Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Immanuel - A Beautiful Name (Matthew 1:223-23)

Dear Fellow-Redeemed in Christ:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Immanuel. What a beautiful-sounding name.
Immanuel. We stick this title on the cover of Christmas cards and include it in our Christmas songs. It forms the title of the quintessential Advent hymn. We do not sing "O Come, O Come, Great Encourager from God" or "O Come, O Come, Great Moral Example from God," but "O Come, O Come, Immanuel." This has been the song of the Christian Church in these days before Christmas for countless generations.
We Lutherans even use this title when giving a name to a new congregation — even though no one can decide whether this name begins with an "e" or an "i." For example, there are at least three congregations in our area named Immanuel Lutheran Church; in Orange, LaHabra and Long Beach. And each of the three congregations spell the word differently.
But regardless of how you spell it. There it is.
Immanuel. What a beautiful-sounding name. Over the last 25 years it has consistently ranked in the top 200 baby names in the United States.
Immanuel. A beautiful-sounding name, but, as we have been trained to ask since our first days of studying the Catechism, "What does this mean?" What does this name actually signify? And, most importantly, what does it mean that the center of these days of Advent: this coming Son of Mary, this Son of David, this Son of God — is given by heaven the name "Immanuel"?
What do you confess when you say, "I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is Immanuel."? How would you respond if someone were to ask you, "What does this name actually mean? Why is this baby in a Bethlehem manger (who's birth we are patiently — or maybe not so patiently — waiting for) given the name "Immanuel"? What kind of answer would we give? Hopefully something more substantive than: "Good question. Let me google that and get back to you."
In these days before Christmas, Christ would bring us to his Word and feed us with the promises that all the faithful before that Christmas night lived clinging to, died hoping in, and now sing about in eternity.
May God in his grace prepare each of us for his coming through the Word of Christ, through the Spirit of Christ, that we would have an everlasting joy and an unshakable hope. Amen

Immanuel. What do we know about Jesus being given the name "Immanuel"? Well, the simplest, clearest place to go is the words given to us by the Holy Spirit through the inspired pen of the evangelist Saint Matthew. Carried along by the same Holy Spirit that inspired Isaiah and overshadowed Mary, Saint Matthew leaves no room for misunderstanding when he tells us in the 22nd and 23rd verses of the first chapter of his Gospel account:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:22-23 ESV)

Oh. Now we get it. Immanuel means "God-with-us." In the coming infant Jesus, God is with us.

But, we ask, how is it that the birth of a virgin's son, the birth of God in human flesh and blood, the birth of Immanuel, is, for each of us and for the world, Good News? Really Good News. Good News that lasts not a week or a month, but an entire lifetime and into eternity.
That, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is the million dollar question in this season of waiting and hoping and repenting and rejoicing and reflecting on what it actually means for the world and for each of us that our Lord Jesus Christ came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man, made human flesh and bone, took upon himself our very nature, yet without sin.
What is the connection between eternal peace and "God-with-us"?
Imagine being given the task of consoling the unconsolable, giving comfort to someone who can find no spiritual comfort, giving genuine, eternal Good News to someone racked with a true awareness of their weakness and failures and sin. "There is no hope for me," they cry out. "I cannot make satisfaction for my many sins. I have given up trying to make myself holy. It is impossible for me to stand before the almighty Lord of heaven and earth, the Lord who hates sin and sends wrath and judgment upon the unrighteous. It all makes me want to ask God to stay away from me."
In that kind of situation, how is "God-with-us" any comfort at all?
Just ask Isaiah about "God-with-us." In the 6th chapter of the book of Isaiah the prophet, the great Isaiah is as good-as-dead when brought into the holy presence of the Lord. Unbridled, out-in-the-open "God-with-us" spells judgment and eternal death for Isaiah, as it spells judgment and eternal death for all fallen and sinful children of our first parents.
God-with-us in his glory and holiness? That may be great for the designers of the world's holiday cards and winter television specials. But it is a death sentence for anyone who acknowledges sin as real sin. Because if the almighty Lord just showed up next to any of us in all his power and glory and might and majesty, we would be forced to confess, as Isaiah confessed, "Woe is me. I am as good as dead. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. And — I have seen the Lord. I have been brought face-to-face with almighty God.
This same frightening situation fell upon Peter right after the miraculous catch of fish — right after he realized that Jesus was indeed the almighty Lord of heaven and earth. Bowing his trembling face to the ground he cried out, "Depart from me Lord. For I am a sinful man."
No wonder why there are too many people — even a week before Christmas — who want God to stay away — to stay out of their lives and the decisions they have made. Their own lifestyle of convenience. Their playing fast and loose with God's revealed will and commands.
So "Immanuel" can bring terror and fear and eternal death just as easily as it can bring comfort and hope. "Immanuel" — God-with-us — can be God-with-us in wrath and judgment. We see this in the poor, miserable conditions surrounding Jesus' birth and especially our Lord's innocent suffering and death upon the Cross. God-with-us, to punish all sin and rebellion and disbelief. The disbelief of unbelieving Ahaz. The disbelief of a world that does not believe, will not believe that the Christ child has come from heaven to be born in the world's own poor and miserable manger, to take upon himself the world's own weakness and sin, to take upon himself the judgment Eve and Adam, Isaiah and Mary, Joseph and Peter and each of us rightly deserved.
Immanuel. God-with-us. Something we should dread if it is not in a way that hides the Lord's glory and covers his wrath.

But what else do we know about Jesus being given the name "Immanuel"? What is also revealed in that name "Immanuel" that makes it a comfort and joy for transgressors of God's holy will and law?

Well, we heard it clearly enough from the Old Testament and Gospel readings just a few minutes ago. From the mouth of God's holy prophet it is announced to believers and unbelievers alike:
… the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:10-14 ESV)
To doubting, unbelieving King Ahaz the Lord gives a sign as deep as Sheol and high as heaven. A sign that is so indescribably great angels bow the knee in silent awe. An announcement so unbelievable only God-given faith can receive it. A prophecy that trumpets the fulfillment of all salvation history in a way we could have never imagined: "The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
And, if you will believe it, this Word of the Lord spoken out of the mouth of Isaiah the prophet is fulfilled as another heaven-sent messenger comes to confused, anxious, fearful Joseph and says:

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20b-21 ESV)

The reason for the name to be given is made clear for Joseph and Mary and for you and me and your yet-to-believe neighbor down the street. "For this son, this son of David, this son of Mary has been sent — not to judge or condemn or terrorize but — to save his people from their sins."
Jesus; Divine Savior. Jesus; Divine Savior from sin. Jesus; Divine Savior of all — of every tribe and language and nation and people. Jesus; the second person of the Godhead come to rescue us from our inability to save ourselves, come to to redeem the Advent and Christmas season, come to to atone for our own transgressions against God and against our neighbor-in-need.
For, by faith, we believe what the world and our own worldly nature will never believe: Mary's son is David's Son is God's only-begotten Son. Come to save from sin. God in human flesh and blood. Here. For you and for your salvation. Here. As once-for-all sacrifice. As our all-righteous substitute.
Only by faith can we really sing: "O come, O come, Immanuel. God-with-us. God-for-us and for our salvation.
Immanuel. What a beautiful name. Amen