Emmanuel means “God is with us”.
Four short words but are there any other short sentences more profound than this one? If we had to sum up the gospel, the message to humanity, in just a few words, would this not be about as good and brief as you could get?
The name is taken from a prophecy of Isaiah around the time of Hezekiah – 700 years before Jesus was born. In its original setting, this child would be born as the city was finally freed from the siege, and so the child would be a reminder of God’s protection over Jerusalem. But the people did not fully trust God, just as 700 years later they would not trust or accept the new Emmanuel, “God truly and fully with us”.
Jesus is not known as Emmanuel to his family or friends – Matthew is highlighting that Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy – here truly is Emmanuel.
Human brains cannot fully grasp, and human languages cannot explain how Jesus can be fully God and fully human, but that is because of the limits of our language. As we have noticed before, faith in God is not reduced to an academic argument and proof, but is about a commitment; there is an integrity to our thinking but often we admit we cannot fully understand let alone fully explain.
In Mark’s gospel it is the Roman Centurion, the one who has overseen the crucifixion who says – “Truly this man was the Son of God”. He gets closest to a declaration of faith, when the disciples are absent and silent, but he says “was” not “is” because in his way of thinking he has executed and killed him, though there is no sign of regret or remorse. It is one of the most ironic statements in the gospel, being found on the lips of the executioner not the follower.
But maybe we are a bit more like the executioner Centurion than we would like to think. It is rather different to affirm that Jesus was God’s Son, that we hold to this historical ‘fact’, from affirming that Jesus is God’s Son, that is, Jesus is alive, with us, and continues to demand and expect our allegiance and worship.
For the truth that God is with us, is both the most reassuring truth in the world – God so loved the world that he gave his only Son .. , but it is also the most challenging truth in the world, because it requires us to acknowledge the impact.
God is not a theoretical construct, nor a theological ideal, nor a philosophical debating point; God, Creator and the one who holds the world and time, is known and knowable in the person of Jesus.
And, at risk of repeating myself – though symphonies do repeat and rework their key themes! – God is with us in this world, just as Jesus was with people in the world then, with its illnesses, and poverty, injustice and violence, as well as its opportunities and with the communities and families who made the most of life and celebrated festivals and weddings and events. Jesus lived in this mixed world and enjoyed it and endured it, made a difference in it, and was ultimately destroyed by the ruling powers and to some extent the fickle crowd. [As an aside, while the Christmas story is full of “true news” from the angels, the Easter story is littered with fake news and accusations, as the Truth is apparently destroyed by lies and falsehoods.]
God was with his people even when they chose not to acknowledge him or follow his ways. The Old Testament gives very human emotions to God’s relation with his people, which is described in very personal terms. He is angry, sad, frustrated, weary, hurt, rejected, stood up; but all these metaphors imply that God is with them, connected. And in the New Testament, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, God present in an unembodied way continuing to reassure us of God’s presence when Jesus himself has been raised and ascended. now God by his Spirit – in as much as we seek God – is with us wherever we are, not just where Jesus was.
And for many we hear stories of people from other faiths and none, who have had an encounter with God’s Spirit in some way, and through that encounter are drawn to Jesus. The sense that God was close is now clarified as they learn more of the love of God in Jesus. As we seek to share our faith, we discover that God’s Spirit has gone ahead of us, is already prompting the hearts of others and some are responding. God is with his people; in Jesus, God was truly with us and in his Spirit God continues to be with us in our daily lives. Emmanuel is theology in one word!