I wish to meditate just for a few moments on one text in Matthew’s Gospel.
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
This singular text carries with it the force of redemptive history. The term “Immanuel” is used first in Isaiah’s prophecy. It appears three times in Isaiah. It’s Isaiah’s personal language for God. No other author uses it. And in fact, the majority of Isaiah’s prophecy of 66 chapters focuses on whether God is Immanuel or not. That is, is God with us or not? And Isaiah makes a case for how God is with us in the Old Testament, but it’s a shadowed presence. Yes, God appears, but then He goes away. Isaiah is prophesying a time when God will appear and never go away. The Jewish people grabbed on to this promise.
Matthew’s Gospel comes along centuries later and revives Isaiah’s term, Immanuel. In fact, only Matthew uses this term. It doesn’t show up anywhere else in the New Testament. The reason for this is that Matthew has a very special connection to the prophet Isaiah. One can say that Isaiah is Matthew’s mentor so that when Matthew writes his gospel he is very interested to let us know that God is no longer with us in a veiled fashion, but now in human form. As Charles Wesley observes: Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
Advent has to do with waiting for a presence, not an appearance; a human in the flesh, not a theophany. “Immanuel” speaks to the permanence of Messiah. There is a with-us dimension to the ministry of our Lord. The incarnation is an incarnation grounded in a with-us theology; the nearness of God.
The Advent Season is a meditation on God’s with-us attitude towards his creation. He chose to be with us. We do not worship a deistic God. We do not worship a God who created and abandoned, but a God who created and dwelt in it. His name is Immanuel. He is with us. What then is Emmanuel for us?
As the 15th-century hymn O, Come, O Come Emmanuel, attests, Emmanuel is the solution to our lonely exile: “that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.” Emmanuel needs to appear, needs to be with us because we have lived in a foreign land for far too long. But when Immanuel comes he will take us to a new land; he will make us his home so that God is never away from us, but eternally with us.
We often sing only the first five verses, but there are seven verses to this great hymn. The sixth verse is the expectation of Israel put into tender and emotional words:
O Come, O bright and Morning Star,
And bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
And turn our darkness into light.
The reason we want Immanuel is not merely because of theological certainty, it’s also because of emotional security. If God is not Immanuel, we only hope for a distant deity; we may be theologically certain of God, but not emotionally connected to God. But if God is Immanuel—God with us—then our darkness turns into light and our well-being is secure. God is with us; our comforter has come.