The Nativity of our Lord: 25 December 2007
Emmanuel: God With Us
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Once God looked upon the great wickedness of man – that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time (Gen 6:5) – and God came among us as a tempest, a deluge, a flood over all the face of the earth. And every living creature with the breath of life in its nostrils was destroyed, save for eight souls and an ark full of animals. Emmanuel: God with us.
Once God heard the outcry against the grievous sin of man – that his cities were filled with violence and lust and depravity – and God came among us as fire and brimstone. And every living creature in Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain was destroyed, save for three souls: Lot and his daughters. Emmanuel: God with us.
Once God hearkened to the cry of Israel – that their lives were miserable with forced labor and harsh taskmasters – and God came among us as plague upon plague: darkness and famine and thirst and death. And every firstborn son of Egypt – from the firstborn son of Pharaoh to the firstborn son of the slave girl and all the firstborn of the cattle – was struck down, save for those souls protected by the blood on the doorposts and lintels, those souls passed over by the death angel. Emmanuel: God with us.
Twice God beheld the idolatry and injustice of his own people – that they sacrificed to the gods of the nations under every spreading tree on every high place, that they sold the needy for a pair of shoes and dispossessed the orphans and widows – and God came among us as the ruthless and barbarous armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians. And the fortified cities and the temple itself were utterly destroyed and the pride of Israel – its young men and maiden daughters – was marched captive to foreign lands. Emmanuel: God with us.
Is Emmanuel – God with us – a blessing or a curse, something devoutly to be desired or something fearfully to be avoided? Perhaps both. Perhaps either.
8And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased" (Luke 2:8-14, ESV)!
The angel came this night to announce Emmanuel – God among us, God with us. Is it any wonder the angel began, “Fear not!”? God is on the move. God is once again among us. God is now with us. I can imagine normally fearless shepherds – What are lions and bears and wolves to them? – cowering in terror at the sight of the angel and covering their ears to avoid the dreaded pronouncement of God’s judgment. “Fear not,” the angel began. It is good news that God is among us. It is great joy for all people, for Jews and Romans and Greeks alike. For the Lord comes among us not as tempest and flood, fire and brimstone, plague and death, destruction and exile. No, the Lord – God before the ages – comes as one of us, as the least of us, as a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. Fear not. God comes among us not as Judge, but as Savior. To which news the only proper response is, “Glory to God in the highest!”
15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (Luke 2:15, ESV).
God is among us; let’s go see. How remarkable. Can you imagine that response earlier, before the assurance, “Do not fear,” before when God came as Judge? This advent of Emmanuel – God with us – is light and life, and people are drawn inexorably toward both.
This story of the angels and the shepherds and the baby in a manger is history, we’re convinced. But it is more; it must be more. This story of Emmanuel, of God among us and God with us, must become a guiding metaphor for the church, which is the present incarnation of Emmanuel. The church among us, the church with us must be good news of great joy for all people. The church among us, the church with us must be salvation and not judgment. It hasn’t always been so and it isn’t always so now.
How often is the church among us – the church on the move in the broader world – perceived as judgment and not salvation? Now, of course, we must speak missionally and prophetically to the world; that is part of our calling. But we must always do so in the context of good news of great joy, of salvation always and not of condemnation only. How can signs that announce God hates fags! in the hands of the church among us at gay pride rallies be good news of great joy? How can screams of “Baby killers burn in hell!” in the mouths of the church among us picketing abortion clinics be good news of great joy? How can the shouts of war and the building of fences be good news of great joy? How can conspicuous consumption in the face of global poverty be good news of great joy? How can the false promises of health, wealth, and prosperity made available to those simple ones who donate money they cannot afford to false prophets of greed – too often the image of the church among us – be good news of great joy? This is not Emmanuel – God with us, God among us. This is not the gospel of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
We must proclaim to all the people of the world – in all their diversity – “Fear not, for behold we bring good news of great joy to all people.” The church among us should be good news to atheists, to Muslims, to prisoners, to poor, to rich, to gays, to addicts, to prostitutes, to soccer moms, to unwed moms. The world should be better because the church is among us – the whole world and not just special enclaves.
And now, let’s make this personal. If you bear the name Christian, then you are Emmanuel in your world: in your marriage, your family, your school, your workplace, your neighborhood, your coffee shop, your bowling league, your exercise group, your book discussion group, your political party meeting, your club, your life. Are you good news of great joy there? Does your life proclaim, “Fear not!”? Do the people who know you want to go see this great thing that has come to pass in your life? If so, the Nativity of our Lord is more than history to you and to those around you: it is metaphor, it is living reality, it is the pattern of your life. There is born in you this day and every day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And those who witness the birth of the Savior in a human life -- if they but listen – will hear the heavenly host, and the earthly host as well, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth, peace among those
with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14, ESV)!
May the joy of our Lord’s birth be yours this day and every day. May Christ – Emmanuel – be with us and among us now and for ever. May we be Christ’s presence in the world proclaiming the good news of salvation to all people until Christ – our Emmanuel – shall come again to reign unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Metropolitan Athanasios of Lemesos: "Are there virtuous lay people in our contemporary world?" - (source) *Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!*
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