O Little Town of Bethlehem
Bob Russell tells the story of a mother who was running furiously from store to store on Christmas Eve, trying to get those last-minute gifts. Suddenly she realized she’d lost track of her little 3-year-old son. In a panic, she retraced her steps and found him standing with his nose pressed flatly against a store window gazing at a Nativity Scene. When he heard his mother call his name, he turned and shouted in innocent glee: Look Mommy! It’s JESUS! Baby Jesus is in the hay ! The frazzled mom grabbed his arm and jerked him away, snapping, We don’t have time for all that! Can’t you see that Mommy’s trying to get ready for Christmas!?!
I don’t want to be to hard on that lady, because I get it. It is easy for me to get so consumed in getting ready for the holiday, that I often forget the holiday. That’s why I appreciate our Christmas Hymn this morning. More specifically I appreciate the fact that it builds to a specific point. Originally written as a poem, and later set to music, our hymn starts in the quiet morning hours and builds to the moment when everything changed. The last words of this hymn are, O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!. There in the early morning hours Jesus, or Emmanuel, came to be with us.
In Matthews Gospel we read that an Angel invites Joseph to take part in God’s grand story. The Angel says: She will have a son, and you will name Him Jesus, which means “the Lord saves,” because this Jesus is the person who will save all of His people from sin. This was the announcement that people had been longing to hear for centuries. Then, Matthew reminds the reader of the Prophecy by Isaiah: All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:21-23)
If this were a movie, at this point the music would swell and the tension would get thick because what he just said was the most earth shattering news possible. Because the Old Testament writers make it clear that God is so holy that you can't even look at Him and live. The original readers would have known that Moses had to hide his face when God passed by because he couldn't handle the full blown presence of God. They would have known that when God dwelt in the temple that nobody was allowed in the temple, except for the high priest, and only once a year. Even then they had to tie a rope to his leg, because if he died in the presence of God, the only way to get the dead priest out was to pull his body with the rope because they couldn’t go in there and get him.
Then out of nowhere Matthew tells us this 700 year old promise has finally come true. He is with us is the news that would make the shepherds in the fields rejoice. He is with us is the news that caused the Wise Men to fall on their face and bow down and worship. He is with us, is the assurance that God is not a distant, far off, uninvolved God. God is not someone who just watches over us, but God is now with us. The Creator and Sustainer of the universe stripped Himself of His glory and came to live among us as a baby. John writes in the beginning of his gospel: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word of God became flesh. … and dwelt among us. (1:1, 14)
Matthew has the privilege of telling us the news that we have all longed for: God is with us. But, if he is telling the truth, then why do some of us live like we don’t believe it? I mean you got out of bed, got dressed, ran a comb through your hair and showed up here this morning. You would claim that you believe it. But you aren’t living your life every day like you truly believe that God is with you.
The holiday season acts like a big magnifying glass, this time of year just seems to magnify our struggles. Maybe you are facing an empty chair this year, someone that you wish was going to be there and isn't, maybe it was because of a divorce, or death, or distance and this time of year just magnifies your loss. Sure God might be with other people, but not you. You feel all alone.
Or maybe it's bad news about some health issue, you are facing some sickness and you have been praying that you will get well, but the sickness and pain just continues to linger. You don’t think that God is with you. Sure God might be with other folks, but not with you.
Or maybe it is uncertainty about your job or financial future and because you are in the midst of a struggle you think that Emmanuel means that God is with someone else not me.
Or maybe it’s because, if you were really honest, you'd admit that you have done something that you are ashamed of. And you wonder why would God want to be with someone like me? It's really hard to believe that God is with me.
When you hear that God is near you feel a lot like Joseph. Not the Joseph in the New Testament but the Joseph in the Old Testament. This is a different Joseph than Mary's Joseph. We meet this Joseph when he was a little boy with big dreams. This is the Joseph who told his dad, mom, and brothers that they would all bow down to him. This is the Joseph who was so loved by his dad that he got a colorful coat and the jealousy of his brothers. This Joseph went out to check on his brothers and they took the opportunity to beat him up and throw him in a pit. But they decided that instead of killing him, they could make some money by selling him into slavery. This Jospeh was was taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar and because of his integrity he refused to sleep with Potiphar’s wife, and he was accused of something he didn't do and thrown into prison. And if you're looking at this from a distance, it would really be easy to say, Where's God in that? Where's God in all of these trials?
But you can’t just look at one page of a story or one chapter of a book and know that whole story. You have to wait to see that God was actually working behind the scenes. Joseph’s pit became the passage that eventually led to the palace where he was second in charge over Egypt. God used a very indirect route but God was still the one working out all of the circumstances in his story. While we might wonder where was God through all of this, Genesis 39:21 tells us exactly where God was. The Bible said The Lord was with Joseph…
God was there with Joseph the whole time. And God is with you. That’s the beauty of the Christmas Story. That in that little town, a Savior was born so that God could come and live among us, that He could come and live in us. I know that there are times when we are just reading this one page, reading this one chapter of our lives and wonder where is God in all of this. But when you look back at the history of your life you can see that God was there. He was with Joseph and when we look back at the most difficult and trying times of our lives we can see His fingerprints everywhere.
This morning we need to reclaim the truth that God is with us. He is present when we can see Him and everything is going our way, and He is present when we are in the darkness and we are having trouble finding our way.
In Luke’s account of the Birth of Christ we see that an angel appears to a little teenage girl and says: Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. (Luke 1:28) The very first truth the angel proclaims to this girl is exactly what she needed to know because he's about to ask her to do something very difficult.
This morning you need to hear that the Lord is with you. Some of you who are hurting right now, I need you to understand the Lord is with you. Not because everything is gumdrops, lollipops, unicorns, and rainbows but because you are going through a difficult time. The Angel’s promise that God would be with Mary was not just a one time event. God was always with Mary. He was there when she told Joseph she was pregnant. God was there when she traveled 100 miles to Bethlehem while 9 months pregnant. God was there when they were informed that there was no room in the inn. God was there when she gave birth to the Son of God in a stable in a manger, next to farm animals.
God was there when they had to escape to Egypt in the dead of night because Herod was killing every boy 2 years and younger. God was there when they realized that they had lost their 12 year old son when they were a days journey away from Jerusalem. God was there when that same 12 year old was found in the temple asking questions, answering questions, teaching and saying He was about the Father's business.
God was there at the wedding feast when Mary watched as her Son turned water into wine. God was there when she stood outside the house wanting to talk to her Son and she heard Him say Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?
And God was there when Mary watched her son being falsely accused. God was there when she watched her son suffer on a cross brutally abused by the sinners who drove spikes through His body. God was there when she watched Him suffer, and heard Him say, It is finished! God was there when when the whole earth shook, and He was with her throughout those nights when she was lost in her sadness and confusion.
And God was there on the third day when the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty because He had risen. Emmanuel has come, God with us no matter what we go through. And you need to know that God is with you so that you can endure this part of your story. God has come, and He is with us as we face the darkness and the fear. He is Emmanuel.
When you understand that the all-knowing, all-powerful God is with always you; that changes everything. When you are lost and don't know where to go, He is with you as your guide. When you're hurting and feel alone, He is with you. When you're in the middle of a trial, God is with you as your comforter. When you are sick, God is with you as your healer. Whenever you're weak, God is with you as your strength. Anytime you're lost in your sin, our God is with you as your Savior.
Paul said it this way in Romans 8: So who can separate us? What can come between us and the love of God’s Anointed? Can troubles, hardships, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger, or even death? The answer is, absolutely nothing. … For I have every confidence that nothing—not death, life, heavenly messengers, dark spirits, the present, the future, spiritual powers, height, depth, nor any created thing—can come between us and the love of God revealed in the Anointed, Jesus our Lord. (35, 38-39)
I know that you have your own share of pain, struggles, and trial, but you need to know that Emmanuel has come and nothing, not a single thing in the entire universe, will be able to separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. He will never leave you and He will never forsake you. You will never be alone! Nothing can separate you, not your fears, not your doubts, not your insecurities, not your theological questions, not the things that you can't explain, not your brokenness, not your failures, not your mistakes, not sickness, not a divorce, not what someone else did to you, not broken dreams. There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, because He is, He was, He will be with you!
Even when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death you shall fear no evil. Because our God is with us. It matter has already been settled and it doesn’t mater if you agree to it or believe it, God is with us, He is available to us. The only question that needs to be answered is are you with God? And it's time to give it an honest answer.
Jesus is Emmanuel and more than anything else, He wants to reveal His love, His character, His nature, His goodness to you. And His greatest desire is for you to be with Him; loving Him with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Because He’s not a God who is far off or uninvolved or distant, He is a God who came to earth to reveal Himself to you and forgive you of your sin so you could know Him, serve Him, and have eternal life.
This morning are you with God? I want to challenge you to answer that question as honestly as you can. When I take an honest look back on my life I have to admit that there were times when I was not. I mean I was at the building every time the doors were open. I sang all the songs, and even led a few. I took communion and served communion. I taught Bible Classes. I led the church in prayers, but my heart was far from God. You might not have known it just looking at my life from the outside, but I was not with God. Sure I believed in God, but even the demons are smart enough to believe in God and shudder.
This morning are you with God, and does your life reflect an ongoing, loving relationship with the God of the universe? If not, then you need to know it is not an accident that you are here today, because God is reaching out to you, because God is with you and He wants you to be with Him.
Maybe this morning you are still making excuses, maybe you are saying I'd like to be with Him but I'm not a good person, I've messed up, I need to clean some things up first, I'm not good enough! Let me help you out here; you’re right, you are not good enough, and you will never be. Neither am I, none of us are. We are all sinners and that's why we need a Savior, that's why Jesus came. He is the perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
Today are you with God? He wants you to respond to His free gift of salvation. You can't earn salvation, you can't work for it, it's a free gift. But once you receive that gift , your only reasonable response is, God here's my whole life, I want to be with you in everything that I do.
The best gift you can ever receive was born in that little town of Bethlehem. And the best gift you can ever give is giving your life to Him. This morning you have the chance to say publicly, I'm with God. I need a Savior, I need your presence, I need forgiveness, I need you. I don't care what anybody thinks, I want to go public with this. I'm with God and He's with me.