O come, O come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing at seminary. I sit in class day after day, learning Hebrew verb patterns and inductive Bible study techniques, and I begin to think that I could be doing a lot more with my time. I know this time spent on my education will pay off in the future, but sometimes I just get impatient. For now I just have to be excited about the little things, like I was a few weeks ago when I looked at the word ‘Emmanuel’ and realized that it really does mean ‘God with us.’ I broke the word apart (em-anu-El), and I saw with-us-God. Now, I know this isn’t an important Biblical discovery or anything like that, but it sure felt good to see my Hebrew being put to use outside of class. Plus I think it’s pretty cool to know that our English Bibles really mean what they say they mean.
As Christmas has come closer and closer, I’ve found myself reflecting more and more on that word, breaking it apart in my head, and marveling at the truth contained in that name: God-with-us. God’s presence with us is what we are celebrating during this Christmas season. My mind keeps going back to stories in the Old Testament where the promised presence of God was what kept them going and helped them to put their faith in him. God’s people have been longing for his close presence from the beginning. I see this in Exodus 3 as Moses struggles with his fears of confronting Pharaoh and leading Israel. Moses asks who he is to be given such a great task, but God responds that he will be with Moses (3:12). God’s presence alone is enough to give Moses faith to accept the task. I see this again in Numbers 14, when only Caleb and Joshua stand strong as all Israel rebels around them. Caleb and Joshua cry out for the people to neither fear nor rebel, and their reasoning is that God is with them. They believe that they don’t need to fear the mighty nations of Canaan because God will go with them, fight with them, be with them day and night. The presence of God in their midst gives them insane confidence while everyone around them cries in fear. God reassures Joshua of his presence with him again in Joshua 1:5, saying, “Just as I was with Moses, I will be with you. I will not leave you nor forsake you.” The only reason the exodus and the conquest happened was because God was with Israel.
This longing for God to be with Israel remains strong throughout the rest of the OT. We read about the glory of God coming down and dwelling in their midst in both the tabernacle and the temple (Exodus 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11). God was with his people in their place of worship, but he still was separated from them because of his holiness and their sinfulness. Yet his presence continued to inspire hope in his people, as in the classic Psalm 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The righteous in Israel continued to hope for God to be with them, but eventually the rebelliousness and sinfulness of Israel was too much, and while Ezekiel was in captivity in Israel, he saw a vision of the glory of the LORD departing the temple and leaving Israel. I think this is one of the darkest, saddest scenes of the whole OT, because even though Israel would return from exile and rebuild the temple, we have no record of the glory of the LORD returning to their midst. Israel waited for God to be with them again, to be their Emmanuel as in the old days, and the Christmas hymn O Come, O Come Emmanuel must reflect their prayers. It must have seemed awfully lonely to them in exile. Even when they returned from exile, they still missed the presence of God; they still were in an exile of sorts. And so when the Son of God did come to be with them, it was time to rejoice.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that the New Testament opens with the prophecy from Isaiah about a virgin who would give birth to a child named Emmanuel. This is what Israel had been waiting for, what all humanity had been waiting for without really knowing it. That angel wasn’t joking when he told Joseph that Jesus would be worthy of the name Emmanuel. The sad thing is that most people missed it. He didn’t come down in a cloud of glory as before. He came so humbly and quietly that they didn’t realize it when God walked with them in the streets, sat among them in the synagogues, taught them on the sides of mountains, or ate with them at Passover. And yet, more than ever before, God was with us. That is what we celebrate this week. The God who created us was born like us, grew up like us, ate like us, and died for us. His presence was the hope of generations, and it is our reality.
The Gospel of Matthew ends with the great commission to preach, baptize, and make disciples. Jesus calls his disciples to a great task, much like God once called Moses. Jesus follows this with one more promise, “And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Just like before, the motivation to do the great task lies in God’s presence with us. The new age and the new covenant opens with another call to lead people out of oppression and slavery, but this time he is calling all people and offering freedom to all people. Jesus is no longer with us in person, but we have his Spirit, his promise, and the hope that he will return to be with us once more. I continue to be amazed that we have a God who wants to be with us, to be an Emmanuel. Take that hope this Christmas and live with faith like Caleb and Joshua that God is with us. Don’t forget that our God is Emmanuel all year long, and rejoice that he is in our lives.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, Oh Israel!