Readings: Isaiah 7:1-8:10 / Matthew 1:18-25
Rex et legifer noster,
et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos,
Domine, Deus noster.
our King and our Lord,
the anointed for the nations
and their Savior:
Come and save us,
O Lord our God.
“God helps those who help themselves.” It almost sounds biblical. Some people think it comes from the Bible, but it doesn’t. It’s actually unbiblical, even anti-biblical. In truth, God helps the helpless, those who cannot help themselves. God saves those who cannot save themselves.
“We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” If God helps only those who help themselves, then we are in a heap of trouble, because when it comes to sin we are powerless to help ourselves. Prisoners can do nothing to free themselves; the dead can do nothing to raise themselves. God must come to us to help us. He must reach down to us, we cannot reach up to Him. He must come and be with us.
The promise of this last night of Advent is the promise of Immanuel – God is with us. Immanuel was the word-sign spoken by Isaiah to a panic-stricken king. Ahaz’s enemies had struck an alliance. Rezin, the king of Syria, and Pekah, the son of Remaliah, the king of Israel had struck a deal. Ahaz was the odd man out. He cut a deal of his own with Tiglath Pileser, the king of Assyria. That would prove to be Ahaz’s undoing. Assyria would be like a flooded river pouring over its banks, sweeping away Judah in the process.
Isaiah tried to warn Ahaz, and encourage him that God was with Him. “Rezin and Pekah are nothing but smoldering stumps under the foot of God’s judgment. They have a plan but it will not stand and will not come to pass. You must trust Yahweh; take Him at His word. But if you will not believe, surely, you will not be established.” Isaiah offered a sign to Ahaz, but Ahaz refused. It was the sign of Immanuel. “The virgin is conceiving and bearing a son and shall call his name Immanuel.” In nine months Ahaz would know that God was with them. In ten to twelve years, before little Immanuel knew right from wrong, Rezin and Pekah would be history. Immanuel would eat curds and honey. Good and bad news rolled into one. Agricultural land would be laid waste. Crops destroyed. But there would still be plenty of milk and wild honey. Wilderness food. It is back to the wilderness for God’s people. But God is with them.
Isaiah had a son. His name, written in stone on a large tablet was this: Maher-shalal-hash-baz. “The spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Destruction is at the door. There are always two sides to God’s being with us – destruction and salvation. Immanuel and Maher-shalal-hash-baz. He is with us to save, and He is with us to destroy whatever gets in the way of His saving us. When we pray “Thy will be done,” we call upon God’s good and gracious will to save us. We are also calling Him to break and hinder every will that opposes his good and gracious will, including our own. The Lord kills in order to make alive. He brings down in order to raise up. He crushes in order to create anew.
God’s last word is not death, but life. Not Maher-shalal-hash-baz, but Immanuel. “The Lord is with you,” the angel said to Mary. And the Virgin conceived and bore a son. Jesus. Immanuel. God with us.
God is with us in His Son Jesus. He is the God who gets involved, who puts on the uniform and plays the game. He doesn’t sit by watching us make a mess of things. He doesn’t watch helplessly from His throne heaven while we destroy each other here on earth. He sets down his crown, takes off his royal robes, puts on the workclothes of a servant. He takes on our humanity. And in our humanity He humbles himself to death on a cross. Immanuel works and weeps and suffers and sleeps and bleeds and dies. He is with us in every facet of our lives. Nothing is left out of His being with us to save us.
The signs of Immanuel are all around us. Advent calls us to them and invites us to see them anew. Where is God with you to save you? In the water of your Baptism. There He is with you to make you His own – the Spirit descending, the voice of the Father, Jesus at your side, with you always to the end of the age. You are joined to Jesus’ death in Baptism, and He is joined to you.
He is with you in the word that speaks forgiveness to you. “He who hears you, hears me,” Jesus said of those He sent. “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness,” the pastor asks the penitent. That is the Immanuel question. Do you believe that God is with us in this word? To hear this forgiveness as God’s forgiveness? Such a gift Immanuel is to arrange to speak with us in a way that we can hear Him!
He is with you in His Supper, His own body and blood, born of Mary, sacrificed on Calvary, raised from the dead, enthroned in heaven yet humbly mangered in bread and wine for you. There is no greater His being Immanuel for you.
Jesus is Immanuel, the only Immanuel there ever was, the only one there ever will be, the only one you need. When He appears in glory, He will be the same Immanuel who came by the Virgin, who laid in a manger, who died for you on the cross, who come to you now in His Baptism, Word, and Supper. The good news, on this last night of Advent, is that you are never alone as one of the Lord’s baptized believers. God is with you. Immanuel.