Wednesday, February 27, 2008

“Never Alone”

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25[1]

There is something woven into the fabric of who we are as human beings that cries out for companionship. We are simply not made to be alone. In fact, prolonged periods of forced isolation can damage a person’s very soul. In the 2000 film Cast Away, Chuck Noland is a FedEx executive who survives a plane crash and spends four years stranded on a patch of island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The need for companion-ship is so engrained in him that he makes a “friend” out of a Wilson soccer ball. When “Wilson” goes adrift during his daring escape attempt on a makeshift raft, Chuck weeps bitterly at the loss of his only companion.

I can empathize with that. I’ve never much liked being alone—especially at night. I think I’m probably not the only one who’s felt like that. Business travelers have all kinds of ways of dealing with that feeling—some healthy and some not so healthy. Loneliness is one of the most depressing, most frightening aspects of our human experience. We just need someone to be with us. We don’t even have to like the person, as long as someone is there.

Perhaps that stems from our general feeling of alienation. Deep down, we all have the sense that we’re “mourning in lonely exile here” as the hymn “O Come, O Come Immanuel” puts it. We have a feeling that it is not we who are hiding from God, but rather God is hiding from us while we cry out, “where art thou!” But with the birth of Jesus Christ, God answers that lonely cry with a resounding “Here am I!”

In Matthew’s Christmas story, the angel of the Lord not only explains to Joseph the mystery of Mary’s child but also explains Jesus’ identity. Based on the name “Jesus”, which means “Yahweh is salvation,” this child would save his people from their sins. Matthew views Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of the promise of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14![2] That might not resolve much of the mystery for us. The very name “Immanuel” is a strange one. It only occurs three times in the whole Bible (Isaiah 7:14; 8:8; Matt. 1:23). Matthew follows what seems to a literal translation of the name, “God with us” (Isaiah 8:10). As the “Immanuel,” Jesus is the one who reveals God’s saving presence among his people.

Although the word “Immanuel” may be rare, the concept is not. God’s redemptive purpose has always been an effort to restore the relationship between God and “all the families of the earth,” as the call of Abraham puts it (Genesis 12:3). In a sense, “God with us” permeates all of Scripture![3]

I think it’s important to add a word of clarification here. Many have read the story of Jesus’ mysterious birth as proof of who he is—fully divine Son of God. But the main point of Matthew’s story is not that Jesus is “very God and very man.” If we look at Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, we find that Jesus’ special identity as “Immanuel” is defined in terms of what he does:

• Jesus carries out the role of “Son of God”, or God’s divinely approved envoy;[4]
•Jesus conducts his ministry with authority and power that come from God (Matt. 11:2-6; 28:18);
• Jesus fulfills the promise of the Kingdom of God (Matt. 3:15; 5:17-19; 12:28).

Matthew consistently defines what “Immanuel” means in terms of “he will save his people from their sins.”[5]

If you think about it, that may be the only way to do it. All the efforts of theologians to explain the mystery of Jesus’ identity with abstract theories have failed to make the same impact as Matthew’s simple story of Jesus as “God with us.”[6] From Matthew’s perspective, Jesus demonstrates that he is “God with us” in everything he does: in his obedience to God; in his teaching; in his ministry with authority and power; in his healings; and ultimately through his death on the cross, his resurrection, and ascension. For Matthew, the meaning of Jesus’ birth has to do with the conviction that “in the story of Jesus, God acts.” [7]

Nevertheless, we inevitably have to face the questions a claim like this raises. Think about it—God becoming human. How can something like this be? What does the hymn tune say? “Such a Babe in such a place, can he be the Savior?” It doesn’t seem plausible, does it? And yet perhaps another hymn may provide a clue in the verse, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” There truly is something mysterious, something inexplicable about Jesus’ birth. There truly is “something surprising, unexpected about the appearance of salvation.[8]

Why does God go to such lengths to reunite us with himself? Karl Barth says it is because God “does not will to be God without us.” [9] The second verse of “Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light” expresses it perfectly: “He comes in human form to dwell, Our God with us, Immanuel, The night of darkness ending, Our fallen race befriending.”

The hope of advent is that in Jesus the Christ God has already started reclaiming the world for his own out of his settled determination to be “God with us,” not God without us. The joy of advent is that the light of God’s new day is already dawning, and we can already know God’s saving presence in our lives right here and right now. The urgency of Advent is that we are called to join with the risen Lord in sharing this life-giving presence of God with those around us who still feel so desperately alone.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/23/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Craig Blomberg, Matthew, 57; cf. R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher, 182–83

[3]cf. Ulrich Luz, Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, 31.

[4]Matthew 3:17; 11:25-27; 16:16-17; 22:41-45; 27:54.

[5]Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community, 166.

[6]Luz, Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, 32: “The presence of God can only be related and testified, not captured in concepts.”

[7]Luz, Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, 31-33; cf. Matthew 12:28; 17:17; 18:20; 26:29; 28:18–20.

[8]Paul Tillich, “Has the Messiah Come?,” in The New Being, 95. I don’t think anyone could sum it up better than he did: “The mystery of salvation is the mystery of a child.”

[9]Karl Barth, Christian Dogmatics, IV.1: 3-20.

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