Isaiah 7:14 & Matthew 1:22-23
December 22, 2002
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
“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’” (Matthew 1:22-23).
There is a great yearning inside every person to know God. From the very beginning, we were made to know God, and there is something in us that wants to know our Creator. We yearn to know that God has broken through into our world. It is not enough to know that God is “up there” or “out there” somewhere. We want to know that God has come down to where we are, that he knows where we live, that he knows our name, that he cares about us, that he has “walked this lonesome valley” the same way we do. We want to know that we are not alone in the universe.
All the prophets spoke of this universal yearning in the human heart. Joel spoke of it, so did Malachi, Hosea, Jeremiah, Daniel and Zechariah. But no one spoke more eloquently than Isaiah. Seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, during the reign of a king named Ahaz, Isaiah predicted the birth of One who would be God coming to dwell with men. Isaiah 7:14 predicts an absolutely stunning event: A virgin would conceive (something that had never happened before and has never happened since) and give birth to a son named “Immanuel.” From that title comes one of our most-beloved Christmas carols:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
(“Immanuel” comes from the Hebrew, “Emmanuel” from the Greek, but the meaning is the same.)
From Isaiah to Matthew
Now run the clock forward 700 years and you come to the moment when Joseph, having discovered that Mary is pregnant, and suspecting the worst, decides to give her a private divorce to spare her from public shame. The angel of the Lord came to him in a dream with the reassuring news that the baby inside her womb was not the product of fornication, but had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel instructs Joseph to call the baby Jesus (which means “God saves” or “Savior”) because he will save his people from their sins. Then the angel quotes Isaiah 7:14, with its prophecy of the virgin birth, and the name Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
Of all the names of Christ, perhaps none is more significant than Immanuel because it gives us his ultimate identity. He is God come down from heaven in the form of a tiny baby boy. Theologians call this the “Incarnation,” a term that means “to take on human flesh, to be born as a human.” John 1:14 tells us that the Word (that is, Christ) became flesh and lived among us. The Word (who was God, see John 1:1) wrapped himself in human flesh. In the morning you wrap a robe around yourself. In the same way the Son of God descended from heaven to earth and wrapped himself in the frail body of a tiny Jewish baby in a stable, in the little town of Bethlehem, in a forgotten corner of the Roman Empire called Judea. Don Skinner says it very neatly: “God did not send Christ to us; God came to us in Christ.” Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. That tiny, helpless baby is the God who created the universe. He came from “his side” to “our side” without ever leaving “his own side.” What a stupendous, mind-blowing miracle that is. No wonder when John Wesley lay dying in 1791, he roused from his sleep long to open his eyes and exclaim, “The best of all is, God is with us!” Then he closed his eyes and died.
In this sermon I want to focus on the word Immanuel, which means “God with us.” There are three words in that phrase and each one teaches us something about who Jesus really is.
I. God with us: A Son
The first word is God. It precisely identifies the baby born in Bethlehem as the divine Son of God who came from heaven to earth. First Timothy 3:16 states that God was “manifest” in the flesh. One modern translation says that Christ appeared in human form. This means that whatever else we may say, Jesus Christ is more than a mere man. He was truly human but his ultimate identity goes far beyond humanity. He was God come down to earth in the form of a baby born of a virgin. In recent years I have come to understand that this is a doctrine of huge importance for the Christian faith. In many ways, this is the central doctrine and everything else flows from it. This week I read (somewhere, I forget just where) the following statement: “If you can believe in the Incarnation, everything else is Duck Soup.” I’m not totally sure what that means, but it stuck in my mind as a good way to state the truth. If you can believe that God was born in human form from the womb of a virgin, you’ll have no trouble with the concept of walking on water. Compared to the Incarnation, healing the sick and raising the dead isn’t hard to believe either. And the Resurrection itself makes perfect sense once you understand who Jesus really is.
Let us make no mistake about the importance of this truth to the Christian faith. It is central, fundamental, essential, and absolutely non-negotiable. It is not some “secondary issue” about which we may all have our own private opinions. This is truth that goes to the core of what it means to be a Christian.
The Circle of Truth
Suppose we draw a circle and inside the circle are all true Christians. Everyone on the outside of the circle is not a Christian. Those on the inside are saved; those on the outside are lost. Those on the inside are going to heaven; those on the outside are not. And let’s suppose for a moment that this circle represents ultimate reality so that if you want to go to heaven, you’ve got to be “in the circle.” The question then becomes, what is it that a person must believe to be “in the circle?” There are several answers to that question, but one fundamental answer is that you must believe that Jesus Christ is “God manifest in the flesh.” You must believe that the baby born in Bethlehem is more than just another baby, that he really and truly is the Son of God in human form, “the Word made flesh” and living among us. If you do not believe that, if you deny that, you are not a Christian and you are not going to heaven. It really is as simple as that. It doesn’t matter what else you believe about Jesus. If you deny the Incarnation, you are not a Christian at all.
This is one of those rare points where all major Christian groups have always agreed. Protestants and Catholics disagree about many important issues (including the content of the gospel), but on the Incarnation, we are in total agreement. Catholics and Orthodox fight about many things, but on this, they are in agreement. This is a point so important that, if you deny it or decide you don’t believe it you have placed yourself “outside the circle” of true Christian faith.
Donahue and Jesus
But not everyone believes in the Incarnation. And therefore, many people deny that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Those two things go together. If Jesus is God in human flesh, he must be the only way to heaven. That, by the way, is the hottest theological issue in the world today. Ever since 9/11 and the rise of Islam to public prominence in America, this issue has bubbled to the surface as a topic of hot debate. Last Tuesday night Phil Donahue devoted an entire hour of his program on MSNBC to this question. He opened his show with these very words: “Is the highway to heaven only open to the Christians? Some say only faith in Jesus will earn you a place beyond the pearly gates. So what about Jews, Muslims, and followers of other faiths?” He had a panel of five guests, including Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Flip Benham from Operation Rescue, a Jewish believer in Jesus named Michael Brown, plus Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and a liberal Christian theologian, Joe Hough. Phil Donahue began by asking Dr. Mohler how to go to heaven. Dr. Mohler replied with a perfectly biblical response: “By faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” When pressed by Phil Donahue, he added that it was only by faith in Jesus Christ. Then he quoted John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Donahue immediately asked the Jewish rabbi what he thought about that. The rabbi proceeded to call Dr. Mohler a “spiritual racist.” He then somehow managed to bring in the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis, seeming to imply some sort of connection between those evil groups and people who believe Jesus is the only way to heaven. Phil Donahue agreed with him, opining that it is arrogant to say that you are going to heaven and others are not.
The question of who Jesus really is touches issues of ultimate importance. Each year we sing “Who is He in Yonder Stall?” That’s the most important question in the whole world. Who is that baby in the manger? Is he the Son of God from heaven, or is he someone else? The chorus proclaims our answer:
’Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
’Tis the Lord! the King of glory!
At His feet we humbly fall,
Crown Him! crown Him, Lord of all!
Not everyone believes that, but we do. He is Immanuel—God with us. And we gladly commit all that we are to him.
II. God with us: A Shepherd
The second word of Immanuel reminds us that Jesus is not only God in the flesh, he is also the shepherd we need when troubles come our way. Ironically, we need that truth more than ever at Christmastime. This is a lonely time of year for many people. In the midst of the laughter, there is pain and sadness, grief and many reminders of broken relationships. Some family reunions are like war zones, and much of the drinking that is done is not so much drinking because we are happy but drinking to cover our pain. And most people feel exhausted and stressed out as the big day approaches. There is enormous pressure to find the money to buy the presents to make our loved ones happy. Have you done all your Christmas shopping yet? I just finished purchasing my last two gifts and I’m worn out and Christmas is still several days away. During this difficult time of year for many people, we need to be reminded that the Lord knows all about our troubles.
We can say it more forcefully than that. Jesus knows what others do not know about you. He knows all the hidden secrets, the inner fears, and the unspoken doubts about what tomorrow may bring. He knows the whole truth about you and me, and he loves us anyway.
What is your valley today? Is it the valley of pain? The valley of a loved one suffering? The valley of bad health? The valley of a failing marriage? The valley of a loved one in the military who may go to war soon? The valley of children in trouble? The valley of broken promises and failed relationships? The valley of career disappointment? The valley of financial crisis? The valley of temptation? The valley of bitterness? Whatever valley you may be walking through today, the Lord Jesus knows who you are and where you are. You are not lost or forgotten.
A Friend From Dallas
It must have been about five years ago that my good friend Keith Willhite came to Chicago to attend a professional conference. While he was in town, he came to a service at Calvary and afterward we took him out for lunch at a local restaurant. Marlene and I first met Keith and his wife, Denise, when they attended the church I pastored in Garland, Texas in the 1980s. Keith was a student at Dallas Seminary during those years. We got to know them well and I remember that one year they came to our home for Thanksgiving. After graduation, I lost touch with Keith for quite a few years. He moved to the Midwest, picked up a Ph.D. at Purdue University, pastored a church for a while, and taught homiletics at Denver Seminary. Six or seven years ago he moved back to Dallas Seminary and joined the Department of Pastoral Ministries. It was in connection with those duties that he had come to Chicago for a conference. We had a great time that day, laughing and joking and getting caught up on life.
It was less than a month later that I got an e-mail from Keith saying that he was having medical problems of some sort. Tests revealed tumors in his brain. It turned out that he had brain cancer. What followed was a long and difficult treatment cycle that included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Through it all, Keith continued to carry his teaching load at the seminary to the best of his ability. It was a difficult struggle with no certainty as to the final outcome. He and I stayed in contact via e-mail. He wrote a very kind endorsement for my book, An Anchor for the Soul, and I was glad to do the same for two of the books he managed to write during this period.
But I hadn’t seen him since that Sunday five years ago until Marlene and I traveled to Dallas in October for a speaking engagement at the seminary. Keith and Denise came to the airport to pick us up. I could tell immediately how difficult the last few years had been. Keith had the same ebullient personality and the same smile but he walked slower than before and his words were more measured than I remembered. When I asked Keith about his health situation, he gave a general answer, but later Denise told Marlene that according to the doctor the outlook was not promising. Brain cancer is difficult to treat in most cases, and Keith’s is no exception.
We flew back to Chicago a few days later. I chatted with Denise on the phone the next week but hadn’t talked to Keith since returning home. Earlier this week I got an e-mail from Keith saying that his situation had worsened because the doctors had found another tumor. He mentioned that he knows that he may die soon. So I called him and we had a good talk. When I asked how he was doing, he said, “Well,” and then paused, and said, “I’m doing okay considering everything.” He said there aren’t many treatment options open at this point. We talked for a while, as old friends do, and eventually I said something and he said something and we both laughed. Then I asked him the one question that was on my mind. Keith is in his early 40s, and he and Denise have a daughter in high school and a son a few years younger. The sadness of what it all means is overwhelming. So I said something like this: “I want to know why you are still a Christian. The doctor has said that you’re going to die soon. Without a miracle from God (which Keith does not rule out, and neither do I), you’re going to leave behind a widow and two wonderful children. You won’t see them graduate from high school, you won’t see them get married, and you won’t be able to play with your grandchildren.” I didn’t say it in exactly those words, but that’s the sense of what I said. It was the kind of question you can only ask a close friend because you know he won’t be offended. And I truly wondered what he would say. After all, I have known many people who get angry with God and sometimes abandon Christianity in a moment like that. So how is Keith hanging on to his faith? I can’t repeat his answer word for word, but this is the gist of what he said. “A long time ago I settled in my mind the truth of who God is. I learned to trust in God’s sovereignty. I discovered that God is faithful in all things. A long time ago I learned that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. I put my trust in him as Lord and Savior and I committed my life to him unreservedly. Years ago I put my feet on the solid rock of God’s truth and that rock has held me up ever since then. I don’t see any reason to move my feet now.”
On my desk I have a little American flag decal that some friends in Oak Park printed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under the American flag are these words, “I don’t know what tomorrow holds, but I know who holds tomorrow.” And underneath that is this phrase, “The Lord reigns.” I don’t know for certain what the future holds for my friend Keith. I unashamedly pray for a miracle of healing, if God wills it to be so. But I do so with perfect confidence that Keith and Denise and their children are in the good hands of the Lord who, despite cancer and the threat of war and all the pain and suffering that abounds in this sin-cursed world, still reigns over heaven and earth. I know who holds tomorrow, and if I know that, then I don’t worry about my friend or his family. They are going to be all right. The Lord will see to that.
From “He” to “You”
Keith has discovered anew the wonderful truth of Immanuel—he is God with us in the midst of our pain. The familiar words of the Psalm 23 come to mind: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (v. 4). Do you know the most wonderful word in that beloved psalm? It’s the little word “you.” Have you ever noticed how David changes his mode of address when he talks about the Lord? In the first verses he refers to God in the third person: “He makes me lie down … He leads me … He restores my soul … He guides me.” He speaks of God in a formal way: “He … He … He.” But when he comes to the darkest, saddest, most fearful moment of life, David’s experience of God becomes very personal. “You are with me.” It’s no longer “he.” Now the God of the universe has become David’s personal shepherd. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you, O Lord, walk with me. I am not alone. I am not abandoned. I don’t have to make that final journey on my own.” Thank God for the word “you.” It’s a promise Keith is counting on. And it’s a promise we can all count on in the saddest moments of life. As the old gospel song says, “I don’t have to cross Jordan alone.” No, you don’t. The Lord will go with you. He will be by your side, and when the dark currents rise around you, the Lord himself will carry you safely to the other side. No evil can touch us. No need to fear for the Lord himself is with us.
Immanuel—God with us in the darkest of dark valleys. Our shepherd walks with us when we need him most.
III. God with us: A Savior
The angel told Joseph to name the baby Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). And in Luke 2:11 the angel announced to the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. You will never understand who Jesus is until you realize that he came to save you from your sins. This is why he lived, this is why he died, and this is why he rose from the dead. He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). And he saves all those who trust in him.
If our greatest need had been education, God would have sent a teacher.
If our greatest need had been money, God would have sent a banker.
If our greatest need had been advice, God would have sent a counselor.
If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent an entertainer.
But since our greatest need was forgiveness, God sent a Savior. His name is Jesus. He is Christ the Lord, the Son of God who came from heaven to earth.
And that brings us right back to the doctrine of the Incarnation. Who is that baby born on Christmas day? As the familiar carol puts it, “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing; haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the Son of Mary.” He is the divine Son of God from heaven who in his earthly birth took on a fully human nature. All that God is and all that man is meet in perfect union in Jesus Christ. He is fully God and fully man—the God-man who came to earth to save us from our sins.
For those who face loneliness during this season of the year, take comfort in this fact: God’s answer to loneliness is not a theory or an abstract doctrine or a book to read or a seminar to attend. It’s not a better job, more friends, another movie to watch or another song to sing. And it’s not even the beauty of a sunrise or a sunset. God’s answer to loneliness is wrapped up in a person—Jesus Christ. He is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. He is the only one who will never leave you or forsake you. Loneliness can be overcome through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Do you know him?
All that God has to say to us can be wrapped up in one word: “Jesus.” And not just any Jesus, but only the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the New Testament. He alone is the Lord from heaven. He alone can save us. All that God has for you and me is wrapped up in his Son. No matter what difficulties we face or the decisions we must make, in the end God leads us back to that simple one-word answer: “Jesus.”
In an interview with David Frost on PBS, Billy Graham said he hoped the last word he uttered before dying was simply this: “Jesus.” We can’t do any better than that.
Father, we thank you that you did not send an angel because an angel would never meet our need. And you did not say, “Read a book,” as if books alone could save us. When we were far gone in sin and hopelessly lost, when there was no hope and we were doomed to eternal judgment, you came to us in the person of your Son, Jesus Christ. You did not forget us, and you did not leave us alone. We bless you for remembering us in our misery and coming to save us through Christ the Lord. You clothed your Son with human flesh so that he might be our Savior. Fill us with joy this Christmas season because if God be for us, and if God be with us, who can be against us? This we pray in the name of Immanuel, God with us, the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.