Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Before we explore those readings let me ask a question. Have you ever been to hospital to visit someone and you have said at enquiries, “I want to visit Elaine, or Tony” and they respond, “we don’t have anybody by that name here”? You may have had to ring someone in the family who says, “oh, you have to ask for Gloria, or Barry because that’s the name on their birth certificate”. Has that ever happened to you? It is so frustrating.
Can you also imagine a relative of Joseph or Mary arriving a week after Jesus’ birth and asking in the Town for a baby whose name is Jesus. The Roman official responsible for Bethlehem would have said, no babies by that name have been born here. May be someone overhearing your question might wait till they catch you in private and tell you where to find Jesus. They might explain, he was registered as Emmanuel but his Mum and Dad call him Jesus.
Matthew in writing the Gospel wants us to hear both names: Emmanuel meaning “God with us”, and Jesus meaning “to deliver, to rescue”. For Matthew the two names need to be held together. In Jesus we encounter God who dwells with us in our world. In Jesus we also encounter one who delivers humanity from the recklessness of sin to a joyful relationship with God. So here in Chapter 1 of Matthew’s Gospel we encounter Jesus, Emmanuel. In the very last chapter after sending the disciples to make disciples of all nations we hear Jesus say “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt 28:20. Matthew brackets the whole Gospel with us encountering Jesus, Emmanuel.
What does it mean that God is with us? Certainly for the people in the time when Jesus was born it included God being with them even when they felt powerless against the Roman empire that controlled their lives. Not only was God with them but God would deliver them from this bondage. As we know the deliverance that came with Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection was not the liberation they had been seeking. Jesus would never raise up an army and defeat the Romans. No Jesus’ presence, God’s presence with us brings a deeper freedom that confronts power with love and grace.
But our troubles are not the Roman empire. We have plenty of twenty first century troubles. For some of us it is our work place treating us like robots, registering our toilet breaks and tracking our movements as we drive the company car. For some it is dealing with various kinds of mental illness in ourselves or other members of the family. Or maybe it is knowing that one of our relatives is fighting fires, risking their lives to protect others lives. Or maybe we are raising little children or caring for grandchildren and worrying if drought and fires are exacerbated by a changing climate. We might be wondering, “what will the decades ahead bring for them?”
Now of course I could have kept naming different things that trouble people today, some personal, some we face as a community and others that are Global issues. In all of this the birth of Jesus promises us hope that God is with us, we don’t face these things alone. Not only is God with us but the whole story of Jesus’ life from his birth to his resurrection brings us hope of deliverance and freedom.
But how is that lived out in our day to day life? How do we experience the presence of God? First a couple of things God’s presence is not like: Jesus does not come to us flying through the air with his cape flapping as he flies; nor does Jesus ride in on a white charger with his sword glinting in the sunlight. Jesus is not a super hero nor is he a warrior king. Jesus is Emmanuel, Saviour but don’t go waiting for superman or for the cavalry to come.
My friend struggles with bipolar. During the year he landed up in hospital with deep depression. I went to visit him in hospital. We chatted, I endeavoured to listen but feeling we have just had polite conversation rather than anything deep. Before I left, I prayed with my friend. I left feeling inadequate and unable to help. A week or so later he wrote me a beautiful card to thank me for my visit. He spoke of having been in such deep depression that all his usual anchors that helped him cope and hold onto his faith had failed. But somehow my visit and been a powerful blessing for him. Somehow, in spite of my feelings and my very ordinary prayer he knew Emmanuel, God was and is with him. I guess that is what the story of Jesus’ birth reminds us. Not only is God with us even in the messiness of our lives but God comes in the most unlikely form. The odd couple Mary and Joseph unable to find somewhere in town give birth to Jesus in a stable and place him in a food troth. Our ordinary clumsy expressions of love can bring the reality of the incarnation to life.
Recently we had the funeral of Robert here in the Church. Robert had been nurtured in the Catholic faith. One way he loved to express that faith was to make holding crosses. Robert delighted in giving them to people or in giving them to the church so that they could be given to other he would never meet. He would often give them with a poem. Here are two verses from the poem:
This little cross is not magic
Nor is it a good luck charm
It isn’t meant to protect me
From every physical harm.
It’s also a daily reminder
Of the peace and comfort I share
With all who know my Master
And give themselves to His care.
The cross brought Robert, and many he had given it to, comfort. It reminded him of God’s love for him and gave him that peace that passes understanding even as he faced Asbestosis in this last 18 months. Yet along with the cross in his pocket, Robert’s relationships with his family, his mates in the shed and the people in the Church surrounded him with love. Emmanuel, God was and is with Robert bringing hope and grace in spite of a cancer that killed him.
Fairly recently there was a film released called 2040. The filmmaker has a four-year-old daughter. He is worried about what he sees as the global climate crisis. He was wondering what the world would be like in 2040 when his daughter is 25. As he went around the world filming, he saw powerful signs of hope. By the end of the film not only did he come away confident, but we did as well. There is a real possibility humanity can transform so much of the way we do things that we undo a lot of the damage already done. In deed he felt that his daughter in the year 2040 would have a very different life but a life never-the-less full of hope and possibility. I don’t know if the film maker is a Christian or has any other faith. But for me the film was a sign of God, dwelling with us, in the messiness of human life, bringing us by grace into a new time in world history.
The birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, is an invitation to hand over to God the troubles that bewitch us, knowing that God will help us navigate through them. God is with us in Jesus, bringing deep freedom and joy, even to the ends of the age.
[i] When we read from the Old Testament, we are reading a translation of the Scriptures written in Hebrew. When Matthew was writing his Gospel, he was quoting form the Greek version of the Scriptures. Hence there are slightly different spellings of Immanuel (from the Hebrew) and Emmanuel (from the Greek). Also, in the Hebrew text a young woman is pregnant, no mention is made of her being a virgin. The Greek text uses the word for virgin hence Matthew’s version.