Immanuel — God With Us

I don’t know how you mark the beginning of the Christmas season, but every year, Christmas season for me begins when I get the first report that someone has gotten pepper sprayed at a Wal-Mart fighting over the latest toy.  That’s when I know that Peace on Earth, good will to man has truly arrived.

            Here we are, six days from Christmas. If you’re like most folks, you’re enjoying a mixture of hustle-bustle and holiday cheer. There’s a lot to do: decorations, baking, cards, shopping, and parties — all to fit in between the other activities of regular life.  But the biggest joy of this time of year is the opportunity to spend some time together with family and friends.  

            Beneath all the coming and the going, the buying and the wrapping, the eating and the cleaning, the talking and the napping, beneath all of this is the desire to be with people we love.  Being with people is perhaps the major reason for the joy of this season.  Nobody wants to be alone for Christmas…and there’s a reason for that. 

            God has created us as creatures of relationship; we need each other. God made us in a way that we need real, genuine relationships with our family, with our friends, with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And all of these relationships stem from the most important relationship that God has wired us for, and that is our relationship with him. 

            This time of year, we see a lot of Nativity scenes. The main figures are Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. This is the focal point of Christmas — the birth of Jesus. But I want you to understand that Christmas is not just about a baby that was born in a stable.  It’s not even just about the Son of God being born as a baby in a stable.  It’s about so much more.  It’s about our relationship with God.

            In Matthew 1, beginning with verse 18, we read, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 

            “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 

            “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:18-23)

            They shall call his name “Immanuel”.  And I appreciate the fact that Matthew tells us the significance of that name.  He tells us what it literally means — “God with us”.

            You’ve all heard that there are three special words that all women want to hear – “I love you”.  And there are three special words that all men want to hear – “I’ve got pizza”.  But, deep down, there are three words that mean more than all the world – “God with us.  This morning, let’s take a closer look at those three precious words.

I.          GOD with us

            The story of the incarnation begins with these words that introduce the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1-2)

            We tend to think of the Christmas season as a season of giving, but it would just as appropriate to view it as a season of giving up.  You see, we worship a great God.  In fact, we could spend hours talking about how great our God is.  He is greater than anyone on the face of this earth.  He is, in fact, greater than the universe.  He is greater than Satan and his forces, greater than all of our problems, greater than death, greater than my sin.  Our God is “greater than.”

            But, in Philippians chapter 2, Paul tells us how this “greater than” God became “lesser than.”  He introduces this topic in verse 5 as he writes, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”

            And then, to show us what the attitude of Christ looks like, Paul continues, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8, NASB)

            Notice the verbs in this passage – Jesus emptied himself, he took the form of a servant, he was made in likeness of men, he humbled himself even to the point of death.  These phrases describe a series of steps downward, a descent, as a “greater than” God willingly chose to become “lesser than”.

            And the center of this thought is the idea that the Son of God “was made in the likeness of men”.  I would suggest to you this morning that this is one of the boldest claims made in religious history.  There is no claim greater than the incarnation – the birth of a God taking on human flesh.  And it is this claim that separates Christianity from all other religions. 

            “He was made in the likeness of men.”  Other translations say, “when he appeared in human form”, or “when he was born to be a man”, or “having become human, he stayed human.”  Those are all different ways to express the incarnation – God taking on human flesh.

            Most of you are familiar with Larry King who passed away earlier this year.  He was known for all of his interviews with famous people — – kings, presidents, celebrities, athletes.  When he got ready to retire, Mr. King was asked who he would like to interview that he has never had a chance to.  Now, keep in mind that Larry King was not a Christian.  But his answer was, “I’d like to interview Jesus Christ.” 

            When he was asked, “What questions would you ask him?” Mr. King said, “I would ask him if he was indeed born of a virgin. The answer to that question would define history for me.” 

            That tells me that Larry King got what so many other people miss when they make the ludicrous statement, “All religions are basically the same.”  Because, if you think that, you haven’t studied other religions.  There is no other religion that teaches that the infinite became finite.  That the invisible became visible.  That eternity squeezed into an embryo.  There is no other religion that can even conceive of such a conception. 

            And everything about Christianity hinges on the truthfulness of this claim, that God appeared as one of us.  In fact, in the early church, you weren’t considered a Christian if you didn’t acknowledge that truth.  The apostle John put it plainly, “By this you know the Spirit of God:  Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” (I John 4:2)

            The claim is not that Jesus appeared as half man and half God.  No, he is Immanuel – God with us. 

            Why in the world would a “greater than” God willingly choose a “lesser than” form of existence?  To appear as a man, the second member of the godhead had to give up certain divine prerogatives.  As Paul said in Philippians 2, “He didn’t consider his equality with God something to be grasped”.  That doesn’t mean he gave up his divine nature, he was still fully God, but it does mean that he laid aside his divine glory.  He emptied himself of all of those attributes that would conflict with his humanity while he was among us.  He gave up his divine privileges and he set them aside for our sake.

            And Jesus did it of his own accord.  He wasn’t pushed out of heaven.  Our text says, he “emptied himself”.  He was totally on board with this incredible plan of God.  And that made him very different from the first man who was placed here on this earth.  You see, Adam believed that equality with God was something to grasp, it was something to take hold of.  He said, “I want to be like God.  I want everything that goes along with being like God.  I want to be ‘greater than’.”  But Jesus said, “I’m willing to give up all those things.”  And instead, he sought to be “lesser than”.

            To the degree that he took a form where he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t feed himself.  He left an existence of perfect joy and perfect love and perfect relationships to come to a world where sin and hatred are the norm.  But it’s not just “GOD with us”, it’s…

2.         God WITH us

            Think about this for a moment.  What do you say to someone you know when they’re suffering?  What do you do when a friend is going through some very difficult, painful times?  And this is an important question.  Because, if you live long enough, I guarantee that you will find yourself in a position where this question is not theoretical.  Someone you love is devastated; they’re going through a time of deep sorrow.  So, what do you do for them?

            Perhaps it’s best to start with what not to do.  It’s usually not a good thing to say things like, “As bad as things, they could always be worse.”  Or, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or, “Don’t worry, you’ll eventually get over it.”  Or, “I know how you feel.” (even though you probably don’t).

            Statements like that may actually increase the pain in someone’s life because they reinforce the feeling that no one really understands.  And some of you may feel that way today. You’re walking around with what feels like a hole in your heart.  And the fact that nobody else can understand what you’re going through only makes it worse.

            Add to that mix a little bit of Christmas “cheer”, and the month of December can be really challenging for some folks.  So, what should we do, what is helpful when our friends experience times of loss or suffering?

            I read a quote from Nicholas Wolterstoff that I found really helpful.  He said, “If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me.  Over there, you are of no help.  What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.  I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.” (Lament for a Son)

            In other words, when you’re going through a difficult time, you just need someone to be “with you.”  That’s where real comfort is found.  So, if you want to help someone else in their time of need, just be “with” them.

            I’ve often thought about the fact that Job’s three friends were a real blessing to his life – for exactly seven days.  Now we usually think about what a pain in the neck they were as they accused Job of doing wrong, and they told him that it was his fault that he was suffering so much.  But it didn’t start out that way.

            In Job 2, beginning with verse 11, we read, “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. 

            “And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven.  And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (Job 2:11-13)

            And I would suggest that if those three friends had just continued to sit there in silence with Job, they would have been a real blessing to him.  But they had to go and open their mouths in an attempt to say something profound.  But what Job needed was just someone who would be with him.

            And so, I find great comfort in knowing that Jesus was God with us.  Throughout the Bible the concept of God dwelling with his people is a key theme.  We see it in the Garden of Eden.  We see it in the setting up of the tabernacle and later the temple.  And the greatest beauty of heaven is that fact that it is a place where God dwells among his people forever:

             “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3)

            But all of that is possible only because of what Jesus did.  John tells us that “The Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelt among us . . .” (John 1:14).  Jesus truly and literally was “God with us.”

            And there’s an unexplainable significance to this reality. That God would even consider, let alone be willing, to condescend from his infinite and holy place of authority where he was in perfect relationship with himself is incomprehensible.  I know people that won’t even go to certain parts of town because they don’t want to associate with a certain class of people. But God condescended to his creation to be “with” us.

            To do that, he had to give up his timeless nature.  Everything we do as humans is defined by time.  If I tell you about someone, I may talk about how many years they’ve lived on this earth or how long they’ve lived in Fayetteville.  I’ll say, before or after, or then or now.  But those words don’t work with God.  He transcends time. 

            God created time, but he himself doesn’t live within the boundaries of time.  And we can’t even imagine such an existence, but Jesus could.  Jesus said in John 8:58, “Most assuredly I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” All he knew before Bethlehem was life in an eternal dimension.  Remember, Jesus existed before he was born as a child.  Jesus didn’t begin at Bethlehem, he simply re-located there.

            And when he did, he came into a world where everything is measured by time and a world where everything comes to an end.  It doesn’t matter how good the fellowship is, how sweet the taste of the food is, how beautiful the sunrise or sunset, how beautiful the sound of a baby’s laughter.  It doesn’t matter.  It all eventually ends.  Everything in this world is limited by time. 

            And so, when Jesus came to be with us, to take on flesh and blood, the one who was timeless became restricted by time.  And it’s not until we get to heaven that we will even begin to understand what a step down that was.

            And when Jesus came to be with us, he also took on our restrictions of being limited to one location.  If someone were to ask you, “Where’s God?”  How do you answer that question?  How do you explain the location of God?

            The Psalmist said in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from Your Spirit?  Or where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.  If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:7-10)

            As hard as it is to grasp, God is everywhere.  And so was Jesus before his birth.  Until that morning in Bethlehem when a baby cried.  And for the first moment in eternity, deity was in one place at one time.  If Jesus was here, he couldn’t be there.  If Jesus was there, he couldn’t be somewhere else. 

            I wonder if Jesus ever got claustrophobic.  Living in a body that could only take him where his legs could carry him.  Did he ever look up into the skies, see the stars, remember the galaxies he created and wish he was back there once again?

            And there were other ways that Jesus was restricted so that he could be with us.  All his life he was bound to a questionable reputation.  There were whispers his entire life about the legitimacy of his birth. 

            He was bound to poverty.  He was born poor, he lived poor, he died so poor the only thing they had to deal with that he owned were the clothes they took off his body. 

            He was vulnerable.  His parents had to stay on the move to keep him alive when he was a baby.  The one who could have called 10,000 angels chose to live defenseless and powerless.  All because he chose to be “with” us. 

            There’s a story told about a father who was trying to teach his 6-year-old son how to shoot a basketball.  The boy would push the ball as hard as he could toward the basket but the ball would always fall short.  The father would effortlessly toss the ball toward the basket and say, “Just do it like this, son. It’s easy.”  The boy would try and fail again.  The father would show him how again.  Finally the son said, “Dad, it’s easy for you up there, but you don’t know how hard it is from down here.”  

            Have you ever been tempted to say  that to God?  “It’s easy for you up there, but you don’t know how hard it is down here.”   But, because of Jesus, we can’t say that.  Jesus came to this earth to be with us, and because of that, God understands everything that you’re going through.

            As the Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 4, “we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

            Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is “God with us”.  But, more than, he is…

3.         God with US

            Sometimes, we rewrite those words in our minds and we think of Jesus as “God with them”.  But the significance of the name Immanuel is not that God was with them, but that God is with us.  Even after Jesus ascended back to his Father, God remained with us through his Holy Spirit.

            In the Garden of Eden, God was with Adam and Eve, but sin changed that.  And when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden, God was no longer with them.  Sin prevented them from having close fellowship.  But, from that point on, God set a plan into motion that would allow him to be with us once again, and allow us to be with him.

            That plan led to Jesus coming to the earth as a man, but it culminated when Jesus “he humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”   Because the only reason God can now be with us is because of what Jesus did on the cross.  In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul said, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

            Someone has put it this way — Jesus went to hell and back so that you could go to heaven and stay.

            So please don’t insult me by telling me that all religions are basically the same.  There is no other religion that speaks of a “greater than” God who chooses to become “lesser than”.  There is no other religion that has a God who came to be with us.  And if this story is true, then it really does make all the difference in the world.  And yet, so often, we live like we don’t really believe it.

            Like the lady who was putting up her Christmas decorations after the holidays.  Her little girl noticed that she left out the nativity scene and she said, “Mommy, you almost forgot to pack away Jesus.”  Is there a danger that after Christmas, we’ll all pack Jesus away and just forget all about him?

            If Jesus is indeed God who became flesh, he deserves more than just our admiration, he deserves our adoration, our worship.  They understood this at his birth, those men who looked for him.  When the wise men came to Jerusalem, they weren’t just looking for a child, they were looking for a king.  They asked Herod, “Where is he who was born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2)

            Satan will always tempt us by saying, “Get baby Jesus out, put him on display for two or three weeks, have some parties, then put him back up in the attic.”  But the story of the birth of Jesus is the appearance of a king who will not accept anything less than our full allegiance. 

            And so, Jesus is the one person about whom every person must make a decision.  If this story is true, if this “greater than” God came to be with us, came in the likeness of men and humbled himself all the way to a cross.  If it’s true, then bow down.  If it’s not true, then bow out and do something else with your Sunday mornings.  But to do anything less than surrender completely to our God and our King is unacceptable.

            I heard recently about a little boy who went to a Christmas pageant, and when he came home, he told his parents, “I just thought Jesus WAS the Savior; I didn’t know I had to ask Him to be MY Savior!”

            And perhaps that’s a mistake that we all make.  We come together and we talk about the fact that Jesus is the Son of God, that he’s the Savior of the world, that he’s Immanuel, “God with us”.  But all of that is meaningless if you don’t make Jesus your Savior.

            May this Christmas mean more to you than ever before. May you know the presence of the Son of God, Savior of the world, God in the flesh. May you know him as Immanuel- God with YOU.

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