Emmanuel Changes Everything: Even My Fear-filled Heart
We were in the kids' group at church last night, and the question was posed, "How many days til Christmas?!" Somehow, we ended up with varying answers: "5!" "6!" And, one kid piped up and said, "Well, it's 6 til we can open a present, and 5 til the actual day." Anyhow, however, you are "counting them", Christmas is THIS WEEK. Whether that very small countdown fills you with anticipation or overall "oh-my-goodness-so-much-to-do" (or both!), Christmas is undeniably a time filled with a wide-range of emotions. For some, Christmas is joy-filled and happy; for others, it's sad and lonely. For some, Christmas feels empty and meaningless; for others it is ripe with anticipation. For those involved with the very first Christmas, there was an emotion in play that sometimes gets overlooked: fear. Uneasy, unsettled, heart-gripping fear. Not exactly an emotion we associate with this season. And, yet, I find it safe to say that fear still plays a role in the hearts of people today- and not just during Christmas. So, what does that have to do with Christmas, and how does Christmas change the way I approach fear? In the book of Isaiah, we read this very familiar "Christmas" verse: "Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name, 'Emmanuel'."
"Emmanuel" (as you probably already know) means, "God with us". If you are anything like me, perhaps this verse and this name have always felt the same- or maybe the overall "Christmas-y" feel of them has caused the truth wrapped in "Emmanuel" to lose its vigor. So, let's give a little background here:
Isaiah 9 starts with us reading about King Ahaz, who was the king of Judah. He has discovered that the king of Assyria has teamed up with Ephraim, and together, they have set their sights on Judah. King Ahaz is about to lose it with fear. Verse 2 tells us "the heart of Ahaz and the hearts of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind". Ahaz (as you would read about him in II Kings) unfortunately did not follow God the way his father and grandfather before him had. Whatever his reasons for not following God's ways, we discover Ahaz was mostly concerned about himself. God sends Isaiah and Isaiah's son to the king. Isaiah declares this before the king: "Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint..." He goes on to say that there is no need to worry about these two nations. God, who is always faithful to his promises, will keep Judah safe. Isaiah prophesies that Ephraim will be shattered and that Assyria is not in control. He then says, "If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all."
God then proposes that Ahaz ask God for anything to prove the surety of these statements: "Ask a sign of the Lord your God..."
Ahaz refuses, saying he will not tempt God. This may seem like a pious thing to do, but in reality, Ahaz was acting (as he had been) in fear- and not faith that God would keep his promises.
So, God says, "Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign..."
And, we then find ourselves reading that very familiar verse about "Emmanuel".
But, you might be thinking- "how does that verse fit into this context???"
I was wondering the same thing.
If you remember, the book of Isaiah is filled with lots of prophesies. Prophesies about a coming redemptive servant, a servant from the stump of Jesse, a root of David. (If you read through Isaiah, you will find references to the servant, the seed, the shoot, the branch, and so on, throughout the book.) Now, fast forward several hundred years.
An angel appears to Zechariah in the temple and tells him he and his wife, Elizabeth, will have a son who will prepare the way for the coming servant.
An angel also appears to Mary and tells her that she will conceive and bear a son. This son will be holy and will be called the Son of God.
An angel also appears to Joseph giving him instructions to take Mary as his wife, for the child she will bear will come "to take away the sins of the world". This child will be the one who will fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah to Ahaz: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name, 'Immanuel' (Matthew 1:20-23)."
We then read about the shepherds who were watching the sheep the night Jesus was born. An angel appears to them also and tells them that the Savior has been born (Luke 2).
In all these passages we find a similar declaration as Isaiah made to Ahaz ("Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint..."):
To Zechariah: "Do not be afraid..."
To Mary: "Do not be afraid..."
To Joseph: "...do not fear..."
To the shepherds: "Fear not..."
Why is this declaration repeated so often?
I found myself going back to the phrase Isaiah declares to Ahaz: "If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all."
Because Ahaz, unfortunately, did not obey God. He did not take God at his word and respond in faith to God's words. When confronted by God and his holiness and power and might, instead of having faith that God would care for his people, Ahaz continued in fear. He pandered to the pagan kings, erecting altars to false gods and desecrating the temple of God (you can read more about him in II Kings 16 and II Chronicles 28). And, his life is forever marred by lack of obedience and faith.
As I was considering Ahaz's responses to God, I noticed this written in my Bible next to Luke 1: "Faith and obedience were required by so many in the precious first coming of Jesus..."
Because "what if" Zechariah did not believe God would give him and his wife a son and subsequently named him 'John' as the angel had instructed? (Their whole family protested when Elizabeth said the baby's name should be John!)
"What if" Mary had said, "No way! I will not bear this child!" instead of "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord..."
"What if" Joseph had said, "Nope. The risk is too great. I can't marry this woman."
"What if" the shepherds said, "Well, that was crazy. I think we need to lay off the night shifts."
"If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all."
When Gabriel tells Mary she will give birth to Jesus, she asks the very logical question as to how this will happen since, clearly, she is a virgin...
Gabriel responds by saying the Holy Spirit will overshadow her- and the child will be the Son of God. Gabriel also tells her that her cousin Elizabeth, in her old age, will also bear a son: "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37).
In the book of Hebrews, we read chapter 11, which relates the lives of many people who, "by faith" responded in certain ways to God. And, in this, we read: "And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).
Faith causes us to take our fear and set it aside for the reality of the existing God.
And, when we are confronted with the reality of God and who he is, his glory and majesty and power, we can choose like Ahaz to refuse a sign from God (like- what WAS he thinking? God could have given him anything???). In his fear-filled, self-exalting attitude, Ahaz missed out on seeing what God would do. So, God said, "I will give you a sign- a sign so unbelievable that it can only be said that I have done it. Here it is: 'A virgin will conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.' I myself will come to earth. I will come and dwell with you and feel your pain and experience your sorrows and temptations. I myself will see and understand your loss and fear and hopelessness... and I will overcome it!"
And he did.
Emmanuel came. He was with us.
And, in his coming and dwelling and living and dying and rising again, he put to flight all that was crushing us: fear and hopelessness and pain and sin. How? By bearing it all himself.
Now, those who come to him in faith experience his coming because he dwells within those who earnestly seek him and call upon him. He dwells in us through his Spirit.
"And, I will ask the Father and he will send you another Helper to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him for he dwells in you and will be with you" (John 14:16-17).
Read that again: "You know him for he dwells in you and will be with you."
God. With. Us.
Right now. Right where you are. Forever.
God has come. He has shown us himself in the person of Jesus. He has proven his holiness in his perfect life. He has shown us his love in his dying for us. He has shown us his power in his resurrection. He has given us access to that power through the work of the Holy Spirit. What will you do with Emmanuel? Will you be like Ahaz and refuse to acknowledge God's ability to do mighty things in your heart and life?
Faith doesn't mean you won't ever be afraid.
But, like Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds, we are given the instruction to "not fear". And, then when confronted with the news of Emmanuel in our hearts, we have a choice to make. Will we choose to exalt ourselves and our agenda and miss out on seeing what God can do; or will we choose to say, "My soul magnifies the Lord (in spite of my fear and lack of understanding!) and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!(I don't know exactly what he is doing, but I am choosing him!)"
Because Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were never the same when confronted with Emmanuel.
"The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen..."
They told everyone they knew about what had happened.
Their mundane life had been gloriously altered. In spite of their initial fears when confronted with the glory of God, they chose to obey and go and find the Savior. And, when they did, purpose and hope now marked their lives. This is what Emmanuel does. He changes everything.
And, whatever your objections and fears and anxieties toward God and the message of Christmas, at the end of them all, we are faced with this: "For nothing will be impossible with God".
In your life.
In your heart.
In the coming year.
In whatever fears you face today.
Emmanuel has come!
He dwells in you and will be with you.
"Do not fear...."
"Emmanuel, God with us,
Emmanuel, King Jesus
The Savior of the world is born!"
Songs for Meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9q9el1BoWk