November 12, 2012

Immanuel - Even Today

To those who believe Jesus is the son of God, the alternate name of 'Immanuel' barely registers. At Christmas, we sing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and never linger on the staggering implications.

In ancient times, a name was everything. This crossed cultures, continents, and centuries. Native American tribes often gave naming privileges only to elders of the tribe who had lived long and dreamed specific dreams. Nebuchadnezzar took the younger members of Israelite nobility, then changed their names to reflect Babylonian religious beliefs. Daniel ("GOD is my judge") became Belteshazzar ("prince of Bel" or "Bel, protect the king!"). Hadassah was crowned as Esther in ancient Persia. Song of Solomon speaks of a lover's name being as a sachet of perfume against his beloved's chest. Murders were carried out (then and still today) to maintain the honor of a family's name. Do not confuse 'name' with 'nickname'. It is more appropriate to read 'name' as 'character,' 'heritage,' and 'legacy.'

Immanuel means "God with us." It first occurs in the book of Isaiah, when God foretold through the prophet a young girl then a virgin would give birth to a son, and she would name him, Immanuel.

In the history of the world, empires have risen, thrived, died, and been buried. I know of no culture with gods that lived among the people. Greek and Roman pantheons interacted with humans, but mostly out of sudden whim or desire for mischief, revenge, or other ulterior motive. I believe we are more comfortable with gods that live away from us; we cannot conceive of a deity who can live with us day after day, yet still be noticeably different from us. When Nebuchadnezzar asked his soothsayers to tell him his dream before telling him the interpretation (nice little check and balance, there, wasn't it?), the astrologers told him, "No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men." [emphasis mine]

Keep all this in mind as we think of Immanuel. I believe Jesus died on a Roman cross, rose from the dead on the third day, and ascended into heaven more than a month after that. I don't think he has set physical foot on earth since then, but the name hasn't changed: God with us. Not "God was with us, but not anymore" or "God will only be with us if we're good enough" or "God can't possibly be with 7 billion people at one time." No. "God with us."

He lived among us, breathed oxygen (and carbon dioxide and airborne impurities and germs, just as we do), got blisters, knew long-term exhaustion, was hungry, thirsty, devastated, and probably even had digestive problems a time or two. Yet somehow, in the muddiness and messiness of life, looking no different at a casual glance from any other Nazarene (remember they didn't have that convenient glowing circlet over his head to identify him to strangers), he was still completely 'other.' He wasn't a pious, uncomfortable-to-be-around person who always has the Sunday-school answer, who only has prayer requests about needing to pray more on behalf of those who "don't yet know the love of Jesus." He was real. He irritated others, questioned, frustrated people, baffled them, got angry, begged to do something other than what God was asking him to do, broke rules, got dusty, was told by the spiritual heavies in his day that he was a heretic, and was eventually tried on an invented charge so that Rome would execute him. (Those who really wanted him gone didn't have the legal right to do it.)

I'd love to believe that I would recognize Jesus in person, but my life choices more often reflect a heart that seeks to be away from tense times and situations. I like to think I know best, and I don't particularly like my viewpoint being challenged. How would I feel if Bible knowledge I had from my great-grandfather (passed down through my grandfather, uncles, and father) was suddenly dismissed as incorrect? Nichole Nordeman's song, "Wide-Eyed" has a powerful lyric in the bridge of the song: "Not so long ago/ A man from Galilee/ Fed thousands with his bread/ And his theology/ And the truth he spoke/ Quickly became a joke to educated, self-inflated Pharisees like me?"

In all this, Jesus is still -- through the offices of the Holy Spirit -- God with us. Paul writes that from him (meaning Christ) and by him and through him were all things created. There is nothing that exists that came into existence without him. Consider the created world to be the largest one-artist show we will ever see. Study his works; learn to identify his brushstrokes. I believe with all my heart that Immanuel always gives me what is needed to find him -- hear him, see him, recognize him -- in every moment of my life. There is always enough of what I need, no matter where I am or what circumstances I am in, to get home. I just need to be still long enough to find Immanuel.

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