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God is with Us

The Message Bible translates John 1:14 this way, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." Phillip Yancey describes that "neighborhood” like this:

A succession of great empires tramped through the territory of Israel as if wiping their feet on the vaunted promised land. After the Assyrians and Babylonians came the Persians, who were in turn defeated by Alexander the Great. He was eventually followed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Jews' worst villain until Hitler. Antiochus began waging war against the Jewish religion. He transformed the temple of God into a worship center for Zeus and proclaimed himself God incarnate. He forced young boys to undergo reverse circumcision operations and flogged an aged priest to death for refusing to eat pork.

In one of his most notorious acts, he sacrificed an unclean pig on the altar in the Most Holy Place, smearing its blood around the temple sanctuary. Antiochus's actions so incensed the Jews that they rose up in an armed revolt that's celebrated every year as Hanukkah.

But their victory was short-lived. Before long, Roman legions marched into Palestine to quash the rebellion and appointed Herod, their "King of the Jews." After the Roman conquest, nearly the entire land lay in ruins. Herod was sickly and approaching seventy when he heard rumors of a new king born in Bethlehem, and soon howls of grief from the families of slain infants drowned out the angels' chorus of "Glory to God … and on earth peace good will to men." First-century Israel was a conquered and cowed nation.[1]

From the splendor of heaven, Jesus moved into a sinister neighborhood with a somber past and a fearful future. Why? It was a part of God’s plan. Scripture tells us: “When the right time came, God sent his Son born of a woman.” (Galatians 4:4) What a statement! At just the right moment, God sent his Son in keeping with a plan that He formed before the foundation of the world – the Messiah entered the world in the form of flesh and blood (John 17:24; Revelation 13:8; 17:8).

Micah prophesied God’s plan hundreds of years earlier, that the Messiah would be born in the town of Bethlehem in Judah. But didn’t Joseph and Mary live in Nazareth in Galilee? Well, yes, they did. Aren't those places miles apart? Yes, in those times, travel between Bethlehem and Nazareth would take several days. So how did it happen? Well, to get Mary and Joseph all the way down to Bethlehem in time, the only way that could happen was if they were forced to travel there. No problem, God was working out his plan. A census from Caesar Augustus required Joseph to register in person in the city of his family roots. That town was exactly the one Micah said it would be—Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:5; Luke 2:1–4).

But before Jesus could be born, there had to be a familiar means of communication—a language that could quickly spread the news. Easy enough. Thanks to Alexander the Great's hellenization of the world centuries earlier, koine Greek provided a universal language by which the gospel message could be disseminated rapidly by the evangelists and apostles.

And, to get that gospel message around the world it would require an international highway system through the Roman Empire. This became a reality in the days of the Roman Empire, when all the empire's roads radiated out from the capital city of Rome. This was unheard of prior to the Roman takeover.

Thanks to an inconvenient census, a universal language, and much-improved roads, the Messiah was born at just the right place and time.

So, why did God go to all this trouble to bring his Son into this world? Well, Matthew says, “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.” [2]

Immanuel? What does this name tell us about the purpose of his birth? What does it mean to you and me personally? Perhaps a simple look at Joseph and Mary can help us to better understand the significance of this name Immanuel – God is with us.

On that first Christmas, we must remember that Mary and Joseph’s story didn’t include sugar plums and candy, or turkey and Christmas parties. There was no frantic mall shopping, no Christmas lists to check off, and no lighting displays either. That first Christmas was preceded by an arduous and difficult journey.

To begin with, Joseph would have had financial hardship. He was unable to work for several weeks because the government made him travel to a distant town to fill out registration papers for a census. There were no unemployment benefits for his lost wages, and the government certainly didn’t cover his expenses for the trip either.

Can you imagine taking a four-day donkey ride to Bethlehem with your wife at full term? That’s what Joseph and Mary were doing. Where did they sleep on that trip? There were no Hiltons or Ramada’s, no Airbnb’s and no bed and breakfasts either. They did, however, manage a night view of the stars while lying on the Judean landscape. But the cool winds of winter would have made that hard to enjoy. There were no Starbucks or Tim’s for a warm coffee.

Then, as Mary’s labor began, they thought they had found accommodation for the night, only to be rejected by the innkeeper because there was no room in his inn. Instead of having a nice comfortable room to relax in after a long journey, they were given the only other alternative – an animal manager. Imagine being in labor in a dirty animal enclosure? No sweet perfumes could have veiled that smell for Mary who was about to give birth. And there would be no doctors or nurses in this primitive birthing room to assist her.

Then, shortly after a gruelling labor, in the middle of the night, there were herdsmen paying a visit to see – not Joseph and Mary who made the journey – but the newborn baby instead.

Why did God subject Mary and Joseph to conditions like this? Why did he allow His own Son to be born in such a place? Could he not have waited until there were a few hotels for the journey? Or better yet, a maternity ward like modern day royals would have.

Life does have its downsides, its reversals, and its annoyances. And we can certainly identify with Joseph and Mary. Ours is an arduous journey too sometimes. And where is God when we face our hardships and despair? This may come as a surprise, but He is with us. Just as He was with Mary and Joseph every moment, carrying out His plan, He is with you and me too. There was nothing out of order – the discomfort of the journey or the inconvenience of the census. Everything was going as planned. Perhaps God allowed the arduous journey and the animal manger so we could see Christ’s glory backlit amidst life's humbling experiences.

Just as God was with Joseph and Mary while executing his plan, God is with us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. He is with us in our struggles, with us when we are lonely, and with us when we are confused and feeling hopeless. He is with us when the nights are dark and the winds are harsh. He is with us to forgive us of our sins and to point us to his eternal home. Malcom Muggeridge put it this way: As Man alone, Jesus could not have saved us; as God alone, he would not. Incarnate, he could and did.[3]

Christmas should remind us to look beyond our aggravations. Just over two millennia ago, in a small, rugged Bethlehem manger, God the Son became Immanuel, "God with us"—God incarnate. He who resided in the splendor of Heaven, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, willingly descended into our world. He breathed our air, felt our pain, knew our sorrows, and died for our sins. He didn't come to frighten us, but to show us the way to warmth and safety.

T. F. Torrance was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, but prior to that, he served as a chaplain during World War II. One day, on a battlefield in Italy, he attended to a dying nineteen-year-old soldier. The dying man asked him, “Padre, is God really like Jesus?”

For Torrance, this question captured “the deepest cry of the human heart” – is the God that we’ll meet on the other side the same God that came to earth as a lowly babe?

Torrance assured the dying man with these words: “God is indeed really like Jesus. There is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear. To see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.”[4]

Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.”

Jesus is not to us as Christmas is to the world – here today and gone tomorrow. Christmas is a lasting invitation from God: Look what I've done to come near to you. I sent my Son Jesus, the exact representation of Me, to die for you. Now draw near to Me and my Son. We don't want to be a concept; we want to be your friend.

It's hard to believe that so many in Israel rejected God's offer of his Son. John 1 11-13 says, "The Word [Jesus] was in the world, and the world was made by him, but the world did not know him. He came to the world that was his own, but his own people did not accept him. But to all who did accept him and believe in him he gave the right to become children of God. They did not become his children in any human way—by any human parents or human desire. They were born of God.

Why not take up God's offer? Accept his Son and become a son or daughter of God this Christmas season, and you'll find the best friend you ever could have.


[1] Adapted from Philip Yancey, The Question That Never Goes Away [2] Tyndale House Publishers, Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015), Mt 1:22–23. [3] Malcolm Muggeridge in Jesus. Christianity Today, Vol. 36, no. 15. [4] Thomas Forsyth Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 55.

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