"The Timelessness of Immanuel"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 19, 2004

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Isaiah 7:10-16

     One of the most difficult aspects of living, even among those of us who consider ourselves disciples of Jesus, is keeping our minds centered on how intimate God is with each of us.  The eyes of the universe are everywhere.  God not only knows every thought we think, God also knows every deed that we do whether under the cover of darkness or in the light of day.  

     This understanding can be very comforting when we realize that God’s love is so compassionate that God cannot and will not ever abandon us.  While we can trade our anxieties and fears for peace at any moment, few of us do.  Why is that?  Perhaps it is guilt, shame or a sense of our unworthiness.  We know exactly who we are from our interior monitor. 

     When we engage in behavior that would bring embarrassment to us if our deeds became public knowledge, it is because there is so much we have yet to learn.  God understands this. Just as parents are never disappointed in a toddler when he soils his diapers, neither is God disappointed with us.  God would not harshly judge a rose bush, for example, for not having blooms when it is only a young stem in the beginning stages of its growth. We cannot express our full potential when we have not yet learned how.  In spite of our ignorance and immaturity, God’s presence surrounds us every moment. 

     Some time ago a young man tried out and survived all the cuts for his high school football team. While he worked very hard during the practices, he was not as talented as many of the other athletes on the team.  Even though he remained on the sidelines during most games, he would pace back and forth yelling words of encouragement to the others on the field.  He remained highly involved.  At every game his Dad was very audibly rooting for the team as well. 

     One day the coach received word that complications from diabetes had robbed this young man of his Dad’s presence.  The coach was saddened by the death and felt badly that his Dad had not been able to see his son play in more games.  That was just the way it was.  

     The Monday following his Dad’s memorial service, the boy asked his coach if he could start for Friday’s game. The request placed the coach in an awkward decision making process.  Friday’s game was for the division championship.  

     After an evening of inner debate, the coach decided to let the boy start at the halfback position and play for a few series of downs in the first quarter and then pull him out.   He knew that the rest of the team would understand.  They did, of course, particularly the young man who normally played in that position.  During those opening moments of the game, no one had ever seen Jimmy play as aggressively and skillfully as he did.  

     Most of the times he carried the ball he went for four to six yards.  There were moments when he broke tackles and ran for as many as 25 yards.  The entire team was screaming wildly for him including the boy he had replaced.  The coach let him play for most of the game.  They won the division title that night.  Jimmy Ryan’s performance had inspired the entire team.  

     Confused as to where his hustle and skill had been hiding all season, the coach asked the young man the obvious questions, “What got into you out there, son?” He said, “Do you remember the times you watched me walk around the field prior to our practices with my arm linked with my Dad’s?  I was being his guide. My Dad’s diabetic condition had made him blind.  During the championship game, I knew that from somewhere he was watching me.  This was the first time my Dad had the chance to see me play.  I wanted to show him what I could do.” 

     Knowing that God perceives everything about us should inspire enormous confidence.  Our relationship can be sabotaged the moment something entices us to turn our minds and hearts away from God. This happens to us every day.  Every media outlet that we know has trained us with a mentality that focuses on sales, manipulation and exploitation. Attempts are made to inspire our insecurity and a sense of incompleteness unless we go on this vacation, own a particular car, dress a certain way or own the new Silverberry -- which is the latest wireless adult toy for those who need to remain connected to the world with a product the size of a deck of cards.           

     The Isaiah passage for today presents us with an image that is as true today as it was then. In our lesson King Ahaz was terrified because of wars and rumors of wars taking place all around his Kingdom of Judah.  God directed Isaiah to talk to Ahaz. God said, “Tell him to keep alert, to stay calm and not to become frightened or disturbed by all the things that try to evoke his fears. (7:4).  Tell him that if his faith is not enduring, he will not endure.” (7:9a) 

     Ahaz was not moved by Isaiah’s words.  Ahaz simply could not grasp that an invisible God was present and could be trusted.  Isaiah said, “Okay – then ask God for a sign.  Tell God you want some physical evidence that God is not going to abandon you.”  Ahaz remained fearful even to do that and told Isaiah, “I refuse to put the Lord to the test.” 

     Isaiah said to Ahaz, “It is bad enough for you to wear out the patience of people; must you now also wear out the patience of God?”  Isaiah sensed the need of Ahaz and others to receive some physical confirmation of God’s presence, so he gave them one.  He told Ahaz, “The Lord himself will give you a sign:  a young woman will become pregnant and have a son. She will name him ‘Immanuel.’”   That name means, “God is with us.”   

     How different life would become for most of us if we could trade our fears, insecurities and uncertainties for trust in the constant presence of God.  What is it about our relationship with God that makes Sunday mornings our time of primary focus? Our self-perception determines our behavior, and when God is not a vital part of that equation, we are easily seduced into placing our faith in values that cannot sustain the qualities represented by our four Advent Candles:  Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. 

     No matter where our circumstances take us, we can enter them with peaceful, trusting confidence, as did Mary and Joseph when they were confronted with a crowded inn.  If we take that story further, we learn how the family was impacted by the arrival of three astrologers bearing very expensive gifts.  We might sense the confusion that followed when the new family had to flee into Egypt.  They were not prepared to understand the meaning of any of these events, but one thing was never in doubt – God’s presence.  That thought, held in suspension, sustained their peace and confidence. 

     The date was December 22, 2001, and the place was Appleton, a rural community in southwest South Carolina.  In a small community hospital there was a four-year old girl with a rare condition that was deteriorating by the hour.  She was too ill to transport and the medical staff predicted that she would be gone by morning.  No one had the skill to deal with this condition.  They had called major medical centers in Augusta, Greenville, Columbia and Charleston.  The recommendation was the same – “Take the child to Children’s Hospital in Boston.” 

     The family of the girl, nevertheless, was filled with hope and remained steadfast in their trust in God.  Surprisingly, they were not praying for a miracle; they were only focused on God’s presence as they approached what appeared to be inevitable – the death of their daughter.  Even their pastor, who was patiently waiting with them, could only comfort them with his presence. 

     There was a woman in the same hospital that had just delivered a son several hours earlier.  Her brother and his wife had gathered with her family to celebrate the new arrival.  They intended to stay at his sister’s place through the New Year.  This new mother’s brother was returning from the bathroom when he heard two physicians discussing the girl’s condition.

     He stopped and inquired.  As the two were explaining the situation, the one doctor said, “The guy who wrote the book on this condition operates at Children’s in Boston.  His answering service said he is out of town.  Since it’s Christmas, only one of his team is on call and he wants us to immediately  fly the girl to Boston. She’s too weak and would not tolerate the flight.”  The brother asked, “What’s the name of the out-of-town specialist?”  “Peter Clemenson,” he said. 

     The brother’s eyes got big and said, “As incredible as this may seem to you, that’s me. Let’s go.  Brief me on the way.  We’re vacationing with my sister who just delivered my nephew five hours ago.  Can you assemble an anesthesiologist and a surgical team?” You’ll have to fudge on hospital protocols; this little girl’s life is at stake.”  The astonished doctors smiled, looked at each other and said, “What protocols?”  

     They were prepped and performing surgery within the hour. The hospital was buzzing with the news of the drama unfolding in the O.R.  Everyone on this makeshift surgical team readily volunteered to help and to observe this specialist as he did his thing.     

     It was the worst case Clemenson had ever seen because the condition had defied diagnosis for a long time.  Peter Clemenson gave that family a blessed Christmas gift that afternoon.  Following five additional visits to Children’s Hospital in Boston, Sarah Ann Cummings is  now in the second grade and doing well in Appleton.  

     We could ask, “What are the odds?”  Think of it -- the timing had to be perfect for this drama to come together, even Doctor Clemenson’s walk from the men’s room had to coincide precisely with a discussion between two physicians about a dying child. There are no odds.  What was visible to the participants was God’s presence.  Only those with the eyes of faith could have understood this. 

     Life offers us very few things that are absolutely assured.  Yes, the sun rises and sets, and the orbit of the earth around the sun can give us precise dates for solar and lunar eclipses.  Yet, in the areas of life dominated by our relationships, work, health, economics or finding our individual purpose and meaning, life is far from certain. 

     We were invited by Jesus to practice the ways of salvation right where we find ourselves.  This is what Isaiah wanted King Ahaz to understand.  We must step forth in simple trust that God’s love surrounds us in spite of the outcome. 

     Was this not the Divine intent for Jesus coming into our world – the sign and gift of Immanuel? Is this not why we lighted all four of the Advent candles today?  We citizens of the world constantly need reassurance that God is with us even though our eyes typically focus only on the often-troubling physical aspects of the world. 

     In an email I received this week from a friend in Inwood, West Virginia, she wrote, “I have been watching all the Christmas movies that I have time to see.” We are so saturated with the miserable news of this world that we hunger for stories about love’s presence.  Secret Santa, for example, had a wonderful message on Friday evening.  There is something inspiring about the mystery, magic and mystical nature of love’s presence when it expresses itself and seeks nothing in return.  

     It is an incredible story that God would so love each of us that God would send into our world a physical sign of God’s 24/7 presence.  We will celebrate the arrival of that sign in six more days.  The spirit of love remains invisible.  When love became visible 2,000 years ago for most of humanity, it was simply another ordinary day.   

     A young boy played inspired football because his Dad was finally able to see him perform.  This is how inspired each of us can become before God while living our lives.  A doctor who came at precisely the right moment from Boston to Appleton, South Carolina, is another miracle. Yet are these really miracles? 

     When we stay alert, we might see that such miracles happen all the time. Yet to observe such things we must perceive God’s presence with the intuition of our hearts not with the vision of our eyes.  Intellect and logic will never define for us the timelessness of Immanuel, but God is with us just the same whether we believe it or not.  That is Good News.


    How grateful we are, O God, that you created us with the ability to experience peace.  We confess that so often we surrender to our passions.  When our world is not the way we would prefer, we sacrifice peace on the altars of our unhappiness.  Peacefulness sounds so wonderful, yet we confess that it is often misunderstood.  We do not want to appear aloof, uninvolved and unconcerned.  Yet Jesus led the way for us.  When he realized his needs, he often withdrew into the solitude found in the hills.  It is easy to lose our way with all that life brings to us.  Help us to follow Jesus into our inner temples of stillness where our spirits may be restored.  Amen.


    Loving God, all of us celebrate on this fourth Sunday of Advent the marvelous gift you gave to humanity in Bethlehem.  While humanity remained locked within the cares of everyday experiences, you gave us a reflection of yourself.

    As your seed continues to sprout and evolve within our minds, so does our understanding.  When Jesus was born, few people were aware that true wealth cannot be found in gold and silver, nor in possessions that thieves can break in and steal.  Few people understood that true power was not located in their authority or responsibilities.  Few people knew that the Law was useless in perfecting a spirit that could still troubled waters.  Few people understood that we grow by giving away our gifts of kindness, forgiveness and friendship.  When Jesus came and taught his listeners about such things, centuries later we were left with a window through which to view who you created all of us to be.  We thank you for that window.

    We know that there are people for whom this season is a challenge.  Bless those who are working through unexpected transitions.  Bless with peace those who remain anxious about loved ones locked in difficult circumstances that remain beyond their control.  Bless those who have misplaced their faith and cannot believe anymore.  May something touch their lives during this season with a love that expects nothing in return. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .