Emmanuel? You Still Here?

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. 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. And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 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.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 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.

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, 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)

Check Yes or No

Before technology took over our lives, before kids could text during class with flying thumbs and barely a glance beneath the desk… we passed notes. Yes “notes” – folded pieces of paper with the contents of our hearts printed for the whole class to see if Teacher caught us passing them across the aisle.

If we had a crush, we might draw lopsided squares next to the words “yes” and “no” following a question written with trembling pencil: “Do you love me?” Then directions for responding: “Check yes or no.”

Remember the heart-pounding, back-of-the-neck sweating, weak-kneed anticipation as the recipient carefully unfolded the paper and read those words? The date of the Emancipation Proclamation escapes us to this day because we missed an entire American History lesson as we anxiously anticipated the reader’s response. That one tiny check mark had the power to make or break social status and self-esteem, and determine whether we would cry on our best friend’s shoulder, or jump up and down with glee as we giggled together next to our lockers in the hallway.  Remember?

I felt that same thumping in my chest, weakness in my knees, and inner angst on Monday as Honey and I drove to Tampa to retrieve the two fifteen year old Ukranian orphan boys we are summer-hosting with Project 143. After being apart for nearly three weeks, I didn’t know what to expect upon our return. Will they want to come home with us? Did they miss us? Will they hug us?

We tapped into modern technology – FaceTiming them on our iphones most days while we were traveling for Honey’s work and my Texas book tour, but with the language barrier, it was difficult to communicate. After several seconds of awkward staring, smiling and waving, we said “goodbye” and put the phone down, wondering what they were really thinking and feeling. Wondering why we missed them so much after sharing only nine days together.

“I bet Pasha ignores us or hides behind the other host parents when we get there,” I said to My Honey over Wendy’s baked potatoes halfway between Jacksonville and Tampa.

“Why would he?”

“Because he’s had a blast with the other kids and we abandoned him and he probably just wants to stay there and not come home to our small, quiet life,” I responded. “Besides, he doesn’t transition well.”

“Hmmm. Well, I guess we’ll just have to see, won’t we?”

When we arrived in our host friends’ driveway, Yura met us at the car with a shy but genuine smile. He hugged us both then immediately mounted his new Ripstik, proudly showing off his balancing skills.Yura bike

Whew! One down, one to go.

I cautiously entered the house where my still-sane-after-parenting-six-kids-for-three-weeks friend, Sarah lives. No sign of Sarah but I heard kid-noise in the game room where I discovered four kiddos hovered around two computer screens, Minecraft on one and a digital soccer game on the other. Pasha’s back was to the door as he focused on the soccer screen. I sneaked up behind him, quickly covering his eyes with my hands in a guess-who gesture.

“Ms. Sarah?” he questioned, leaving my hands in place.

I said nothing. Inwardly pleading with my heart to stop pounding. Father, why do I expect rejection?

“Juliet! It’s You!” pasha bike

Pasha leaped from the swivel chair and attacked me – one hundred and six pounds of teenage boy wrapping me in a hug that squeezed fear to death! That moment confirmed Sarah’s hunch that even though the boys had only been with us a few days, our home was their home, because that’s the first place they landed in America. And our family was their family, because we were the ones who initially bonded with them here. Pasha didn’t let go. He hugged and hugged and hugged me until I became a rag doll flopping into the swivel chair. Then he raced outside to find Honey.

A few days later I sit in church, wedged between them like a paperback between bookends, watching My Honey in the pulpit – preaching the communion sermon.

Jesus, I want them to know You. I want them to want to know You. What does this service mean to two orphaned teens who didn’t grow up in the Christian faith and barely comprehend a few English phrases? How can I use Google Translate to translate Your sacrificial eternal love for them?

As Yura takes the tiny cup from the deacon holding a silver tray, I see the scars. Perfectly straight, white with age, horizontal lines just above the wrist. scars quoteCutting? Why have I not noticed these before?  My stomach knots as I reach for my own symbol of the blood shed for my sins.

Grabbing my phone, I text with flying thumb, barely glancing at the screen half-hidden beneath my flowing skirt. God, I can’t be silent. I must ask, in the stillness of this moment. Will he trust me enough to let me share his pain?

I press “Go” and pass the phone as Google magically turns my English into strange letters and symbols understood only by Yura.

Расскажите мне о шрамы на руке? Tell me about the scars on your arm?

The same sixth-grade heart-pounding, back-of-the-neck sweating, weak-kneed anticipation creeps through my body as the recipient carefully-so-as-not-to-spill-the-blood takes the phone and reads my words.

Do you love me Yura? Do you love me enough to let me know the hurt behind those marks on your arms? Will you look at me with honest eyes and see that I long to know the life you’ve lived and the tears you’ve cried and the pain your young heart has born in your strong, silent way? Check yes or no.

Instantly his eyes meet mine as he drops the phone and instinctively covers the visible marks of his pain.

нет! No!

Oh Lord! I’ve gone too far, said too much, crossed the line! It’s too soon. The trust hasn’t had time to bloom. But, we only have six weeks left. Every moment is an opportunity.

 I pick up the phone, feeling the eyes of a pew full of worshippers on the back of my neck as I, the pastor’s wife, text during the holy communion service.

 I will use humor. That usually works.

Развелев поцарапать вас ? Did a lion scratch you?

 He smiles, almost giggles and whispers in English, “No!”

Whew! Now what?

I text.

Лев почесал меня , тоже. Только мои шрамы на внутренней части. A lion scratched me, too. Only my scars are on the inside.

I wait. Yura smiles again and turns the phone off. He says nothing, but his body moves closer in a gesture of understanding. I can feel his leg, warm against mine as Honey reads from Matthew 26 (NKJV): “Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”but-for-scars