The Tabernacle of Emmanuel

       You might not have noticed it, but each service in our Advent Approaching the Mystery series has started with one of the O Antiphons chosen by Mother Becca and I as thematically consistent with the rest of the service.  On Advent 1, we chose “O Dayspring” as we began the season in darkness and invited the dawning light of Christ to help us find our way.  For Advent 2, our focus was on “O Wisdom.”  The prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist spoke to us as mouthpieces of God’s wisdom, pointing us toward the beginning of the good news.  Last Sunday, on Advent 3, we set our sights on “O Lord of Might” who, despite great difficulty in the world around us, is able to stir up joy in all circumstances by way of unending grace and mercy.  Finally, this morning, on our last Sunday before Christmas and coming of Christ into the world, our O Antiphon is “Emmanuel,” God with us, God who enters the world, enters fully into our humanity, to bring about the redemption of all Creation.

       These O Antiphons have, to a greater or lesser degree, played a role in the responsories that we wrote, in the hymns that we sang, and in the sermons that we preached, but this week I’ve been particularly struck by Emmanuel and how God chose to come among us.  It all started with an email from a friend of mine who was working on his sermon for Christmas 1.  He was stuck on the word dwell in John’s Prologue, as in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  He asked me to nerd out with him on the various ways that God dwells with humanity in the Scriptures, and my mind was immediately drawn to our Old Testament lesson for this morning.

       David is coming off a pretty huge win as 2nd Samuel chapter 7 begins.  The Ark of the God had been returned to Jerusalem with great fanfare.  Musical instruments of all kinds led thirty thousand soldiers as they sang and danced with all their might, carrying the Ark of God into the City, and they placed it inside a tent, where the presence of Almighty God had dwelled since the days of Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert.  Suddenly, as David sat in his house of cedar, he began to feel uncomfortable.  Why should he live in a beautiful, sturdy, secure home when the presence of God was left to reside in a tent?  David began to plan to build a house for God, when the voice of the Lord spoke to his prophet, Nathan, and said, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.”  Given the choice, God preferred to dwell in the flexibility of a tent so that God might be able to easily move about and be present, no matter where God’s people might find themselves.  Over and over again, throughout the Scriptures, we find that God chooses to be present among the mess.  God never forsakes God’s people, even when it feels like God is far away, Emmanuel, God is with us.

Fast forward a thousand years, and our Gospel lesson tells the story of God once again choosing to dwell with humanity, not as a statue to be housed in a building and worshiped, or even as some magnificent, fully-formed human who arrives with great flourish and power, but as a baby, who grew up and became a person who lived and moved and had their being in the utter messiness of humanity.  In the Annunciation, we are reminded of the good news that God isn’t some far away deity, writing the code and pulling the strings that make the cosmos happen, but it is God’s intention to be among us, no matter the circumstances.  God chose to come among us in the most vulnerable way possible: as a baby, born to an unwed mother, living in a nowhere town, under the oppressive boot of a distant, yet mighty empire.

The Angel Gabriel comes to invite Mary to serve, at least temporarily, as the Tabernacle of God, but begins by reminding Mary of the overarching truth of God’s relationship with humankind, God is with her.  God will never leave or forsake her, and if she would believe in that truth, she would have the opportunity to change the course of history.  God didn’t choose a house of cedar to live in.  Instead, God chose the womb of Mary.  God didn’t choose a person with powerful political connections.  Instead, God chose the fiancé of a carpenter from the middle of nowhere, Nazareth.  Of all the times, places, and people God could have chosen as the Tabernacle of Christ, God chose Mary, the perfect example of vulnerability and faithfulness, presumably since the Ark of God.  This is especially true in Luke’s Gospel, where Mary serves as both the God-bearer and the model of Christian discipleship.  As Mark Allen Powell, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, points out, the Annunciation to Mary is her call story in line with the calling of such heavy hitters and Moses and Isaiah.  All the elements are there: the greeting, the started reaction, the exhortation not to fear, the divine commission, the objection, a reassurance, and the offer of a confirming sign.  In her words of acceptance, Mary models both Samuel and Isaiah in saying, “Here I am.” She goes on to preview the words her Son would pray to God the Father on the night he was betrayed, “Let it be with me according to your word” or “Not my will but yours be done.”  For Luke, Mary is the perfect combination of humility, obedience, faithfulness, and loving service.[1]  She is, the ideal Tabernacle for the nurturing of Emmanuel, God with us.

Throughout the course of human history, God has, again and again, chosen to be vulnerable in order to be present with human beings in their struggle.  Whether it was choosing to stay in a tent rather than letting David build a house of cedar or choosing the womb of a faithful young woman as the way God the Son would enter the world, God has never shied away from hardship or messiness.  On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our collective prayer is that God might continue that trend in us.  We pray for the faith of Mary.  We pray that, with God’s help, we might be willing to serve as the Tabernacle of the Holy Spirit.  We pray that Jesus, the Son of Mary, might find in us a mansion prepared for himself, and that as we live and move and have our being in the world, we might be the very hands and feet of God who is always among us.  O come, O come, Emmanuel!  Model us in the image of your Mother, Mary, and make us tabernacles of your grace. Amen.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3

Immanuel – God with Us

Thank God for 1980s Amy Grant.  I can’t read the lessons appointed for Advent 4, Year A without immediately hearing those great synthesize riffs.  See, in Year A, Advent 4 is all about the name of Jesus.  Not Yeshua, as his name would be in Aramaic, but the name promised by the Father through Isaiah as the sign for Ahaz of his impending military success.

Some seven hundred years later, Matthew took this yet unfulfilled prophecy and attached it to the birth of Jesus, which followed the model of the original.  Like the prophecy, which told of a child born to a young woman, almah, likely unmarried but of marriage age, Jesus was born to Mary, a young girl, engaged to Joseph but not yet known by him (Biblical euphemism that means they had not yet engaged in intercourse).  Ahaz had failed to live up to God’s intention for him or his kingdom and was, of course, duly punished.  In the intervening years, there had been no fulfillment of the promise, no child born to an almah who would come close to being Immanuel – God with us.

Until that fateful day when Mary and her betrothed saddled up their donkey to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a taxation census.  Then, according to Matthew’s interpretation, the promise was finally fulfilled, God was born on earth.  God was here.  Or as Eugene Peterson has famously translated John 1, God moved into the neighborhood.

What is amazing about this story, seven hundred years later than it was intended to take place, is that God never left.  Immanuel, more commonly spelled with an E these days, never again went away.  God was with us, God is with us, and God will forever be with us, thanks to the life giving sacrifice of sending God’s only Son to be born of an almah and to live and die as one of us.  As the days continue to get shorter ahead of the winter solstice, this lesson seems vitally important.  The darkness of the season is often matched by the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Depression is common, suicides increase, disappointment seems to be around every corner.  There is much in this season that can make us wonder if God really is still here, but the promise of Isaiah, reinvigorated by Matthew, assures us that in Jesus, God’s Emmanuel, God is here.

O come, O come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appears.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Waiting is really, really difficult.  For example, FBC is now four years old (which is hard for this blogger to believe), and there is no possible way that Christmas can come soon enough.  The Advent calendar has been opened before 7am every day this month.  Every time we see someone for whom a gift sits under our tree, the question gets asked, “can we give them their gift now?”  When a package arrives on our doorstep, it must be opened immediately.  Waiting is really hard when you are four years old.

Waiting is really hard when you are 33 years old, as well.  Today is the Monday of championship weekend in my fantasy football league’s 10th year.  I’m going up against my friend, colleague, and blogging arch-rival, Evan Garner in the championship match-up, and I have to wait all day to officially win.

championship

I mean, I guess I Gonzo and the SF defense could lose 20 points and Bowman could run two fumbles back for touchdowns, but it is highly unlikely.  Still, I’ll have to wait until Christmas Eve to lord my victory over Evan.  Waiting is really hard.

I think maybe that’s why the Church has taken to singing the O Antiphons in the waning days of Advent.  As the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer, and the coming of the Lord seems like it is never going to happen – we call out in unison for Jesus to come!  As we wait in exile in this world, awaiting our restoration in the Kingdom of God, we cry to the Lord, “How long!?!”

Yet, the refrain reminds us that the promises of God are secure.  We don’t finish our plea to come, with words of sadness, but rather we “Rejoice!” because we know that Emmanuel (God with us) has come and is coming again.  Alleluia!

Emmanuel

Last week, I got frustrated, yet again, with our Presiding Bishop because of her seemingly intentional non-use of the name Jesus in her official Christmas Letter.  Ignoring for a moment the way in which her brilliant mind constantly betrays my theory that theology that doesn’t speak to your typical Wal*Mart shopper is theology wasted, my biggest annoyance about her 7+ year Presiding Bishopric is her inability to say the name by which we are all saved, Jesus.

It isn’t that she doesn’t recognize Jesus as her Lord and Savior, I have no doubts about her faith in the risen Lord, there just seems to be something about the historical Jesus that trips her up.  Of course, that’s nothing new.  For two-thousand years, people have attempted to speak beyond the singular person of Jesus in order to more broadly reflect what it is the Messiah came to do.  He’s been called the Bright Morning Star, the Great High Priest, the Christ, the King of Kings, the Lamb of God, the Son of Man and on and on.  My favorite nick-name for Jesus appears in this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Emmanuel.

According to my handy-dandy Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Emmanuel (also spelled Immanuel) is from Hebrew meaning “God with us.”  “A child in Isaiah’s writings, so named as a sign of God’s presence and protaection (Isa. 7:14, 8:8).  This is seen in the Gospel of Matthew as a prophecy of the miraculous conception of Jesus Christ, who will be called “God with us” (Matt. 1:23, citing Isa. 7:14). (pg 89)

I love that image of Emmanuel, God with us because of how it ties in with the great Prologue to John’s Gospel that we’ll hear read on Christmas I.  “The Word became flesh (a term +KJS is unafraid to us) and dwelt among us.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson put is “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”  God’s immanence in the person of Jesus is what changes the game in salvation history.  It is worth spending lots of time reflecting on that name, Emmanuel.

Conveniently, Emmanuel plays a key role in the only Advent hymn I care to sing, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” is hymn number 56 in The Hymnal 1982.  The various verses can be used as antiphons to the Magnificat during the waning days of Advent, beginning on December 17.  So, as we transition from a season of expectation to season of joy my intent is to reflect upon the verses of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel each day from December 17th until the 23rd.  On the 24th, I’ll post my Christmas Eve Sermon and then turn my attention to Christmas 1.