Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Matthew 1:23 KJV
Are You still here? Are you STILL with us? With me? The questions seep from my soul as I sit silently on Christmas Eve in my striped fuzzy socks staring at the paper maché crèche on my Nannie’s sideboard. Lauren Daigle sings one of my favorite hymns of the season, her voice too big for the speaker in my iphone. Written more than 1200 years ago in Latin, sung for the first time in a monastery and performed by everyone from Andrea Bocceli to Trisha Yearwood, this song’s history is as deep and rich as Lauren’s voice.
The hymn begins as a prayer, a heart cry from a people in distress, a people enslaved, a people desperate for a Savior. I place myself in the center of the story:
As the children of Israel bear the burden of slavery in a land not their own, they cry out to God from the depths of their hearts. They know they do not belong in Egypt or even in Goshen. They know they are set apart, special…chosen – with a purposed history and an eternal future. But year after year, when things do not appear to go as planned, when life with their captors becomes more and more difficult, yet more and more familiar, some of them begin to wonder if anyone hears the stifled soul cries that only God can hear.
As Israelite mothers, like their mothers and grandmothers before them rock tiny brown babies with tired arms and worn-out expectations, they sing lullabies that do what lullabies do: bring comfort, peace and rest into little hearts until little bodies and perhaps even all those within the sound of the singer’s voice relax and rest in the arms of hope. Listen for a moment as Israel’s mothers sing:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
And listen as somewhere in the back of the house a father’s strong voice echoes expectancy as he sings of the promise his forefathers died believing in:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
This song of hope is carried on sound waves across galaxies and into the very throne room of the one and only I AM – Emmanuel. He is moved to move and the time has come to redeem these children of Israel. God begins to sing His own redemption song. It carries on the wind across miles and miles of desert wilderness until His voice is heard by a runaway murderer who responds by laying down his shoes and his pride and his self-conscious fears and picking up his staff and his faith in the ONE who is faithful to forgive his past sins and use his transformed life to stand bold in the face of Pharaoh and march a multitude of Israel’s grown kids across a dried-up river bed and into the Promised Land.
Remember the story from Exodus, Chapter 3?
Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey… (Exodus 3:3-8 ESV)
As they settled down in makeshift tents those first few nights away from the familiar flesh pots of Egypt, and the Pillar of Cloud that had descended to surround and protect them from their enemies turned into a Pillar of Fire, I wonder if the Israelites truly recognized how close they were to their Creator-God and just how much He longed to dwell with them. I wonder if they looked out at the glow of that unquenchable FIRE which housed a BEING who had no beginning and will have no end and felt a fire burn within them ~ an irresistible desire to know the One who longs to be known? I wonder if they felt the rumblings of God on the move as He set the stage for Emmanuel to one day dwell among men in a garment of flesh and not fire?
In the New Testament book of Matthew, chapter 1, we can read how many Generations it was from Father Abraham to Joseph, the father of Jesus Christ. Some of the names I recognize: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…Boaz and Ruth, Obed, Jesse, David and Solomon – and some are not quite so familiar: Jeconiah, Zadok, and Abiud. Whether we know much about them or not, each person in that lineage was instrumental in bringing the Son of God one generation closer to becoming the Son of Man. In verse 16, we come to Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
Joseph, like Moses, was a man— a workingman with a carpentry business and a good reputation. A man who perhaps had experienced the pain of heartache and loss that left him a single dad with sons whose damaged characters were less than kind. A man whose love was pledged and whose heart belonged to a sweet young girl named Mary. A man of integrity whom the King James Version of the book of Matthew calls “righteous” in verse 19: Here is how the story goes:
Matthew 1:18-19 Amplified Bible, Classic Edition (AMPC)
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place under these circumstances: When His mother Mary had been promised in marriage to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be pregnant [through the power] of the Holy Spirit.
19 And her [promised] husband Joseph, being a just and upright man and not willing to expose her publicly and to shame and disgrace her, decided to repudiate and dismiss (divorce) her quietly and secretly.
If Joseph’s thought patterns were anything like mine, when he first heard the news of Mary’s pregnancy, he may have gone from excited anticipation of a fresh start with a new wife to “Oh no! How can this be happening to me? After all I’ve suffered, after all I’ve already lost… at this stage in my life? Didn’t I do my due diligence? Wasn’t I careful and cautious and wise in my choosing of this girl to give my promise and my heart and my future life to? Am I a mockery in this town, being gossiped about behind my back?”
Did Joseph search his soul and cry out to God in the night, saying, “How could You let this happen to me? Haven’t I been faithful? After all I’ve done to serve You and to serve this community, is this how You reward me? Now what will I do?
The Bible doesn’t tell us any of that about Joseph. It tells us that he wasn’t thinking of himself at all – He was thinking of Mary. He didn’t want to disgrace her or expose her sins on social media. He didn’t stay up all night, lighting up Facebook to see how many “likes” he could get for his justified position. He didn’t go down to the local bar to numb or gain some third-party sympathy. He didn’t adopt the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” mentality and thumb through his little black book, looking for a call girl to party with. No! None of those things. Instead, he quietly made a decision to protect Mary’s reputation and to guard her heart. Then he went to sleep, trusting his heavenly Father to sort out the situation. Perhaps his bedtime prayer was something similar to the second verse of this song as he sought wisdom from on high:
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
Little did Joseph know of how close he was to heaven in his suffering that night and that nothing was as it appeared until an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.
Have you been caught off guard by circumstances beyond your control? Surprised by the words or actions of someone you loved and trusted? Wounded by the world and unable to piece together the full story or make any sense of your situation?
I have. And I’ve gone to sleep so many nights, begging God to unravel the tangled threads of my story or to fix the other person or to shed some light on the seemingly dark path ahead. André and I have prayed that prayer through many long nights over the past couple of years:
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high…
Like Joseph – none of us may realize just how close we are to heaven, or just how close heaven is to us when we humble ourselves and lay down our fears to walk in faith. Let’s look at the rest of his story:
20 But as he was thinking this over, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, Joseph, descendant of David, do not be afraid to take Mary [as] your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of (from, out of) the Holy Spirit.
21 She will bear a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus [the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua, which means Savior], for He will save His people from their sins [that is, prevent them from [a]failing and missing the true end and scope of life, which is God].
22 All this took place that it might be fulfilled which the Lord had spoken through the prophet,
23 Behold, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel—which, when translated, means, God with us.
24 Then Joseph, being aroused from his sleep did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him: he took [her to his side as] his wife.
Was Joseph and Mary’s future a cakewalk? Hardly. But, they chose to believe the voice of the Lord, spoken through the angel, and to move forward in faith, not fear. They did get married. And they did become the parents of the Son of God, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among men. Imagine being co-parents with God the Father!
Sometimes the sin in this world causes families to fall apart. Children end up being parented by multiple people – birth parents, stepparents, foster parents, adoptive parents. Sometimes we feel less-than-adequate as we love on kids who suffer the effects of broken families, broken homes, broken souls. Sometimes the people with whom we co-parent have very different views or values or styles of relating – and we can easily get caught in the trap of feeling either inferior or superior to the other adult voices in our kids’ lives.
Imagine with me for a moment how Joseph and Mary must have felt as they birthed and held and fed and burped the baby whose Father is God? Imagine the emotion of a mother who knows her child is gifted in ways far beyond a special program in school. Imagine teaching a teen to sharpen a saw and remembering Almighty God saw you in your small Nazareth world and chose you to be the adoptive father to His precious son.
And we think our job as parents is difficult? What kind of pressure were Joseph and Mary tempted to place on themselves as they parented the Savior of the world? Oh, how great the joy, yet how deep the sorrow of Mary’s heart as she watched her son live out the fulfillment of His destiny all the way to the cross of Calvary.
Out of suffering comes the miraculous. Out of the wilderness comes the ability to listen. Out of the fire on a mountainside comes a voice that says, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”
That holy fire on the mountain became a seed in the womb of a teenage girl. Can you imagine that process? Can you imagine the suffering that went into the re-creation of the I AM as this eternal being whose voice spoke the earth into existence shrunk into the size of something that fits inside a fallopian tube? The Creator became the created. Emmanuel is a miracle! The miracle of Jesus started in heaven, not in Bethlehem.
“His name is Emmanuel – the God who is with us – who is made out of the same stuff we are and who is made out of the same stuff God is and who will not let either of us go.” Judi Harbin
Emmanuel came to Israel, not once, but twice – The first time, they were slaves in Egypt: unable to walk in freedom to live and to worship and to govern themselves according to the principles of heaven. They were surrounded by ungodly influences and they were losing their children to the ways of the Egyptians generation by generation.
The second time Emmanuel came to Israel, they were slaves to formalism and legalism and a religion that kept them in perpetual bondage. They had forgotten that God Is LOVE and that love longs for relationship. They had completely missed the essence of the One for whom they performed all of those rituals. In the end, they actually missed Jesus.
Friends – Emmanuel wants to come again to Israel. Not the Israel who was enslaved in Egypt. And not the Israel who became like an ingrown toenail, only living to follow laws and missing the heart of the Law Giver. But to today’s Israel – the Israelite hearts of you and me, hearts in bondage to sin in one way or another.
Emmanuel longs to come to those Israelite mamas among us who live in fear and cling to control. To those whose kids are scattered and whose hearts are shattered and who are hanging on to faith by a thread. He wants to bring his peace to those who love too much from broken hearts until nothing is left to give; to those whose gifts are stolen by grief and frozen by fear and who have lost their will to live. And to those who stopped praying because they feel like a playlist with only one song and worry about wearing out the Father. These are the ones….we are the ones for whom Emmanuel wants to come today.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).
To all who suffer, let us be reminded of what Emmanuel, the Christ has done for us. We are not alone in our suffering. If we will allow Him, He will bring us to the heart of His Father. He will bind our wounds by binding us to His heart. Only He can heal us, turn the hearts of our loved ones and fill us with heaven’s peace today. In the stillness I can almost hear him whisper, “Yes, I’m still here.”
And I sing along with Ms. Daigle, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”
O come, Desire of the nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
(Words translated in 1861 by John Mason Neale per Wikipedia)