“They shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” – Matthew 1:23
Again we celebrate the coming of the Lord into the world. The Gospel story of the Incarnation is brief, and is told in simple terms, yet there never was a more wonderful story. It is the story of the Divine Being reaching forth to men with the purpose of revealing Himself to them, making Himself known, and bringing salvation to a world that had lost all knowledge of Him and that was rushing toward destruction. The more we examine this story the more wonderful it appears, the more it reveals the love of our Heavenly Father and His special care for each one of us.
And the story sets vividly before us the character of the world into which He came, the sinfulness and blindness of men. John writes, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” God had come to be regarded as man’s most terrible enemy. Now He was coming to subdue man’s real enemies, to rescue him from their power, and to show that He is man’s infinite and unchanging Friend.
It is important to keep in mind the fact that it was God Himself who came into the world. If we lose sight of this, we lose sight of the essential truth. He was not an angel, He was not a son born from eternity, He was not a man filled with a larger measure of Divine love and wisdom. He was God, the only God of heaven and earth. He came to be “God with us.”
This is what skeptics find hard to believe, and their skepticism is that darkness that would deepen and spread over all the earth, destroying belief in God, and with this morality. He was thought of as a God of vengeance, one whom men should fear. But fear is not the motive which brings peace and security. So when Christ was born, the first words of the angel were, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” It was not to cause men to fear, but so to manifest Himself to them that they would voluntarily turn to Him and in the gladness of their joy say, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
If He had come in outward glory, if He had appeared only to the spiritual sight of men, His face shining like the sun, His feet like polished brass, His eyes as flames of fire, or as the three Apostles saw Him at the Transfiguration, a figure of dazzling brightness – if the Lord had come in any such way, men could not have understood Him. They would have been puzzled, wonderstruck perhaps, but the ideal would have been beyond their comprehension.
But He did not come in this way. He came as a helpless babe, whom Joseph and Mary took to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. And when they returned to Nazareth, He grew up in the sight of all. At length, after thirty years at Nazareth, He went forth. He bade men follow Him. He claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life, and that all power in heaven and on earth is in His hands.
The world carelessly assumes that the teachings of the Lord are visionary, mystical, and far removed from the ordinary practical life of men. And it seems that to some extent this opinion is shared even by those who profess to believe in them. Yet no greater mistake could possibly be made. Truth and righteousness are essentially the same everywhere and under all conditions. The prayer “Thy will be done, as in heaven so upon the earth” is not an empty petition. The Lord does not make unreasonable or impossible requests. In very truth, we ought to do the Lord’s will in all things, even as the angels do it, and we ought not to be satisfied with anything less. Otherwise the Lord’s Prayer has no meaning for us.
The truths of the Word, and in particular its inner truths, as far as we can know them, are thoroughly practical. Theoretical though truth may first appear to be, it proves itself sooner or later to be altogether practical. When Franklin with his key and kite drew lightning from the sky, he knew he had made an important discovery, though he probably never dreamed that he was laying hold on a force which would become in future generations the most efficient and tractable servant of mankind. Men laughed at the result of his experiment and said, “Of what use is it?” To which his apt reply was, “What is the use of a child? it may become a man.” So it always is. New truth, regarded at first as merely curious, later becomes the source of countless benefits. Mary wondered at the prophecy concerning the Lord, but it was fulfilled. This is the case with all truth of whatever degree or kind. Remote though it may seem from any possibility of usefulness, it must from its very nature have within itself the germs of unsuspected blessings.
It was to bring blessing to mankind that the Lord came into the world. Darkness covered the earth. Sometimes darkness covers our own minds and becomes thick so that we do not see the way. The great drama that was enacted on that first Christmas must be perpetually reenacted in the life of each one of us. That is the only way in which the Lord can come to us.
The story of the Advent is recorded in the Word as to its outward simple facts. It does not argue with us or seek to compel the mind. Can there be any certainty about the Christmas story? In science truth is desirable. One cannot build up a valid science on error. Truth is also essential to religion. But the effect of the Lord’s life is proof of the Scripture record; the words “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” have proved to be true. And the beloved Apostle, in his old age, writes in his epistle to a small group of believers, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.”
In the familiar Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we find the words “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” There is a common background, agreement, and identity among the hopes and fears of all the years. Not that in all generations they have the same detail, for they are multiform in their variety. But trace all hopes and fears back far enough and trace them to their end, and they are always concerned with the reality and significance of life. Ultimately the hopes and fears of all the years are about the quality and worthwhileness of our living.
At the time of the Lord’s birth the different nations and people had invented so many gods that the very idea of god had become an absurdity, and the meaning of life was trickling away, leaving men without hope. And even among those who clung to the idea of a God there was more fear than hope. They lived in fear of a final judgment and retribution for their sins. And are not these the hopes and fears of today?
It is to satisfy these hopes and allay these fears that the Lord came into the world – to make Himself known to us as our Heavenly Father, yearning to help us and to bear our burdens. “Fear not” are good first words for today. Emmanuel means “God with us” here on earth. Let us make sure that our souls grasp and honor this essential fact: that the Advent is God seeking us. It is the Divine love and wisdom, clothed with our nature, veiling their infinite splendors, accommodating themselves to our human conditions, meeting us, appealing to us face to face, entering into all the duties and relationships of life here, and becoming not only the Example for us to follow but an ever present friend and helper, as we learn of Him and strive to follow Him.
And let us try to comprehend the amazing fact that through the Incarnation God came to us as a wise and patient teacher, a lover of all mankind, and a humble servant of all whom He could help, a friend even to publicans and sinners. So we have the perfect example of infinite love embodied in a human life, and of infinite wisdom and infinite power.
He is still God with us, He is with us in every step, in every sorrow and in every joy. May each Christmas find us drawn closer to Him through increased understanding and acknowledgment of His unchanging love which holds us ever in His care.