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Immanuel: God Is With Us!

Immanuel: God Is With Us!
December 20, 2004 / Matthew 1:18-24

[Preached as dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly]

John York: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” The first time those words were spoken, the prophet Isaiah was speaking to King Ahaz of Judah, trying to get him to trust in the Lord instead in foreign alliances. Jerusalem was threatened by an alliance of kings from the north – the king of Israel, and the king of Aram. This alliance against tiny little Judah had this effect in Jerusalem: “Now the house of David was told, ‘Aram has allied itself with Ephraim’; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind” (Isa. 7:2).

In that context, the Lord sent his prophet Isaiah to give a word of power and encouragement to Ahaz. He was authorized to speak in God’s name with this message: “Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood’ . . . [T]his is what the Sovereign LORD says: ‘It will not take place, it will not happen.’ “ With the word of encouragement, however, came this word of warning: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (Isa. 7:3-9).

Rubel Shelly: Then comes the part of Isaiah 7 with which we are most familiar:

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste (Isa. 7:10-16).

John: A child was born in Isaiah’s day; born to a woman who had been a virgin at the time of her marriage. And he was named Immanuel at his birth. He was, in fact, one of three boys born in a short time period, all given prophetic names by God to reflect his control of history at that troubled time. In addition to Immanuel – a name that indeed means “God is with us” – there was Shear-Jashub, which means “a remnant shall return” (cf. 7:3). And there was Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means, “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil” (cf. 8:1ff) Before the child Immanuel reached what we might call the “age of accountability,” the threat from the North was indeed destroyed. And God promised that this child would eat curds and honey – reflecting their freedom and their wealthy abundance. Curds and honey were the signs of prosperity and wealth. The birth of Immanuel was to be a sign to Ahaz that what looked like doom at the present time would soon be reversed by God because God was with his people, that is, God was on Ahaz’s side.

Rubel: Seven hundred and thirty years later, that prophecy would again be remembered and enacted – only this time the promise and the proclamation would be remarkably different. This time “God with us” would be far more than a figure of speech and a representative name for the God of Creation being concerned about his people. This time the use of the name and the reference to the prophecy would be taken very literally. A virgin would conceive without having sexual contact with a man. Mary would get that startling announcement from an angel, ask how it could be, and consent to being the “handmaiden of the Lord.” The child born Jesus of Nazareth would be literally God with us.

John: We are so used to hearing that claim that we miss the absurdity of it. God in the flesh. Not just God in the flesh, but God incarnate as a baby – a poor baby wrapped in strips of cloth, lying in a manger. God in the flesh – how could it be? Yet 2000+ years later, we have come together this morning because we believe that the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and people like us saw his glory, glory as of the one and only son of God. Immanuel.

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, God with us’” (Matt. 1:18-23).

Rubel: It is a claim that goes beyond human reason. Virgins don’t have babies. It makes no sense for the Creator of the Universe to need or want or even to consider creating himself in human likeness. And yet we believe he did just that. And as incredible as that claim of faith is – as difficult as it is to imagine from our human perspective the notion of God in the flesh, of Immanuel not being a figurative reminder but a literal event – it is even more difficult to grapple with why he came, and what happened when he got here. You see, no one would care about the birth today – not believe for a moment in a virgin giving birth – if there was not something much more subtantial about why he came, and what happened while he was here.

Rubel: You see, the Christmas Message is more than the stable, the animals, and the shepherds of long ago. It is the divine word of encouragement that heaven is continuously interested in Planet Earth, that God has come to be with us in Jesus in our lives, that God has promised to be with us in every life situation we are facing now – or even shall encounter.

John: Immanuel, God with us, means that God is going through the fire with us – the sickness, the trouble, the failure.

Rubel: Immanuel, God with us, means that when you have done your best – only to fail – God is ready to begin.

John: Immanuel means that when you feel like an outcast or missfit that nobody wants – God does.

Rubel: Immanuel means that your smiling façade gets plastered on every morning because everybody looks only at the outside and nobody really knows or cares what is going on inside – God does.

John: Immanuel means that God is still with you – even if you continue to struggle with a bad temper, an addiction to drugs or unhealthy relationships, or some other temptation that Satan constantly exploits in your life.

Rubel: Immanuel means that God is still with you – even if it been a long time since you have sensed his mercies “fresh every morning” and, like the exiles in Babylon, just haven’t been able to sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land.

John: If you were to grasp the full meaning of the Christmas Story this morning, you would begin to realize that you are going to make it because God has become Immanuel for you. He is with you. And if God is for you, who can be against you!

Rubel: The message of this Holy Season for you is that God is at all times and under every circumstance your refuge and strength, a very present help in your time of trouble.

John: I love the words Michael Card put to music a few years in his story of Christmas called “The Promise.” Many of you no doubt know the song, “Immanuel.”

A sign shall be given
A virgin will conceive (Isa. 7:14)
A human baby bearing
Undiminished Deity
The glory of the nations (Ps. 96:3; 39:21)
A light for all to see
And hope for all who will embrace
His warm reality

Our God is with us (Mt. 1:23)
And if God is with us
Who could stand against us
Our God is with us

For all those who live in the shadow of death
A glorious light has dawned (Isa. 9:2)
For all those who stumble in the darkness
Behold your light has come (Isa. 60:1)

Our God is with us (Mt. 1:23)
And if God is with us
Who could stand against us
Our God is with us

So what will be your answer?
Oh will you hear the call?
Of Him who did not spare His son
But gave him for us all
On earth there is no power
There is no depth or height
That could ever separate us from the love (Rom. 8:35)
of God in Christ

Our God is with us (Mt. 1:23)
And if God is with us
Who could stand against us
Our God is with us

Rubel: The good news is that God is forever in love with his creation, and the gift of God with us is a promise based on his grace and mercy, not our performance. No one was worthy 2000 years ago when the angel appeared to the young girl Mary and told her she would have a son. Her song of response was, “My soul magnifies the Lord,and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the humble estate of his slave girl.”

May we be driven to our knees in awesome wonder this morning – as Mary was so long ago – that a virgin could conceive and bear a son, and that son could really be God with us.

John: May we be driven to our knees in penitence and humility for the ways we crucify the son of God afresh through our selfish interests and pride. And may that sense of our sinful inadequacy be the basis for seeing and following the light of the cross – as the Wise Men once saw and followed the light of a star.

Rubel: May God give us grace to surrender the burdens of our hearts and our often-precarious life situations – that we too often try to manage ourselves – to the virgin-born and now bodily-raised Christ who is the ever-present help when we yield those heavy weights to him.

Since you quoted Michael Card’s music a moment ago, let me close for us by quoting a prayer by Phillips Brooks that has also been set to music:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels,
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel.


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