J. Philip Wogaman: “God Is with Us”
“She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet. Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel which means ‘God is with us.’”
Emmanuel, God is with us. Everything about the promise and expectation of Advent, everything about the glory of Christmas, is contained in those words. We look to Emmanuel, God with us. The one who is coming but who already has come. God with us. Everything about our faith depends upon that. That God is with us.
That can be so hard to believe. Tell those words to somebody here today who has just lost a loved one and now there is a great gaping hole in their life which previously had been filled with companionship and laughter and love. Tell that to one who has just suffered a bitter disappointment. Tell that to one who has suffered unspeakable abuse. Tell that to one who is weighted down with a load of sin and broken in spirit. Tell that God is with us. And yet as we look toward the one that is coming in the manger, we know that that one in the manger is the one who died on the cross there for us. God is with us.
Can God be with us in the midst of all of the turmoil in the nation, and the world, in our time? When Dean Baxter wrote inviting me to preach this Sunday, the letter was back in July and it included these words: “A sermon message of national import.” Is anything of national import happening? I think Dean Baxter, not only are you a prophet by virtue of your name, Nathan, you are very prescient.
How are we to speak to our nation and the world at a time when we are gripped by impeachment, by bombs falling in Iraq, by deep turmoil here and abroad, in our nation and in the world? How are we to speak that God is with us?
****The other day when the military operation in Iraq began my thoughts went back to this Cathedral in 1991. We had a son who was in the Gulf War and my wife and I came here quietly to pray. Our son’s name appeared in a little prayer book over in Bethlehem Chapel. We walked through this place quietly, and prayed. And this Cathedral, because it is a cathedral of God, ministered to us then. How deeply we worried, would our son come back? He came back and he is there [points to front row]. But as we prayed and felt the presence of God, as we prayed for our son, we had to remember in that prayer the fathers and mothers of Iraq. And to know that they had sons and daughters who might be killed.
Acknowledgment of God’s presence is acknowledgment of love. We do not know the solutions to the problems facing the world. Places like Iraq we struggle and sometimes see only in a glass darkly. We know that God is present in us in love and in every effort that can be made toward securing a world in which war will be no more. God is with us.
And what of the impeachment crisis? Two days ago there appeared in the Washington Post an article that summarized in this lead paragraph the feelings that many of us must have had.
“A decade of destructive partisanship, personal attack, win-at-all-cost politics has crystallized in Washington this week and the question that no one can begin to answer is where will it end. The extraordinary events of the past 48 hours suggest that the simple civilities that once helped to lubricate the rough game of politics are being swept away.” (Dan Balz, “One Week Defines Partisan.” The Washington Post, 12/18/98)
How much bitterness? How much poison in the air? How deeply divided?
I want to read what I am going to say because I want the words to be spoken precisely.
Should the President be now removed from office? I cannot and do not believe so. I believe it would be a great tragedy. Others may disagree. There are others who do disagree. All of us should acknowledge that we can be wrong. But upon this we must agree: Love is not a soft and useless virtue, it is the virtue without which there is no other virtue. The God who is Emmanuel to us is love to us, and it is this Emmanuel who alone can see us through. Already the process [of investigation and impeachment] has polarized the nation and deepened the hurt and resentment of many people. But God really is with us. The love of God can see us through, perhaps in ways none of us can quite imagine.
And thus the Cathedral’s theme “Hope and Repentance.” Hope in God’s presence in love; repentance, a turning around to be in the life of love. We so quickly need moral renewal in our time, in our land. How remote love seems from so many of the facts of our own personal lives and of our corporate life as a people. Yet moral renewal cannot come on the back of a vindictive spirit. Moral renewal can only rise on the wings of love. And so our repentance is informed by our hope. We repent because God has called us in love and toward love. We come to the close of Advent, to the birth of Christ at Christmas. In some respects it may seem such a surreal time…and yet, my good friends, if the love of Christmas, of Emmanuel, of “God with us” means anything at all, it is that God is present with us in the midst of all of the heartache and all of the pain to lead us home.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.