Did you ever wonder about the name of the man we call Jesus? You know that Jesus is not actually his name. No, it’s just what English speakers derived from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua, which means ‘savior’ or ‘one who saves.’ We should really be singing Shine, Yeshua, Shine and the like.
I mention this because of the prophetic reference in v22 in this morning’s reading. Matthew is referring to the Isaiah prophecy about a woman conceiving a child who would be savior and known as Immanuel, meaning God is with us. God is with us. Isaiah was talking to people getting ready to be run over and taken into exile and they were needing a word of hope. There’s few things more hopeful in life than the assurance that God is with us.
This is why I like the narrative lectionary. In the past couple of months we’ve heard from a lot of prophets about a lot of exile situations. When we hear Immanuel, God is with us, that’s kind of a nice thing to be reminded of. But when we think in the context of an idea that helped sustain a people through a couple hundred years of thrashing and exile by a couple of different dynasties, the reminder becomes a little more pointed. This isn’t our favorite celebrity or sports team accomplishing something this is sustaining an entire people through some of the worst things that could happen to them.
Immanuel, God is with us.
This morning’s reading is a reminder of God being with us to people once again in need of some hope. The author of the gospel of Matthew is writing to a largely Jewish audience shortly after their temple had been destroyed for the second time. Now, the temple in this time wasn’t just a place of worship like we think of a church or synagogue. It was the literal house of God. It’s where God was literally to be found, in an area known as the holy of holies and only the chief priest could approach God directly and only once per year. God was so holy and humans so unholy that they’d be smited into a puff of smoke if they tried to approach.
The temple was destroyed for the first time by the Babylonians as they were carting off the people into exile. The house of God has been destroyed and the people dispersed to other lands. All the while they heard Isaiah’s prophecy and knew that God was with them. When they finally return to Jerusalem after being released from exile the people manage to rebuild the temple. All is mostly well for about 400 years or so when the Romans come in. The Jewish people then live as an occupied people with the Romans as their masters. We hear about this mostly during Holy Week and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus but they’d been around quite a while before that, ruling with that heavy Roman hand. After a couple of hundred years they get fed up and attempt one final revolt against the Romans. Now, we all know that the Romans were good at trashing any and all comers so it didn’t work out well for the Jewish people.
Because of the effrontery of the rebels, the Romans destroyed the temple for the second time. And this time the temple was destroyed for good. The house of God, the place where in the minds of the people God literally lived, the holy of holies, was gone. Trashed. Destroyed. This begged a whole lot of questions for all the people of God, near and far. If God’s lives in the temple and the temple is completely destroyed, where is God?
The answer, stretching out over 6 centuries or so, is simply this. Immanuel, God is with us. That is where people of faith found their strength and their hope when all seemed lost. They could always lean into their faith and the promise that God was always with them, no matter the circumstances they found themselves in. When they were uprooted and taken from there homes. Immanuel. God is with us. When their central place of worship, the house of God, is destroyed. Immanuel. God is with us.In all those trials and tribulations over the centuries, Immanuel. God is with us.
God has been with them in a spiritual sense and now we hear about the promise of a savior who will be born to Mary and Joseph. We hear about the promise of how God is joining humanity in a very real sense, God incarnated in human form. We hear about the promise that an incarnate how God is physically with them.
We hear for the first time about the real presence of God. Immanuel. God is with us. As we come to the communion table. Immanuel. God with us. In all those time of challenge. Immanuel. God with us. As we sit in the ER waiting for test results. Immanuel. God with us. In all those times of heartbreak at the loss of a loved one. Immanuel. God with us. As we see the empty chair at the table for the first time. Immanuel. God with us.
Immanuel. Thanks be to God.