4th Sunday in Advent
(Year A - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Listen to the audio of this sermon (Real Player)
(Bring out a lectern on pedestal from the old Holy Emmanuel Ev. Lutheran Church, Minneapolis, MN)
It’s not every preacher that shows up at his new church with his own pulpit.
This pulpit is a little short now, but this top piece is actually from the pulpit of my home congregation’s old church. In 1969, the congregation moved to the suburbs, but the old church was in Minneapolis and this was the pulpit. The church was built in 1909, and this top wood piece may very well be from back then. One of the members, Joe Hibben, his family kept the pulpit and made a little stand for it. They used it as a Bible stand. When I was ordained, Joe gave me this pulpit. He said he figured a son of the congregation going to be a pastor should keep this pulpit. It was one of the most touching gifts I’ve received.
Of course, I didn’t just bring it out today to tell you that story. I brought it out, because this pulpit has a connection with this congregation, too. This pulpit that I just brought out here at Immanuel Lutheran Church, this pulpit is from Holy Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Coming here to Immanuel—Brookfield is a bit like coming home, because I was baptized and confirmed at Holy Emmanuel in Minnesota. The home congregation spells “Emmanuel” with an “e,” but either way, it’s the same word—the Name given to Jesus, the Name mentioned in the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard today, and the Name mentioned again in Matthew, today’s Gospel reading.
So I grew up knowing that Immanuel means “God with us,” a Name given to Jesus because He took on human flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary.
What I never really thought about while I was growing up at Holy Emmanuel Lutheran Church was that this Name that Isaiah talks about, a Savior who would be Named Immanuel, it really wasn’t a new message from the Lord. Immanuel, God with us, is the message that God had been speaking to His people from the beginning. Immanuel just happens to sum up all of those promises in one Name.
You can hear the Immanuel promise throughout the Old Testament. Go back to Abraham, and God said, “And I will be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). God promised to be with Abraham and be his God.
Two generations later, God says to Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go….For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15).
God called Moses to be His servant, and God told him, “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). Then God told Moses and all of the people, “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared” (Exodus 23:20). The Lord’s angel went with them; God was with them in a way they couldn’t miss. The Lord was with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
When Moses died, God told Joshua, “Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
Jump ahead through Israel’s history, and God makes the same promise to David: “I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you” (2 Samuel 7:9).
And then when David’s son, Solomon, took the throne, Solomon was confident that God still promised to be with the people. Solomon prayed, “The Lord our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. May he not leave us or forsake us” (1 Kings 8:57). Solomon called on God to be with them, knowing that God would be faithful to this promise.
So, then, when the Lord sent Isaiah to preach saying, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,” it’s a repeat of the same promise. When the people heard the Name Immanuel, they would’ve heard God’s promise to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and all of the people, the promise to be with them and never leave them.
As one Bible dictionary puts it, “The past, present, and future intimate relationship of God’s presence with his people is summed up in the name Immanuel” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 677).
And why is that Name, why is that promise so important? Because ever since sin entered this world it has meant that we are separated from God, we are blind to our God’s constant presence, we do not see just how closely the Lord watches over us, supports us, guides us, protects us, and loves us.
The Lord’s refrain, His repeated promise of saying “I am with you,” that’s an answer to the constantly repeating worries of our hearts and minds, such as the worries in Psalm 44 (23-24):
Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
The people felt as if the Lord was distant, gone, ignoring their prayers, unaware of their troubles, so God repeated Himself throughout the Old Testament—“I am with you, I will never leave you.” So God gave His Son a Name that would always remind us of the promise—“I am with you, I will never leave you.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the people of the Old Testament that had trouble believing God was still with them. You probably find yourself asking that question, too, wondering where is God when your mom is dying from cancer? Where is God when you see the people of New Orleans still struggling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina? Where is God when you just find yourself overwhelmed with the Christmas blues which are far more serious than any Elvis Presley “Blue Christmas”?
You know that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, but still you find yourself asking if God really understands the troubles down here—divorce, alcoholism, broken friendships, credit card debt, stress, and the temptations to break just about every commandment every Friday and Saturday night.
The name of this congregation is meant to give us confidence in God’s promise to be with us, but Immanuel isn’t some pat answer; it isn’t God saying, “Everything will work out in the end.”
Instead, Immanuel is a statement of fact, a promise that God truly is with us.
Just because we know that Jesus is Immanuel doesn’t mean that now divorce never happens, alcoholics are immediately cured, credit card debts disappear, and we’re never tempted to sin again.
Instead, Immanuel is a promise that none of those things in your world can change the fact that God is with you. We’ll all get bogged down at times by sins and tragedies and sadness, but Jesus is still Immanuel.
Because Jesus is Immanuel, that means we are the people with God, we are God’s people, we are the ones that will never be alone, will always have God with them. . .which—if you listen—is what so many people need to hear.
You’ll hear people around you asking the big questions about whether God is still around, whether God cares about them, whether God knows what we’re going through down here, whether God is just some big absentee landlord or whether He’s actually involved in our day-to-day lives. You’ll hear friends, family, and acquaintances ask those questions in different ways; you just have to be listening for it. You have to be listening to see that they need to hear the Name again, to hear Immanuel, to hear that Jesus is God with us.
One way to train yourself to hear the questions is to hear the questions in popular culture. If you listen closely to television shows, movies, and music, if you read books, newspapers, and magazines with both eyes open, you’ll start catching the ways that people ask whether God is with them or not.
Take music, for instance. In 1995, Joan Osborne released a song called “One of Us” where she sings, “What if God was one of us?/Just a slob like one of us.” It’s a song that doesn’t come to any real conclusion, but it’s asking the same question that troubles us as believers: is God with us?
Now you could have a knee-jerk reaction to this and tell Joan Osborne, “Of course God is one of us. Jesus was born and is both God and man. How could you sing a song that questions whether God is with us?”
But now if Joan is your friend and she isn’t singing a song but just posing a question that’s troubling her, your knee-jerk reaction may shut down the conversation.
Instead, agree with Joan, “it’s a good question,” mention that sometimes you also have trouble believing God is around, and then tell her, “I think that’s why Jesus has that other Name, Immanuel, because it means ‘God with us.’ We need that reminder every day.”
Or take another example for anyone who likes hip-hop—or for anyone who thinks all rap music is talking about sex and drugs and crime. Tricky is rapper from Britain, and in his song, “Wait for God,” he says, “I wait for God and it’s very hard…/I drink your blood and I’m still thirsty.”
Again, you might be ready to go on the attack, saying that Tricky is being sacrilegious or blasphemous or rude by saying, “I drink your blood and I’m still thirsty,” implying that the Lord’s Supper isn’t enough.
Yet, haven’t you ever, honestly, haven’t you ever felt like the Lord’s Supper isn’t enough, that you’re still waiting for God, still waiting to be with Him, to truly know that God is with you? Haven’t you ever struggled or been frustrated, because it seems like it’d be so much easier if we could see God and just know that He is always with us?
And then when you’re honest with yourself, when you’ll admit that what Tricky is saying isn’t that much different than what you’ve felt, then you’re ready to talk to the Trickys in your life, to the people struggling to wait for God, who want to be close to God but feel like they need more than this, who struggle because they want some kind of proof that God is with them. When you’re ready to listen and admit your own doubts, then you’re ready to help Tricky understand that this is why Jesus is called Immanuel. Jesus is God with us.
We’re waiting for Jesus to come again, but His Name tells us that He is God with us and we are the people that He wants to be with.
Most people aren’t going to know right away what your church name means. People don’t just drive by thinking—“Oh, yeah, God is with us.”
But you know what it means. You know that God encourages us by sending Jesus. You know that God is one of us. You know what our congregation’s name means, so take the name of our church with you. Take Immanuel to people who are struggling in their faith. Use Immanuel as the hopeful, comforting, reassuring answer that we all need, the way in which God constantly repeats Himself because we’re constantly repeating the same question: “Are you there, God?”
By having the name Immanuel Lutheran Church, this congregation has a special message for people asking that question. “Are you there, God?” and we say, “Immanuel. God is with you.”