This Scirpture passage focuses on the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary's home in Nazareth with the news that she would conceive and bear the Son of God. Mary had great difficulty comprehending the miracle of a virgin birth, let alone the fact she would bear Him who would be Savior of the world.
In this passage, the announcement of the birth of Jesus is anticipated by the prediction of Isaiah. Just as God would be "in" Mary in the Person of His Son, He would be "with" people as a Man during the years of His public ministry, culminating with His sacrificial death. This message will capture the meaning of Immanuel (God with us).
Nazareth was a tiny village in Galilee. It was so unimportant that it is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament. It rose to prominence only after it was identified as the hometown of Mary and Joseph, and the place where Jesus spent His early years. Located in lower Galilee about halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea, Nazareth had only one spring to supply fresh water for all of its inhabitants. That spring today is called "Mary's well," and we can imagine that Jesus may have gone there to draw water for his family. The Church of the Annunciation stands today over the location where tradition says Mary and Joseph lived. (Source: Holman Bible Dictionary, Broadman & Holman 1991, pp. 1010-1011)
We can imagine the poverty that characterized the population of Nazareth. In the small synagogue the Jewish inhabitants of Nazareth studied the Torah and cherished the promises of a coming Messiah. No doubt Mary had read the predictions of Isaiah many times while growing up. "A virgin shall conceive!" Surely, some young woman of nobility, familiar with the royal palace in Jerusalem, would be God's choice. No matter - just so God's Messiah would come, and come quickly, and rescue His destitute people who languished under the heel of pagan Rome.
Isaiah said that His name would be called Immanuel, which means God with us.O come, O come, Immanuel! surely was the cry that rose continually from the hearts of the people. Each of the three words that comprise the Hebrew translation of Immanuel is significant.
I. GOD with us
Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness. . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them" (Gen. 1:26-27 NIV).
Why did God make man? He did not do so on a whim, suddenly becoming bored with the angelic beings He had created. The angels, seraphim and cherubim are beings under God's total control. They exist to fulfill His wishes, to carry out His commands, and to do His bidding. But He desired a creature with whom He could have a different kind of relationship.
God took great pains in preparing for this new creation. He chose the earth for his staging area, brought light and order out of darkness and chaos, created a Garden of indescribable natural beauty, and then made Adam. He made Adam "complete" by fashioning Eve from Adam's rib.
Yet the real mystery of God's creation of Adam and Eve is that He made them with a moral freedom no other creature He made seemed to have. The freedom of the will would make it possible for them to know and communicate with God at a deeper level. The greatest mystery of all is that God allowed these human beings to choose to love and obey Him, or to reject Him and go their own way.
God became the God of many names. In the beginning He was Elohim, the majestic God of creation. When He came seeking sinful people, He became Yahweh, the God who longs to establish a covenant relationship. When Adam and Eve sinned, God refused to give up on mankind.
II. God WITH Us
In order to expand our understanding of Immanuel, we now shift our focus to the second word: the little preposition with. A preposition connects a noun or a pronoun with another element of the sentence or phrase.
The dictionary states that the word with means alongside of, near to, in the company of, into, among, as an associate or companion, in support of, on the side of. (Source: Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, David B. Guralnik, ed., Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1982, p. 1633)
God is alongside His people. One of the names for the Holy Spirit is Paraclete, which means one who is called alongside another. Jesus told His disciples that when He went away, He would send them another Comforter, who would be alongside them, never to leave them nor forsake them.
God is near to His people. He is so near that He knows what we think, how we think, when we hurt, and when we experience joy and gladness. He knows us completely, what is happening to us moment by moment. Indeed He is Immanuel, which means God [is near to] us.
God is in the company of His people. When God made Adam and Eve, He came every day and walked and talked with them in the Garden. He was in the company of His first man and woman. God longs to be in the company of His people when they assemble to worship Him.
III. God with US
We can imagine God with His angelic and celestial creatures. We can even understand that God would relish being in the midst of His beautiful and flawless creation. But with us? We have inherited Adam's inflated and distorted ego, his determination to do things his way, and his resistance to the laws and commandments of God. Why would God want to be with us?
David asked a similar question in total perplexity and frustration. He wrote:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" (Psalm 8:3-4 NIV).
Human logic cannot fathom the possibility of a relationship between a perfect, all-righteous God and sinful human beings.
We do not know why God continued to love and seek to restore this sinful human race to fellowship with Him. We don't know why God continues to love us, still sinful and disobedient as we are. But we are His children, and He has promised to remain with us to the end of the world (Matthew 28:20). What a glorious truth we have in the name Immanuel - God with us.
Approximately seven miles west of Jerusalem archaeologists have excavated the remains of a village dating back to the time of Christ, which they have identified as Emmaus, the home of Cleopas and his friend (Source: Holman Bible Dictionary, Broadman & Holman 1991, p. 417). As followers of Jesus of Nazareth, they had been to Jerusalem during that tragic Passovers when Jesus was crucified.
They were returning home on the afternoon of the third day after Jesus' death. They did not know that He had risen from the grave, and had appeared to His disciples in a closed and locked room in Jerusalem. They were sad, defeated, and were going home to pick up the broken pieces of their lives. Their hopes had been vested in this Jesus, in His way of life, and in the Gospel He taught. They had believed with all their hearts that He was the Messiah. But He had been brutally crucified by the Romans.
Suddenly, as they walked along under a dark cloud of sorrow and disappointment, the risen Christ appeared and fell into step with them. He was alongside them. He began with the earliest Old Testament Scriptures that prophesied His coming and shared with them all that was promised regarding the Messiah. After He had eaten with them in their home and vanished from their sight, Cleopas and his friend said, "Weren't our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road?" (Luke 24:32)
When the true meaning of Immanuel, God with us strikes home to us, our hearts will burn within us too.
The story behind the song
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel may be the oldest Christmas carol still sung today. The author is unknown, but he is believed to have been a priest or a monk who writing before 800 A.D. He obviously had a rich knowledge of both Old and New Testaments. Because of the universal way in which faith is presented in this carol, it ceased being a hymn sung only in Latin in formal, liturgical churches and was translated into scores of languages and used in most Christian denominations in the world.
Originally the carol contained seven different verses, representing the different biblical views of the Messiah. One verse per day was sung or chanted during the last seven days before Christmas. We have this carol in English today because of the diligent work of John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest born in 1818. While ministering on the Madiera Islands off the northwest coast of Africa, Neale discovered this Latin chant and saw the importance of the carol's message. He translated it into English as Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel.
The tune, Veni Emmanuel, was a fifteenth century processional that originated in Lisbon, Portugal. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel was first published in the 1850s in England. It is a simple, reverent tribute to the birth of Christ and to the fulfillment of God's promise to deliver His children from sin. (Source: Ace Collins, Stories behind the best-loved Songs of Christmas,Zondervan, 2001, pp. 126-131.)
A unique relationship
A young boy stood on the sidewalk beside his home with a little black box in his hand. Several yards down the walk was a small model car. By manipulating the controls on that little box, he was able to make the car race up and down the sidewalk. He could make it stop, turn around, or travel in reverse. Finally, after the car had gone through all of its tricks and maneuvers, the young fellow with the control box brought the car slowly to his feet. That's the way angelic beings are. They are under God's "remote control." Their control center is but an extension of God's thoughts and actions.
When God made human beings, He wanted more than that. So He made us with the capacity to have a unique fellowship with our Creator. God could be with us and we could be with Him in a unique and special way the angels could never experience.
Early Christians in the caves
In Israel there is a series of man-made caves built by the Romans during the first century. They were dug in order to get limestone for building material. They are mammoth caves in size, but of special interest is the fact there are crosses carved in the walls. Christians met there during days of intense and brutal Roman persecution. Yet those believers rejoiced in the knowledge that God was with them, in their company, even as they hid themselves in those deep, dark caves in order to save their lives. Probably at no time did they feel closer to God than during those bleak days when they lived with the prospect of persecution and death because of their faith. Truly, God was Immanuel to them - He was with them in the truest sense of the word.
Additional sermon starters
Celebrating the impossible (Genesis 18:14; Jeremiah 32:17; Romans 4:21)
Just as Mary struggled with the announcement of the angel that she would conceive Jesus without the aid of a human father, so God's people have wrestled from the beginning of time with impossible situations. The three Scripture passages record God's reassuring words to Abraham, to Jeremiah, and words the apostle Paul wrote reaffirming God's dealings with Abraham.
Sharing the inconceivable (2 Corinthians 9:15; 1 Peter 1:8; Psalm 92:1-5)
Informed by the angel of her cousin's pregnancy, we can marvel at Mary's long trip from Nazareth to the home of Zacharias and Elisabeth in Judea. Mary's virgin conception was humanly inconceivable - moreso than Elisabeth's conceiving a child after a lifetime of barrenness. God's dealings with us - from the new birth experience through the daily expressions of His blessings showered upon us - are equally inconceivable miracles of His grace.
Application ideas for life stages or situations
Teach the Next Generation About His Presence. Following the God with us theme, challenge adults to be sensitive to opportunities to share with children and grandchildren what it meant for mankind for God to take on human flesh and live among people, emphasizing that though we cannot enjoy His physical presence with us, we can sense His nearness through the Holy Spirit who indwells us.
Teach the Next Generation About Giving. An awareness of God's continual presence with us can have a profound impact on children and youth as they naturally concentrate on the material aspects of receiving gifts at Christmas. A consciousness of His presence with us can affect our focus on the material emphasis that is so much with us. Youth, idealistic by nature, can be inspired to share with those less fortunate, as God shared His Son with all of us who were without hope in the world.
Creative worship idea
Form a Student Verse Choir. Form a verse choir from among the older youth in the church. The four verses of the title carol, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, can be read by the students to the congregation. Consider having the verse choir read the verses prior to the sermon, inviting the congregation to sing the first verse and chorus after the verse choir has spoken all four verses.