God with us (Emmanuel)

Sermon at St James, Advent 4, 18 December 2022

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

To listen to (an imperfect) recording of the sermon as you read:

Most of you here this morning will remember The Supremes, the American girl band popular in the 1960s and 70s. Diana Ross their lead singer sang a song in her debut album with these simple words: “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this a better place if you can.” We have been keeping our distance because of Covid and yet we know that hugging, touching, holding a hand, being close with someone are all powerful actions. And if you then bring God into it too it is life-giving and even more positive.

Let’s go back over 3000 years from now into the Old Testament. The prophet Samuel has been lobbied hard by the people of Israel to find them a king like any other nations. The rule of the Judges needs to be replaced. So, Samuel searches around for candidates and finds one called Saul, son of Kish, a tall, respected man who is reluctant to become king. He eventually agrees and Samuel tells him what the people want from their king. His coronation will come later, and everyone decided to go home. But then we have these words: “Saul also went home to Gibeah and with him went men whose hearts God had touched.”

Now we move forward 300 years to our first lesson in which one of Saul’s successors is reigning. By now Israel has been divided into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Ahaz is the new king of the southern kingdom of Judah. He is only 20 years old and he is seen as weak by other countries who are threatening him. The prophet Isaiah Is called to advise Ahaz and basically Isaiah tells him to stand firm in his faith in God. He must not weaken in front of his enemies but stand absolutely firm and God will give him a sign—“Look, a young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel, which means God with us.”

Whatever was the sign that Isaiah was promising? It’s a puzzle. Was he saying that Ahaz’ wife or another woman at the court would have a son or was he predicting the coming of the Messiah seven centuries later?

Now we come to today’s Gospel reading from Matthew where this promise of a sign is quoted. Joseph is worried about Mary’s pregnancy but is reassured in a dream:
The Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him, Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins’. All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us.’

St Matthew is very clear. He believed that Isaiah had predicted the birth of Jesus as the Messiah and was using the saying to convince his Jewish readers.

For our part we can concentrate on the word ‘Immanuel,’ which means God is with us, because the birth of Jesus is a powerful sign that God is indeed with us. God is there in that frail baby born to Mary and he is also there in the young man dying in agony on the cross. God is with us sharing our experience, our joys, our anxieties, and our pain.

God is with us, touching and holding us when we cast our cares on him. He is beside us when we are concerned about loved ones and friends. He reaches out a hand when we are confused and lack direction in our lives and when we need to see a clear path ahead. He is there.

As we prepare to welcome the child, Jesus, once again next Sunday, we should remember that word ‘Emmanuel’—God with us—which was first used by Isaiah. We can also be grateful that we are a band of people whose hearts God has touched.