God has always found a way to dwell with his people, and Jesus is the culmination of that. We read in John 1 that The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christmas is a celebration of a holy God coming to dwell with his sinful people, inhabiting the creation he spoke into existence, and ultimately taking the full consequences of the sin that his creatures committed. Thus, this baby we sing about was born to die. It’s sort of morbid if you think about it, we talk about a baby being born to die during the celebration of his birth. Think about that if we talked about how someone would die during their birthday celebration!
But here we are, talking about an innocent baby born to die. The reality is that the truth of Emmanuel is all tied up in that. God to come down to do something about the curse. He had to deal with death and suffering and sin. That’s why Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth includes these two truths in the same breath…Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus (Joshuah, Yahweh Saves), because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel which is translated “God is with us.”
So we see that Jesus’ names even tie in his purpose, to save people from their sins by being with them. This goes back to the garden where God walked with Adam and Eve and had fellowship with them. This of course was broken in their sin, but God didn’t give up. In Genesis 15 God promises Abraham that “I Will be with you, your shield before you” after God had made all these grand promisees to him.
When we see Abraham’s children at the foot of Mt. Sinai we still see God’s desire to be with his people. The law was a health and wellness manual for sinners dwelling with the holy creator in their camp. God said that they would be his people and he would be their God and dwell with them, but this is what it was to look like. Then there was the temple, the beautiful dwelling place of God where the nations could gather to worship, but God’s presence would only stay if the people obeyed. And as we know, they didn’t.
In Ezekiel we see the shikinah glory of God leaving the temple as the people were taken to exile.
But God wasn’t done, and after 400 years of silence, John’s Gospel proclaims, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. This is about the intangible becoming tangible, of the impossible becoming marvelously possible. It’s surprising, but in a sense it shouldn’t be should it? God has always desired to dwell with his people, but his people have always taken it for granted. This great decent into our broken and sinful world was the greatest sacrifice. C.S. Lewis puts it this way…
In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity . . . down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He has created.C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 112, 115-17.
But He goes down to come up again and bring the ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders….certainly no seed ever fell from so fair a tree into so dark and cold a soil as would furnish more than a faint analogy to this huge descent and re-ascension in which God dredged the oozy bottom of Creation.
This is Jesus, named because he will save us from our greatest enemy. This is Emmanuel, because to save us from our sins he had to become like us. Hebrews 2:17-18 says Therefore, he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Paul says, “What the law could not do since it was weakened by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering.
It may be no clearer than in Mark 15 when Jesus cries out “MY GOD MY GOD WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME”, we see him quoting a Psalm of lament there, taking up, as the Messiah, all the lament of his people before him who were in exile who surely cried those words, and all those after. He Cries out for God, but where is God? The presence of God was not behind the curtain to the holy of holies as the shikinah glory, that was obvious when it ripped in two and nothing was there. The presence of God was there on the cross, in the body of the dead Jesus, where the pagan centurion said it was (Truly this Man was the Son of God).
He was forsaken so that you would never have to be. No matter how much suffering you experience, no matter how Godforsaken you feel, Emmanuel occupies that God-forsaken space. God in flesh was Godforsaken so you would never have to be. Yes that level of suffering still exists, it’s a fallen world after all and there is always going to be suffering. But the greatest loneliness, the greatest amount of suffering, which is separation from God, does not have to be felt anymore because of the work of Christ.
Are you relying on that work? Have you given up all other ways of living and striving that lie and tell you that you can have true life, that you can avoid suffering, that you can avoid loneliness? You can’t have any victory over them unless you trust in the one who accomplished that victory because he didn’t stay dead, he rose from that grave in power. After he ascended into heaven he sent us his Spirit, so now all who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for their right standing before God have the Holy Spirit dwelling among them. God is still with us, and we look forward to the day when we hear those words from Revelation 21, God’s dwelling is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.
This is where God’s grand plan of salvation is going, and central to that plan, the ultimate goal of that plan, is his desire to glorify himself by dwelling with us.