Every Christmas season we return to familiar texts to remind us of the Christmas story. We read through Matthew and Luke, like we have tonight to relive the majesty and wonder of those moments. We read from Micah and from Isaiah to remind us that the birth in Bethlehem was part of God’s eternal plan. It was an event predicted centuries before it happened.
As we read through these familiar texts again and again something happens. We begin hearing the words but they no longer carry any impact. We know the story, we know the prophecies and so we can easily put our brains into neutral and coast. I want to challenge that tonight. I take you to Isaiah 7:14, a familiar prophecy that is quoted in Matthew chapter 1.
“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)
This evening I want to deliberately stop and ask an important question: What do the words mean? A good many people spend their time in this verse focusing on the Virgin birth. It’s a valuable and very interesting study, but my concern is not with Mary, but the baby. What does this name, “Immanuel- God with us” tell us about Jesus? I am convinced that a thoughtful reflection on the words will reveal truth that sets us free . . . truth that will stimulate our worship and our joy this Christmas season. I suggest three truths from this title, “Immanuel”.
GOD IS WITH US – NOT AGAINST US
As you look around at the majesty and glory of creation, and even as you look at the spectacular events at Bethlehem when Jesus was born, it is easy to see that God is above us. His power is evident. He is greater and stronger than any thing or any one we have ever known. As you read through the commands of God in the law it is easy to believe that God is against us. He has commanded and we have disobeyed. But in the coming of Jesus we see that God is with us and for us.
In politics there are certain groups you want to have “with” you. You may want the unions, or Big business, or the religious right, or the maybe the Liberal lobby on your side. Whatever your constituency, you will need them behind you to get elected. If they are against you . . . you are in trouble.
If we want to enjoy life, we need to have God on our side. We want Him with us, and not against us. Jesus makes this possible. The life of Jesus pointed us to the light. His death was in our place and on our behalf. He died because of your sin and mine. As the Son of God, His life was valuable enough to trade for our lives. His death set us free from the penalty that we deserved.
But even the sacrificial death of Christ didn’t make us friends . . . we still needed the resurrection. When Jesus rose from the dead we saw that the birth, the words, and the actions did come from one who was God in the flesh. The resurrection proved that Jesus was who he said he was. The resurrection opened the door to eternal life for you and me.
The moment we believe these truths, the moment we trust ourselves to what He has done for us, at that moment we become part of His family. The moment we receive His gift we move from being God’s enemies to God’s friends. God is no longer against us . . . .He is FOR us. He is not only with us but He also promises that some day we will be with Him in resurrected life in Heaven.
Norman Vincent Peale tells a story of the early days of his ministry. He was in Brooklyn, New York. One Christmas Eve he was out visiting some families, and he walked by a doorway. He noticed that on the door was the red ribbon of Christmas and a black wreath of mourning. While the people who lived there were not parishioners of his, he decided he would call on the family.
So he knocked on the door, and the father of the family came tot the door. Dr. Peale introduced himself and was invited in. He sought to give condolences to the family, and he saw in the sitting room a small casket where a 6-year-old girl was lying in state. He expressed his sympathy to the father, and this father said, “Dr. Peale, its’ going to be all right, for she is with God, you know.”
While they were talking, Dr. Peale could hear the mother of the family reading the Bible to two little boys of the family, and he heard her reading these words: “Because I live, you shall live also.” Christ’s love is for keeps, whatever comes.
This is such an important message to hear. Do you feel God is out to get you? Have you had a rough year? Has this been a difficult Christmas season? Maybe you’ve sensed that God must be mad at you. If so, I suggest that you look back to Bethlehem and realize that God wants to have a relationship with You. In the manger He has extended His hand and His invitation.
Maybe you haven’t been in church since Easter, or even last Christmas. Even so, God still wants to save you. Maybe you have done many things that you knew were wrong. Christmas proclaims God’s desire to forgive you and make you new. Maybe this has been a year of one struggle after another. You feel like God has opposed you every step of the way. Is it possible that God might be trying to get your attention? Is it possible that God might be trying to deepen your faith and get you to trust Him rather than your own devices and schemes.
God loves you. He always has. In Christ He reaches out to you. The next move is up to you. Why not make this the Christmas when you and God become friends?
GOD IS WITH US RATHER THAN SOMEWHERE ELSE
In the Old Testament during the time of the Exodus and the journeys in the wilderness, whenever the children of Israel set up camp they put the the tabernacle or the dwelling of God, right in the middle of the camp. They wanted God to be in their midst. And we want the same thing.
There is a feeling in many hearts and minds that God is distant and detached from His people. People talk all the time about their attempts to “find” God. But God is not hiding. He is not distant. He has drawn close to us through Jesus. Christmas is the account of God taking on the form of man. He lived as we do. He is not detached and unsympathetic, He understands from firsthand experience.
One of the fun things about the Toy Story movies and the animated film Antz is that they allow us to imagine a world that is foreign to us. We are not toys, we are not insects, we are above these things. We would have no idea what the world of these things was really like. Now, please understand that I don’t for a minute believe that toys talk to each other when we aren’t looking or that ants are really just like us only smaller, but, these movies do allow us to “walk in their shoes” for a little while. It allows us to experience these worlds.
It’s a poor analogy (but the only one I have right now) but God is above us as well. He is the creator, not the created. But for a period of time He became as one of the created. He lived as we do. He experienced what we experience. He was not distant . . . He walked among us. Chuck Swindoll wrote,
Emmanuel. God with us. He who resided in Heaven, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, willingly descended into our world. He breathed our air, felt our pain, knew our sorrows, and died for our sins. He didn’t come to frighten us, but to show us the way to warmth and safety.
— Charles Swindoll in The Finishing Touch. Christianity Today, Vol. 40, no. 14.
When Jesus went into Heaven He did not desert us again. Instead He gave us His Spirit to live with us, to guide us, to comfort us and to assure us of His presence and His love. God is no absentee landlord. In the last book of the Bible we read these powerful words,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Revelation 21:1-3)
God is not absent. He is with us. And someday, He will not only be with us . . . but we will also be with Him.
GOD IS WITH US – WE ARE NOT ALONE
During this last year I have had the chance to walk with many people down the path of grief. In almost every case the grieving person just needs someone to be with them every now and again. They need someone who will share their sorrows and their pain. They want someone to help them through the times of transition and someone who will listen to them when they need to talk or when they need to cry.
Irvin Yalom, a well-known psychiatrist, did a study on what is the real power that invites people to change in a counseling relationship. He discovered that the most change occurred when a client really felt cared for—no matter what model of counseling was used. That says something powerful. Even Job’s friends sat with him for seven days and said nothing. Then they started talking and blew it. There is just the matter of being with the other person. Letting him know, “I’m with you.”Discipleship Journal : Issue 67. 1999 (electronic ed.). Colorado Springs: The Navigators/NavPress.
Jesus is with us in this sense. He is with us so that we don’t have to face the tough times of life alone. Jesus told us “I am with you always, even to the end of the earth.” He will not “leave us or forsake us.” He walks with us, He holds our hand, He dries our tears.
This life sometimes can be terribly cold. Sometimes the bitter winds of disappointment and pain make us feel desperately alone. But in these times we remember the promise of God.
Isa. 41:10 Fear not for I am with you, do not be dismayed for I am your God, I will strengthen you and help you and uphold you by my righteous right hand.”
These are not just trite words, they reveal a commitment on God’s part. Let me give you an illustration. As you may know, my father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Any time we go places as a family someone has to “keep an eye on dad.” When we go to a mall someone needs to “stay with dad.” At times dad will do things that are inappropriate. At times he will wander off. At times he gets something in his head and it takes all the creativity you can muster to get him to think differently. It is frustrating. It takes commitment and love to keep working with my dad. It is easier to throw up my hands (and sometimes I do that).
Do you see that we are allot like an Alzheimer’s patient? We get things in our head and we plow ahead no matter what anyone (including God) says to us. We wander off. We get distracted easily. But God is with us. He will continue to work with us, to direct us, to support us. When those around us throw up their hands in frustration or despair, the Lord does not. He remains with us. He will make sure that we get home safely.
I hope this realization helps you. Because God is “with you”,
- you can face cancer
- you can face loss
- you can face broken relationships
- you can face financial reversals
- you can face devastating legal decisions
- you can face the betrayal of those you trusted
- you can face the ridicule and meanness of the crowds
- you can even face Alzheimer’s disease
Though others turn away, He will not. If you belong to Him He has promised that no matter what comes up along the way . . . He will not rest until you arrive home.
What I hope you see tonight is that the spectacular story of the miraculous birth of a baby in Bethlehem, the visit of the Shepherds, the songs of the angels, and the journey of the Magi is a story that should fascinate us and stir our hearts. But it shouldn’t stir our hearts merely because it is a great story. This story should stir our hearts and lead us to worship because of what the story means to our daily lives. The coming of Jesus into the world means,
- God is not our enemy He wants to be our friend
- God is not detached and distant but is involved in our lives
- God cares about us and stands with us in the tough times of life.
In Guideposts in 1997 Isabel Wolseley wrote,
[My husband] came back down from the attic for another load of decorations. “Haven’t you finished packing up the manger?” he asked.
“I think we’ll just leave it out this year,” I answered. “Sometimes the world seems out of control and Christmas seems very far away. When it does, we can look at the mantel and remember that God is with us and that He’ll make good on His promise of peace.”
It’s really not a bad idea when you think about. In a couple of days another Christmas will be over. Decorations will be taken down and the grind of daily life will resume. We must do something to remember that the message and meaning of Christmas does not cease when the celebration is over. Christmas is not really about a celebration, Christmas trees, and piles of gifts. Christmas, the coming of Christ, is about everyday life. God is with us and we need to do anything we can, to remember that fact the rest of the year.