I love rocking my grandchildren. During the first few months of their lives, I would hold them tightly to me, rock then and say in a very low and calm voice, “I’m right here. I’m right here. Babu or Opa is right here.” Many times this would calm them down and comfort them. I don’t know if it was the comforting tone or the cradling but it often seemed to work. And I really was right there with them. I would do anything and everything I could to take care of them and protect them. I was indeed right there with them.
I wonder if Mary comforted the crying Christ child in such a way. I can easily imagine Mary cradling and soothing the baby Jesus in that way. The irony is that even though Jesus was an infant, Mary would be soothing a child who was in fact God with her. In fact, that is what the name Immanuel means: “God with us!” And God is still with us today. Let’s read Matthew 1:18-25.
God is the high and holy God, the One who is above and beyond all things. That is certainly the picture of God that we see in the Old Testament. For example, when Moses asked to see God’s face, he was forbidden to do so because no one can see the face of God and live. In order to talk with God, Moses had to hide in a crack in the rock. God inspired fear among the Israelites because he was so great and awesome. In fact, the whole Bible teaches that God is indeed greatest and mightiest of all. We look at the expanse of the universe and we feel lost in its size and majesty. Yet somehow, in a way that boggles our mind, God is bigger and greater than the vastness of the universe. He is infinitely bigger and infinitely more powerful than anyone we can imagine.
There is the old and likely familiar story about a village where all inhabitants were blind. When a man passed one day riding an elephant, a group of the village men asked the rider to let them touch the great beast, for though they had heard about elephants, they had never been close to one. Six of them were allowed to approach the animal, each being led to touch a different part of the body. After a time the rider left, and the blind men hurried back to their people to describe an elephant to their friends.
“I know all about elephants,” cried the man who touched the animal’s side. “He is long and narrow, and built like a thick wall.” “Nonsense,” shouted the man who had touched the elephant’s tusk. “He is rather short, round, and smooth, but very sharp. I would compare an elephant to a spear.” A third, who had touched the ear, joined in. “It is nothing like a wall or a spear. An elephant is like a gigantic leaf, made of thick wool carpet. It moves when you touch it.” “I disagree,” said the man who had handled the trunk. “An elephant is much like a large snake.” The fifth man had touched a leg of the great beast. “It is plain to me that none of you have described the animal accurately. It is round and reaches toward the heavens like a tree.” The sixth man, who had been placed on the elephant’s back, cried out, “Can none of you accurately describe an elephant? He is like a gigantic moving mountain.” To this day the argument has not been resolved, and the blind people of that village still have no idea what an elephant really looks like.
This old familiar story describes our futile attempts at describing the greatness of God; our attempts are always inadequate and terribly limited. The more we see God’s greatness, the more we should be in awe of his greatness.
At a specific time in history, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria and Caesar Augustus was emperor of the Roman Empire, God came to be with us. The Son of God was born as a little baby in a feeding trough in a barn in a tiny little town called Bethlehem. God came in the form of a tiny, completely vulnerable newborn child. Frederick Beuchner writes: “The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts himself at our mercy.”
How this came to be will either be utter folly or the source of wonder and joy. To those who believe and celebrate the birth of Jesus, it is the reason to marvel at how God could do this. To those who do not believe, it is the height of foolishness. The Christmas story may become one of the great Christmas classics like “Frosty the Snowman,” or “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and others. It is nice to read and hear, but it is obvious fiction and fantasy. Yet history doesn’t argue whether or not it was true; it simply records it as fact. The woman conceived and brought forth a child, who was the Son of God.
And even if people don’t believe, it still affects their lives day after day. We date our checks, income tax forms, letters and many other things with a number which represents the number of years since Jesus’ birth. Our very measurement of time is determined by Jesus’ birth. God, the almighty one, became a very weak, mortal human being in Jesus. God didn’t stay far away and removed from us. God didn’t just come to be near us and close to us for a while. God came to be “with us;” one of us; he is “God with us.”
“Radio City’s sheep were unnaturally clean. The straw in the stable was unnaturally clean, too, and so, I suspect, were the shepherds robes. I wondered as I watched and listened whether the on-stage straw had been dry cleaned and whether the sheep had somehow been trained to act properly for the show. In the original Christmas in that Bethlehem manger, the shepherd’s robes were not freshly washed and the straw was not dry cleaned. If there were animals at the stable as well as out in the field, they had not been shampooed or trained for the occasion. The original Christmas featured shepherds in soiled garments – soiled from outdoor labors – and a stable that smelled like live animals.”
Stappert says that we are wrong by making our Christmases so clean that it overlooks the dirt. For “dirt and smell are part of earthly experience, and an essential dimension of the incarnation is that Jesus entered fully into the human experience. That means that we can expect dirt and smell of problems to enter into our Christmas this year. We can expect to face problems throughout our Christian life as well. We should not be surprised when difficulties come because that is the nature of life in this world. But Jesus came to our world so that God can enable us to be strong as we deal with the effects of sin by believing in him and by trusting in the hope that his coming gives us.
III. And so for today let us remember as well is that God is with us still.
God is with us in all our situations and circumstances in life. God was with his people in the New Testament when Jesus was on earth. People were suffering from the effects of sin and evil. God came to be with them in Jesus and helped them. Today Jesus offers to comfort us as well when our lives are full of problems. Jesus promises to strengthen us when we feel overwhelmed. Jesus promises to guide us when we face difficult decisions in our church. Jesus promises to guide us as we live in a deeply divided nation. And more than anything else, Jesus promises to save us from our deepest trouble: our inability to escape from our own sin! Jesus comes to remove the curse of sin from our lives. Jesus comes to save us from ourselves.
The question that remains is whether or not that is true for us individually. Do you believe that Jesus’ birth means a radical new life for you? Christmas is not just the festivities and gifts and family gatherings. Let’s never forget that Jesus’ birth changes us and everything dramatically! The message of God with us should have a tremendous impact on our lives.
For a short while, it seemed that the fragile peace between Israel and Jordan would be broken. But then it became clear that the soldier was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness and that he’d acted with no authorization from anyone. Apologies were made and accepted in diplomatic circles, and the world breathed easier. The story could well have ended there, were it not for King Hussein. Hearing what one of his soldiers had done, the king left his palace, left even his own country and traveled to the humble homes of the families of the two slain Israeli girls. Entering each house in turn, King Hussein — who was used to having people bow before him — fell down on his knees. He bowed before the grieving parents. Then he looked up into their eyes and said, “I beg you, forgive me, forgive me. Your daughter is like my daughter, your loss is my loss. May God help you to bear your pain.” Nothing in the annals of diplomatic protocol suggested that a king needed to humble himself like that.
Ironically, a Muslim king gave the world that day a glimpse of how a king can humble himself and be with those in need. We celebrate today the amazing fact that the true and only king, Jesus, humbled himself and came down to be with us in our sorrow and pain. Moreover, Jesus came down to us not only to be with us but to accept the guilt that was not his. And in doing that he brought us peace with God. And Jesus also gives us an example of how we are to demonstrate our humble love to our enemies and those who may not be like us or agree with us.
Christmas means that God has come into this world and is with us: IMMANUEL!” God calls us to give ourselves to others in the world as he gave himself for us. Let’s seek to be the hands and arms of Jesus this week to those around us. Remember how I rocked my grandchildren saying, “I’m right here.” God came down to us to comfort us and show us that he is right here with us. Let’s seek to bring that same word of comfort to those around us as well.