So you don’t meet a lot of people with good old-fashioned biblical names anymore. I mean, there are a bunch of Matthews and Marks, Johns and Pauls, and Peters, Joshuas and Josephs, and Marys, but there are not a lot of Isaiahs, Jeremiahs, Ezekiels, or Zechariahs, and certainly not a lot of Zerubbabels, Jehoiakins, Jedediahs, Hezekiahs, and Jehoshaphats. Nor do you really meet a lot of Jesuses and Emmanuels, unless of course you’re in a Hispanic context where Jesus and Mannys abound. But those names, Jesus and Emmanuel, are the names that occupy center stage during Christmas. It’s a little curious how these names are supposed to relate together, however. The story of Jesus’s birth has confused a lot of people because of the way that Matthew uses the Isaiah text. First, he says that Joseph receives a message from an angel of God that Mary will bear a child and “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.” Fair enough. But then Matthew goes on to editorialize and say that all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Am I missing something? Didn’t the angel just tell Joseph the child would be named Jesus? So where does this Emmanuel business come in?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
December 18, 2022—Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 7:10–16; Matthew 1:18–25

This sermon text is from a transcription of an audio file and may contain some spelling or other errors.

I confess, one time when I was in seminary, I would go to visit a friend of mine who was in rabbinical school at the same time, and I sat in on a class of New Testament with him. They were reading this exact passage, and they were all confused, and they all looked to me to say, “How do you make sense of this?” And I said, “I don’t know. We don’t understand it either.” I mean, maybe it’s one of those hidden puns in the Bible because we’re not reading the Bible in Hebrew or Greek, kind of like the way that Isaac’s name means “laughter,” or that Adam sounds like “Adama,” which means the Earth out of which he was formed. I wish it were. It’s not. Jesus is the Latin form of the Greek version of the Aramaic name Yeshua, which is short for the Hebrew name Yahushua, Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” I mean, so there is a pun there when Joseph is told he will be named Jesus because he will save people from their sins. That ties directly into the name Jesus. But there’s no connection, seemingly, between the names of Jesus and Emmanuel. And yet, we are told that not only was Jesus to be called Jesus, but that the prophecy of the Emmanuel is speaking about Jesus as well.

There is something about that prophecy from Isaiah that we do need to be aware of. It is very unlikely that Isaiah was intending to talk about Jesus. And the first thing that tips us off is the context of that prophecy in Isaiah 7. King Ahaz of Judah is in the middle of a war and is under threat by the kings of Israel to the North and the king of Syria. And Isaiah gives him a sign so that he won’t lose faith. Isaiah says, “Look, the young woman is with child and will bear a son.” Isaiah uses the present tense. He does not say, “A young woman will conceive or bear child.” He says, “Is with child.” Now, the whole issue of whether it says virgin or young woman we can leave aside for now, except to say that even if it does say virgin, that virgin would still have been expected in Isaiah’s day to have conceived by the regular method. But as regards the young woman, Isaiah is probably indicating someone that King Ahaz knows, maybe even someone in the room with them. And what he’s saying is that by the time the child that she’s going to have is old enough to tell right from wrong, the land of those two kings that Ahaz is now afraid of will be deserted. That is, the child is a sign that the threat from those two kings will not be long enduring. The king only need trust in God, and everything will be fine. And as a sign of this promise, the child is to be named Emmanuel. It means in Hebrew, “God is with us.” In fact, the events that are described by Isaiah do come to pass. Those two kings become no longer a threat. They are defeated by the Assyrians utterly, and Judah is free from the hassle of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Syria.

And it’s a reminder as we look at this text that God’s word is always meant to be relevant, and it’s no less so for the people who originally received it. What I mean by that is that it’s not fair to suggest that for 700 years no one had any idea what Isaiah was talking about. It doesn’t make sense to say that Ahaz was being given a sign about a birth that wouldn’t happen for another seven centuries. That’s very interesting, Isaiah, but could you answer my question? It’s not as if people were reading this passage in Isaiah wondering when this would happen.

But that brings us to another question: why then did Matthew use this text? If the text is about the birth of possibly King Hezekiah or some other person in the royal court, and if Matthew is as smart as any of us, what is happening? What is going on? The important thing to remember always about the Bible is that it was written backward. The Bible is written with the ending in mind. The books of the Bible, individually at least, many authors know the ending, and they work backward from there. They believe that God worked in largely the same way, and that everything that came before could be understood in light of what came after. The past is interpreted by the present, so to speak. And the other thing to remember is that the early church had no Bible. When they would gather to commemorate Jesus’s resurrection every Sunday, when they would gather for study and prayer, they had only one source of scripture to read, the Hebrew Bible, what we think of as the Old Testament. And the early church wanted to understand Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as part of the whole salvation history of Israel. So they turned to the scriptures to mine them for meaning.

So when Matthew searched his scriptures, he found this verse from Isaiah about a child born of a virgin, given a name that means “God is with us.” It’s a no-brainer, really. Christians believe that in Jesus, God was with them, and therefore, whoever else Isaiah might have been writing about, Matthew saw it as speaking about Jesus. Now, a lot of Christians get scandalized by this kind of thing, but there’s no reason to be. What Matthew did is a very Jewish thing to do, to take scripture out of its original context and to give it new life and new meaning. Paul does this all the time, sometimes even interpreting the verse he’s using in the exact opposite of its clear meaning in context. But for Paul, and Matthew, and all the early Jewish Christians, their scriptures were part of their family history. They were familiar friends with whom one could play, and one could use and reuse and

adapt and re-adapt. So, for Christians who had encountered God through Jesus, this text from Isaiah was one of those texts, and through early Christians like Matthew, it took on new meaning and new power.

See, Matthew was not content to leave God’s promise of being with us in the past. He was not content to keep the fulfillment of hope in a bygone age and century. He reinterprets it, and he breathed new life into what it means for Ahaz. It meant that a child would be given a symbolic name to indicate God’s deliverance of Judah from an enemy. But for Matthew, it was a text that spoke to the reality of Jesus in their midst. The disciples had encountered God in their encounter with Jesus. What better way to describe that than to refer to Jesus by a name that meant exactly that: Immanuel.

We could learn something from Matthew, because he challenges us not to leave the word of God in the past. It’s something we’re all too ready to do. It’s easy for us to talk about God coming in the flesh as a child born to working-class parents as an event that occurred 20 centuries ago. It’s harder to talk about that same idea today. But in the same way, the early church might have been content to have left the Immanuel in the past as a sign to Ahaz in a time of trouble and nothing more. Matthew brings the Immanuel into his day, applying the name to Jesus in whom the church believed God was with them.

And so, how can we continue to understand the incarnation today? What relevance does the incarnation have for us nearly 2,000 years after Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension? In what ways can we still claim Immanuel, “God is with us”?

Think about the incarnation. I’ve come to believe that the incarnation was not just a unique method for encountering God, as we might think. Indeed, as I reflect on it, I think that the majority of times we encounter God, we do so through incarnations. That is, we encounter God most often in one another. That many people are touched by God in quiet, mystical ways, some in dramatic spiritual encounters. But for most of us, most of us encounter God through flesh-and-blood human beings. Our kindness offered, a loving embrace, a hand extended in help, an arm to shelter and protect, a mouth that speaks out for justice, eyes that see the dignity of each and every human being, ears that hear the cries of the needy and the oppressed, hearts that are warmed with compassion, shoulders that carry one another’s burdens. It is in these very real, flesh-and-blood ways that God is incarnate with us, that God is encountered through us. It’s not an accident that the church is referred to as the body of Christ. We are called to be Christ’s body in the world. We are called to incarnate God for the world, to give continued life to the miracle of the incarnation, to give flesh to God in our world so that people may look at the people of God and say, “Immanuel, God is with us.”

There was a song some years ago, more years ago than I, it’s healthy for me to remember, by a musician named Joan Osborne who asked the musical question, “What if God were one of us?” Well, what if God were one of us? I mean, Matthew and his contemporaries, Mark, Luke, and John, answer that question for us. They show us what it looks like to encounter God in the flesh, in a Son of God willing to go to the cross for us and for whose resurrection prepares the way for our own.

The question still has power. What would it look like if God were one of us? If we could be God’s presence in the world as the church, as the body of Christ? There is no reason we cannot be God’s presence in the world. That question challenges us to see God’s presence in one another. God is with us in the people who reach out, but God is also with us in the people we reach out to.

So, here we are, the last Sunday in Advent. Throughout Advent, we’ve talked about patience and waiting, about preparation, but mostly we’ve talked about hope. And as we approach Christmas, that source of our hope becomes clear for us. We do not hope simply because a child was born 2,000 years ago in a small town halfway around the world. We hope that because God continues to be with us, incarnate among us, in one another, in all the body of Christ. We hope because we have not only seen the wondrous things that God has already done, but because we continue to see God’s presence in our midst. And we can join with Isaiah and Matthew in saying, “Immanuel, God is with us.”

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