In Advent we’re brought face to face with two backdrops, two landscapes or pictures of life; the human and the heavenly; life that is of the earth and life that is of the spirit. Why is Jesus called ‘Emmanuel’? What is the purpose of his coming to be with us? It’s much more than just ‘saving us from our sin’. A really smart, really powerful God could certainly figure out how to do that without actually coming and ‘being with us.
But Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. God choosing to move into the nitty-gritty, daily grind of our daily lives. Making the ‘stuff’ of our daily lives, the places where we work, we live, we love, we pay taxes and we die; making those places full of meaning and purpose. Through Jesus, God has chosen to live and move, to make his home among us. God has moved into our neighborhood and into our very existence and into every area of our lives.
A census is not all bad. It’s simply the civic way of getting a handle of who, where, how and how many people live in specific areas of the country, a necessary accounting for all governments, even today. So that’s the secular, the ‘human’ backdrop of what was going on. Now let’s look at this picture from another view.
Let’s call this the ‘heavenly’ view. The setting with the barn and the manger, outside of town, and in the open fields nearby, with shepherds and sheep, farmland. And, then you have Mary and Joseph setting up, and the baby is born. He’s probably put into an animal trough with straw or hay, what we always hear of as ‘the manger’.
Jesus, human – like us, but also ‘divine’ because he has come to bring heaven down into our world, to be the presence of ‘God with us’. This coming of Jesus to be the presence of God with us is still real and important today, almost 2000 years later. The church around the world is evidence of that. The fact that nearly everyone, Christian or not, knows this story is evidence of that. All of us gathered together here, gathered together two days before Christmas are evidence of that.
This Jesus who never wrote a book, never directed a play, never ran a big business, was never elected to office – this same Jesus has had more books written about him than any other person in history.
He has come into the world to bring peace, to bring hope. And, that hope is for you and for me. Jesus lives today. He lives in our hearts. He lives to intervenefor us, to help make your life have sense and purpose and meaning.
What do we say in our liturgy? ‘Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.’ Like that first coming of Emmanuel, God with us. That’s our heritage as Christians. That’s how we base our faith. Our faith is based on a historical reality. Jesus really did come, and he really did show us that God is with us.
And, that historical reality has a present tense – Jesus is still coming to us and still showing us that God is with us… Faith is living our lives with Jesus, the living Christ, and the one who shows us that God is with us. As John 1:17 says: He has come to live among us.
That’s what Advent and Christmas is. The ‘heavenly’ story is still there, the one that gives meaning to our ‘human’ story. The secular backdrop is still there, too – census-taking, business-making, sheep-herding, inn-keeping, gift-giving. But the story that gives our human lives heavenly meaning, that Jesus Christ has come into the world to show us that God is with us, born as child in a manger, but living among us still.
Come away, come away, and come today to Bethlehem.
Come adore on bended knee, one whose birth the angels sing.
Come away; come away, from your noisy celebration, to a place of quietness and peace.
Come with wonder, come with awe. Take your place among sheep and cattle.
Sing with joy, praise God, for the time of promise has come. Sing the good news of Emmanuel: God-with-us! The Christ has come!
Come away, come away, come today to Bethlehem.
(A Litany for Christmas Eve, from Bread for the Journey, Ruth C. Duck, ed.)