Thought for the Week 13th December 2020

Spoiler Alert!

(by Rev Paul Graham)

Read Matthew 1:18-25

In 1997, the film “Titanic” was released to great critical acclaim. People flocked to the cinemas to watch it two, three, even four times, helping to make it the highest grossing film of all time (at that time). James Cameron collected armfuls of accolades, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were feted by the media and we all had to put up with Celine Dion’s heart going on… and on… and on… as people kept her song at the top of the charts for far longer than the original voyage would have taken had it not been for that iceberg.

One side note which may have been missed was a complaint from one irate correspondent (which I cannot find despite the best efforts of Mr Google and similar search engines). The source of their ire? A news report that included in their synopsis of the film the sinking of the ship. Remarkably, our furious letter-writer felt that this had spoiled the surprise for them.

Aside from their incredible lack of historical knowledge (really, is there anyone over the age of 7 who doesn’t know about the Titanic?), this event gave rise to the phenomenon known as “the spoiler” – where information is given out to those who don’t know what’s going to happen by those who have already experienced or seen it. On TV and radio, we are given spoiler alerts when hosts are discussing the latest departures from Strictly, Bake Off, or whichever elimination programme is currently being shown.

Today’s reading must be one of the earliest examples of a spoiler alert – Matthew’s helpful interpretation for us of the name given to Jesus: Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

A brief foray into the Hebrew language follows. Please don’t panic at this; I know about as much of this ancient biblical language as I do about the rest of Celine Dion’s recording career. What I do know, however, is that you can split names up into their constituent parts to see how they are constructed. For example, with the judicious additions of a hyphen, we discover that immanu-el can be literally translated as “with us -(is) God”. Other names, all found in the Old Testament, that contain el, are Elijah (God is Yahweh – the Lord), Ezekiel (God will strengthen) and Ishmael (God hears). So, we can see that Jesus is in good company when it comes to referencing God in his name.

However, there is a sticking point to this. At no point did Ezekiel claim that he was God in strong human form, nor did Ishmael claim to be God’s actual listening ear. For a start, Ezekiel was around at a time when God’s strength seemed to be lacking, at least through his chosen people who were taken into exile during Ezekiel’s time. And, as for Ishmael, his name was given in gratitude by his mother Hagar who, though abandoned by Abraham and Sarah, knew that God had responded to her cries for justice.

Equally, a quick trip through Elijah’s biography shows that if he was the embodiment of the lordship of God, then there would certainly be peaks and troughs in the throne room of heaven. From the cowardly complainant to the triumphant fire-starter, Elijah had his moments of victory, but then there were some abject failures as well.

How different then is Matthew’s use of Immanuel as a name for Jesus?

For those with a reference Bible at their side, they will note that Matthew is quoting Isaiah at this point. The parallel verse in Isaiah 7:14 is one of a couple of references to Immanuel in that book[1], both of which are used to illustrate the ways that Jesus was announced by that prophet some centuries prior to his birth. Certainly, Matthew is keen to put Jesus in the context of the Old Testament prophetic history, as you will notice if you read on and compare the number of quotes (and prophets) that Matthew references as opposed to the other gospel writers.

So, not only does Jesus follow the tradition of having a name that invokes some aspect of God’s character (his proximity to humanity), but also was foretold by at least one of the ancient prophets, a hero of his people.

However, we can’t just leave it there. Jesus is so much more than any of the Old Testament greats, even one as fascinatingly flawed as Elijah[2]. Jesus’ name Immanuel isn’t just representative of some abstract response to God’s mercy, or a declaration of God’s strength and authority to challenge those who were turning away from him.

Immanuel is Jesus; Jesus is the God who is with us. Through him, his life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, his love, his grace, his challenge, his authority, his service; through all this and so much more we see God. But not only do we see God; we also meet God.

The power of the name Immanuel isn’t just that we get to see God through Jesus, but we see that others get to know God through their relationships with Jesus. From the first few who responded to his call, through to those who were crucified alongside him, we read of all those people Jesus encountered on the way. And each one of them met the God who is with them.

Of course, we aren’t in the same position as them; for us living in 2020, Jesus’ ascension back into heaven drew a line under his earthly ministry and not even my ancient parents have lived long enough to have been there on that mountaintop. We do have the gift of the Holy Spirit, whose nagging presence reminds us that we’re not quite who we could be, but by his grace and mercy we are hopefully on the right track. What we lack in physical proximity to our Saviour (something we’ve also had to get used to with our families this year), we can at least rely on the Spirit of God to be at our side during the good times and the bad (social distancing rules don’t apply in the spiritual realm).

However, there is a sting in the tail (isn’t there always?).

Immanuel, the God who is with us, also sets us a challenge. For those of us who call ourselves Christians (Christ-a-likes), are we good at reflecting the character of the God who is with us to those we meet? Are we as welcoming of the stranger; willing to challenge the religious establishment when they get it wrong; acting out of radical love for the outcast and the marginalised; putting ourselves at risk of ridicule for declaring that there is more to life than the acquisition and consumption of stuff at the cost of others and their wellbeing; and so on?

We are not Immanuel, but at least we can do more to imitate him. Possibly almost as well as James Cameron’s model of the Titanic…


[1] See also Isaiah 8:8

[2] Though of course they get to meet later on the top of the mountain with Moses – Matthew 17:1-13

(Image by Roger Casco Herrera from Pixabay)