For many years, the concept of “Immanuel” – God with us – has been the cornerstone of my personal advent reflections. This idea that God would debase himself to take on human form in the shape of an infant is mind-boggling. To go from the All-knowing, All-powerful, All-good Creator of the universe, to a squalling, completely helpless baby lying in a dirty manger – it takes your breath away if you think about it for long.
This year, the focus of my personal advent has been the idea of Jesus coming as the answer to the exile of His people. Although the Jews were living in the land that had been given to their forefathers, they still had a pronounced sense of being in exile. They were under foreign rule – the Romans extracting high price from their conquered subjects. The Jews were still looking forward to that time when the Messiah would come and restore them to their rightful place among nations – sovereignty. Their savior would be a battlefield general, who would rise up an army to wipe the Romans from their land. They were looking for another Joshua.
Instead they got this little baby, completely dependent upon his mother’s care. A baby born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth, who became an itinerant preacher, teacher, and healer. He did some shocking things, surprising in their audacity and the claim that lay behind them. He died at the hands of the Romans (at the behest of the Jewish leaders who had taken a distinct dislike to his tendency to call them out of their comfortable self-righteousness). This? This is the Messiah? The one who will save? What happened to exile?
What many of the Jews didn’t understand was that God came, not to rescue them from the political exile in which they found their country, but to deliver them from the spiritual exile that their false idols (and yes, even the Law can become a false idol) had created. There was no more opportunity to walk in the Garden with their Creator, because they had besmirched themselves to the point that God’s holiness couldn’t have them near. They had to use rigorous rituals and specially-anointed priests in order to communicate with the God of their forefathers. Sitting on a mountain like Moses, or hearing the voice of God like the prophets – these were stories from the past. Idolatry had sent the people into such a spiritual exile from which they were completely incapable of freeing themselves.
And so, a baby came. Immanuel into exile. This baby, who took upon himself all the sins of the world to make it possible for us to come before the Creator ourselves. This rabbi, whose very presence was an affront to the Temple hierarchy, taught us not only how to live, but gave us the reason and impetus for connection with God. This man, crucified as a criminal, and yet death held no power over him. He conquered death with our collective sins on his shoulders. Because of this little, helpless baby, we can have relationship with the Lord of All.
That is love.
God wasn’t looking to set up a new religion. God wasn’t trying to reconnect the exiles to the land they had lost. God was saving the nations from their exile of the heart. God’s heart chases after each one of our own; and we live this refrain – O come, o come, Immanuel.
We live in exile, too. But we don’t have to. As we come to recognize the amazing gift of God With Us – of God’s deep desire for relationship with us – that is when our exile is ended. We have been saved from exile by faith in Jesus Christ.
Amen and amen.