(A sermon based on Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matthew 1:18-25 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)
It falls to me today to say something about the Incarnation…about the Word becoming flesh, about God in Christ becoming human, about the significance of the coming of the Son of God.
It’s the kind of event, really though, that should and does render you speechless; indeed, I wish in the depths of my spirit that we could all walk away from this experience today with open mouths, open eyes, and open hearts, awestruck and dumbstruck over the amazing grace of God.
After all, what can you say about
your bride as she turns the corner and heads down the wedding aisle toward you,
the birth of your child as she enters the world squirming and stretching,
a sunset, or
the slipping of someone from this life to the next?
Some experiences defy words or, if words are going to be used, they need to be the words of poetry and not of prose, the words of praise and not of description, the words of mystery and not of reduction. So it is with the incarnation. About all we can do is to stare and to stammer and to praise.
And yet…we do have words about the Incarnation in our Bibles and it is in and through words that we try to share what is on our minds and in our hearts. Besides, preachers are purveyors in words. So, even as I admit that words fail, allow me to say some halting words that are built around two words that we find in our text, two names for the Son that was born on that first Christmas.
The first word is Emmanuel. The name comes from a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible that we find in Isaiah 7 in which the Lord through Isaiah promised King Ahaz during a time of severe crisis that a child who was about to be born, likely the king’s son Hezekiah, would be a sign that God was working God’s purposes out; among other things that son would be called was “Emmanuel” because he would indicate the Lord’s saving presence with God’s people. The early church came to see that prophecy as referring by extension (a prophecy can have more than one fulfillment, after all!) to the birth of the greatest King of all, Jesus the Messiah.
So the angel of the Lord told Joseph that the birth of Mary’s baby would fulfill the Isaiah prophecy and that the virgin’s child would be called “Emmanuel” which means, the angel helpfully offered, “God is with us.”
How can we even begin to do justice to what it means for God to be with us in that baby in Bethlehem’s manger?
How can we even begin to speak of the grace involved? God—Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, creator of all that is, came down to earth in the person of the baby born that day so long ago. That God went so far to come to us as to become one of us boggles the mind. Surely none of us would dare think that we deserved such an effort on the part of God? But God made such an effort anyway.
How can we even begin to speak of the humility involved? God humbled God’s self to the point of becoming the smallest, the most fragile, the most vulnerable version of a human being. We tend to think of the human journey of Jesus as beginning with his birth but we should remember, shouldn’t we, that he started out like all of us do…as an ovum that became a fetus that matured into a baby. God in Jesus became human and in that humanity there was great peril and danger and risk. We err if we think of Jesus being some kind of “super-baby.”
Barbara Brown Taylor imagines God trying God’s plan out on the archangels:
Finally the senior archangel stepped forward to speak for all of them. He told God how much they would worry about him, if he did that. He would be putting himself at the mercy of his creatures, the angel said. People could do anything they wanted to him, and if he seriously meant to become one of them there would be no escape for him if things turned sour. Could he at least create himself as a magical baby with special powers? It would not take much—just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl bolts of lightning if the need arose. The baby idea was a stroke of genius, the angel said, it really was, but it lacked adequate safety features. [Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cambridge: Cowley, 1997), p. 34]
Some of you may be doubting all of this, but consider: when it came time to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s fury, Joseph took care of it; Jesus didn’t get up on his baby legs and run himself—nor did he stand and fight.
How can we even begin to speak of the love involved? What great love did it take to motivate such an effort on God’s part to show that love? If ever we needed evidence that God indeed is love, surely here it is. The Bible tells that we love God because God first loved us. As Karl Barth said, ““The incarnation means no ascent of man to God, but a descent of God to man” [Karl Barth, Credo (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), p. 66]. What love is this?
So the first word, the first name, that at least helps us to say something about the Incarnation is Emmanuel, which speaks to us of, among other truths, grace, humility, and love.
The second word is Jesus. The name “Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua” and they both mean “the Lord is salvation.” As William C. Placher put it, “Even his name means salvation” [William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), p. 1].
How can we even begin to do justice to what it means for God to bring about our salvation through that baby in Bethlehem’s manger?
How can we even begin to speak of the action involved? Alister McGrath said, “The incarnation speaks to us of a God who acts to demonstrate his love for us…. Christianity does not teach that man has to climb a ladder into heaven in order to find God and be with him—rather, it teaches that God has come down that ladder in order to meet us and take us back with him” [Alister E. McGrath, Understanding Jesus: Who Jesus Christ Is and Why He Matters (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1987), pp. 113-114]. God put God’s love into action and it was the most drastic action ever taken. God saw how much trouble we were (and are) in and took action to address the situation.
How can we even begin to speak of the intervention involved? God saw our need and intervened in—better put, broke into—our world and our lives. When our ancestor Jacob needed desperately to know that God was with him in his lostness and would show him a way out of it, God gave him a vision of a ladder reaching into heaven with angels going up and down it. When we needed desperately to know that God was with us in our lostness, God put a ladder down to earth and came down on it; the cross that would reach back up toward heaven finished the process. God bridged the gap between heaven and earth and came down to us to help us; we could not bridge the gap from our side so God bridged the gap from God’s side.
How can we even begin to speak of the rescue involved? We need to be saved because we are lost. What does that mean? We tend to equate our sins, the things we do wrong, with our lostness but those are the symptoms of our lostness, not the lostness itself. To be lost is not to know where you are or where you belong or where you are going. We belong with God; we belong in close relationship with God. So long as we try to go our own way and to try to fill our “God gap” with something else—with anything else—we will be lost, because we are meant to live with God as our center. But God came in the infant Jesus to begin to do the work—work which was finished at the Cross and the Empty Tomb—of rescuing us from our lostness.
So what is the significance of the Son?
He is Emmanuel—God with us. He is with you.
He is Jesus—Savior. He is your Savior.
But what will you do with him?