Sunday, December 13, 2015

Gifts of Advent: Immanuel

Last week we started a short series on the Gifts of Advent. We looked at peace, the peace of God that passes all understanding. That is a gift of Jesus’ Advent which frees us from anxiety. This morning we’re going to look at another gift that Jesus has brought to us.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).  Matthew 1.22-23
Immanuel, God with us. Because of Jesus, this gift is ours to enjoy. And
it is a glorious gift. Knowing that God is with us is so encouraging. It gives us a reason to be so very optimistic even when life is so very difficult. It is a great gift.

Now, every gift has a story. And it’s as you understand the story better that you appreciate the gift more. The story of Immanuel, like every other blessing of the Gospel, begins in the Garden of Eden. When most people think of the Garden what comes to mind is a picture of a lush bit of ground with all sorts of beauty. And it certainly was that. But that wasn’t the best part of the Garden. What made the Garden so awesome was that it was the place of God’s special presence. It was God’s first Temple. The Garden was where Adam and Eve enjoyed walks with God in the cool of the day. It was there that Adam and Eve experienced so completely the joys of Immanuel.

Seeing that explains so much. It’s when you see what the Garden was really about, enjoying the presence of God, that you get a better sense of the ugliness of what happened. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. They rejected God’s word and felt the consequences. And while that certainly meant that they were expelled from the place of beautiful plants and all the rest, it also meant that they were expelled from the place of Immanuel. And when that happened, Adam and Eve could no longer say, ‘God is with us’. And that’s because He wasn’t. They were without the one ingredient that made the Garden what it was. They were without that special presence of God. They knew that they could not assume what so many today falsely assume. ‘You’re God. You’re supposed to take care of me. You’re supposed to respond to me when I cry for help. You’re supposed to be with me.’ Adam and Eve knew what had happened. God was no longer with them. From that day to this, humanity has forfeited God’s kind presence. As a result, we all face the prospect of dealing with life alone. That’s the first part of the story of Immanuel: how it was granted and then lost.

Fortunately, that’s not where the story ends. Jesus has come. The Gospel is ours. And that has changed so much. We now can enjoy the gifts of Jesus’ Advent, things like Immanuel, the presence of God. Now, we can say, ‘God is with us’. His glorious presence has become a constant in our lives. It does not come and go. It is ours continually and forever. We know this because God has promised it. He said,
I will never leave you nor forsake you. Hebrews 13.5,6
So, we will never be alone. Never. Immanuel will always be true for us. A gift of Jesus’ Advent.

But the story of this gift is still not complete. There is more to see. We are no longer abandoned by God. His presence is always with us. But how can that be? Don’t we deserve to suffer the same punishment that Adam and Eve endured? Don’t we deserve to be abandoned, expelled from God’s presence? How can God give us what we by no means deserve? We are rescued from the curse of being abandoned by God only because of Jesus. But understand what that means. We are no longer abandoned by God because Jesus was. Do you remember what Jesus said on that Cross?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
He was abandoned - Ponder that. Abandoned! - so that we never will be. The grace of the Gospel.

This is an awesome gift. Consider what difference it makes for how we live. The key here is understanding that God is with us not merely as God. That actually would be a bit frightening. Rather, He is with us as our Father. I tell you again what I’ve said before that grasping what it means that God is your Father is a precious treasure. It completely changes a Christian’s approach to life. This is what makes it possible to live and die well.

So, this God who is with us, who is our Father, watches over us as a Father would, caring for our needs. That means that
He makes [us] lie down in green pastures. He leads [us] beside still waters.
He also defends us from every evil just as any good Father would. And so, you can say,
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.
And He also blesses us with the growing ability to live well, to live wisely. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…
And it only gets better after that. It’s all because He is with us.

Now, it needs to be said that there have been and will be those times when it doesn’t feel like God is with us. There are troubles to overcome, disappointments to mourn, losses to grieve. Life doesn’t feel good when those sorts of things are happening. And yet, God is still with us. He is still watching over us, still defending us, still blessing us. It’s during these hard times when that old question needs to be answered. ‘Do you trust Me now?’ Bear in mind that He has given us His sworn pledge that we will never face life alone. He has promised always to be with us. Nothing has changed even though there are times when it feels like it has. It’s during those difficult times that we need to simply believe Him, that He is still with us to do us good. That’s when we simply wait for Him to reveal the wisdom of His plan for our lives, something He will do when He thinks best. You will enjoy this gift in the same way that you enjoy all the others. It’s by answering that question with, ‘Yes, Father, I do trust You now’.

Two last thoughts. Here’s the first. I would be willing to bet that while you all heard me say that Immanuel is about ‘God with us’, most, if not all, of you understood that as ‘God with me’. We have been taught to think in terms of the individual first. That is what is most basic, or so we have been told. So, my sense of myself starts with myself. The Scriptures don’t see it that way. To be sure, the individual is important. But it’s the group that comes first. And so, though it feels as if it should be ‘God with me’, that’s not what He said. God is, first of all, with the group. It’s ‘God with us’. Now, we do enjoy, individually, the blessings of Immanuel. But the reason why that is true is that we are part of the group, part of the people of God, part of the Church. The blessings of the Gospel flow through the group to the individual. So, bear in mind what the Scriptures teach. Immanuel, God with us.

Here’s the second thought. Once again I want to relate a gift of Jesus’ Advent to the people you know, people who are not disciples of Jesus. They cannot lay claim to the promise of this gift. They cannot say, ‘God with us’. And they can’t because He isn’t with them. Try to understand the enormity of that fact. God is not with them. And what does that mean but that they are alone. They face the evils of this world alone. I cannot imagine doing that. Most of them try to hide from that reality. They have to. And there is an abundance of ways they work at that. But every once in a while the curtain slips and reality peeks out. The truth strikes home. They are alone. Or to say it even more starkly, they have been abandoned by God, and they know it. They feel it. They may not put the right words to what they are feeling, but they feel abandoned. But understand why that is. It’s because they have rejected the God who created them. You may hear them cry out when life gets too hard, ‘Oh God, please help me’. But to whom are they calling? It is not the God who has come in Jesus. If that were the case they would embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord. They do cry out, but to no avail. The false god they cry to cannot help them. They are alone. And they feel it.

But this need not be the case. Jesus has come. And He has brought gifts, glorious gifts like Immanuel, God with us. All they need do is embrace Jesus and join the group. Sadly, these days people aren’t interested in listening to such things. Going door to door to present the truths of the Gospel or handing out tracts in the hope of starting a conversation might have worked in days gone by, but not today. They will not listen. So, what needs to happen is that they need to see. They need to see someone living out the joy of Immanuel. They need to see you display a what it means to live knowing that God is with you. So, consider the people you know - friends, neighbors, co-workers, family - people who are not disciples of Jesus. Consider them and the fact that they are alone in the world. God is not with them. He is with you, but He is not with them. All might look fine with them, but it’s not. Show them the Gospel that they might enjoy what you enjoy: Immanuel.

No comments: