Based on Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Life in first century Palestine for the average person, was short, brutal, oppressive, mind-numbingly painful and uncertain. Most families lived on small family farms outside of little villages, and they paid about 50% in total tax each year. Gentiles and Jews lived separate but linked lives as subjugated people of the mighty Roman Empire. The Jews had known a brief moment of freedom after the Maccabean revolt, but that had been crushed some 200 years in the past. God had not spoken through a prophet in 400 years, and many had given up worship of the One God for the array of gods of the pagan people around them. There were gods for everything and there were cute little statues that could be arrayed in a room where they could be worshipped. Since they were not the living God, however, they were no more effective at changing the conditions of the world than any of the idols of any other time. To sum all this up, life was in a dreary and despondent waiting mode for something truly wonderful, mysterious and life changing to occur.
When would God act – or more to the point, would God act in the world again to fulfill the promise made to their ancestors to return the lineage of David to the throne? The people moaned and groaned and many gave up hope because they didn’t feel God’s presence in their world. Things had gone from bad to worse and there was no relief in sight. But then…God. But then, God acted in a way that no one (outside of a few prophets and some Wise Men) saw coming and forever changed the way that we interact with our Lord. Abraham had entertained God outside his tents, Jacob had wrestled with God all night, but this time was different. This time, God decided to give God’s-self to the world in order that God’s plans for God’s people could be realized. Instead of God-is-somewhere-else or God-is-everywhere, God became “Emmanuel” or God with Us! In so doing, God inaugurated the “basileia” or the in-breaking of God’s kingdom here on earth. It is no wonder that two of our scriptures today sing songs of praise and thanksgiving for such a God; and the third tells us how we are to live. Let us go to God now in prayer and praise for the blessing of the incarnation…
In Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptizer is pulling no punches. He is certainly not a Dale Carnegie graduate as he lambasts the gathered crowds calling them a “brood of vipers” and trees bearing rotten fruit. He tells them instead to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (basically to live the way God has asked them to live and to do something nice for someone else). In response to their lame question of “What then should we do?” He directs them to begin by sharing food and clothing and not extorting money from each other. He warns them that the Messiah who is coming will separate the wheat and the chaff – the “wrath” of God is near – time to repent. John was certainly more apocalyptic than Jesus usually was, but his point is one to remember: Emmanuel the Messiah is not just a lovey-dovey push-over. He is God incarnate and will make sure that folks are living up to their end of the covenant and will punish those who aren’t.
The scripture passages from Isaiah and Philippians are rejoicing in the God of the chosen people. The Isaiah text in verse two says, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”. Verse five goes on, “Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth.”. Philippians shouts, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice…The Lord is near….Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus….”
Now that’s all fine and good for the folks 2000 years ago, but what does it have to say to us here in late 2018? In some ways, it is not that much different for the average person in the U.S. in 2018 than it was in 30 CE. The disappearing middle class, increasing disparity between “haves” and “have nots”, social and political injustice for non-citizens, oppression and marginalization of significant proportions of the population, displaced persons trying desperately to find a welcome in a foreign land so that they might live in peace and freedom. The globalized economy is in many ways as tyrannical as the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, King Herod, Annas and Caiaphas were of old. It is no wonder that many despair and wonder where God is in the world of today.
Yet our scriptures are full of hope and joy and remind us that God is always near and is THE source of our salvation. This is truly wonderful news! Unfortunately, many of us lose sight of the wondrous while walking through in the thickets of our everyday lives. We find ourselves swallowed up by feeling victimized or taken for granted. We fall prey to the temptation to think we are underappreciated or overworked or both. We lose sight of the mystery and importance of our call to live fully into the God-image inside us, when we find ourselves neck-deep in administrivia, human resource issues, looming deadlines, significant medical diagnoses or the chaos and minutia of everyday life.
Our scriptures remind us that the wise disciple steps back, finds a haven of rest, and reconnects with the truth of Emmanuel. What emerges, when we give ourselves time to remember that God is always with us, is an awareness that the kingdom does not depend upon us to arrive. It began without us and will come to fruition in the “fullness of time” – whether we are here or not. We are part of something much larger, more complex and more powerful than we can ever fully imagine. The ministry we do, the way we live, the words we say, the savior we stand for and serve, and the church we represent are all part of the most important truth in the universe…through God’s great love and compassion for us, God became Emmanuel and dwelt among us. This is way beyond any one individual, church or denomination – and yet is dependent on our belief in its singular and timeless truth.
No matter how we feel or whatever is happening in our lives and the lives of those around us, Emmanuel is still true. God was with our ancestors in first century Palestine and is with us still today as we await Jesus’ second coming. We know that Jesus will come again because He first came to us out of God’s love for us. It is God’s love that makes God Almighty – because nothing will ever beat the unconditional love (aka grace) of God. That’s why no matter what is happening in the world or in our lives, God is right there in the midst of it – even when we can’t feel God’s presence because things are so dark, lonely, scary or just downright terrible. Psalm 139 puts it this way, “…If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you….”
The light of God came into the world as Emmanuel, “God with Us” and no darkness or fear can overcome it. The light of Emmanuel shines to illuminate our dark recesses of grief, sin, iniquity, brokenness, poor choices, guilt and shame, basically all things human – and brings them out into the light so that we are no longer oppressed by them. The light does not take our darkness away, but rather allows us to recognize it and deal with it through the healing power of Jesus’ love for us. When we give things over to Emmanuel, then we don’t have to strive alone with our limited powers. We have the power of God at work within us – our strength, might and salvation.
The in-breaking of the kingdom of God through Emmanuel reminds us that our job as disciples is to trust God in all things. The writer of Philippians says it this way, “Do not worry about anything, but in EVERYTHING (good, bad, scary, oppressive, whatever) by prayer and supplication (asking earnestly and humbly for something) WITH thanksgiving (yes that means to say thank you for the “bad” stuff) let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus….” Emmanuel – God with Us always, will bring you – will bring us, divine peace. REJOICE! Again I say REJOICE, for God loved us so much that God came down at Christmas to be with us once and for all times. And in response to this great good news, all God’s children shouted – AMEN!!