The pastor steps up to the pulpit. He lays before him the outline of his sermon. There are some correction marks throughout the pages, but he is ready to preach. He lifts up his head, peers out into the sanctuary space, and notices a striking difference. This year, the pews are empty. His audience cannot be seen behind his smartphone as he broadcasts his sermon on social media. This year is different; from the pulpit, he feels alone.
A Socially Distant Year
In the nursing home, one of his members sits in her wheelchair in front of the TV. It was programmed for her to simply turn on every Sunday to see her pastor preach. This Sunday, the connectivity is not going so well. The TV freezes, and as she sits in her room, she thinks about calling her grandson. In the past, he has always been a reliable help in times of technology troubles. She calls him, but she is not greeted with affirmation of his help. Rather, she is reminded that her grandson cannot visit her. Tears begin to stream down her face; she feels alone.
This year, our gatherings around the dinner table for our holiday traditions have dramatically changed. The pandemic has altered our plans. Instead of an extended family dining at the adult table and the Fisher-Price kids’ table, elegant dishes, freshly polished silverware, and the aroma of prime rib filling the air, this year a small family of four will order in and jump on Zoom. This year, as we are saddened by who is not with us, let us remember who remains with us: Immanuel.
O Come, Immanuel
We hear that name oftentimes as the Advent candles are lit. The organ plays and the congregation, muffled behind masks, sings “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Perhaps the song is not sung quite as loudly this year, not just because of masks but also because of attendance restrictions. But even those softer words still portray the same dynamic meaning. No matter how it is spelled, Immanuel/Emmanuel means “God with us.”
Immanuel means everything, especially when heard in moments of loneliness, brokenness, fear, sin, and sadness. That name was first spoken in the Book of Isaiah when King Ahaz of Judah was being threatened and pressured by the king of Syria and the king of Ephraim, while the king of Assyria was growing in power. Judah’s King Ahaz must have felt alone in his leadership; but then God offered him a promise.
Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
A Prophecy Fulfilled
That name, Immanuel was heard again years later when a young man named Joseph was about to divorce the woman he loved, the one to whom he had been betrothed. His bride, Mary, was still a virgin and yet, through the Holy Spirit, she conceived a child. Joseph, being a good man, faced the hard decision of divorcing her in quiet to protect her from public shame. Then an angel came to Joseph and spoke to him the promise that King Ahaz had heard years before.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel. (Matthew 1:23)
Today, with Zoom calls and social distancing, with canceled holiday plans and smaller gatherings for worship, we hear those same words. Those words might be sung muffled under masks or preached to smartphones and streamed through social media accounts. But the promise is still there. When others are not with us, God is. St. Paul even reminds us that not only is God with us but also there is nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus, our Immanuel. The name Immanuel reminds us that through the incarnate Christ, God does not practice social distancing.
Be reminded of the promise of Christ Jesus, our Immanuel.