Immanuel, God with Us

    Reading: Matthew 1.18-25

    We are so glad to live in Australia, a land of peace and goodwill. The international madness of terrorism is elsewhere in the world.

    Yet the Australian government deem it necessary to cast a 1000 nautical mile security zone around the coastline as part of a new maritime plan to counter terrorism and protect shipping, ports and oil rigs from attack. Further, Australians travelling in Indonesia have been warned of an imminent terrorist threat against international hotels in that country. The Indonesian government isn’t at all happy about the security zone, but is taking very seriously the terrorist threat to Hilton International Hotels.

    There have been some tentative signs of hope in the Israeli/Palestinian situation – to be shaken again by a bomb blast on the border of Egypt and the Gaza strip. Extreme groups want to distance themselves from any negotiated settlement. And how can Iraq be ready for free democratic elections in January 2005?

    Closer to home, some of our members have had relatives or friends travelling on the tile-train that derailed recently. No terrorism there, but are we too smug about our technology?

    It’s when these things begin to affect us personally – as with the Bali bombing two years ago – that we begin to respond with more urgent concern. Then we begin to “feel with” others, so that we have “sympathy” and “compassion”.

    Of course, it is never quite true (or helpful) to tell people, “I know how you feel.” There is something quite unique about each person’s loss and grief. Sometimes people say to their would-be comforters, “You don’t really understand!” More important than our claim to understand is that we are with people in their suffering and pain – sharing our own humanness, available in practical care. This is true “compassion” – “feeling with” people.


    Eight hundred years before the birth of Jesus, things were pretty grim for the Lord’s people. Judah had been invaded by the king of Syria and the king of Israel. Jerusalem hadn’t been conquered, but king Ahaz had been taken captive and then released. He had suffered such losses that he was about to appeal to the Assyrian king for help. This would take Ahaz and his nation further away from God, because the king didn’t have faith in the plans and power of God.

    The Lord offered to give Ahaz a sign of his plans and power. But Ahaz refused. So the Lord gave a sign anyway – not just to the king for his immediate comfort, but to the whole nation as part of the meaning of their history – the sign of the virgin and her Son.  The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Is. 7.14).

     Immanuel – “God with us.” There must have been something fairly immediate – some child whose birth was a sign of the Lord’s deliverance from the immediate threat. Yet the name suggests something bigger that wasn’t fulfilled just yet.


    Joseph was troubled. He was engaged to be married to Mary. But she had just told him that she is pregnant. Their rules and practice were very strict – no sexual intimacy between the betrothed couple was permitted before marriage. Further, the expectation was that a young woman would be a virgin at the time of her marriage. Engagement was to be a time of faithfulness as well as celibacy. To break an engagement required a divorce procedure.

    Mary’s story was that the angel Gabriel had visited her, announcing that she would bear a son who would be the very Son of God. Her pregnancy would result, not from the act of a man, but from the direct work of the Holy Spirit. But how could Joseph believe that? It complicated all their plans.

    There must be some man involved. I still love Mary and don’t want to make trouble for her. I’ll just have to release her quietly…

    Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1.20-21).

    Whatever happened in the time of Isaiah and Ahaz was only partial. The completion – fulfilment – was about to happen. “Immanuel” wasn’t simply a sign of God’s gracious activity 800 years ago. In the person of this child, God himself is coming into human history, coming to do what he alone can do, coming at a particular time and place for the sake of people of every time and every place – to “save his people from their sins.”

    John began his gospel by saying, “In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1.1). He went on to say, “The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us” (v. 14a). Immanuel, God with us!

    One Solitary Life

    This is what one anonymous author wrote about the unique life of Jesus –

    Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his feet inside a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself.

    While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth while he was dying, and that was his coat. When he was dead he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

    Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone, and today he is the centrepiece of the human race and the leader of the column of progress.

    I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that were ever built, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together have not affected the life of man upon this earth as has that one solitary life.

    Jesus was far more than a man – he was Immanuel, God with us. Jesus is far more than a great figure from past human history – he is Immanuel, God with us. God understands and cares. He shared our trials and sufferings. He suffered and died to overcome the ravages of our human sinfulness. He graciously comes and offers to be with us always. How do we respond to that?

    © Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill & Ayr Uniting Churches, 19 December 2004
    Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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