The Names of Jesus: Immanuel

Matthew 1:23

A young boy was sitting at the kitchen table with construction paper and a box of crayons intently drawing a picture. His father looked over his shoulder and asked what he was drawing. He confidently said, “A picture of God.” His dad said, “You know, no one knows what God looks like.” “They will when I’m finished!”

For a few weeks, we’re thinking together about the names the Bible attributes to Jesus. There are literally hundreds of them, and each one opens a different door into understanding Jesus – of growing deeper, not only in your understanding, but in your relationship with him. This morning I want us to think about one of the most ancient names given to Jesus – “Immanuel.”

Can you think of someone you miss having in your life? A friend who has moved away, a child who lives across the country, your mother who has passed away, someone who was once a central part of your life, but something happened, words were said and you are now alienated? There are certain people in our lives that are so important, so significant that when we lose them it feels like a gaping hole where they once were.

It seems an inevitable part of human life that there will be separations. We will lose people whom we love and we will feel alone and abandoned.

When Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth, he recalls a scripture from Isaiah 7, in which God was reminding his people that they are not alone. Almost 800 years before the birth of Christ, the kingdom of Judah was facing a perilous time. The northern kingdom of Israel was in league with Syria against Judah, and their defeat looked certain. God tells his people through the prophet Isaiah that he will not abandon them, but will be with them and he offers them a sign. Ahaz is Judah’s king, but he is such a wicked king, in his pride, he refuses to listen. In spite of Ahaz’s resistance, God gives the people a sign so that they will know his word is true. Do you remember what that sign would be? Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? 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 7:13-14)

Twice more, in Isaiah 8, he will remind them of his promise: “Immanuel” – the word in Hebrew means, “God is with us.”

It was a reminder that God’s people desperately needed. Eight centuries later, it was a reminder they still needed. When Matthew tells us about the angelic announcement to Joseph that Mary would have a child, in spite of the fact that she was still a virgin, he follows it with these words: 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)

Jesus was literally the human embodiment of that promise: God with us. The very name Immanuel is God’s assurance that he will never leave us, that we will never be alone. Regardless of the circumstances, no matter what is happening in the world around us, despite the fact that people will leave us and abandon us, God will always be with us.

We like to think of Moses as the fearless, dynamic leader of God’s people in the exodus from Egypt and through the years of wandering in the wilderness. But after Moses had fled to the wilderness, a fugitive from the Egyptians, and spent the next forty years as a shepherd, when God spoke to him from the burning bush and told him to go back and deliver his people from Egyptian slavery, Moses said: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And God said, “I will be with you...” (Exodus 3:11)

When Moses led the people out of Egypt, he had this conversation with God: Moses said to the LORD, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Ex. 33:12-16)

What distinguishes God’s people from everyone else? That God is with us. Even when God led them to the threshold of the promised land and they fearfully and faithlessly refused to enter in, God didn’t abandon them. He led them out into the wilderness and continued to mold them and mature them. The pillar of cloud by day and fire by night was a constant reminder that God’s presence was with them.

Centuries later, Nehemiah would look back on the Lord’s presence with his people at that time and marvel at his patience and faithfulness – just a few verses from his speech as he reminded the people of God’s love for his people: By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take. You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. But they, our forefathers, became arrogant and stiff-necked, and did not obey your commands. They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up out of Egypt,’ or when they committed awful blasphemies. Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the desert. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take. You gave your good Spirit to instruct them. You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For forty years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing…” (Neh. 9:12-21)

Forty years later, as Joshua prepared to lead God’s people across the Jordan River into the promised land, he had his own fears, but listen to God’s reassurance: “No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you… Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5,9)

Have you noticed? God’s people seem to spend a lot of time being afraid. Afraid of going, afraid of not going; afraid of failure, afraid of success; afraid of dying, afraid of living. It doesn’t seem to matter what comes up we’re afraid of it. Did you hear how many times God said, “Don’t be afraid”? And why shouldn’t we be afraid? Immanuel. Because God is with us.

Think how many times in the NT, God’s presence is promised and reaffirmed:
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

Immanuel is God’s promise that he didn’t just create the world, wind it up and let it go. When he sent his son to live among us and experience life as a human being – and not as the privileged elite, but as a common man; not isolated from suffering, but experiencing it fully; not aloof from people, but immersed in the hurts and cares and struggles of real people.

And he continues to care deeply about us. He longs to have a relationship with each of us and know what’s going on in our lives. Isn’t that the kind of God we really want?

When Paul preached about a God who loved and cared about people, he was talking to a culture that thought of gods as distant and detached – off on Mt. Olympus, isolated in their own lives, only rarely interacting with humans and when they did they were capricious and self-serving. When Paul talked about God to the Athenian philosophers he said: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else… God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’” (Acts 17:24-25,27-28)

They had never thought about a God who actually cared about people, or was involved in their lives. But that’s Immanuel – God is with us. That’s the difference. God’s people are unique because God has come to be with us – he is Immanuel.

Frederick Buechner, in his book Now and Then, does a comparison of the teachings of Buddha and Jesus Christ. And he says, lest we be tempted to believe that at their core all religions are the same and that it thus makes little difference which one you choose, you have only to place side by side Buddha and Christ themselves.
Buddha sits enthroned beneath the Bo-tree in the lotus position. His lips are faintly parted in the smile of one who has passed beyond every power in earth or heaven to touch him. “He who loves fifty has fifty woes, he who loves ten has ten woes, he who loves none has no woes,” he has said. His eyes are closed.
Christ, on the other hand, hangs on the cross. His face is lost in shadows so that you can't even see his lips, and before all the powers in earth or heaven he is powerless. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” he said. His eyes are also closed.
The difference seems to me to be this: The suffering that Buddha's eyes close out is the very sin of the world that Christ takes upon himself to save the world.

And that’s why the Hebrews writer can say, Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

As Jesus neared the final week of his earthly life, his greatest concern was for his disciples – he knew how afraid they would be when he began talking about leaving them, and so in the final chapters of John’s Gospel, we read about Jesus’ words of comfort and courage:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:1-3)
A few verses later, he says: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:16-18)

Not only did Jesus come, he sent the Holy Spirit to be his continuing presence among his people and in each of our lives. God has promised us: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5)

There are times in life when we experience abandonment and separation; there are times we when we feel alone and afraid. But God promises that if all others should leave us, he never will. And he promised that by naming his son, “Immanuel.”