Several hundred years before Christ, Isaiah tried to get King Ahaz to trust in the Lord rather than in human alliances. When Ahaz refused to listen, Isaiah foretold of a sign of God's trustworthiness. We find this foretold sign in Isaiah 7:10-14, where Isaiah prophesies that a young woman will bear a son and he will be called Emmanuel, which means "God with us."
When the Gospel of Matthew was written, he made sure that the people knew that the birth of Christ fulfilled that prophecy of Isaiah. But what does Emmanuel mean to us today?
First, it means that God is with us. To call Jesus "Emmanuel" reminds us that God is with us, not against us in this world. The Bible continually reminds us that God created us to be in relationship with Him. Throughout the years, God has continued to call us back.
A pastor once shared these thoughts with me:
The nature around us testifies to God's greatness; humanity worshiped nature instead of God. God sent Moses with the laws to show us life as ethical; humanity kept the letter of the law but has missed the Spirit of it. He sent us the prophets to guide us back to Him; the world killed many of them for their efforts.
When God sent Jesus Christ, he did not send him as a punisher, an accuser or a judge, but simply as love to the world in the package of a child. Christ showed this love in all that he did. He didn't preach about leprosy - he touched and healed the leper, both physically and spiritually. He didn't lecture about hunger - even with the smallest of means, he fed the hungry. He didn't just talk about loneliness - Jesus went to their homes and he sat, visited and ate with them.
Christ modeled for us how we are to love. That includes reaching out to the drug addicts in our communities, the prostitutes downtown, the person in the store near you who may not have showered in a week. Instead of focusing in, Christ directs our focus to the edges, where love is needed the most.
Emmanuel also reminds us that God is with us. Jesus came in human form, but too often our world forgets his humanity and looks solely at his divine nature. Unfortunately, this Christmas there will be many around us who will celebrate the holiday, but the birth of Christ means nothing to them.
I read a story recently about a father and a young child at bedtime. The child asked, "Is God everywhere?" to which the father said yes. Then the child asked, "Is God a spirit?" Again, the father said yes. The child asked, "We can't see spirits, can we?" The father replied, "No, we can't."
The child then said, "Well, what I don't understand is, if God is everywhere and we can't see God, how come we aren't bumping into him all the time?" (story attributed to Richard Wallarab.)
The thing is, though, we are bumping into God. We find him in the neighbor in need, in the lost, the lonely and the broken of our world. God reaches out to us, but in our self-concern, we don't respond to His touch.
Thirdly, Emmanuel means God is with us. To call him Emmanuel says something about us as well. God chose to find expression in the form of a human being.
Mahatma Gandhi was once asked how the Christians in India could best carry out their work. Since he was turned away from a Christian church once because of his color, he replied to the question this way: He urged Christians to put their emphasis on love, for love is the soul of Christianity. If Christians would do that, they would succeed. To make love concrete, God came among us, filled the humanity of Jesus, and enlisted all of us to his cause, for people in whom God dwells are to act like Jesus.
Lastly, Emmanuel means God is with us. I was reminded of this as I read a story recently. A man was sitting by a fire in his home one evening when his wife asked him to go to the Christmas Eve service that night. The man replied, "No, it would be hypocritical of me to go when I don't believe in that stuff." So the wife went to church without him.
As he sat thinking, the weather picked up outside, and the snow began to swirl. He heard some thumps on the living room window. Getting up, he looked out and saw three little birds, lying in the snow, dazed from hitting the window. He also saw several birds on perches in the bushes, shivering. He decided to let them roost in his barn, so he opened the doors, but the birds did not trust him. When he went to catch them to help them into the barn, they hopped away from him. He thought, "If only I could catch them, I could put them in the warm barn, where they could stay the night."
But try as he might, he could not catch them. He even attempted to lead them with pieces of bread, but to no avail.
In his desperation to save the birds and the helplessness he was experiencing trying to help them, he thought, "If only I could become one of them, then I could show them the way." At that moment, the church bells rang announcing it was midnight, Christmas Day, the celebration of Emmanuel - God is with us.
Suddenly, everything the man heard about Christmas came to have new meaning to him. Out of compassion for a confused and erring world, God had found a way to contact humanity - by becoming one of us (story attributed to David Rogne).
Being Christians, or even those who have heard the message but are not yet in the family, we need to make Christ be Emmanuel in our lives this season.
Emmanuel! Emmanuel! God is with us. He has been with us all along. We can find Him in many different ways, and in those ways He has tried to tell us He is with us. He came to show us the way with Him. But through us, God seeks to show the world His message to all of us and all of those around us.
Take time this holiday season to prepare for the coming of the Christ child to the stable of life with all the stinky, smelly mess we live in. May each who reads this seek His refreshing love during this season and ask Him to help you share that love, the special, precious love which came down at this season.
Prepare the way of the Christ child in your hearts, for God is with us, Emmanuel. Merry Christmas and God bless.
Robert Amundsen is the pastor of the Evarts Congregational United Methodist Church and the Wallins United Methodist Church. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org