I have a four-year-old daughter, who performed in her first school nativity last week. She played the role of Angel Number 1, which I suspect means ‘1 of many’ but I like to think it means ‘number 1 angel.’
Each kid gets one line to perform, and my daughter has been practicing hers for months. She does it at the most unexpected moments. I’ll be sitting at home working on something, or cooking, or in the middle of a Zoom call, and she will burst into the room unannounced, and in the most dramatic manner, shout at the top of her voice:
“Shepherds, do not be afraid!”
I’ve been on a bit of a journey with that. At first I found it cute. A month in, I started to find it annoying. More recently I’ve realised, I need to hear it. At a soul level.
There have been moments for me these past months, as I suspect there have for you, where I have found myself lost in my thoughts. Sometimes anxious thoughts. Fearful. Doubtful. And whether I knew it or not, exactly what I needed in those moments was the bold, innocent voice of a child, declaring at the top of her lungs that there is a reason for hope. A reason to not be afraid.
The YouVersion Bible app recently released end of year data about usage in 2020. Users made nearly 600 million searches within their app in 2020, an 80% increase on 2019. The most searched-for Bible verse was,
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” (Isaiah 41:10)
It seems I’m not the only one who needs to hear that.
The same prophet looked forward seven centuries to an event in which that message – the presence of God with His people – would become more tangible than it ever had been. The people who walked in darkness would see a great light. The virgin would conceive and give birth to a son, who she would call Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ (Isaiah 9:2; 7:14)
Emmanuel. That single word – three words in English – is so powerful and packed with promise.
When our creator wanted to give us hope, he didn’t just send a message with a messenger, he came himself. In the form of a baby. I love the way the prophet Micah puts it. Writing 700 years before Jesus, Micah predicted the very location of Jesus’ birth, and he wrote,
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)
Think about that for a moment. In this small, insignificant town of Bethlehem would be born one whose origins are ancient. How can this child king be both a newborn and have ancient origins? The answer is that this is no normal child, no normal king. This is the ancient, eternal God stepped into time and space.
The message of Christmas isn’t just that there is a God, out there somewhere… but rather God Himself is with us.
Not God above us.
God keeping His distance from us.
God interested in us, but only from afar.
No, God with us.
I don’t know what comes to mind for you when you picture God. Many people imagine a being who is aloof, distant and disinterested. A Creator who set things going, but has left it to us ever since. That is not the God of the Bible. Rather, the God revealed in Jesus knows what it is like to be us because He has been with us.
God entered into our lived experience. Into our weakness, hurt and pain. He entered into this world in much the same way each of us did; born as a child, fragile and vulnerable. He knows what it is like to grow up in an uncertain time, to live through trials and challenges, to be fearful and rejected, and even to face death…
Which leads to the third word.
The claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus isn’t just an historical figure, who engaged with a tiny portion of people in history. He isn’t ‘God with them’, but no longer relevant today. Jesus entered into this world, lived, died, and rose again to everlasting life. The Christian hope lies in the fact that we believe in a God who has defeated death and is alive today and forever more. There is nothing too big for him to deal with. And because he is alive forever, anyone at any time, in any place can know him.
He is not simply God with them but God with us.
He is with us now. He will continue to be with us. And when He remakes this world, free from corruption, sickness, sin and death, He will be with us forever more.
This Christmas looks nothing like any of us hoped for, I’m sure. If you’re anything like me, you are probably tired, disappointed, ready for a break, but unsure whether the next few weeks will be as life-giving as you hoped for or need. But my prayer is that all of us would be able to experience the presence and peace of God with us, and that looking ahead, 2021 would bring more reasons for peace, healing and joy.
In the words of my favourite carol:
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
If you would like to reflect more on the meaning of Christmas, then you may enjoy this short film from ChristChurch London. It’s called Emmanuel, and it contains a mixture of carols, readings and spoken word. I hope you enjoy it, and it brings you some peace this Christmas: