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Isaiah was the first to mention the name Immanuel: “Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7: 14). Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophecy and explains the meaning of the name: “Immanuel, which is interpreted, God with us” (Matt 1: 23 NKJV and below). Though Immanuel is one of God’s names, there are countless reasons for God not to choose to be with us.
Considering how God has viewed humanity, it’s amazing that he should even think of making good that particular name. That he’d want to stay as far away as possible seems more likely. At the time of the flood, God said, “The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence through them, and look, I will destroy them with the earth” (Gen 6: 13). God led his people through the wilderness for forty years, but his presence was apparent only in a nighttime pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud by day. He told Moses, “You cannot see my face; no man shall see my face and live” (Ex 33: 20). Isaiah, speaking for God, writes: “When you spread out your hands, / I will hide my eyes from you; / Even though you make many prayers, / I will not hear. / Your hands are full of blood. / Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; / Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil” (Isaiah 1: 15-16).
Jesus was very plain about human uncleanness and careful to correct those who defined it only in terms of washing. Absolutely not, he explained: “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Matt 15: 20b). This summary statement follows a very explicit teaching on the things that corrupt a human being: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man” (Matt 15: 18-20a). Paul writes to Titus, his missionary companion, and seconds Jesus’ view of human corruption: ” . . . to those who are defiled and unbelieving,” he says, “nothing is pure, but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work” (Titus 1: 15b-16).
How amazing that God the Son was willing to come among us, amazing that Jesus’ final words recorded by Matthew should be: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28: 20). Mark similarly describes the activities of Jesus’ followers after his departure: “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through accompanying signs” (Mark 16: 20). These lines are in the Greek of the New Testament, not the Hebrew of the name Immanuel (Immanu-el, lit, “with us, God.”). But remember Jesus’ final promise in Matthew, “I am with you always.” This is simply Immanuel translated. Likewise, Mark reports the work of Jesus’ followers, noting that Jesus was with them. All this encourages us to recall some more words of Jesus quoted in Hebrews. “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” he promised (Heb 13: 5). Remembering that name Immanuel as we go about whatever task he’s set us, we can be grateful for the promise of God’s presence.
At Christmas, we’re busy in another way. Our approach to Immanuel, the God who is with us, is a bit different. We’re celebrating: God, the incarnate Son took our limitations, mortal hazards, and human difficulties just to be with us! We’re become worshipers, as well as workers. The virgin mother is a fitting detail of an extraordinary picture; otherwise it’s a down-to-earth scene: A no-vacancy inn (no, not even one available room), a barn and feeding trough, a young man and woman now on the other side of that horrendous trip south to Bethlehem. Indeed, however Mary got to David’s town (on foot, on a donkey?), it was that bad. She was on the point of giving birth! Now the birth has happened, everyone is safe and well. They have visitors, including us. When you approach the manger this Christmas, the Babe will be there.