We call it the mystery of the incarnation. We observe Advent as an exercise in our faith. We come together to worship and in this season of the year we pause in the service to remember. Those of you that are practicing Advent observance at home have been doing so every day with your children. What is the incarnation? It is when God chose to become a human being and He did so by not showing up as an adult leader with an army to subdue us but as a helpless baby. He laid aside His power to demonstrate His amazing love for everyone in this room.
Listen to Matthew’s version of this story.
This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “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 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 is with us.’”
We sometimes feel a little bit like the little girl whose mother found her crying in bed one night. When her mother asked what was the matter, she answered: "I'm scared!" Her mother replied: "Don't you know that God is with you and that He will protect you?" "But Mommy," she said, "I can't see Him. I need a God with skin on his face."
We can all relate to that. All of us have thought the same kind of things. We long for intimacy with a Heavenly Father who loves and cares for us. We long to know him from the very center of our being. But it seems so hard to trust One that appears so far away, and so distant, and so difficult to grasp. We want a God with "skin on his face."
The name Immanuel is an intriguing word. Immanuel means "with us" and el comes from the root word Elohim, which is one of the Hebrew expressions for God. If the name were to be translated in its most literal sense it would be "the With-Us-God." The With-Us-God! What a strange thought. God with us! Think about that. Let it sink in . . . God with US!
As strange as it may sound to us, imagine how it must have sounded to the ears of first century folks. In the Old Testament there was no question as to who God was. He was not the With-Us-God. He was the Above-Us-God.
Isaiah called him "the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity." When the astrologers of Daniel 2 were asked if they could interpret the dream of the king, they said: "No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men." In other words, gods and mortals could not coexist. And therefore it was believed that the only way God could communicate to human beings was through messengers sent from God called angels.
The gods were considered to be so completely "other" from humans it was unfathomable to imagine. They were "out there!" And they would not allow themselves to draw near to the earth, because "we are here!" And frankly, that's the way it has always been with world religions.
In Islam, Allah is always the Above-Us-God. We are told that Allah sends angels, prophets, and books, because he is too holy to come. For God to touch earth, according to Islam, is called shirk, and anyone who claims that God would lower himself to the level of humanity commits shirk, or blasphemes the glory of God.
No wonder we find it so easy to feel that every time we feel close enough to touch God and better understand who He is, that He seems to escape our grasp again, leaving us saying: "Just missed him! Missed him again!"
The story is told that in the early 1950's a missionary to Africa, contracted a disease in the African bush called Belharzia--a disease still prevalent today, but far more treatable. The missionary was returned to the States to be treated for his illness. The doctors struggled and worked to bring about a cure, but were unsuccessful. In just a few years the missionary passed away, leaving his wife and three little boys.
For several years she tried to care for the boys alone. She was a nurse by trade, and kept very difficult hours. But somehow, by the grace of God, she was able to keep her family together and put food on the table. God sent a wonderful Christian man into her life, and they were married, which also meant that those three boys had a new father.
His home was on the Oregon coast, where it rained a lot--much different than what the family was accustomed to. And yet they gathered up their family, moved them across state lines, and moved into together.
The three boys were not impressed! They weren't sure about this new dad. They didn't want anything to do with him. They decided to stand back and make him buy every inch of their affection and love. They were rude, they were cruel, they were undisciplined, and they were angry. And that dad had to work hard at it, because they refused to bend!
It all came to a head about Christmas time--the time when there are so many feelings and memories. And so the father packed up his saw and axe, piled those three boys in the back of his pick-up truck, and headed up into the mountains to find a Christmas tree.
As they searched through the woods that day, slowly, but surely, they began to laugh and unwind. They were beginning to have a little fun when they came upon the perfect tree! Everybody voted that it was the one to have. Each one took a turn on the saw, and down it came!
They dragged it back to the pick-up, threw it into the bed, and started home. But on the way, their Christmas tree did what all do in the trip home--it grew! When they put it in the stand the problem was obvious. It was so tall that it scraped the top of the ceiling and bent over against the edge of the molding. There was a collective gasp! What was dad going to do about our Christmas tree?
Somehow that young father recognized the power of that moment. And sensing it was now or never, he did an incredible thing! He drug out his toolbox, went up to the bedroom above the living room, and cut a hole in the ceiling! He cut through the carpet, through the boards, through the dry wall, everything!
It just happened to be the boy's bedroom and they loved it. They had Christmas upstairs and downstairs. They were absolutely ecstatic! In that moment he became a father to them. Through a simple action motivated by love he said: "I will do anything to be a father to you!"
You understand that story, don't you? God understands our humanness. He knows that it's hard for us to understand. He knows that we would struggle forever with "who He is" and "what He's like." He is aware that we need a God with "skin on His face."
And in the fullness of time: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory and the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." I like the way Eugene Peterson frames that in his paraphrase: "The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood."
Jesus felt our feelings. He knew our pain. He was not ashamed to call us his own. It was a preposterous exchange and yet a holy, infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, creator God, cut a hole in the ceiling of heaven and let himself through!
He became the With-Us-God. Emmanuel. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we have seen God with skin on His face. And in Jesus we have known the Father!
That's why Jesus said: "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." Jesus IS God with us! Not God above us! Not God around us! Not God against us! But GOD WITH US!
From the manger to the cross Jesus Christ did nothing but demonstrate His ability and desire to change lives and be in relationship with us.
The immensity of that kind of love is overwhelming. What kind of God would allow himself to be shirked by humanity, condemned and even nailed to a cross? A God wanting to be known--a God wanting to be understood--a God willing to be touched so that we would no longer perceive him as the untouchable, unreachable God! Christmas is the announcement that God loved us so much, that He would go to any lengths to be sure we understood that love.
I recently heard a segment on the radio about a little boy who went to see Santa at the mall. Santa said to the little guy: "What do you want for Christmas this year?" The little boy's answer was quite profound. He said: "Love! I want to be loved." Santa said: "I can do that." And he wrapped his arms around him and gave him a big hug. That tiny, defenseless, baby in the manger was God pulling us into his lap, putting his arms around us, and saying: "I love you!"
Emmanuel! God is with us in Jesus! And not just at Christmas. Because the final words of Jesus recorded in Matthew's Gospel are: "Remember, I am with you always even to the end of the ages."
Now I want to ask you a question. Is God with you today? He is not God above us. He is not a God that is untouchable. He is not a God that wants to remain uninvolved in your life. He is a God that longs to be in the center of all you and I do.
There is only one way that can happen. You have to put Him there. Right there in the middle of your world. You have to invite Him to come in to your life and world. You have to invite Him into your relationships, your vocation, and into your private and public world.
Would you like to do that today? Would you join me in a prayer asking this God who came so long ago to demonstrate His love for you to become the central part of your life?
It's still a mystery to me
That the hands of God could be so small,
How tiny fingers reaching in the night
Were the very hands that measured the sky
It’s still a mystery to me, oh,
How His infant eyes have seen the dawn of time
How His ears have heard an angel's symphony,
But still Mary had to rock her Savior to sleep.