Isaiah 64:1-4; Jeremiah 33:14-16;
Isaiah 40:1-5; Isaiah 40:6-9
Zephaniah 2:13-20; Isaiah 7:10-16;
John 1:1-5; Matthew 1:18-25
In the first lesson this morning, written some 2700 years ago, I imagine Isaiah turning his gaze heavenward, peering into the mystery of the ages, raising his hands in exasperation, and calling out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
That’s the cry of Advent, a lament lifted in this season of waiting and hoping. As we have heard, the other ancient prophets each say essentially the same thing: the human community needs help from beyond. Aren’t they speaking for all of us, these many centuries later? O, that things would change. O, that we would end violence and treat one another with respect. O, that we would overcome poverty and disease and hunger. O, that we would collaborate to protect the earth.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.
The basic point of Christmas can get lost in the seasonal crush. The birth of Jesus is the sign, once and for all, that God has “torn open the heavens and come down.” Isaiah even gives the sign a name: Emmanuel – God is with us.
The way the prophet expresses Advent hope, it sounds as if he expects big things to happen, and all of a sudden. Wouldn’t we want that, as well– all the wrongs in the world, all the fear and animosity, all the anxiety and pain and broken places in our lives, abruptly resolved? But Christmas doesn’t happen like that. It slips in gently in the night, its way lit by a star, in the rustle of angel wings, landing softly in our hearts.
There are little signs of that tender good news all around, if we but look for them. Every light strung on the tree, every candle lit, every carol sung, every nativity scene carefully arranged, every line in the Christmas pageant proudly announced, every gift given, all say, in one way or another, God is with us.
To say God is with us is to say we are not alone. That was the message on Friday as hundreds walked slowly through the streets of Westminster’s neighborhood in the 38th annual Homeless Memorial March. They carried signs with the names of 153 Minnesotans who died while unhoused this past year.
We are not alone. We are not forgotten. Love has come. God is with us.
Christmas has immediate and personal impact, as children everywhere will gladly tell you. It has cosmic significance, as well. If we are not alone, neither is anyone else. “The Light is the Light of all people,” John says, telling us from a distance of 2000 years that God did tear open the heavens and come down – for the entire human community.
What happens in incarnation is universal. Christmas doesn’t belong only to us. It signals something far beyond our capacity to contain or limit, to describe or even understand. The Word has taken on flesh and now dwells among us, among all of us. That Word is love, and as people who read the lessons and sing the carols of this season, we have a certain responsibility to show that love, the love that leads to the justice for which prophets long ago and people now cry out.
God is with us. Finally. It’s urgent news. There’s nothing mundane about it. That’s why the angel tells Joseph not to give up and quietly end his relationship with Mary. She will need him to help raise the child – and besides, this is no ordinary child, the angel says. “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
As Matthew tells it, Joseph is the first to understand the historical significance of the child Mary is carrying. It’s in the name. “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua, meaning “one who saves.” Joshua, the successor to Moses, brought God’s people through the Jordan into the land of promise. This latter-day Yeshua will do the same: the child Jesus comes into the world to save people from themselves – and we need that more than ever today!
Names matter. Isaiah the prophet said they should call the one who is to come Emmanuel – after all, that’s how the saving work of Jesus will be accomplished, as God with us.
When we listen to the texts of this season, there are many other names and titles: Righteous Branch, Wonderful Counselor, the Word, Bread of Life, Mighty God, Light of the World, Good Shepherd, Prince of Peace, Wisdom, Key, Root, Christ, the Way, the Truth, the Life, Morning Star, Messiah, Dayspring, Chief Cornerstone, Redeemer, Alpha and Omega, Son of God, child of Mary.
Whatever names we call the babe born at Christmas, they all point to the same saving reality: God has heard the cry of the people and pulled back the veil of divine anonymity to make an entrance into history.
It’s not a particularly grand entrance. In fact, it’s downright humble – but isn’t that how love comes into the world and into our lives, not in triumph and power, but more like a child reaching out to us, perhaps from a manger, inviting us to be the light for which we long, the light the world needs?
And now we don’t have to try to do it all on our own. God is with us.
Thanks be to God.