Immanuel Isa 7:10-16; Ps 82; Rev 21:1-8; Matt 1:18-25 St Mark’s 18.12.16
Christmas is that time of the year when people are most likely to feel lonely, but there can be lots of other times too. Such experiences challenge our Bible readings today; they tell us God’s character is Immanuel, “God with us”, and he has the personal name “Jesus”, the one who saves us from our sins (Matt 1:21, 23). Is this true or is it just a religious dimension of the sentimental wishful thinking that characterises most people’s hopes for the festive season?
The Prophetic Present
The promise in Isaiah that a virgin would have a son called “Immanuel”, which means “God with us”, is a favourite Christmas reading. The coming of “God with us” fulfils the desperate longing of faithful Israelites for the sustained presence of the Lord. For example, when God told Moses he personally would not go up with the people into the Promised Land, Moses became very desperate; ““If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here…Is it not in your going with us…that makes us different from every other people on the face of the earth?”” (Ex 33:1-3, 15-16). Moses knew the presence of God is worth more than life itself. I was listening Richard Wurmbrand speaking on a DVD last week. After years of torture and solitary confinement in a communist jail in Romania when he passed through the prison gates Wurmbrand prayed aloud, “God I thank you, not so much for getting me out of prison, but for being with me in prison.” Shut off from every worldy joy Wurmbrand had experienced the truth of Jesus’ promise; “if anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come and make our home with him.” (John 14:23). This is extraordinary, if you and I won’t allow just anyone to come in and live with us how is it possible that a holy God desires to make his home with us? There’s a one word answer to this question…“Jesus”.
The conception of the Son of God in the womb of Mary means “God with us”, means God totally committed to us. In Christ the Almighty is with us in such a way that, “He cannot abandon us any more than he can abandon himself…” (Torrance; 1 John 4:17). The coming of God’s Son as a human being has transformed the situation of lost humanity forever. The glorious scene pictured in our reading from Revelation is no myth, “there is no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain” because “the dwelling place of God is with his people…he will dwell with them…God himself will be with them” (Rev 21:3-4). God’s purposes of eternal peace and joy and love will prevail in his intense presence with his people. Lots of non-Christians have this sort of hope for heaven, but such a hope is not the key Christian message. This is the message, the angel said to Joseph; ““You shall call his name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins?” (Matt 1:21).
“God with us” means that in Jesus God is with us in those lonely places where we feel no one is with us. Studdert-Kennedy was a WWI army chaplain on the Western Front. In his poem “The Comrade God” he suggests a timeless unchanging distant divine being who already knows the future is too remote to empathise with human hopes and fears. He ends his poem with this verse, “Only in Him can I find home to hide me, Who on the cross was slain to rise again; Only with Him, my Comrade God, beside me, Can I go forth to war with sin and pain.” In the blur of crazy Christmas consumption it is obvious most people don’t really believe in this sort of God, the one who wants to be with us forever. And they can never believe it until they have a revelation that God is serious about forgiving sin. It’s easy to promise you will be there for someone, but the test is of every promise is suffering. The seriousness of God’s desire for us to be with him is revealed in Immanuel’s suffering for us on the cross. When the dying Jesus feels forsaken by his Father he is carrying the cost of our rejection of God’s closest presence (Mark 15:34). Only after our eyes have been opened to God’s suffering love in the cross we can look back at the babe in Bethlehem and be grasped by the measureless love of a Father who destined to be “God with us” whatever the cost. Jesus’ death saves us from our sin of NOT wanting to be with him and his Father. It is a real tragedy that the hordes of people in the shopping malls are not interested in eternity; but their attitude doesn’t change God’s seriousness about our destiny.
Wanting to go to heaven my friends is not the same things of wanting to pass on to be with Jesus. Those who do not want Immanuel in their earthly lives will never be with him in the hereafter. Today’s passage from Revelation makes this painfully clear; ““the unbelieving…their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.”” (Rev 21:7-8). Heaven and hell are real for we live with a foretaste of them now.
One of the tragedy’s of our time is suicide; especially youth suicide. Why do people kill themselves? Not to fly to heaven, but because they don’t want to exist anymore. I understand this sentiment completely. I existed for 20 years without Jesus and came to suffer terribly from despair and depression, and no one I knew had the intellectual, moral or spiritual resources to convince me otherwise. But when I had a revelation of Jesus as Immanuel “God with me” everything changed. Christians like to say, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”, but unlike Christmas Jesus’ season isn’t a season that comes and goes but a season that never ends. Immanuel, “God with us”, speaks of the day when the tortures and troubles of this broken world will all be forgotten in the presence of God who “will be everything to everyone” (1 Cor 15:28). In the Spirit of Jesus we can experience now a foretaste of the unconquerable peace and joy he has won for us by his death resurrection and return to his Father’s home in heaven (John 15:27; 17:13; Rom 14:17 cf. 2 Tim 4:8).
The reality of the first coming as Jesus as our Immanuel opens up for us visions of an eternal world where the ravages brought into this earth through sin will all be forgiven and forgotten (Jer 31:34; Rev 21:1ff.). This is ecstatically true but we must not allow the idealistic spirit of Christmas to deceive us about how it becomes true in our experience. Matthew’s Gospel actually speaks twice of Immanuel. The first time is at Jesus’ birth at the beginning of the Gospel, the second time is at the very end of the book when Christ himself commands us, ““Go…and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”” (Matt 28:19-20). The way in which we experience the presence of God with us is through dedicating ourselves to the task of bringing his presence to others. If you turn aside from the compromising comforts of this world to stay close to Jesus whatever the cost you will experience the promise of his continual presence in a way that is far more real than any loneliness (Heb 13:5-6). On this path the benediction which closes our services; “the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you and remain with you always.” isn’t a sentimental wish but a dynamic promise of the sure and certain hope of eternal life.