This morning I’d like to spend our time talking about one word. One word that changes everything. And that might not excite you to talk about a word at Christmas – usually at Christmas time we like to talk about one of the many mini-movies going on around the Christmas story.
Indeed – one of the charming aspects of the Christmas story is that there are many moving parts to the story – many facets of the story that almost serve as subplots along the way that eventually converge at the manger.
You have the story of the angel visiting Mary,
meanwhile on the other side of town you have Joseph, also being visited by an angel. Meanwhile in another part of the world – you have Magi who are reading the signs in the sky that announced to them the birth of a newborn King.
Meanwhile you have Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem, but when they get there there’s no room in the inn!
Meanwhile there’s a bunch of shepherds – doing the same thing as the do every night of the week, they are out there shepherding.
Meanwhile there’s an Evil king lurking and plotting…
And these stories are wonderful to meditate on and reflect about and the beauty of a story is that it helps us put ourselves there in the middle of what we are reading. We can imagine, can’t we, what it must have felt like for the shepherds in the field?
But the problem with so many stories going on is that sometimes we get lost in the stories and we forget the profound theology of Christmas! It’s not just a story about a baby in a manger. That baby is God! In the flesh. That Baby is Immanuel – God with us.
And THAT changes everything. Now where does this word Immanuel come from? It comes from a prophecy made 700 years before the birth of Jesus – by a prophet named Isaiah. After Jesus had lived and died and was resurrected from the dead and returned to heaven, there were four different authors who wrote books detailing the life and times of Jesus.
These four books are the first four books of the New Testament and they are named after the people who write the book. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew is something of an Old Testament scholar and ties the life of Jesus back into the Old Testament – and it’s Matthew who teaches us that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy.
We pick up the story with an Angel appearing to Joseph, who tells Joseph…
“Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All of this occurred Matthew tells us, to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God with us.’”
And here Matthew quotes Isaiah 9:6 – Immanuel – God with us!
Now sometimes people ask – where in the Bible does it claim that Jesus is God? Well, how about we start here. The people who wrote these accounts of the life of Jesus – they don’t take long before they declare that Jesus is God.
If you read John’s gospel – he leads with the announcement that Jesus is God in the flesh. John doesn’t even bother talking about the birth of Jesus. He just announces it –
In the beginning the Word already existed. (Sounds like Genesis, right? Purposely)
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
14 So the Word became human and made his home among us.
Now that’s not very subtle. But Matthew is a little more subtle -and again for good reason. Matthew appears to be writing to a primarily Jewish audience. If Matthew starts off his book, written primarily to Jewish people, with the line – let me tell you about Jesus- God in the flesh – most Jewish readers would immediately put the letter down and walk away.
So Matthew announces it in a more subtle way – he peppers his letter with tons of Old Testament verses to invite his readers, who were thoroughly informed about the Old Testament – to investigate whether Jesus really could be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Is Jesus really Immanuel? God with us. Because if he is, then that changes everything.
Matthew clearly announces that Jesus is indeed Immanuel. He is God is with us. God, having temporarily set aside his divine privileges, writes himself into the story of mankind.
It’s interesting – every religion on earth would quickly point to just how mighty God is, how powerful! Every religion on earth makes God out to be BIG!
Only Christianity makes a point to show how little God can become. Little enough to fit in a manger. Little enough to be among us. Little enough to fit into the hands of a nervous teenage mom.
Isn’t it incredible to think about the God who breathed life into every living creature, struggling to use his tiny baby lungs for the very first time?
Why would he do it?
Author Philip Yancey writes that he enjoys tending to fish in his aquarium. He diligently cares for the fish, but he says that no matter how diligently he cares for them, the fish only react one way to him – fearfully! They freak out in fear anytime he gets near the tank – even his shadow sends them darting away. They are afraid even of the hand that faithfully feeds them.
Yancey concludes that probably the only way he could change their perspective of him would be to become a fish and communicate with them at a ‘fishy level.’
When God became a baby, he found a way to communicate with us that wouldn’t make us dart from Him in fear.
Immanuel means God with us! And if God is with us then that means that God is also for us.
God is FOR us! God is for you. Not against you.
Imagine that your favorite team gets to play in the Superbowl. Imagine, if you are a Vikings fan and the Vikings make it to the Superbowl – and you walk into my Superbowl party and you are dressed head to toe in purple Vikings gear. Vikings helmet with the horns. Authentic Vikings jersey. You are carrying a Vikings flag.
Now imagine the absurdity of walking into my party and I ask you – “Who you rooting for?” You would say – I’m certain your kidding. Because I mean – what else would you need to do to signal who you’re for? How many clues must I lay out to lead you to the obvious conclusion – regarding who I’m for?
Well, what more does God have to do to show us who he is rooting for? When we look at the manger – Is Christmas not enough to show us that he is for us?
Well then how about the life Jesus lived? When we watch how Jesus lived his life – the way he treated people with such love and compassion – how he healed and restored and elevated humanity at every chance – Is that not enough to prove to us exactly who he’s rooting for?
Then how about the cross – when we see him die a death that should have been ours. Did he not, wear our colors on the cross – scarlet stripes. That’s our colors – they belong to us – yet Jesus bore those crimson colors because he is for us!
My guess is this weekend we all spent some money on some Christmas gifts – well here’s a Christmas gift that I get to give you – and it cost Jesus everything but it costs me nothing to share it with you. It’s called the Good News and the good news is this – God is for you, man! God is for you.
Oh Phil, you wouldn’t say that if you knew what I’ve done, what secrets reside in my heart, if you knew my shame, my regrets, my reputation…
No – I don’t have to know them to announce to you that the gift of forgiveness and a fresh start is available to you right now. I get to tell you that God not only loves you, but he likes you. He knows everything about you, and promises that should you trust Him enough to become a follower of Jesus, he will – walk with you – like a good parent, good friend, good coach, like a good shepherd – he will walk with you and change you into the kind of person you might have never imagined you could become.
We don’t need to ask if God is with us and God is for us – is there not plenty of data that would lead us to the obvious conclusion that God is for us?
The apostle Paul put it this way in the letter he wrote to the church that met in Rome in the first century.
31 What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us?
God is for us… The question that needs to be answered now is… are you for God? Are you for him?
In that same letter to the Romans Paul begins the 8th chapter with these words…
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3…God sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
Notice how Paul puts it – all of these wonderful things – they belong to the one who belongs to Jesus. (Back to verse 1)
See, here’s the deal. Jesus will not run you over. He does not demand we follow him; instead, he invites us to follow him. Jesus left heaven and earth to draw near to you – but because of his tremendous love for you he allows you the dignity of making the final call. Do you want to be with him?
Come follow me – that’s the invitation Jesus extends time and again to people in the pages of the Bible, and he continues to extend that invitation to you now. Follow him, and if you let him he will transform you into an entirely different kind of human.
It’s quite simple really to do – you talk to him – he’s as near to you right now as the air you are breathing. He knows your thoughts and can hear your prayers – whether they are uttered aloud is no matter.
You can right now pray and thank Jesus for being with you and for you. Express to him your desire to follow Him. Ask him to forgive you and make you into a new kind of person. That’s where it starts. That’s the beginning.
This might sound weird but that’s the manger moment for you. You are the new baby – the Bible likens it to a new birth. And you are the cutest baby! And then guess what? You start to grow up in your faith. You learn to take steps in your faith journey and you eventually grow up into a mature follower of Jesus.
But all of that begins with a decision. God, I’m with you! And I’d simply ask that if you are stepping across that line of faith, and you are ready to become an apprentice of Jesus – let us know and we can see if there’s a way we can help you grow. If nothing else we will celebrate with you.
In two weeks, by the way – we are going to have a baptism. On the 31st. And baptism is a way to announce your faith in Jesus. Baptism is like the birth announcement. I’m new. I’m following Jesus. I’m making it public.
Now – here’s the wonderful thing about making a decision to follow Jesus.
See Immanuel means God with us. And if God is with us it means he is FOR us. And once we decide that we are for him?
Well then Immanuel means that God is IN us. The Holy Spirit takes up residence inside of us and helps us along the path of becoming a new creation.
What does the Holy Spirit do? He’s like an internal guide that helps us on the way. He is a helper. And so sometimes he encourages us along the way – he speaks peace to our soul in times of crisis. He guides our decisions and can transform the way we think about the world.
Sometimes he points out attitudes in us that need addressing by convicting us of guilt. And someone might say – well, I already have a conscience. And I’d say yes, but your conscience is not infallible. In fact a conscience can become corrupted to the point where one does selfish and hurtful things without any feelings of remorse or guilt.
So the Holy Spirit is different than a conscience. He is living and breathing and willing to empower us to be the person God desires we be. Which means the Holy Spirit begins to grow characteristics inside of us that the Bible describes as fruit. Fruit of the Spirit.
Naturally and easily, we become the kinds of people who are loving. The kind of person who is peaceful. Joyful. Who are Patient. Kind. Good.
All of this by the Holy Spirit inside of us who empowers us to be the kind of person we always wanted to be. And this same spirit enables us to do the things God wants us to do.
And this brings us to the final beautiful thing about that word Immanuel. God with us. God is for us. God is in us. And finally, Immanuel means God through us.
When we say yes to God – God comes alongside us and begins to work through us to bless the world. When Jesus says he intends to make his followers the Salt and Light of the world, he isn’t expecting us to power that on our own. The Holy Spirit begins to prompt you to bless others.
And can I just take a moment here to thank you for being such a loving and caring church? You are so giving.
We announced last month that we’d like to bring new sheets to Haiti along with money to buy the kids in Christopher’s Hope Orphanage new clothes. You all donated $6,000 dollars to the orphanage last month. That’s incredible.
Jim and four others are in Haiti now, and they brought the money with them and they are planning on a wonderful time. New Christmas clothes for all the kids. They are also planning to cater in food one night so that the kids can eat some special food, and the staff that cooks meals can get a night off.
Apparently Jim said there’s a place to buy ice cream and he is planning to have a big ice cream party one night as well. So all of those things wouldn’t normally happen. They wouldn’t have happened without your generosity. Thank you for loving on kids that many of you will never meet this side of eternity.
And that’s just one way you are using your life to bless others.
What’s God doing through you with those orphans in Haiti? He’s teaching them – you can count on me. I’m your good shepherd. And I am prompting people all the way in Nebraska to love on you. And they are because they naturally and easily love others.
God is working through us to bless them – to provide for them food. And in the same way, God cares for us – we have nothing to fear with God at the controls of our life. Because God is with us. and God is for us. God is in us. and God is working through us.
I’d like to close this morning in an unusual way. Normally I pray for you, but here I’d like to ask that we read together Psalm 23 to close our service. Psalm 23 is worth memorizing. I try to recite it to myself at least once a day. It reminds me that God is with me and for me – and that I lack nothing with him. So if you feel comfortable – say it with me.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.