Jesus: God With Us
What do you think it means to be “with” someone? Does it mean that you’re just standing beside them? You know, like “I got on the bus with him.” Does it mean that you’re a member of the same team or club? “I go to church with her.” Or that you are going on vacation together? “We went on vacation with his parents.” Or that you go for a run together? Being “with” someone can mean all of those things, can’t it? But it can also mean something much deeper.
A San Diego father (who wants to be known as “Frank”) believed his son, a homeless, heroin addict living on the streets in Denver, was on the verge of dying. So he contacted Chris Conner, one of Denver’s leading homeless advocates. Conner has helped parents find their lost children, but this was different. Conner said, “I’ve never had a parent who necessarily went this far to descend into homelessness themselves.” Conner connected Frank with Pastor Jerry Herships, whose church serves lunch to homeless people in a Denver park across from the state capitol.
Frank described the moment he met his son on the street in Denver: He has no idea that I’m walking towards him. I can see that he can’t stand up without the support of a building. He would appear drunk to most people. To his dad, though, I know from past experience, sadly he’s on heroin – heavy. I go up to him, and he starts to turn his back on me. I don’t even care. I just grab him and squeeze him as hard as I can.
For a week, Frank became his son’s shadow, wandering the streets during the day and sleeping on the banks of a river at night. He grew a beard, ate hand-out sandwiches during the day, and swatted away the rats at night. Meanwhile, his son got sick, in and out of the hospital, stealing to buy more drugs. At one point, Frank told his son, “If you die, your mom and dad die with you. We might still be here breathing. But make no mistake, we’ll be dead inside.”
When asked why he did it, Frank said, “The only thing I could think of was just go there, be with him and love him. Show him how much his family loves him.”
Talk about being “with” someone! This dad totally identified with his son. He took on his son’s identity: he became homeless, like his son. He lived on the street with him. He took on his son’s suffering, facing the dangers on the streets, without walls and locked doors and windows, or even a roof, for protection. He expienced what his addicted son experiences every day. The only thing he didn’t experience, the only way in which he didn’t identify with his son, was in the addiction itself. He didn’t take heroin himself.
Addiction is a cruel illness. We used to view it as a moral failure or shortcoming, but it isn’t. Addiction is an illness. It is an illness that infects every part of a person’s body, and their mind, their emotions, their will – their very soul. And like a cancer without a tumor, it slowly but surely kills. The addict cannot simply stop the addictive behavior, or stop using the substance. In the case of substance addictions, the addicted person usually has to be medically supervised while they stop using. And every addict needs to be surrounded by a safe, supportive community – hopefully a community that includes some former addicts – because the addiction is going to fight like crazy to survive. It takes some friends who know addiction well enough to recognize and not fall for the addiction’s lies and manipulation. It takes time, and often several failures, for an addicted person to safely reach, and maintain, sobriety. And they can never, ever, let their guard down.
This father was with his son in every way possible without becoming an addict himself. The only part of his son’s brokenness he didn’t experience was his skin being pierced by the needle carrying the opiate heroin to his veins.
That very true story is a great example of what God has done for us in Christ. There’s only one problem with it. It doesn’t go far enough. The father, rightly so, in this instance, doesn’t allow the heroin itself to touch him. If he did so, he would no longer be able to rescue his son. He would be an addict too. His being with his son had to end there.
In Jesus, God is with us in every way. He identifies with us in our human experience here in this world broken and marred by sin. He takes our suffering – our fears and insecurities and pain, and all of the dangers we face, upon himself. But then he goes a step further. He allows the sin that runs through our veins to touch him, to pierce him. He takes our sin upon himself, and faces our death and punishment for us. And unlike any human father could do, he is victorious over that sin and the death and punishment that it brings. He fully identifies with us, takes our sin upon himself, takes our death and punishment upon himself, and then rises, victorious. He is with us fully, in a way no mere human could be. Turn with me to Isaiah 9:1-7.
Up to this point, the words of Isaiah have been filled with gloom and doom. With the exception of a brief interlude in chapter 6 where Isaiah gives us a glimpse of his vision of God’s throne room and his calling as a prophet, the opening words of the book of Isaiah are filled with the people of Israel’s deep, deep sin, and God’s coming judgment at the hands of Assyria. You remember the Assyrians, right? We just finished a sermon series on the book of Jonah. It’s all about God’s desire to save all people from sin, including the evil peoples of the world. So God asked Jonah to go to Assyria, to the city of Ninevah, one of Assyria’s greatest cities and eventually her capitol, to declare his impending judgment on them. And Jonah didn’t want to go, because he didn’t want them to get the chance to repent. You see, he knew that if they did repent, God would relent and save them. And that is exactly what happened. But now, a new generation has risen up in Assyria, and the Assyrians have returned, under a new emperor, to their old brutal ways. And they are threatening Israel. And before God judges Assyria for her harsh brutality, he is going to use her to discipline his own people – the people of Israel.
Look back at Isaiah 8:6-8. The Assyrians were coming. BY THE WORD OF THE LORD, the Assyrians were coming. Nothing Israel did could stop this. The bloodthirsty, harsh, brutal Assyrians, having returned to their old ways, were coming. They were going to overwhelm the land of God’s people like a flood, washing away all who stood in their path. Look down at Isaiah 8:20-22. He is talking about Israel now. Because they refuse to listen to God, because they refuse to obey him and turn to him for help, they are pictured as groping around in the darkness.
Ahaz is now the king in Jerusalem. And under Ahaz, the people turned completely away from God, and began to worship false gods. They were drawn in particular to gods representing power and fertility. Power and unrestrained pleasure. Sound familiar?
We tend to think we don’t fall into idolatry here in the United States today, because we don’t think of our idols as gods, per se. And yet, we pursue power and pleasure at all costs. To worship something is to regard that thing with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion. So what do we worship in the United States today? What is the number one issue in most elections? The economy, right? Money, both the ability to make more of it and the amount we can purchase with a set amount of it. The health of our economy has been all over the news, lately, hasn’t it? Why? Because a dollar can’t buy as much gas or as many groceries as it could a year ago, can it? And to be sure, that isn’t a good thing. The farther down the economic ladder you look, the greater the impact of an economic recession or depression. The poor take the brunt harder than people farther up the ladder. Linda told me just yesterday that we’re giving out one to two gas cards a day right now, and it isn’t for people to get places. Its so that they can heat the cars they’re sleeping in.
But there’s a difference between a healthy economy and running over and cheating people to make more money. In the world we live in today, money leads to both pleasure and power. Those with money are able to buy more, and they’re able to use their money as influence to get what they want. Pleasure and power. These are the gods we worship in America today. The same gods the Israelites worshipped in Isaiah’s day. And when we pursue pleasure and power above all else, we wind up oppressing others, using people who don’t have as much money or power as we do, to get more of what we want. In the writings of the Old Testament prophets, idolatry is ALWAYS linked with adultery (that’s pleasure) and oppression (that’s power). We spend more on ourselves than we need to and then don’t have enough to help those in need of our assistance, the people God calls us to help. We worship the almighty dollar. What are you willing to give up that you don’t really need so that we can provide someone with a gas card so they can sleep in a warm car tonight?
In 2019, Lori Laughlin’s family was among many privileged families charged with bribery of college admissions offices. Laughlin and her husband spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children into the University of Southern California. They paid people to take entrance exams for their children, and paid coaches to claim their children were on sports teams at the university that they weren’t on. Loughlin and her husband both wound up with prison sentences because of their scam. Anytime a person goes outside the law to take what they desire, rather than trusting in God to provide all they need, they have begun to serve something or someone other than God. It is idolatry at work.
But idolatry wasn’t the only reason the people of Judah were groping around in the dark. They were also insisting on dealing with the challenges they were facing on their own. They were refusing to listen to God, or turn to God for help. They wanted to be self-sufficient. Ahaz, their king, decided that the best way to deal with the Assyrian threat was to take a pro-Assyrian stance. They would worship the gods of the Assyrians – remember, power and pleasure? – and they would pay tribute to Assyria, and maybe, when Assyria came with their armies, they would move on past without doing much to Judah.
The problem with this approach was that the other kings in the area knew that Assyria was coming too, especially the king of Israel, up in Samaria, and the king of Syria, in Damascus. They wanted to join the smaller nations in the region together in an alliance to try to stand up agains Assyria together. Maybe, with their combined forces, and knowing the area and the land the way they did, they could make a stand against Assyria until they got tired of the trouble and moved on. When Judah’s Ahaz, down in Jerusalem, refused to join the alliance and took a pro-Assyria stance, they marched their armies against him, attempting to force him to join them. When they did that, Ahaz panicked and actually reached out to Assyria for military aid. Lot’s of political and military intrigue and maneuvering. What’s the one thing NO ONE did? No one sought God. No one prayed. No one inquired of God as to what they should do. They were hell-bent and determined to do things their own way. To solve their own problem in their own wisdom and strength.
Why do we insist on doing things our own way? What does it take for us to admit that we don’t have the resources to deal with the things we are facing? We are, every one of us, mired in a deep pit of sin. Some of us are well aware of that truth, and have sought the help and salvation that only God in Jesus can bring. Others of us, because it looks, from the perspective of this world, like we have our lives more or less together, can’t admit it. But when we depend only on our own resources and our own wisdom and perspectives, we just find ourselves in a deeper darkness.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking that you’re smart. You probably are pretty smart, and we commend your healthy esteem and belief in yourself. But healthy self-esteem has its limits. Those limits were pushed a couple years ago, when dating web site OKCupid revealed how thousands of its users had answered one particular question in a survey to measure partner compatibility: Are you a genius?
Amazingly, according to OKCupid’s blogger Christian Rudder, two in five people (and nearly half of all men!) said yes to that question. Rudder said, “2 out of 5 think they are one in a thousand.” Now, as there’s no single scientific definition of “genius,” Rudder’s “one in a thousand” is kind of arbitrary. But to qualify for most high IOQ societies – “genius clubs” like MENSA—you usually need to have an IQ at least in the 98th to 99th percentile. That’s about one in a hundred. So there’s something seriously wrong when 50 percent of men think they are geniuses.
Now, look at Isaiah 9:1-2. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”Yes, there is great darkness in this world. And left to ourselves, in our idolatries and our stubbornness and arrogance, the darkness only gets deeper. So in Jesus, God joins us in the darkness and turns on the light. Yes, our human attempts to bring light will ultimately fail, so God in his grace brings light.
Now, there’s something really cool here in V. 1 that we dont’ recognize unless we really know the history and geography of ancient Israel and Judah. Zebulun and Naphtali arre in the northwestern parts of the land, near the Sea of Galilee. Naphtali actually made up the entire western coast of the Sea of Galilee. It was Jesus’ primary stomping grounds both during his childhood (that’s where Nazareth was) and throughout his public ministry. That area was also the first to feel the brunt of Assyria’s conquest. It is where the Assyrian armies first swept into the region. They are the ones who first felt the brunt of Assyrian brutality. In the very place where the people of Israel and Judah first felt the deep pain of the Assyrian conquest, God would bring forth his salvation. In the land where the darkness was the deepest, God would turn on the light. The people of Galilee, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali would see the light of God’s salvation. And this is a sudden light, like the light of dawn.
Right now, with where we are in the year in terms of daylight and darkness, I get to witness something really cool every morning. When I go out to feed the horses, at about 6:40 or so, after I’ve dragged the boys out of bed – cajoling them, shaking them, eventually threatening them with bodily harm if they don’t get up – things are really dark. I make my way out to the barn in the dark, and I need lights both inside the barn and out to see what I’m doing. I give the horses their morning grain in their stalls, and then I head back inside to let them eat while I start getting ready for the day. And then, at about 7:15, when they’ve had enough time to finish their grain and right before I leave, taking the boys to school, I head back out to turn the horses out for the day. It’s only been about 30 minutes or so, but it’s like someone has reached down and turned on a light. Even on cloudy days, I don’t need lights anymore. I can see without lights on both inside the barn and out. I can see to halter the horses and take them outside and open the gate and turn them out. There may be a hint of light when I go out the first time, but it isn’t enough to see. When I go out the second time, I can see clearly. If you’ve ever sat and watched the sun come up, you know that while dawn can last for a while, the transition from dark to light happens quite suddenly as the sun peeks over the horizon.
When we admit that our best solutions don’t really solve anything, that we are in need of a savior greater than ourselves to make things right for us, its like the lights come on for us. We are no longer groping around in the dark, bumping into things and tripping over things we can’t see with our very limited vision. Yes, it hurts when the lights are first turned on. That’s one of the things I do when I can’t get the boys out of bed … I turn on the lights. At first, it hurts, because their eyes have adjusted to the darkness. But then, once they blink a few times and their pupils shrink, the light lightens their mood and helps them to see as they get ready for the day.
Yes, it hurts to admit that we need help, that we need a savior, that we need God to turn on the light for us. It hurts to give up ways of coping that make things worse. It hurts to admit that, left to our own devices, we’ve made a mess of things. The good news is that our sin and rebellion are not enough to keep God’s light from us. If we wish to be freed from sin, nothing can keep Jesus away from us. There is no sin, no rebellion, so deep that God in Jesus will not wade into it with us and for us. But we cannot choose our sin over Jesus and have light. It hurts to admit that our solutions are useless. Change is hard. Real transformation, empowered by the Spirit of Christ, is even harder. It can hurt. But it also heals. And as it heals, it brings great joy.
Look at Vv. 2-5.Joy! Darkness leads to fear. That’s why we have nightlights, right. But in the light, we find joy, and the source of God’s light in our lives is Jesus. Look at the images of joy that Isaiah uses. The Assyrians were known for removing conquered peoples from their land and settling them elsewhere, and then bringing in outside people to settle in the land just conquered. No one stayed in their own land. And yet, instead of depopulation and a people intermarrying with others and dwindling away, Isaiah pictures a nation that swells with people and grows. Instead of a meager harvest and crops burned by invading armies, not enough to support the people, he pictures an abundant harvest. Instead of lack there is abundance. And instead of being the spoils at the hands of invaders, he pictures the people dividing the spoils of war among themselves.
The picture is not one of deportation and enslavement, but of abundance and freedom! Look at V. 4. The yoke of slavery has been broken. Slavery to what? To sin and to oppression. In Christ, sin is defeated and our relationship with God is restored. And in Christ, oppression is defeated and our relationship with one another, relationships marred by racism and sexism and oppression, relationships between men and women, rich and poor, young and old, and relationships between the peoples of the earth are restored.
This world is filled with people in darkness and despair, overcome by the enslaving yokes of sin and oppression. The Assyrians were arrogant and cruel, and they bragged about the heavy yoke of slavery they imposed on the people they conquered. But one greater has destroyed that yoke.Jesus said of himself,”Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29-30). Jesus treats us gently and lightly, not harshly. And that in itself is a gift of grace. Because you and I, we deserve the harshness of judgment. But when we admit our need of a savior, and allow God to bring his light into our lives, we find peace and joy, lightness and gentleness. His is a yoke of gentleness and kindness.
And how does God do this? Through a child.Look at Vv. 6-7. God doesn’t deliver us from arrogance and war and oppression and violence and coercion and sin by becoming more arrogant and warlike and oppressive and violent than we are. No, he does it by becoming vulnerable and transparent and humble. The Jews expected a mighty warrior to save them. They got a child instead. But this child isn’t any child. He is our wonderful counselor. He is God’s wisdom embodied. The babe in the manger is the mighty God. He is our hero, God’s true might in human flesh. He is able to absorb all of the evil that Satan and this world can throw at him, until there is no more evil to throw. He is our everlasting father. He is our eternal and loving, sacrificial father. And he is the prince of peace. And he establishes peace not through force, but through humility and vulnerability. And notice the last phrase of V. 7. He is the embodiment of the passion, the zeal of God. Jesus wasn’t a half-hearted attempt at our salvation by a bored and distracted God. No! He is the be all, end all, full engagement of God in the affairs of this world. He is the full resource of the Kingdom of Heaven brought into this world to save us, not to destroy us.
God is fully powerful enough to destroy, if destruction were his goal. But it isn’t. No, God seeks to restore his relationship with us. With me. With you. And so our wonderful counselor, mighty God, everylasting Father, and Prince of peace experiences the most human of experiences – a birth from the womb of a mother. Suckling at her breast. Growing under her tutelage. He is fully God, and also fully human. He is God WITH us.
The emotional power of Isaiah 9 lies not only in the Messiah’s titles, but in their cumulative effect. They are more than their sum. Spoken together—or sung, as in the “Oratorio” from Handel’s Messiah – they convey a sense of majesty that can’t be captured by any one title, no matter how lofty.
Tolkien’s The Return of the King has a scene that illustrates well what I’m talking about. Aragorn, the rightful king of the west, has long labored in obscurity, forgoing kingly comforts to serve his subjects and fight their battles, repeatedly risking his life for them. At last he prevails over the forces of the dark lord, and is poised to enter the city where he will rule at last.
When Aragorn enters the fortified city of Mina Tirith for the first time as king, the city’s steward proclaims Aragorn’s royal pedigree for all the citizens to hear: “Here is Aragorn son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Dunedain of Arnor, Captain of the Host of the West, bearer of the Star of the North, wielder of the Sword Reforged, victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing, the Elfstone, Elessar of the line of Valandil, Isildur’s son, Elendil’s son of Numenor. Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?”
There was another King who long labored in obscurity: unheralded, humbly serving the people over whom he had every right to reign, laying down his life for them. Today he claims the throne of our lives. Here is Jesus the Christ, the Second Adam, the Bright and Morning Star, the First and the Last, victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing, Mighty Second Person of the Trinity, Son of David, Son of Man, Word of God Incarnate, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Shall he enter our hearts—our church—and dwell there?
Source: Ken Langley, Zion, Illinois
In The Manger Is Empty, Walter Wangerin Jr. shares personal memories from past Christmases. In a chapter entitled “A Quiet Chamber,” he recalls Christmas, 1944. That year, in the days leading up to Christmas Eve, Walter’s father did the same thing he always did at Christmastime: he went into a room in the house, removed the outside door knob so the kids couldn’t get in, and he decorated a Christmas tree and stacked presents all around it.
As their father carried on the great tradition, the Wangerin kids did the same thing they always did at Christmastime: they stood outside the door, dreaming about what awaited them come Christmas morning.
That is, every child except Walter.
Having turned ten in 1944, Wangerin writes: “I had that very year become an adult: silent, solemn, watchful, and infinitely cautious.” While his brothers and sisters could barely contain their excitement, Wangerin held himself in “severe restraint.” Why? The Christmas before, Walter had watched a rather traumatic moment unfold. For reasons no one was ever able to identify, Walter’s brother, Paul, had burst into tears. Paul’s deep sadness left an indelible mark on Walter, who writes: “I was shocked to discover that the Christmas time was not inviolate. I was horrified that pain could invade the holy ceremony. And I was angry that my father had not protected my brother from tears.” Walter adds: “Besides—what if you hope and it doesn’t happen? It’s treacherous to hope. The harder you hope, the more vulnerable you become.” With all of that in mind, Walter decided he was not going to make himself vulnerable like before. He was not going to hope. He was not going to be caught off guard by whatever might happen when his father opened the door on Christmas Eve.
When the time had finally come for the tradition to meet its climax, Walter stood beside his anxious brothers and sisters—the only one with a frown. Walter’s father opened the door to the room, and all the Wangerin kids ran in, gasping and giggling over what they saw.
That is, every child except Walter.
Walter stood in the doorway, gazing at the tree and the piles of presents. Then he turned to look at his father who stood there waiting. What he saw caused Walter to have an emotional outburst of his own that Christmas Eve—one that was quite unlike Paul’s from the year before. He writes:
There … was my father, standing center in the room and gazing straight at me. … And this is the wonder fixed in my memory: that the man himself was filled with a yearning, painful expectation—on account of me.
Everything else in this room was just as it had been the year before, and the year before that. But this was new. This thing I had never seen before: that my father, too, had had to trust the promises against their disappointments. So said his steady eyes on me. But among the promises to which my father had committed his soul, his hope, and his faith, the most important one was this: that his eldest son should soften and be glad. …
He gazed at me, waiting, waiting, for me, waiting for his Christmas to be received by his son and returned to him again.
And I began to cry. O my father!
Silently, merely spilling tears and staring straight back at him, defenseless because there was no need for defenses. I cried—glad and unashamed. Because, what was this room, for so long locked, which I was entering? Why, it was my own heart. And why had I been afraid? Because I thought I’d find it empty, a hard unfeeling thing.
But there, in the room, was my father.
And there, in my father, was the love that had furnished this room, preparing it for us no differently than he had last year prepared it, yet trusting and yearning, desiring our joy.
And what else could such a love be, but my Jesus drawing near?
I leaned my cheek against the doorjamb and grinned like a grown-up ten years old, and sobbed as if I were two. And my father moved from the middle of the room and walked toward me, still empty-handed; but he spread his hands and gathered me to himself. And I put my arms around his harder body. And so we, both of us, were full.
In Jesus, our heavenly Father has joined us in the darkness, identifying with us in every way – even to the point of allowing himself to be pierced by sin. He knows. He knows the darkness we face. The uncertainty. The pain. The humiliation. He also knows the joys and adventures and celebrations of life. The good, the bad, the ugly – even death itself. He knows. But he doesn’t just know. He helps. He has turned on the light. He has overcome death, taking the sting out of it for us. Transforming it from an ending to a graduation – something through which we all must pass, but which can no longer hurt us. If you’ll let him, he’ll turn on the light for you. He is God with us. He is God with YOU. Let us pray.