As Christmas season comes and goes, it’s all too easy to read the same Scriptures as last year, think heavenly thoughts, then move on to the next season of busyness once the wrapping paper has been thrown away and the tree taken down. But sometimes God shakes up your routine and speaks into your heart in new ways. This year, the phrase “God with us” has been swirling around my brain like an earworm. It started when I was preparing to preach a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent. I began to delve into the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, and was struck by the oddity that Matthew gives us two names for Jesus. First, the angel commands Joseph to name Mary’s baby “Jesus,” a Hellenized form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” which means “God saves.” The angel explains the reason for this name: Jesus will save his people from their sins. But in the same breath that Matthew reports this angelic command, he also notes that this took place to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that the child would be named “Emmanuel,” or “God with us.” So which name is it? Jesus or Emmanuel? It seems that Matthew wants his readers to make the connection that God does not save from afar; rather, the God who saves is the God who is with us. The creator of the universe — who spoke and worlds came to be — had the power to simply speak and change the course of history. But instead, this God chose to get into the muck with us to rescue us.
Matthew wants to make sure we get the point. He repeats it throughout his Gospel. In 18:20, Jesus tells his disciples that where two or three have gathered in his name, there he is in their midst. He is with them. And then Matthew bookends his Gospel by including the idea of “God with us” in 28:20. The resurrected Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to follow all of his instructions, and then Jesus says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew’s whole Gospel is framed by the idea of God with us.
But this theme is not just bracketing Matthew’s Gospel. It bookends the entirety of Scripture. In Gen 3, God is with Adam and Eve in the garden. Despite the sin that marred humanity’s relationship with God, the rest of Scripture shows how God works to bring salvation. At key points in salvation history, God reassures the people that “I am with you.” God encouraged Moses (Exod 33:14), Joshua (Josh 1:5), David (Ps 23:4), and all of God’s people (Jer 15:20; Isa 41:10), regularly providing hope and inspiration when they faced doubts, fears, or difficult circumstances. Sometimes God reminded the people in miraculous ways of his presence. Who could argue with being led by a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night (Exod 13:21)? Sometimes God was more subtle, making his presence known through silence (1 Kgs 19:11-13). But always God was there.
Yet “God with us” is not just part of the history of Israel or a mere reflection on Jesus’s life that we remember at Christmas time, it is also a present reality and a future hope. For those who believe, the Holy Spirit continually lives within us, empowering us to live a life pleasing to God as we await the return of Christ (Rom 8). The theme of “God with us” concludes in Revelation with the picture of a new heaven and a new earth descending, and God dwelling with his people (Rev 21:3). This is the final consummation of all things — and God is with us. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, really. If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8) and Jesus is God with us, then the presence of God will continue to be with us long after the Christmas season has faded and the batteries in the kids’ new toys have worn out.
During this Christmas season, when advertising jingles and cutesy carols about snowmen and Santa tend to get stuck in your head, let the sound that replays be the whispering, comforting, encouraging voice from God reminding us that God is with us. Yesterday, today, and forever.