The angel 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 his people from their sins." 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."
Over these past weeks of Advent, we have heard promises heaped on top of promises: peace reigning in all the earth, water in the desert, the lowly and poor being raised up, the blind receiving sight and the sick receiving healing, even promises of coming judgment that jump-start the faithful into repentance. We have heard Mary promise to bear the Son of God, and we have heard Joseph promise to stay with Mary, despite the scandal of their situation.
But the final promise that we hear today is the mother of all promises and the root of everything that we have been hoping for in this season: God promises that the son whom Mary will bear is Jesus, the one who saves us from our sins, the one who is Immanuel, God-with-us. It is a promise of salvation, but more than that, it is the promise of presence. God promises to save us by coming to us in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus. “Pleased as man with us to dwell,” as one Christmas carol puts it. It is the perfect picture of grace. God, the creator of the universe who is beyond all time, space, and understanding, comes to us, that we might be reconciled and restored to him.
It is the fourth Sunday of Advent - the last Sunday before the Christmas. Christ comes to us in a matter of days. We have hit the point in our Advent waiting that feels most like the last half-hour before guests arrive for a party. We’ve spent the whole day cleaning and cooking and making sure that wayward laundry has been tucked into the closet. You’re trying to sit back and relax and enjoy a few minutes of quiet before the party begins. But you keep heading to the kitchen to check the food in the oven, just to make sure it doesn’t burn, and you keep finding new corners of your house to dust. And in all of this, you keep running to the window to see if anyone has pulled up yet.
It is nearly the end of Advent. We have spent the last four weeks pursuing the repentance that John the Baptist calls us to, and clearing space in our hearts to make room for Christ’s coming. We have lived in the tension of trying to prepare for Christmas festivities without giving up on Advent. We have shopped and decorated and rehearsed for holiday concerts and Christmas programs. And now in this last week, we will try to figure out what details we can finish up, and whether we have a few minutes’ time to relax and ponder God’s hope. And in all this, we will run back and forth to the front window, looking to see if anyone has pulled up yet. Except in Advent, the guest for whom we wait is neither an out-of-town family member or old friend. In Advent, when the doorbell rings, it is God himself who comes to us.
Ann Weems, in her poem “Godburst” says,
When the Holy Child is born into our heartsThese words capture the truly amazing nature of the incarnation - of God putting on flesh in Jesus Christ. Something as inconsequential, as forgettable as a fragile child birthed in a stable is the very miracle of God choosing to burst into our human life, that all corners of our earthly existence might be bound up and redeemed, even those dark places in our lives where we most need a savior.
there is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God burst into our lives.
Love is running through the streets.
There is a tradition in the church of celebrating this last week until Christmas using the “O antiphons,” which are short prayer verses for each day of the week, which meditate on different names of God as pulled from the book of Isaiah. These antiphons are the basis for the hymn “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” With each antiphon, we can envision a different attribute of the God who comes to dwell with us.
“O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.” Maybe you feel that life is nothing but a series of anxieties and stresses, without any purpose or hope to keep you grounded. And so you need God to come to you as the wisdom that gives deep purpose to a life that he blesses with both strength and compassion.
“O sacred Lord of ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.” Maybe you feel like life is spinning out of control - that your family or employment situation is out of your grasp. And so you need God to come to you as mighty Lord, who holds in his hand all life and all futures.
“O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.” Maybe you find yourself sensitive to the pains of the world, turning off the news to keep away tidings of war, violence, and political bickering. And so you need God to come to you as a flower of peace who unites all nations and peoples.
“O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel controlling at your will the gate of Heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.” Maybe your heart aches for all in our world who are imprisoned, oppressed, or who suffer at the hands of injustice. And so you need God to come to you as the power who can break down walls and liberate all people.
“O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Maybe you are struggling with God because your body is struggling. The darkness of pain and illness and all suffering lingers over your heart. And so you need God to come to you as the light that pierces the darkness, who offers comfort and healing in this life, and eternal wholeness in the next.
“O King of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart; O Keystone of the mighty arch of man, come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.” Maybe you carry heavy burdens on your heart, and the broken and sinful parts of you weigh you down with guilt or fear. And so you need God to come to you as a joyful creator king, who claims you and loves you.
“O Emmanuel, king and lawgiver, desire of the nations, Savior of all people, come and set us free, Lord our God.” Perhaps it is simply enough for you to hear the good news that God chose to save the world by coming among us, full of grace and truth. God comes to us, and so we find ourselves liberated from having to look skyward for hope falling from heaven. Instead, we can look down into the face of a baby in a manger, who would live and love and walk and dwell with us on this lowly earth, for the sole purpose of setting us free.
Who is the Immanuel - the God-with-us - for whom you are waiting this season? What is the word of hope that your heart most longs to hear?
One commentator on today’s gospel says,
Imagine. Imagine all the people, living with their God, who has come here—here—so that one day in his kingdom, we will all live as one. It’s the right dream. And its fulfillment begins in this very world, the place Immanuel calls home.Take heart in this good news, my friends. God is not far off. The God who created you is the God who comes to dwell with us. Jesus, our Immanuel, is the savior who tells his disciples - and us - “remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” We have hope and peace because God has promised to come, and to come again to make his home among mortals, where he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and where death and mourning will be no more.
The angel’s words to Joseph are also words for us: Do not fear. For look: the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, "God is with us.”