Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel. (which means, God with us) -Matthew 1:23, Isaiah 7:14
When I was little, I slept with a stuffed penguin. His name was Caesar. (He was an Emperor penguin) And each night, before my Dad turned off the lights in my room, I would clutch Caesar in my arms. When I was frightened in the dark, my penguin was my comfort. He was my friend. He was with me.
As warm and cute as that story sounds, that is not what the prophet Isaiah meant when he proclaimed that God’s name was Immanuel. Although God is with us in Christ, His relationship to us cannot be compared to a stuffed animal who comforts a small child. Unfortunately, that’s how many people approach God during Christmas when a giant spotlight is placed upon the infant Jesus and the crucified Jesus is utterly neglected. The difference between the two is their encounter with sin. And when we leave out the sin of the cross, we leave out our own. Because of Christmas, God is with us. But before He was with us, He was against us. And that’s where the penguin analogy begins to break down.
The name Immanuel has no meaning without the God of the Old Testament. That’s almost certainly why it appears in the first chapter of the New. Matthew reaches back to Isaiah to remind us that God and man weren’t normally on cordial, informal terms. When Jesus’s parents, Joseph and Mary, communicated with God or traveled to worship Him, they did so on His terms, not their own. And the curtain that separated them was a giant reminder of their sin, His holiness, and the spiritual canyon between them. (Heb. 10:19-20) That’s the living God. And that’s precisely the reason the name Immanuel must offer more than something a stuffed animal, a pet, a spouse, or a Hallmark Christmas movie can provide. My stuffed penguin was never against me. His holiness never demanded that I pay an infinite penalty. And he never satisfied my longing for companionship by substituting himself in my place. By living in me.
Is God really with me? What if I don’t feel close to him like I do my stuffed animal? Does that mean He’s far away? Perhaps the reason we so frequently feel distant from God is because we so easily don’t feel the weight and the offense of our own sin before Him. When we do, God feels more like a Savior and a King. When we don’t, He feels more like a teddy bear. The reason that Immanuel is such a wonderful name isn’t simply that God is with us; it’s that God is with us after having been against us for so long. A stuffed animal can lie in a manger. But a stuffed animal can’t die on a cross. And that’s why Christmas is about the cross – when the God who promised to be with us actually came to us and stood in our place. That’s comfort and joy. The way we know if God is with us is by holding him closest to our sin, not just our problems. God is with us in a bloody Jesus or He is not with us at all.
Now that I’m a father myself, I see new illustrations of the gospel in my own children. But they don’t involve stuffed animals. When one of my twins hurts themselves, they inevitably start searching for Daddy, not their toys. And when I find their boo-boo, I ask if they want Daddy to kiss it. When they quickly nod their heads, I kiss their bruised skin, and they almost instantly stop crying. They honestly believe that Daddy’s lips healed their pain. And while that may sound funny to adults, the reason is fairly simple: their love and their trust and their hope in Daddy is bigger than their pain. After coming to me with their hurt and their confusion, they finally know that Daddy is with them.
Our Heavenly Father asks nothing less of his sinful children. The God who calls us into a relationship with Him in Christ is the same God who stands in judgment over our sin. And it’s only when we know the peace of Jesus’s blood that we can celebrate the comfort of Jesus’s birth. Merry Christmas. Let God be with you in Christ.