14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I came across a great story recently about an elderly fellow who was just shy of 80 years old living in a sleepy village outside of Rome, Italy. His wife had been dead for 7 years. He loved to read. He loved his cats of which he had seven. He loved his only son, but unfortunately that son was living in Afghanistan. So this elderly gentleman whose name was Giorgio was very much alone in life. Finally, the day came when he decided to do something about it. So guess what he did? He put himself up for adoption. That’s right. He took out an ad in the most widely circulated paper in Rome. Right there in the classified section he bought enough space to print these words: “79-year-old seeks family in need of a grandpa. Would bring 500 euros a month to a family willing to adopt him.”
That ad changed Giorgio’s life forever. The paper ran a front-page article about him and soon inquiries came pouring in from places as far away as New Zealand, New Jersey, and Columbia, South America. All of a sudden the fellow who had more time on his hands than he knew what to do with didn’t have enough to time handle all the requests and interviews that were coming his way. Among those who responded to the ad were a pop star and a zillionaire with a seaside villa complete with servants. But the request that caught Giorgio’s attention more than any other was the one that was signed by all 4 members of a family – mother, father, son, daughter. And last report had him living with this family in an apartment on the lower level of a 2-story house getting along famously with the dog, taking walks in the garden, and helping out with the dishes. In one interview he said, “I couldn’t have chosen better. Maybe it was luck or maybe it was God looking after me. I don’t know.”
Well, the latter option makes the most sense, don’t you think? God was looking after him. And the reason I believe that is because loneliness is never the product of heaven. Among the first words that our Creator ever spoke on earth and that were recorded in the Bible were these: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” He gets no argument from us there, does he? Oh, we may treasure occasional breaks from the crowd and moments of solitude like I get periodically at this time of the year when my wife goes Christmas shopping. She’s long ago given up asking me if I’d like to go along because she knows that as I compare the 2 options – shopping in a mall crowded full of people, something that I typically avoid at all cost, or staying at home by myself and getting caught up on some reading or things that need to be done around the house – well, there simply is no comparison. But even after days like that, I’m always ready to see my wife walk through the door and bring me the company and companionship that I was lacking throughout the day.
Over the course of the past few years I’ve been taking note of what I would call the language of the lonely. The single person, the divorcee, the widow, the widower – many of them describe a loneliness so deep, so penetrating, so all-consuming that I can’t relate to it because I’ve never been that lonely. In many cases the lonely feel as though they are no longer needed. You’ll hear them saying things like: “Oh, the kids used to need me, but they’re on their own now with their own families doing their own thing.” Or, “I used to feel needed at work, but they’re looking for younger and brighter employees these days.”
Recently I heard of one fellow who feared that he would be lonely in death, that no one would come to visit his grave. So he had an ATM machine installed near his grave. And those who wanted to have access to the money they inherited from him could do so only by going to that ATM and entering a certain PIN number to obtain a receipt, which they would then take to the bank in order to get their money. Now admittedly, that’s getting a bit extreme. But it certainly begs the question: What do we do with our loneliness? How do we cope with it? How do we handle it?
Well, some people stay busy. Some stay drunk. Some buy a pet. Some buy a lover. Some seek therapy. And then there are those precious few who seek God. For you see, his solution for the lonely, isolated life is not the perfect spouse or the perfect job or the perfect pet. Rather his solution is himself. His solution is found lying in a manger on a bed of straw in the lowly town of Bethlehem. His solution is Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Remember the promise that God gave through the prophet Isaiah in our text for today? “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” That name reminds us that God is not just a God who is near us or a God who is in the neighborhood or a God who checks in on us periodically if and when he can find the time. Rather he is a God who is with us. Not just with the rich or the religious or the powerful or the prominent. No, he is a God who is with us – the widow, the single person, the divorcee, the nursing home resident, the factory worker, the housewife, the teacher. He is with all of us.
We like that word “with,” don’t we? “Will you go shopping with me?” “Will you go out on a date with me?” “Will you go to a movie with me?” Anytime anyone makes such a request of God, he has already answered it in the person of Immanuel who said in some of his last words to his disciples, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Now sometimes we may think there are some loopholes or restrictions in that promise, but try as we might, we don’t find any. He never says, “I’ll be with you if you believe,” or “I’ll be with you if you behave.” There are no loopholes, no qualifications like that in the name Immanuel.
And note, who is with us? The name Immanuel says God is with us. John puts it this way in the 1st chapter of his Gospel, the 14th verse. In referring to Jesus as the Word, he says: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” For thousands of years God gave us a voice – the voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush, the voice that thundered from Mt. Sinai, the voice of the patriarchs, the voice of the prophets, the voice of his written Word. But then he gave us a body. He wrapped himself in human flesh and placed himself not near us, but with us.
By the way, this is one of those teachings that separates Christianity from all other world religions. The Islamic faith, for example, believes that God is too holy to touch the earth, too holy to have a son, and that those who teach such things are blaspheming God. But Christians treasure this teaching about God. We cherish the fact that his holiness does not keep him firmly ensconced in heaven where he has nothing to do with his creation. Rather his love releases him to come to this earth and become one of us. And because of that we have these astounding pictures of God as a tiny human embryo swimming in Mary’s womb, God as a baby nursing at Mary’s breast, and Joseph teaching the Maker of stars how to build a wooden table.
And because God became one of us in the person of Jesus, we can be sure that he knows, that he understands, what it’s like to be human and to face the challenges that so often come our way. Do you sometimes feel misunderstood? He knows what that’s like. He was constantly being misunderstood by his own people, his own family, and his own disciples. Do you ever fear the future? He knows what that feels like as we behold him flat on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane clawing the dirt and asking for another way to redeem mankind if it were possible. Are you in pain right now? He knows what that feels like for he had a crown of thorns driven into his scalp and his back shredded into ribbons of quivering flesh by the Roman scourge before his hands and feet were pierced with nails and many of his bones were dislocated as he hung on the cross.
Most of all, though, Jesus knows your sin. Every lie you’ve told, every promise you’ve broken, every curse word you’ve uttered, every virtue you’ve abandoned, every sin you’ve committed. He knows it better than you know it. Why? Because though he was absolutely sinless, he took your sin upon himself and paid the price for it. We could have never paid that price ourselves, but Jesus could, and praise God, Jesus did. Consequently, he knows far better than we do the full impact of our sin. So why did he do it? I Peter 3:18 gives us the answer when it says: “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” In one word his goal was reconciliation – reconciliation with God – that could only be accomplished by what theologians refer to as the vicarious or substitutionary atonement. Now I realize those are some pretty big words I’m throwing around, so what exactly do they mean? Well, maybe little Blake Rogers can help us understand them better.
For he offered a somewhat similar gift to his friend Mara. Blake and Mara were in the same kindergarten class. They were both very good students, but Mara had a problem. She loved to sing. And if she couldn’t sing, then she would hum. And more than once her teacher had to tell her to stop humming. But one day Mara had a song in her head that just demanded to be hummed. So she hummed and hummed and hummed until finally, after repeated warnings, the teacher had to take decisive action. So here’s what she did. In this kindergarten class every child was assigned a clothespin with their name on it. And that clothespin hung on a string that stretched across the chalkboard. The string was green on one side and blue on the other. If you behaved yourself, you hung in the green. But if you got into trouble, the teacher moved the clothespin bearing your name into the blue. And that’s what happened to Mara that day she couldn’t keep from humming. Hers was the only clothespin in the blue. And guess what? She stopped humming and started crying. Why? Because she was alone.
Well, Blake felt sorry for her. He tried patting her on the arm. He tried making faces at her to make her laugh. But nothing worked. So guess what he did? He started to hum. He stood up, made sure the teacher could see him, and just let her rip. The teacher could barely choke back her laughter. She knew what he was up to, so she warned him, but he just kept on humming. Finally the teacher took his clothespin and put it over by Mara’s in the blue. And when Mara saw that she wasn’t alone anymore, she stopped crying.
And there we have a picture of what Christ did for us. He voluntarily took responsibility for our loneliness, especially our separation from God caused by our sin. And he identified himself so closely with us that he allowed our every sin to be placed upon him in order that we would never have to know what it’s like to be completely alone, eternally separated from God.
So Jesus, the One whose birth we will celebrate in just 3 weeks, is Immanuel, God with us. The Bible says he wants to be as close to us as a branch is to a vine, as a sheep is to a shepherd. The Book of Proverbs describes him as a friend who sticks closer than a brother. So the question I want to leave you with this morning is not, “Is God with you?” That’s a given. That’s already been settled. The real question is, “Are you with God?” Somebody once said, “If God seems far away, guess who moved?” From what we’ve learned here today it certainly isn’t God, is it? So I want to end my sermon today the same way I ended it last Sunday. In fact, I want to encourage you if you haven’t done so already to commit to memory this little prayer that Martin Luther penned in one of his most famous Christmas hymns. I’ve even included it in the bulletin as our memory verse for the week:
“Ah, dearest Jesus, Holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.