
- Tony and Carmela Soprano and the gang have always been part of American culture.
- Books have always been read to you on audible.com.
- John Elway and Wayne Gretzky have always been retired.
- Michael J. Fox has always spoken publicly about having Parkinson's disease.
- The United States has always been at war.
Suddenly, we can look at a real person and see exactly how long some of these things have been around or have been happening, and our perspective shifts. When time is measurable in flesh and blood, it becomes more real. That is why God gives us the sign of Immanuel.
Isaiah’s words were written over 700 years before Jesus’ birth. The prophesied birth of a child 700 years from then would have been a cold comfort, if not an outright insult; God’s way of saying that God cares so little about what is happening to Ahaz and the people of Judah that God can’t even be bothered to reassure them until long after they were all dead.
When we read these words of Isaiah, we should read them for what they are: an immanent promise of God’s presence. God’s sign is a promise for Ahaz and for Judah, a promise with a human face, a promise with deadline attached. It’s a promise not unlike an Advent wreath; people could watch the growth of this child to know when God’s promise was nearing fulfillment. As the young woman’s belly swelled, as she went into labor and delivered, as the child got bigger and learned to hold his head up and to smile and laugh, they would have seen God’s promise of deliverance getting closer and closer until it finally happened. Throughout the life of that child, the people of Judah had a face they could look into to see God-with-us.
And so, Matthew used Isaiah’s words to remind his readers of the promise God had already fulfilled for Ahaz so long ago, and to say to them again, “Look! The young woman is with child.” Matthew used Isaiah’s promise to reassure those tired, frustrated, scared, angry Christians in the 1st century that God is still with us; even after his death, Jesus says to his disciples, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mt 28.20)
So where is he? As the nations rage, as the bombs drop, as the poison flows from water taps and the mouths of demagogues, where is Jesus? Where is the kingdom? Where is the justice? Where is the peace? Where is the eternal life, where death and crying and pain are no more? All four candles are lit on the wreath, but where is the fulfillment of the promise?
That is the million-dollar question; the question that sometimes keeps me up at night. The wreath is fully lit, Christmas is around the corner, but Christ and his kingdom seem nowhere to be found. This is why Matthew and Isaiah both tell us today that we need to know where to look: “Look! The young woman is with child…”
In the midst of everything that is wrong with the world, the LORD points us to the smallest, most vulnerable to see Immanuel. A child was God’s sign to King Ahaz; a child that as he grew and changed carried with him the reassurance that God-is-with-us. The same is true for us. “Look! The young woman is with child… and the child shall be called Immanuel.” The children of God are all around us, adopted by God through baptism, fed by Jesus’ own life at the table of communion, called and claimed and made to be the kingdom of God in the midst of a world that is shaking like a tree in the wind.
Immanuel is Elizabeth Gossler. Immanuel is Kennedy Brueckner. Immanuel is Allesandra Ortenzo. Immanuel is Brynna and Inessa Wiren. Immanuel is Nathan and Alex Sobie. Immanuel is Olivia Iverson and Mason Warfield and Kyler McFarland. Immanuel is every child of God who has been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and called into service in his name, because these people—this people—is the kingdom of God.
As these children learn and grow, this congregation is with them, teaching them to refuse evil and choose good; this congregation is with them, teaching them what it means to love and serve all people following the example of Jesus and to work for peace and justice in all the earth. By the time they know how to refuse evil and choose good, God’s kingdom will have become just that much more present through them and the people who have taught them what the kingdom of God looks like.
The wreath is fully lit, Christmas is around the corner, and knowing what to look for, we can see that the kingdom of God is already breaking into this hot mess of a world. Jesus’ birth reminds us that, as Martin Luther writes, “God’s kingdom comes indeed without our prayer, but we pray… that it will also come through us.” We can’t make God’s kingdom come. We can’t stop wars or end hatred, but God can, and God can and does and will use us to do just that.
These are the faces of Immanuel—God’s promise come to life. The faces of the children around us—even the white-haired ones—are the flesh-and-blood faces of the promise that God-is-with-us, that God has not forgotten about us, that God cares and is opposing evil in the world. During Advent we pray, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come,” and he does—in the water, in the bread and wine, in the Body of Christ that is formed and assembled here.
Advent is an invitation to us to wait and prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom, but is also an admonition to watch for where God’s kingdom is already breaking into this world and to be a part of that inbreaking. God is with us; not in the strong arm of a divine authority who will bend the universe to his will, but in the little child who quietly reminds us by her presence that there is still much to be done.