Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”) (Matthew 1:22-23 CEB)
As I write, cities and towns along the Mississippi River are either flooding or are braced for flooding as the river reaches historic levels in the South. Thousands of people will lose their homes, farms, and businesses. Some will ask, “Where was God in the midst of these floods?” Or more to the point, “Why didn’t God act to save us?”
I’ve tried to answer these and other questions about suffering elsewhere, but here I would just say that suffering, natural disasters, and tragedies are a part of life. Our bodies are susceptible to disease. Human beings misuse their freedom and harm one another. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods seem to be part of the equilibrium that makes life in our planet possible.
It seems that generally God does not directly intervene to suspend the forces of nature-either the macro forces that control weather and the movement of tectonic plates, or the micro forces that can cause sickness. Floods occur, and even the most holy people catch colds and suffer from diseases. Neither does God suspend human freedom. As much as it must pain God to watch what we human beings do to one another, God seems to allow human being to rebel against his will and do things that bring pain to others.
If God doesn’t suspend natural laws for us, what does God do? Isaiah 43:2 gives is an idea. There God says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” David, in the best known of all psalms, says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me.” Again and again in the Scriptures, God promises not freedom from adversity but freedom from fear, hopelessness, and despair because he is with us.
To some, God’s promise to be with us may not seem like much. I disagree. I am grateful for the forces of nature that create the mountains and carve the canyons. I am grateful for the natural laws that somehow bring equilibrium to our atmospheric conditions. I am grateful for human freedom and for the bodies we live in, even if they are, by their nature, susceptible to disease. I feel I can face all these things, provided I know that God is with me, that he won’t leave me or forsake me, and that when this earthly life is over he will welcome me to his eternal realm.
This brings us to our passage today. Here Jesus is called, in Hebrew, Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us,” as Matthew points out to his Greek-speaking readers. This word contains one of the most powerful ideas in the Christmas story. God has not promised is a life without suffering or a world without pain; he had promised to walk with us through the suffering and the pain. In Jesus, God literally had come to us in flesh and blood, so that we might know that he is with us. He had come to suffer with and for us that we might know he understands what human life is like. At the end of his life he was raised from the dead, to assure us that not even death will have the final word in our lives.
I walked into a hospital room not long ago to visit a man who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. His wife sat next to hum. I wanted to promise them that if we just prayed hard enough, his cancer would be gone. Sometimes that happens, but in my experience those times are rare. More often, doctors do what they can to prolong life. People who pray, who trust in God, and who have a church family can find peace on their journey. After listening to this man and his wife describe their feelings and emotions, I said to them, “We’re going to pray for a miracle. But we also recognize that miracles are not the norm. What is most important for you to know, and what I came to be a visible reminder of, is that God is with you. He will be with you every moment. He will hold you in his arms, and he has promised that this life is only the preface to the great adventure he has prepared for you. Rest in his arms. Trust that he’s with you. Know that God loves you.”
What difference does it make? When my daughters were small, there would sometimes be storms in the middle of the night, and, terrified, they would run to our room. “Daddy, I’m scared,” they would cry. I would make them a little bed next to ours, and I would tell them, “Daddy’s right here. You don’t have to be afraid.” They would fall right sleep. I hadn’t stopped the storm, but they knew that if their father was nearby, they didn’t need to be afraid.
Jesus is a flesh-and-blood reminder that God walks with us, suffers with us, loves us, has redeemed us, and offers us eternal life. John Wesley, as he lay dying in his chambers near the New City Road Chapel, put it this way: “The best of all is, God is with us.”
I can face anything if I know that God is with me. That promise is part of the gift of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us.
Lord, thank you that you never leave me, nor forsake me. Help me to trust that you are with me always. Help me to draw strength and courage from your presence in my life. Amen.