Friday, December 24, 2010

"Pleased as Man with Us to Dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel"

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Friday, December 24, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Tonight, in these words from the angel to the shepherds, we move from Advent into Christmas. We move from the season of anticipation and preparation into the season of receiving that which we have been anticipating and preparing. And that can be summed up in one word – Emmanuel – “God with us.”

This year, the image of Emmanuel that has been with me throughout Advent is from “Hark the Harold Angels Sing,” which we just sang. The last line of the second verse is “Pleased as man with us to dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel!” That line has been running around in my head for weeks now. Emmanuel. And not just God with us, but God who is “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” That makes a huge difference.

It is precisely this concept of Emmanuel that is the basis for our faith tradition and for the event that we celebrate this night. Ours is a unique religion. From the days of Abraham and Sarah, ours has been a religion based on reciprocal relationship between God and humanity. Our Judeo-Christian heritage is based on a covenant relationship established between God and his Chosen People – that Yahweh would be our God and we would be his people. And the amazing thing is that it was not we who first sought to be in relationship with God, but rather it was God who reached out to us. It was God who initiated this relationship.

Of course, salvation history shows that we have not done a great job of upholding our end of the relationship. We have not held to our part of the covenant with God. The covenant was continually broken, not by God, but by us. And yes, we had to bear the consequences of this disobedience. But just as we continually broke the covenant, God continually reached out to reestablish the covenant, to renew the relationship. Why? Despite our inability to maintain the covenant, God was not willing to abandon us. Despite our inability to remain faithful to God and to love him, God continues to be faithful to us and to love us.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. Even so, it’s just too hard for us to relate to an entity that we cannot see or touch or embrace. We just can’t really relate to a God that is generally unseen, or a God who speaks through angelic messengers and prophets, or a God that takes the form of a burning bush or a pillar of smoke. We humans need face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh relationship. After us repeatedly breaking the covenant and God repeatedly taking us back, it became clear that a more direct way of relating between God and his people was needed. Like any successful relationship, we needed common ground. There’s no way we could become more like God, but God could become more like us. God could become flesh, become human like us.

That is what this night is all about. In God becoming incarnate, through the child born this night, a great mystery has occurred. In the mystery that is God, the Son of God is at the same time God, yet even more. This child is fully divine, as is God, but is also fully human, as is Mary his mother. A mystery that is difficult for us to wrap our minds around, yet a mystery that is so crucial to this night. For in the child born this night, the incomparable glory of God – limitless, powerful, majestic – comes together with the ordinariness of humanity – limited, weak, humble.

In the mystery that is the Incarnation, God was able to become someone we can see and touch and embrace. And in so doing, God was able to experience life as we do, complete with the same limitations that we do – someone who is born, who grows up, who ultimately dies; someone who can share our joys, our excitement, our wonderment; and who can experience our pain, our frustrations, our longings, our disappointments, our vulnerabilities, our hurts, our losses. In coming as a child, God chose to be as those he came to be with – innocent and vulnerable. This is the meaning of Emmanuel. God with us, sharing life as we know it – the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly – sharing our experiences, being one of us. “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” This was something that God was willing to do precisely because he continues to be faithful to us and to love us. That is what this night is about – celebrating that moment 2,000 years ago when God, in his infinite love for us, ceased being somewhere out there and became Emmanuel, right here in our midst, in the form of a child.

Despite being God, being the King of Kings, this was not a child born in the splendor of a spacious, elegant palace surrounded by royal attendants and nursemaids, clothed in the finest silk, laid in a soft, comfortable crib. On the contrary, this son of God was born in a stable surrounded by smelly animals and animal waste, wrapped in rags, and laid in a feeding trough. For only in this way, could God have the opportunity to experience the true essence of humanity – the commonness and ordinariness. Not as the scion of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, but as the ward of a poor laborer. Not as someone secure, facing a life of ease; but as someone vulnerable, facing uncertainty, even difficulty. Only in this way could he experience the hardship that so many of God’s people face. Only in this way could he experience the most basic of human needs and wants. Only in this way could he experience the true joys of human existence. Only in this way could he be able to relate to common everyday folk like you and me.

In this child, God obtained the experience of what it means to be human. And humanity gained a far greater gift. In this child, humanity is touched by the divine in a way that has not been possible until now. In this child, the divine is made flesh and the baseness of humanity is made sacred. In this child, the divine becomes, for a time, bound by human experience, while the experience of humanity is poised to burst forth with limitless possibilities as the Spirit of the divine energizes and comes to dwell within each of us.

In this child, Emmanuel, the world, and the entire fate of humanity is forever changed as the child grows into an adult, submitting himself to death on a cross for the salvation of all humanity. No, even on this most beautiful of nights, we cannot ignore the fate of this child, the primary reason for his coming among us. For in this child, Emmanuel, is the hope of the world – the hope for the salvation and new and eternal life that his birth promises for each and every one of us.

All of this is only made possible through the experience of Emmanuel – God with us. All of this is only possible because of a God who is “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” God who is WITH each and every one of us. God who came FOR each and every one of us. You couldn’t ask for a more precious gift.

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