It has a haunting melody but the words of ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ certainly pack a powerful punch. Unfortunately, those of us who are cossetted in the cosy familiarity of the Christmas story often miss this because we forget that the name ‘Immanuel’ (meaning ‘God with us’ and spelled with an ‘I’ in the Hebrew) was first given to a child born some seven hundred years earlier.
We can’t be sure who the child was. He might have been one of the king’s or the prophet’s children. Isaiah was trying to convince King Ahaz to put his trust in God at a time of severe national crisis but, like most of us, he was struggling to do just that. And so the prophet told him a young woman would give birth to a child who would be named ‘Immanuel’ in an attempt to encourage his faith.
Amazingly though, several centuries later and some two hundred years before Jesus was born, when the Hebrew text was translated into Greek, the translators rendered the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ to the Greek word for ‘virgin’. How remarkable was that? It’s as if the translators knew what God had planned for the Virgin Mary.
We may not be able to detect his hand at work at the time of course, but we can be sure of one thing: the God who revealed Himself in and through a man born of a virgin has a plan for this world, and nothing can stand in His way. ‘Immanuel’ is a reminder then that we can trust God when things are not going the way we would like them to.
But that is only half the story because the name ‘Immanuel’ is a constant reminder that Jesus identified with people in their pain and their failure, their hopelessness and misguided attempts to discover meaning and a purpose in life.
This is challenging because Christians can easily be tempted to enjoy the cosy comfort of Christian fellowship and to resist the call to mix with those for whom church is an irrelevant or negative concept. The Jesus we see in the New Testament spent His time with the poor, the needy and the messed up. He was a friend of failures and miscreants. The unchurched loved Him as much as the religious were offended by Him. I wonder how much we would have to change as a church if Jesus were truly with us as much as He could be.
And we dare not ignore the vivid contrast between the things we are able to do and the things Jesus did. If Immanuel is truly with us then we should surely be asking: why are we demonstrating so little of His supernatural power? I think it was E.M. Forster in the novel ‘A Passage to India’ who has a character refer to “Poor little talkative Christianity”. I’m not trying to devalue the power of our words of course, but Jesus did much more than talk. As someone once wrote, you simply can’t read the New Testament without being confronted with a supernatural Jesus.
If ever there was a need to cry out for God to do something powerful through us, it is surely now. I guess it’s the reason I find the words of the song so haunting, ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’!