Well, let me once again add my welcome to you, especially if you are a visitor here with us this evening. If you take a quick look around the room you'll see people with name tags. That expresses our commitment to being welcoming hosts. It is an invitation to you to come and say hello and to ask any question that you might have. If we can serve you in any way, we do want to be available to you. We'd love to get some time to talk with you after the service. I will be down front, as Ralph said, and also over here to my right you'll see Billy Dempsey. Billy, would you stick your hand up; let everyone see where you are. If you find you have a question or you would like someone to pray with, Billy is available, I am available, Ralph is at the back. We would love to serve you in that way, so please do come and speak with us.
Now our pattern here at First Presbyterian Church is to read and reflect together on a portion of the Bible every week. And since this is the Christmas season, we’re taking the time to think about the meaning of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the approach we are taking is to ponder some of the names that are given to Christ, the titles given to Christ is the Scriptures. So let me invite you, if you would, to take a Bible in your hands, there are copies in the pews in front of you, and to turn with me please to page 807 in the church Bibles. You’ll find Matthew chapter 1 part of the narrative of the nativity of Christ. We actually began looking at the passage last time. There are two names for Jesus - first, the name Jesus itself, and then the name we’ll be considering, Immanuel, later in the passage. Matthew chapter 1, verses 18 through 25. Before we read, because this is God’s Word, we are going to pause and pray and ask Him to help us understand and believe His holy Word. Let’s pray together.
Lord our God, we pray that You would help us through the work of the Holy Spirit as the Bible is read to us and its message proclaimed, to hear Your voice calling to us and inviting us, drawing us and bringing us to the Lord Jesus Himself who is God with us, Immanuel. For we ask this in His name, amen.
Matthew chapter 1 at the eighteenth verse. This is God’s Word:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 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). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus."
Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.
Back in 2010, the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital in England sent a routine letter to a patient informing them that they really ought to come in for an ultrasound because in seven months’ time they’d be giving birth, quite possibly to twins. And you can imagine the surprise Mr. Hilton Platel, aged 50, must have felt when he opened the letter addressed to him. He said he was quite flabbergasted and read the letter over twice just to make sure he had not misunderstood. His wife, of course, found the hospital’s mistake hilarious, telling the newspaper that the baby certainly wasn’t hers and she had no idea how this whole thing happened!
Well, be that as it may, when news reached Joseph that Mary, his fiancee, was pregnant, there really was no possibility that the Bethlehem & District Hospital had made a mistake that day. In fact, poor Joseph was facing a nightmare scenario, wasn't he? In those days and in that culture, betrothal was about as serious and as inviolable as marriage itself, which is why verse 19 makes clear Joseph was already considered her husband. And if he were to break off the engagement, he'd actually need to divorce her. So this is a big deal. Joseph clearly believes that Mary has been unfaithful, which is not, let's face it, not an entirely unreasonable assumption for him to make at this point. But we are told being a just man, a righteous man, caring for her as he does, not wanting to add to her shame, he plans to divorce her as quietly as he can. Joseph must have felt he had little choice. It's awful. It's an awful situation. I think we often overlook all of that when we think about the Christmas story. Don't we? We love the star and the shepherds and the angels and the wise men and the manger scene, but we miss the heartache and the pain that laces this part, at least, of the account. This must have been a devastating development for Joseph and Mary both.
And it’s into that nightmare that God speaks to Joseph. He has a dream in which he is told what’s really going on. It turns out Mary hasn’t been unfaithful. The child which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. He is to be called Jesus. And to help Joseph put any lingering fears he might have had to bed once and for all, the angelic messenger explains that what is happening to them was the fulfillment of an ancient promise. Verse 22, “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.’” So God is keeping His promises, Joseph. That’s what’s really happening. And the particular promise in question could not be more wonderful. It could not be more wonderful.
God With Us
Matthew tells us what the name Immanuel means in the parenthesis at the end of verse 28. Do you see that? Immanuel, he says, means “God with us.” God with us. All we’re going to do tonight is explore for a few moments why that is such wonderful news, not just for Joseph, but for all of us. You see, God had been promising to be with His people from the very beginning. In Genesis 26 verse 3 he told the patriarch Isaac, the son of Abraham, “I will be with you and bless you, for to you and your offspring I will give all these lands. And I will establish the oath, the covenant that I swore to Abraham, your father.” And then Isaac’s son, Jacob, receives the same promise. Genesis 31:3, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred and I will be with you.” In Genesis 48 when Isaac’s son, Jacob, is dying in the land of Egypt, he blessed his sons who would become the fathers of the nation of Israel. And he said to them, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and He will bring you again into the land of your fathers.”
Years later now, still in Egypt, the descendants of Jacob have become slaves. They've not yet returned to the land God swore to give them, but the Lord had not forgotten His promise. And in Exodus chapter 3, you may remember God called Moses to be their deliverer, their rescuer. But Moses was not too sure about God's plan. He protested. "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?" And God replied, saying, "But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that I have sent you when you have brought the people out of Egypt. You shall serve God on this mountain. That the presence of God will be all that you will need, Moses, to face down the might of Pharaoh." And when at last after leaving Egypt, the Israelites finally make it through the wilderness, they stand there on the banks of the Jordan River on the borders of the Promised Land, and God tells Moses' successor, Joshua, Joshua 1:5, "No man will be able to stand before you, all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous."
Later still, toward the end of their history in the land, God told the people of Israel, Isaiah 41:10, “You are my servant. I have chosen you and will not cast you off. Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” And again in Isaiah 43 at verse 2, “When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers; they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
So you see, from the very beginning God had been telling His people over and over again He was with them and He will be with them. And because He would be with them, they would inherit the land of promise. Because He was with him, Moses could face down the arrogance and the power of Pharaoh. Because He was with them, the people of Judah could pass through coming waters of suffering and walk through the fire of pain and loss and be sustained, not overwhelmed. All because God would be with them.
The Heart of the Matter
So now do you see that this simple promise embedded in the name for Jesus - in our text, Immanuel, God with us - sums up one of the great themes of the whole Bible. This is not peripheral. It's not an added extra; a bonus on top of other blessings that God gives. This is the center of things; the heart of the matter, we might say. This is what Christmas is about. This is what the Christian Gospel is about. Immanuel, God with us. Now to be sure, God had been with His people in a variety of ways before. He'd been with them to answer their prayers when they cried to Him. He'd been with them symbolically when He brought them out of Egypt in the pillar of fire and cloud. He'd been with them in the tabernacle and then later again in the temple, filling the holy place with His glory. But now that Mary was having a baby, at last God would be with us in person, as it were. The child is Immanuel. He is God with us. God come down to us. God, Himself become flesh to dwell among us. With the birth of the baby of Bethlehem, we are celebrating the union of human nature with divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ. God is with us as one of us. Humanity and deity touch and are joined. Not mixed or confused but joined forever in Jesus.
And our question, therefore, ought to be, “Why would God do that? Why did God become man, to become one of us, to be with us?” And there are various ways we could answer that question. I’m going to answer it two ways this evening. First, God became a man to represent us. And secondly, God became man to sympathize with us. And we need both and they’re connected in some important ways.
To Represent Us
Let’s think about the first of them. He became a man to represent us. The truth is, we’re in big trouble. The Bible says we are sinners, guilty before God, and we don’t really have any way to fix the solution on our own. You see, sin is not primarily behavioral in Scripture. Before it is a behavior it is an identity. We are sinners, which is why we sin. So we can’t resolve our sin problem partly because we are the problem. And also partly because it will take infinite resources, infinite wisdom, infinite righteousness, infinite dignity, infinite merit to pay a debt like this - sin against an infinitely holy God. So we’re in big trouble. But Immanuel means that God Himself has come to act in our stead. God Himself, the just Judge, who has passed sentence, “Guilty as charged,” has stepped from the bench and taken the place of the condemned in Jesus Christ. So you see, He has to be God to pay an infinite debt. He must be man to step into our shoes and represent us, to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.
The apostle Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians chapter 5. “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” And he goes on to say, “For our sake, God made Him who knew no sin - Jesus - to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” An exchange took place, do you see. A swap of sorts - your guilt was counted against Him and He paid for it in full so that His righteousness could be counted as yours. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, as one of us to represent us, to act for us, to stand in for us and to be our substitute.
To Sympathize with Us
But then secondly, He came to be with us as one of us not only to represent us but also to sympathize with us. Now just think about the enormity of what we’re being told for a moment. The God whose glory fills the heavens is now cradled in the arms of the virgin. The God who slumbers not nor sleeps was later found exhausted, asleep in the bottom of a boat in the middle of a lake while a storm raged around Him. The God who breathed life into Adam at the dawn of creation, weeping at the graveside of Lazarus, His friend. The God who hung the stars and who led His people out of slavery in Egypt by His mighty right hand has nails driven into His hands at the cross. The God who is the just Judge, condemned to death at Calvary. It’s extraordinary.
Now the only way to enjoy the forgiveness, the pardon of our sin that Jesus was born to provide for sinners like me and you, the only way is to confess. It’s to own our mess, own our guilt; not to pass the buck, not to play the victim card, not to blame society or our upbringing or our lack of opportunity. It is to cry out to God and beg Him for mercy. And look, I know that’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do that - to face ourselves and all the ugliness of our sin. But isn’t it so much easier to do when you know, when you see and realize that the God to whom you must go for mercy has Himself come all the way down into human sorrow and suffering in the man, Jesus Christ? Isn’t it easier to turn to one who sympathizes with you in your weaknesses? Isn’t it easier to cry to Him for mercy when you see that He loves you this much that He would come in pursuit of you, as we were hearing this morning?
I wonder if you've ever heard of a swimmer, a man called Ross Edgley. Ross Edgley? Is that a name you know? He swam for 157 days around the entire coastline of Great Britain in the freezing water. That's 1,792 miles in total. Can you imagine swimming almost 2,000 miles? He was at sea for nearly twenty-three weeks without ever stepping back on dry land. And of course, the whole thing took its toll, as you might expect. Because he wasn't walking, the arches on his feet fell. Being in a wetsuit for months on end meant that he had developed sores on his skin all over his body. At one point he was stung in the face as he was swimming by a jellyfish and his face began to swell. The constant exposure to salt water - this is gross - the constant exposure to salt water actually made part of his tongue fall off. Apparently, it grew back in time, I'm told! So my point is, it was a brutal ordeal.
And one freezing day in November - I'd never want to be in the sea around Britain in November; I don't want to be in the sea in Britain in July, never mind November! But one day in November, Edgley finally made the turn for home. The end is in sight. Now he's given everything to complete this challenge. And the question is, "Is he going to make it?" He's spent. His body has been pushed to its limits. Bits are falling off. Right? That's how far he's gone. And as he turned for shore that November day, at last, something amazing happened. Just ahead of him, just ahead of this exhausted swimmer - he's been at sea for twenty-three weeks - 300 other swimmers had come out to meet him, ordinary people, to guide him home. And they came out for him and they swam with him and they celebrated with him and they brought him home.
When you ask the question, "Why did God become man in Jesus?" that's the answer. He did it to be with us, to be Immanuel. He came out for us to bring us home. He came out for you to bring you home. He became one of us, acted in our place, entered our suffering, bore our sin, plumbed the depths of sorrow that we might find in Him one who is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses - He gets it - to whom we can turn, to whom you can go. He's ready to save us and rescue us and reconcile us to God, to bring us home at last. All He asks of you is your trust, your repentance, to turn from life on your terms to life on His; to trust Him. He's asking you to give up the idea you can do it on your own. You can't. I can't. You need the God who promises to be with us in Jesus Christ. He came out for you to bring you home. Isn't it time you let Him bring you home? We have Immanuel. He came for you to be with you, to do for you what you could never do for yourself. To be one to whom you can turn, and when you turn to Him to know that He hears you and He will bring you home.
Maybe as you’ve listened you’ve realized that you have been living life on your own terms for too long, and tonight’s the night to come and bend the knee to Jesus. Let me invite you simply, quietly, to turn to Him, to cry to Him, to ask Him to be your Rescuer. He will if you look to Him. If you’d like to talk to someone I’ll be down front after the service. Billy Dempsey is over here; we’d love to meet with you, to talk with you, to pray with you. But let me point you to Jesus. He is the one that you need. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, how we praise You for Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, one of us, one to whom we may go who sympathizes with us in our weaknesses - our suffering, sin-bearer. And we pray for one another. Some of us have been walking with Jesus for many years and still, we're tempted to believe that we can do this on our own, that we can tough it out, that we're strong enough, wise enough, good enough. And again and again, in Your providence, You show us that we're just not. And we need to repent, to turn from self to the Savior again. Some of us are here and we never have considered surrendering to Him, to giving up life on our own terms and being brought home and rescued by the Savior. And we pray for them and we ask You, O Lord, that they may cry to You, ask You for forgiveness, and come to trust in You. We pray that the Lord Jesus, God with us, might come to them, be with them, dwell in them and in all of us, that our whole lives and all glory and praise might be Yours forever. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.
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