As with many passages selected for the Sunday readings, there is much to choose from on which to preach. We have the prophecy from Isaiah that looks forward to a time when a young woman will bear a son. We have Matthew co-opting that prophecy and changing it to say that a virgin will bear a son. We have a prayer of restoration in the Psalm. We have an introductory paragraph from Paul. And we have Joseph, not Mary, as the main character in this version of the Annunciation. So much to choose from. But every third year on this 4th Sunday of Advent in Year A, it seems I always go back to one thing: You shall name him Emmanuel, God is with us.
On this last Sunday of Advent when the arrival of the Messiah is now imminent, what does it mean for God to be with us?
On the one hand it offers joy. We are a week away from Christmas, the happiest time of year, or so the song says. We can begin to look at the trees, lights, and decorations with a sense of joy. We can begin to allow ourselves to sing Christmas songs. We can imagine the joy of a new birth, a new life; and it's great fun to think of Jesus as one of those YouTube babies laughing uncontrollably. After all, is there anything better than a laughing baby? Laughing Emmanuel – God is with us and laughing with us. That is a lovely image.
But there's another side to all of this; a less joyful and darker side.
Last week I received a phone call from a person whose daughter had just found out she had a malignant brain tumor. I met with a woman wanting to know if this church could help her acquire some basic needs that most of us take for granted – like sheets and socks. And I prayed with a dying man and his family, anointed him with oil, and presided at his final Communion before cancer took his life.
That was Monday.
But that's life – joy at all the beauty and hope and wonderfulness butts up against despair brought on by disease, circumstances, and death. Before ESPN there was the Wide World of Sports where every episode began with the thrill of victory and the showing of some exciting athletic feat juxtaposed with the agony of defeat and that poor ski jumper. The victory montage seemed to change, but it was ALWAYS that ski jumper. And that's life.
We live between one extreme and the other. Most of the time our lives aren't lived on those extreme edges, but in the boring and often messy middle. There are times, however, when our lives touch one end or the other. Like Christmas. Or Monday.
This is why I keep coming back to this one word, this one sentence in today's gospel. Emmanuel. God is with us.
Is this a particularly happy and joyful time for you? Good! Emmanuel! God is with you!
Is this a busy, messy, stressful time for you? Okay. Emmanuel. God is with you.
Is this a painful, sorrowful, despairing time for you? I'm sorry; Emmanuel, God is with you.
In all of our joys, through all of our doubts and uncertainties, in the midst of all our sorrows, God never promises to wave a magic wand and make everything better. What God does promise is this: that from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, God promises Emmanuel, God is with us.
On some days that's more than we expect. Some days it's all we can ask and more than we hope for. Some days it's all we have to hold onto.
On this 4th Sunday of Advent, no matter where you are, either joyfully expectant or in the midst of despair, may you come to hold this name dear – Emmanuel.
God is with you.