Sunday, December 10, 2017

Immanuel

What we’re going to do this morning is meditate on a bit of Scripture. As I’ve told you before, the Bible never commands that you read your Bible every day, though that’s a fine thing to do. But it does command you to meditate on it. Now, I say all that to make clear how important meditating on the Scriptures is. But don’t think that meditating on Scripture has to be anything complicated. It’s simply asking questions of the text and then doing what you can to answer those questions. Sometimes you’ll be able to come up with some really good answers and sometimes all you end up with are more questions, questions that will have to wait for some answers. In any event, it’s good to develop this discipline. Remember the example of the man in Psalm 1.
but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. Psalm 1.2
This morning we’re going to meditate on a text of Scripture that I know you are familiar with. I know that because I’ve preached on this same text every Advent for the last several years. And more than likely, I’ll preach on it again in future Advent seasons also. There’s plenty here to meditate on.


So, here’s the text.
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
We’re going to take another look at the biblical idea of Immanuel, the presence of God with us. And I’ll tell you why we’re once again taking a look at this. It’s because this is the heart of the Gospel.

The goal of the Gospel is not that our sins would be forgiven. And the goal isn’t that we might end up in heaven instead of hell. And it’s not even that we might follow Jesus. Those are great things that the Gospel gives us, but they are not the goal of the Gospel. They are means to the goal. But the goal itself is for us to be able to once again enjoy those pleasant afternoon strolls with God in the lush Garden. The goal is God’s presence with us, Immanuel. So, you see, the point of Jesus’ Advent is that God might be with us and we with Him.

Now, we’re ready to ask some questions of the text. So, here’s the first question. Why do we enjoy this presence of God?

Here’s one good answer to that: grace. It is so important that you understand that the presence of God with us is a gift of His kind grace. That is the only reason that we are able to enjoy it. Grace. You did nothing to make you stand out so that God would decide to give you this gift. You were just like the many other sinners who do not have this gift and never will. God just decided to include you. It’s a gift of His grace.

Now, holding on to this is important for many reasons. But here’s just one. It will help you to believe that doing something stupid doesn’t disqualify you from continuing to enjoy this gift. Let’s be honest. We do lots of stupid things. We sin a bunch. And it’s also a fact that we don’t see most of our stupidity. But every once in a while, we do see it. And there are times when we think, ‘Even God can’t stand me now. I have completely forfeited any claim to any of His blessings, especially His presence with me’. And then we go into a tailspin. Well, the fact of the matter is that you haven’t forfeited any claim to His presence. And the reason for that is obvious. You don’t forfeit it because of something you do since you never earned it by something you do. It was never yours because you were so good. It’s yours as a gift. God graciously gives it to people whom He knows will do stupid things.

So, when you actually notice one of your sins, don’t go into a tailspin. Just be honest with God. Admit what you did. No excuses. No minimizing. And then, come again to Jesus and ask for forgiveness for what you did and for change so that you won’t do it again, or at least that you’ll make some progress toward the goal of not doing it again.

So, there’s one answer to our question, ‘Why do we enjoy this presence of God?’ It’s a gift of God’s kind grace.

But, ‘why questions’ being what they are, there is also another answer to that question.

We enjoy the presence of God because we need it. We are helpless without Him. God knows that, and it is by His presence that He deals with that problem. Now, let’s be clear about this word ‘helpless’. It doesn’t mean that you can handle most of life but need a little assist, here and there. Helpless means helpless. It’s you-need-to-get-out-of-your-house-since-it’s-on-fire-but-your-body-is-completely-paralyzed kind of helpless. To think otherwise is just being arrogant and blind to reality. 

Here’s something to look at to find out if you see yourself as helpless as you actually are: your prayers. Are your prayers an occasional, ‘Father, I could use a little assist on this problem’? Or are they a desperate and daily, ‘Father, if You don’t get me through life I won’t make it’? God knows how helpless you are. He is the kind of God who helps helpless people. And that’s why, in the Gospel, He promises His presence with you. The promise of Immanuel is for helpless people.

Let’s move on. Here’s another answer to our question, ‘Why do we enjoy this presence of God?’ He wants to take care of you. He wants to love you. But He doesn’t do that from a distance. No, He walks through life with you to protect you, direct you and correct you. He walks with you because He cares.

But there are too many ways that this can be misunderstood. There are those who will tell you that since God is with you, life will be smooth. Everything will fall into place without much ado. Now, you all know that that is simply ridiculous. Life is hard. And only dishonest people or those who are trying to hide from reality say otherwise.

But it’s important to remember that life is hard for a reason. It’s actually because of Immanuel that life is hard. It’s God’s presence that creates the hardships. There are some important things that we need to learn, things that we need to grasp down deep. But because of our sin, we don’t do well learning those lessons. That’s when our caring God acts. That’s when the props are knocked out from under us so that we are able to see reality more clearly, we are able to learn the lesson. There are so many things that cloud our vision, so many things. It just might be that what we need is a shock to our system so we can see straight. It’s God’s presence with us, God’s caring presence with us, that will bring about that shock so that we will understand what we need to. So, life won’t be smooth, not for the faithful Christian. But life will be good. And the reason is Immanuel.

To be sure, many wicked people have smooth lives. You should read Psalm 73 where the psalmist notices what he calls ‘the prosperity of the wicked’ and describes it quite well. Life for them can be really smooth. But don’t be envious, like that psalmist was at first. Remember what he came to see.
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end. Psalm 73.16-17
So, be careful. And it’s not just a matter of not envying them. Don’t even try for what they strive for. Don’t aim for a smooth and easy life. Don’t. Because of God’s gracious presence with you, life will be hard. But that just means that life will be good because you will understand better how life works.

Okay. So, are we done with our first question and ready to move on to another? No, not yet. There’s another answer to, ‘Why do we enjoy this presence of God?’ We enjoy it because we are part of the group. I get this from one of those little, but ever so significant, words that are in the Bible. Listen again and see if you can tell which little word I’m thinking about.
and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).
The little but significant word is ‘us’. I think that it’s fair to say that most American Christians hear the Immanuel principle as ‘God with me’. To be sure, He is with each of us individually. That’s an important fact. But He is with each of us individually because He is with us as a group, His Church. The promise of this text is for the group. It applies to all who are a part of the group. So, can we say that if someone is estranged from the group, separated from the Church, he or she doesn’t enjoy this promised presence of God? Interesting question.

Okay, now are we done? Well, I’m sure that there are still other answers to this ‘Why?’ question tucked away in the Scriptures, but we’ll stop with this much. There are other different questions to ask in order to meditate on this part of Scripture. But I’ll leave that to you.

I do, however, want to pose a practical question. ‘So, why don’t we enjoy more this presence of God?’ There really is much to enjoy when it comes to Immanuel. But, again, let’s be honest. All too often, we don’t find ourselves enjoying it. There are times when we just don’t feel it. Why is that? The answer is simple. We don’t believe the Gospel. We don’t believe what the Gospel of Jesus promises when it comes to Immanuel, God is with us.

Think about it. How often do we believe in ourselves instead of in Jesus? We find ourselves in a tight spot, facing some sort of difficulty and so often what we tell ourselves is that we can handle this. We just need to try harder. That trying harder might include doing religious things, but it’s still us depending on our trying harder. We depend on ourselves when we should be - and can be - depending on Him. And what is that? It’s unbelief. In that moment we don’t believe in the Gospel. We don’t believe in Immanuel.

The key here is holding on to the basics when it comes to believing the Gospel. And here is one of the most basic of those basics. We are helpless. It’s out of that sense of helplessness that we pray. ‘Father, You are with me. I believe that. It’s because I believe that that I’m calling out to You. I need Your help.’ It’s a clear grasp of our helplessness that is so very basic to all of this.

But what if you see that you don’t believe that you are helpless, especially in certain kinds of situations? What do you do then? Please, don’t opt for the ‘I have to try harder’ foolishness. What do you do? Well, you know this. You confess that sin and pray for forgiveness and for change. And the change that you want is to see more clearly how helpless you really are. That’s when the thought of Immanuel becomes so precious.

God has come in Jesus to help the helpless, to help us. That’s what we celebrate during Advent. And as we do celebrate that, the Spirit gives us some great Christmas gifts, things like hope and peace in the face of a world gone crazy. So, I will end this morning where I often end. Believe the Gospel. That’s how you can live well and make God look as good as He really is.

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