Joseph was in intense pain. His fiance Mary was pregnant, but not by him. What could he do now? How could their proposed marriage ever work now? But how could he let her go?
As he slept fitfully, and angel came to him in a dream to assure him, "What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." He believed the angel, took Mary to be his wife, and the rest is history. I'm sure the townspeople believed Joseph was the child's father. To discredit him, a story circulated that he was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier.
But right after the account of Joseph's dream, the Bible narrator says a very curious thing:
"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' -- which means, 'God with us.'"
A prophetic sign given some 700 years before has a meaning beyond its own time.
What does Immanuel mean? First, the name or title Immanuel comes from two Hebrew words -- the preposition im, "with, beside, by, among" + 'el, "God." It means simply, as the narrator tells us, "God with us."
But what is its significance? What does it tell us about Jesus' person and life mission? What does it mean to you? Two things, I believe.
God Is with Us to Help Us
Do you know what it feels like to feel utterly alone? To try to attempt to live your life with no one to fall back on, no safety net, no help? If you've been through some desperate times in your life, then you know exactly what this feels like. The wonderful promise made through the Christ-child Immanuel is that God promises to be with you in your troubles. He will not leave you to your own resources. All of his resources are now available to you.
The difference for you can be like night and day. In past times God had made this kind of promise to special people in history.
Abraham was an alien in a threatening land, but God said to him, "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go."4 Moses was told to personally confront the most powerful king on the face of the earth with nothing but a staff and the promise from God, "I will be with you!"5 Moses believed him and went to Pharaoh at great risk. As a result, God delivered the people of Israel from Egypt through the Red Sea. After Moses died, his apprentice was thrust into leadership. God promised Joshua, "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you."6
Powerful stuff! But what about you and me? That Jesus is Immanuel, "God with us," means that his promise is not just to the great leaders but to all. The promise is to you. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, he spoke to his disciples:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me�. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."7That promise of Immanuel is not just to the apostles, it is to us also, for we see the same promise in the Bible to reassure all the rest of us -- "I will never leave you or forsake you."8
God Himself Is with Us in Jesus
The title Immanuel tells us about the mission of Jesus, it also tells us about his nature. Remember the context? We have just been told about Mary's pregnancy, Joseph's concern, and the angel's assurance ("What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit"). At that point the narrator tells us that this fulfills Isaiah's prophecy, "'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel' -- which means, 'God with us.'" Matthew's account of Mary's conception tells the story from Joseph's point of view. Luke's account focuses on Mary's experience. The angel Gabriel has told Mary that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah.
"'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?
The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.'"
In other words, Immanuel, "God with us," is to be understood literally. Jesus is physical son of Mary in his human nature, but spiritually, he is the Son of God, he has been begotten by God himself.
So when the shepherds and wise men gather and worship the Baby, they are worshipping God himself. Jesus the Son is divine to the same degree that the Father is divine.
Jesus is God!
That is the very radical meaning of Christmas. It isn't about mistletoe and music, or parties and presents, or even the spirit of giving. Christmas is a celebration of the radical fact that God took on human flesh when Jesus was born. Jesus -- God Himself -- is Immanuel, God With Us
Fear Not! A Savior Is Born
"Fear not! Do not be afraid!" The angel spoke these words to Zachariah, to Mary, to Joseph, and finally to a group of shepherds on a hillside near Bethlehem.
"Do not be afraid; for behold I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."1
Do Not Be Afraid
Fear has a way of tying our stomachs up in knots, paralyzing our thinking, inducing panic. Fear, and its cousin worry, can capture our hearts when we see ourselves caught in a vortex of disasters beyond our control.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talks about tiny, defenseless sparrows in the context of fear and worry:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink... Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?"2
In another place he reassures his followers:
"Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows."3
Fear Drives a Downward Spiral
During this Christmas 2010 the entire world is caught in the grip of an economic down-spiral. Houses are being foreclosed on. People are losing jobs. Factories are closing. Food costs in some countries have risen 25%.
More and more you glimpse a kind of bleak fear in people's eyes. Will I lose my house? My job? What will become of us if this recession deepens into a depression? How will I feed my family?
Though it's been quoted so often that it's become a clich�, Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke these words to a nation at the depth of the Great Depression:
"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
Fear can grip us, choke all faith out of our hearts. Fear also drives economic depression. Fear causes companies to contract and people to stop buying. It causes runs on banks and panic on Wall Street. FDR reminded a nation that fear itself constitutes a large part of the problems we face.
It was as true in 1933 as it was on the first Christmas.
On the First Christmas
For on that first Christmas, the world was in desperate times, too. A census is being conducted in order to raise already high taxes. Murderous, paranoid Herod the Great is king of the Jews. It is winter on Bethlehem's hillsides -- and cold. Inside a cave in the town sit a poverty-stricken carpenter and his young wife -- far from home, chilled to the bone. She is in labor. Her child will be born in a stable, of all places. Why is it like this? she may have asked.
And then she recalls an echo of the angel's words to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary...."
A Savior Is Born
On the windswept hillsides outside of town, shepherds are huddling, too. All of a sudden the sky lights up and an angel proclaims:
"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord."
Fear not. The shepherds' fear is turned to joy as they hear news that a Savior is born. The Messiah! In Bethlehem, the city of David himself!
And so they run down the hillsides into the town and hurry from stable to stable until they find the Child in the manger, just as they have been told. Tucked in that manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes against the cold, is the Savior himself.
The Savior Will Provide
A Savior comes to rescue people in danger, preserve those who are threatened by harm, and protect his people from the troubles that surround them. That's what saviors do! That's what Jesus came to do for us.
Do not be afraid because God has sent a Savior to us -- Jesus Christ the Lord. He is the One who will:
Never leave us or forsake us.7
Supply all our needs according to his riches in glory.8
Add to us all the things we need as we seek him and his Kingdom.
Christmas Is About a Savior
Our world doesn't know. They think that Christmas is about gifts under a tree and a spirit of good cheer, with Christmas dinner and family around the table. But as good as all that may be, it isn't nearly as good as the Real Christmas.
The Real Christmas message is this: God has sent a Savior for you. To save you from your sins and to help you in this life -- to lift your burden and ease your fears. That's it! A Savior who is Christ the Lord -- God himself!
The world is gripped by fear. But fear's hold has been broken in those of us who believe the angel's words:
"Fear not ... for a Savior is born to you -- Christ the Lord!
The Unrivaled Power of Prayer
"We do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Romans 8:26).
We realize that we are energized by the Holy Spirit for prayer; and we know what it is to pray in accordance with the Spirit; but we don't often realize that the Holy Spirit Himself prays prayers in us which we cannot utter ourselves. When we are born again of God and are indwelt by the Spirit of God, He expresses for us the unutterable.
"He," the Holy Spirit in you, "makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God" (8:27). And God searches your heart, not to know what your conscious prayers are, but to find out what the prayer of the Holy Spirit is. The Spirit of God uses the nature of the believer as a temple in which to offer His prayers of intercession. ". . . your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit . . ." (1 Corinthians 6:19). When Jesus Christ cleansed the temple, ". . . He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple" (Mark 11:16). The Spirit of God will not allow you to use your body for your own convenience. Jesus ruthlessly cast out everyone who bought and sold in the temple, and said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer . . . . But you have made it a 'den of thieves' " (Mark 11:17).
Have we come to realize that our "body is the temple of the Holy Spirit"? If so, we must be careful to keep it undefiled for Him. We have to remember that our conscious life, even though only a small part of our total person, is to be regarded by us as a "temple of the Holy Spirit." He will be responsible for the unconscious part which we don't know, but we must pay careful attention to and guard the conscious part for which we are responsible.