Monday, December 13, 2010

God With Us?

In spite of the fact that I have so much Bible to work with, one of my favorite texts is this Christmas one: “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’” (Matt. 1:22-23). Immanuel is two words stuck together as one: immanu (immanent) which means present, near, with us, and el which means God. He is God present, God near, God with us.

And notice there are no exception clauses in the word. God with us means always, all the time, no matter what, and in spite of the evidence. We forget that. We tend to equate God with us to the good and happy times of life—to the there’s no cancer, I passed the test, I got a raise, she said yes, I escaped without injury, kinds of times. Here’s a classic example: you see a picture of a mangled, twisted car, you hear the driver escaped with only scratches, and you say, “God was really with him.” But if you look at the same picture and hear that the driver was paralyzed or even killed, my guess is the phrase, “God was really with him,” never comes to your mind. See what I mean? I don’t think most of us intend to leave God out of the hard and trying times, but we are pretty quick to do so.

And that’s why we raise this question in our difficulties: “Where is God in this? Where is God when the diagnosis is ALS? Where is God when the baby is born with birth defects? Where is God when I lose my job and can’t pay the rent? Where in the world is God?” Such a question rises out of this bad theology: God is with us in the blessings; God is absent in the trials.

But here’s the truth: God is with us always, always, always—when we can see Him and when we can’t, when we win and when we lose, when the cancer is cured and when the cancer takes our life. When we know Christ, God is with us, period. That’s His promise. That’s who He is: God with us.

Back in 1981 as I was preparing a sermon on this text, God gave me a story. I’ve told it numerous times across the years. Let me tell it one more time.

A man was facing heard times. His wife had left him, his job was in jeopardy, his security was threatened. He truly needed help. He thought for sure that God had abandoned him. If God was really with Him, things would be better, right? He sought the counsel of his pastor who tried to assure him that God had not left him, but the man was not convinced.

That night he went to bed. As he struggled for sleep he kept asking over and over: "God, where are you? God, where are you? Why can't I see you working in my life?" Finally, he drifted off to sleep and fell into a dream.

He dreamed that he lived in Palestine many years ago. He dreamed that he was searching for God. Everywhere he went he asked people if they could tell him where he could find God. "Check the temple," they said. "God lives in the temple." He looked in the temple but did not see God there. Disappointed, he journeyed on. Then, one night as he was warming himself by the fire at his campsite, a group of shepherds came passing by. "What's all the commotion?" shouted the man to the shepherds.

"We're off to see the Lord. Angels have made known to us that the Lord is in Bethlehem. Would you like to come along?"

"Would I?" exclaimed the man. "I've been looking for the Lord."

So off they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they arrived, all they saw was a mother and a father and a baby in a crude little stable. Disgusted at another faulty lead, the man said to a shepherd, "I thought we were going to see God."

"Look at the baby, man!" said the shepherd. "Look at the baby!"

"The baby? I didn't come to Bethlehem to see a baby; I came to see the Lord." And the man stormed out of the stable and into the darkness.

He decided to give up his search for awhile. A person can only endure so much frustration and disappointment. His dream fast-forwarded many years and he was encouraged when he began to hear reports of a miracle worker from Nazareth who claimed to be God. He followed these reports, but he was always a day or two behind.

Finally, his journeys took him to Jerusalem during the Passover. He got there on Friday. It was unusually dark for that time of day and there was much commotion. The man stopped a passerby and asked him what was going on. The passerby said that the commotion centered around a particular Nazarene. The man asked, "Would this be Jesus of Nazareth – the one who claims to be God?"

"That's right," said the passerby. "That's who it is."

"Where can I find Him?" asked the man. "I've got to see the Lord."

"Oh, you can find Him outside the city on Skull Hill. Go look there."

The man raced to Skull Hill, but when he arrived all he saw were three men being crucified. He grabbed a spectator and asked, "I was told God was out here on this hill. I've got to see Him. Can you tell me where He is?"

"Why sure," the spectator mocked, "that's Him on that middle cross. There's your God."

The man looked at the middle cross only to see in silhouette a dying, suffering figure of a man in the midst of common criminals. Disheartened and discouraged, the man kicked the dirt, walked away, and mumbled to himself, "I came here to see God and all I see is a man on a cross. God can’t be here. Will I ever get to see Him?"

The man hung around Jerusalem for another day or so. He got up to leave early on the day after the Sabbath, and as he was leaving Jerusalem he passed some very excited women. He thought he overheard them say something to the effect that they had seen the Lord. He stopped them. "Did I hear you right? Did you say that you have seen the Lord?"

"Oh, yes! He's alive. We have seen Him with our own eyes."

"Where? Where did you see Him? I’ve got to see Him too!"

The women pointed in the direction of the tomb and said, "We saw Him there … in Joseph's garden."

The man sprinted to the garden. He looked and he looked but found nothing. All he saw amidst spring flowers was an empty tomb with some grave clothes left upon the slab inside. Having had it up to here with frustration, the man wept and pounded on a large stone adjacent to the tomb, "I came to see God and all I see is an empty tomb. How come I never see God? Where is He? Where is God?"

Our Matthew text tells us exactly where He is: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel – which means 'God with us.'" Where is God? He is with us; that's where He is.

The manger shows us that no situation is too degrading, no experience too humbling what that God, in Christ, is with us right in the midst of it.

The cross shows us that no struggle is too great, no grief too deep, no suffering too intense, not even death itself is so awful what that God faces it with us in Christ.

And the resurrection assures us that because Jesus rose from the dead and lives today, He is able to send us His Spirit so that He truly can be with us and in us everywhere, all the time, and in every situation.

You may not always see Christ, and you may not always feel Him. But be of good cheer! The witness of Scripture is true: His name is Immanuel—which means “God with us”! God – with – us! Always and forever. Amen.


  1. I think "He" just is.

    “I could well believe that it is God's intention, since we have refused milder remedies, to compel us into unity, by persecution even and hardship. Satan is without a doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God:
    Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.”

    C.S. Lewis

  2. Thanks, mangohare. Love the Lewis quote.