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Edward F. Markquart

Emmanuel: God is with us

Christmas Eve     Matthew 1:18-25

A long time ago, when I graduated from college, I decided to take a trip to the most sacred Holy Land, so I borrowed a lot of money from the bank, and with my friend, Larry, we went to the Holy Land.  That is, we took a trip to Norway.  When we got to Norway, we went to a little town named Bergen, and at Bergen, we got on a ferry-boat and traveled to the Sogna Fjord.  I have never been anyplace so beautiful in my whole life. The mountains rose up above the cascading rivulets of water splashing down the mountainsides into the fjords.  We landed at a little village, named Balestrad, and stayed there for a full three days. We rented bikes that day, and as we looked up, we could see seven or eight strands of water coming together into one torrent of a stream. I said to Larry, ďDo you want to go up there?  I do.Ē He didnít.  So off I went, rather foolishly, in my penny loafers, a pair of shorts, and an old tweed sweater.  I wasnít properly dressed.  I had no food.  Worse yet, I had no water, but I was young, dumb and in good shape.  After six hours of walking up and up and up, I came to a high mountain pasture.  It was just beautiful.  I still can see it vividly to this day.  There was an old sheep-herderís cabin up there, made out of rock, and there were sheep, and thatís all.  The cabin, the sheep and me.  I sat down on the grass, and as far as the eye could see, to the left and to the right, was this Sogna Fjord stretching endlessly before me. 

As I sat there, enjoying the beauty of the moment, I wished that my girlfriend, Jan, could be with me.  How I wished that Larry had come along, or that my mother and father could see this, or maybe my brother.  For that is the way God made us.  When we experience the big moments of life, we are created in such a way that we donít want to spend them alone.   We always want someone to be with us at the big moments of life because their presence has a way of magnifying the beauty of an event.  For example, if you are a woman and are about to deliver a baby, you donít want your husband to be gone, nor does the husband want to be gone.  You donít want him off on a military trip in Germany or on a business trip in New York.  You want your husband to be with you when the baby is being born.  Your husband being with you, your wife being with you, magnifies the beauty of the birth experience.  For that is the way God made us. God made us in such a way that we want others to be with us during the big moments of life.

But God has also made us in such a way that we also want others to be with us during the bad moments of life such as during or after a death or divorce.  When you have a death in the family, you want to have other loved ones there with you.  It is not fun to cry alone.  Sometimes you need to cry alone, but eventually you want to be with others when you are grieving.  You telephone someone to come.  Everybody does. I know because that is my job, to be with people, to hear the phone calls being made during a crisis.   I have very distinct memories of funerals where it has been only the casket, the funeral director, and me. Such lonely funerals are the pits, the epitomy of emptiness. You deeply want others around you when you are grieving.

Or, you want others around you when you are seriously sick and you canít take care of yourself very well at all.  I think of a poor little five year old, at two oíclock in the morning with the flu. The child is sick and wants his or her mother to hold his head.  The child does not want to be alone.  When you are sick or hurting, you want somebody with you.  That is just the way you and I are.  That is the way God made us.  In the big moments of life and in the bad moments of life, we donít want to be alone.  We want somebody significant with us.

Further, not only do we have an inner desire for our loved ones to be with us during the big moments and bad moments of life, but we want to know that God is with us as well. We want to have God with us at the big moments, the bad moments and all the everyday moments in between.  It is our deepest desire to know that God is with us, to know that we are not alone in a vast ever-expanding universe.  Our deepest desire is to have God with us to guide us, give us wisdom, strengthen us at all times, but especially at the critical times of life.  We need Godís Presence for daily living.

It is with this introduction that we approach the Word of the Lord for this Christmas Eve where God once again makes his divine promise to us:  Godís very name is Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.  Godís name reveals character, his purpose, his way of operating in this world.  Emmanuel is a sacred word, a holy word, a Christmas word given us from the Scriptures.  We hear Godís word from Isaiah:  His name shall be called, Emmanuel.

The question tonight is not, is there a God?  The question for most people is:  is God truly with us?  O yes, we know that there is a God.  You have to be illogical not to believe in the existence of God. As the classic argument goes, if there is a design, there must be a Designer.  If you look at the intricate design of the world, you know that there must be a designer of this complex called life or the universe.  Almost everybody believes in God.  Only a fool doesnít believe in God, there is so much intricate design to this world.  The question is not:  Is God???  The question is:  Is God with us???  I mean, is God here?  Near?  Here in this room tonightÖ with us?  That is the big question.  Not if there is a God?  No, no, no.  The big question of life is, is God here with us?  That is the question for this Christmas Eve.

The story of the whole Bible is God convincing us that God is faithful to his promise to be with us. It all began in the Old Testament. It began with the story of Abraham in the Old Testament where God first promised to Father Abraham, ďI will be with you, and I will bless you.Ē  God was faithful to his promise and blessed Abraham with his Divine Presence and was with Abraham all of his life.

Time passed.  Abraham had a grandson named Jacob, and Jacob wasnít sure if God was with him.  One night, Jacob had a dream and in that dream, God came to Jacob and said:  ďJacob, I am with you and I will be with you wherever you go.Ē  What a line:  I am with you and will be with you wherever you go!!!  Jacob woke up from that dream, and spoke that classic line recorded by Scripture:  ďSurely, God is in this place, and I did not know it.Ē 

And surely God is in this place tonight, this Christmas Eve, and some people still donít know it.  The whole story of the Old Testament and Christmas Eve is God trying to convince us Godís name, Emmanuel, reveals Godís very essence.  God is with us tonight and all nights of our lives. How sad it would be to not know Godís very name on Christmas Eve of all times.

Time and centuries pass, and the people of God were still wandering in the wilderness and still doubting and questioning:  ďIs God still with us?Ē  Godsí people were still not  sure if God was still with them out here in the wilderness.Ē  So God gave them sign after sign, indication after indication that God was still with them.  He gave them manna in the wilderness; quail in the wilderness; water in the wilderness.  God gave them food, clothing, parents, children, love, water.  He gave them sign after sign, parting the rivers of water, parting the sea.  And the people still questioned and doubted Godís promise to Abraham to be present with them.

Doubting and questioning Godís Presence so much, it started to effect the way the Jews lived their daily lives. They started to question if God was truly with them.  By analogy, it would be like when a teacher leaves the classroom, and the classroom becomes chaos when the teacher leaves the room.  It happens all the time to me as a confirmation teacher.  I leave the room, and the kids do as they want. It approaches bedlam.  It seems to me that is the way many Jews lived their daily lives in the Old Testament.  They felt as if God had left the classroom, that God had left their lives, that God had left their world. Therefore they could start to screw around, fool around, worship idols, adulterate, fornicate, forget about the poor widows and orphans, as if God had left the room, as if God had left their universe. 

What happened 2700 years ago, still happens today, and many people live as if God had left our room, that God is not here or near us tonight in this room on this Christmas Eve, that God is not Emmanuel, and so people worship idols, fornicate and adulterate, and forget about Godís poor in the world, simply because they question and doubt that God is really present in their lives.

Finally, we come to the story about King Ahaz, the great doubter and questioner.  One day, the prophet Isaiah came up to King Ahaz and said to him:  ďAsk for a sign from God that God is really with us.Ē  Ahaz, the king, didnít really believe in Godís Presence anymore. He deeply doubted and often questioned whether or not God was present. King Ahaz wasnít close to God and he refused to ask for a sign of God presence.  So the prophet Isaiah said:  ďGod will give you a sign.  There shall be a son and his name shall be called, Emmanuel which means God with us!Ē  What a name; what a promise; and King Ahaz didnít get it, but continued to doubt and question, in spite of knowing Godís name.

Eventually, and as usual, God was faithful to his promise and Jesus was born. Jesus was given the very name prophecied by Isaiah:  ďEmmanuel.Ē  Jesus was named Emmanuel, and his name reveals who he is.  Jesus is Godís living promise that we are not alone in the universe but that God is with us in big moments and bad moments and everyday moments, for that is Godís very name:  Emmanuel. That is what Christmas is all about:  God reveals his name to us.

I love that story about two little old ladies.  I want you to imagine two little old ladies, both in their young 80s. They were old spinsters living in North Dakota.  They were not only living in North Dakota, they were living on a farm in North Dakota.  It was not only a farm in North Dakota, it was a dumpy farm in North Dakota.  It was the dumpiest farm you have ever seen in North Dakota.  The chicken coop was falling down.  The barn was falling down.  The rusted machinery was falling apart, and the old rusted spinsters were falling apart.  These were two old spinsters and they were as tough as nails. They had weathered every storm for the past sixty years and they were tough.  Well, it so happened that a nephew came to visit them one fall day from the city, and he took out his camera to take a picture of his weather worn aunts, with the barn and the chicken coop and the rusted machinery in the background.  The aunts just stood there, strait and stiff for the picture.  The nephew took a picture and later sent them a copy.  The old aunts just loved that photograph, and they decided to use it for a Christmas card that year.  At the top of their picture, they put the words, Merry Christmas, in bold, black letters.  And at the bottom of the picture, in big bold letters were the words:  God is with us in our mess.

That is the message of Christmas.  It is that God is with usÖin our messÖbecause that is the only way that life is found. You see, there is no place you can go where life is not messed up.  Do any of you know of anyplace in the whole world where it is not messed up?  If you know of such a place, would you tell me and I will tell others, and the whole world will go there and that place will be messed up.  There is no place where you can go where life is not messed up.  If you stay in a place long enough or with a family long enough or with a person long enough, you will discover the hidden or not so hidden messes.  The message of Christmas is not that God protects us from the messes of life.  It is not that we are somehow insulated from the messes of life, but rather in the very messiness of life, messed up marriages and messed up families and a messed up culture, God is still Emmanuel, God is still with us, giving us strength and understanding and wisdom to live in this messed up world inside us and around us.  Emmanuel!  God is with usÖin our mess and messes.

God is with us, with our messed up marriages, families and personal lives.  I look at the mess I can make of our home.  I look at the messes I can make of my wife and kids self.  I look at the messes that people can make of their own lives, and it is good to know that the message of Christmas is Emmanuel, that God is with us in our messes, that God does not leave us alone with our messed up lives. Ö  It is good to know that God does not only come to us when we are good or perfect. I know of no perfect marriages, no perfect families, and no perfect people, not one. Ö God does not desert us when our marriages are sick or tired or worn out or washed up.  God does not take a vacation from us if we have fallen out of love with our partner.  God is there when our marriages get in trouble, in order to comfort us, strengthen us to handle those moments and give us healing for our sick marriages. Ö  It seems to me what we often want God to do is deliver us from our messes. We want God to get us out of a jam.  God does not protect us from the messes of life.  There is no place that you can go on this earth where life is not a mess or soon will be.  God has promised to give us strength and power to our marriages that are messed up.  God takes our messed up marriages and comes into our marriages and is with us in our marriages and teaches us how to love each other, how to forgive each other, how to be gentle with your husband and wife. 

God comes into our lives that are messed up by death and illness. How I wish that God would protect us from illness and death.  There is so much illness and death all around us we canít escape it.  You know that and so do I.  This past week, another tragedy struck.  Mark Jerstad, a friend of mine from college and seminary, died of cancer.  How terrible.  How awful, for Sandy, Mark and the children and everybody else associated with his death.  How they and we prayed that God would deliver Mark from cancer and death, but it didnít happen.  Those of you who have been in this situation know that God comes into your life to be with you, to be Emmanuel, to give you the strength and wisdom to live through times like these, no matter how terrible or awful.  God grieves with you and me; God strengthens us, and as time goes by, God will miraculously heal our broken hearts.  That is true.  That is so true.  I can tell you first hand of story after story of how God healed broken hearts for the future.  O yes, there are scars and memories and the pain hurts like nothing else, but God can still heal hearts broken by disease and death.  God comes to be with us, when life is messed up by death and disease.

God is with us when our society gets messed up, and our culture is certainly messed up here in the United States.  Our family system is deteriorating.  The values and morals are declining.  The environment is being polluted and the oceans are slowly rising and glaciers are slowly receding because of increasing heat smothering the earth.  Americans have never been so rich and poor at the same time, with unimaginable wealth among the few and more than 20% of our children in poverty.  There is no doubt in our minds that our society is messed us, fouled up, screwed up, like it always has been.  The beautiful thing is that God will not desert our society when we are messed up.  God will not abandon us.  We will experience the negative consequences of our messed up morals and messed up values and messed up environment and messed up poverty, but God will be with us as God punishes us, as God allows us to experience the painful consequences of our poor choices.  That God allows us to experience the painful consequences of poor choices is not that God had abandoned us, but that God is really with us.  If you love a child, you are with them, even when they experience the painful consequences of their decisions.  O yes, God is Emmanuel, God is with us in all circumstances of our lives.

Tonight is such a sacred night, a holy night.  Tonight is the night in which we celebrate the birth of the Son of God, whose very name was Emmanuel.  And once again God was faithful and is faithful to his promises that began with Father Abraham and has continued throughout all of history and throughout all of your personal history:  Godís name is Ö Emmanuel.  What you believe about Godís name affects the way you and I live our daily lives.  Amen.  

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