I saw my daughter for the first time the day before Christmas Eve in 1992. And she hadn’t even been born yet. I was eight weeks pregnant as my husband and I focused our eyes on the ultrasound screen, hoping for a glimpse of our first child. Suddenly, my husband shrieked, “There’s Little Baby! That’s our baby, honey! Incredible!” The screen became blurry as my eyes filled with tears. Barely an inch long, her little heart was beating strong inside her chest. With arm buds and leg buds, she appeared to perform the cha-cha as we both laughed and cried.
Having my pregnancy confirmed at Christmastime filled my mind with new insights. I’ve often thought about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and what it must have been like for her. Not only was she pregnant with her first child; she was pregnant with the Son of God—a Child whose name was given 700 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel ” (Isaiah 7:14, NKJV; emphasis added).*
God with us
To many people today, the name Immanuel doesn’t have any particular significance. But to the Hebrew-speaking people in Isaiah’s time, it meant everything. They knew that this name meant “God with us.” And that’s what the universe had been waiting for ever since sin first entered the world! The day that Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and had to leave the Garden of Eden, humankind lost its daily, face-to-face communication with Him. And the more time went on, the greater our separation became. Almost immediately, selfishness, jealousy, hatred, murder, lying, adultery, and the worship of false gods became the norm—driving a wedge between God and us.
One of my college theology professors told a memorable story that clearly illustrates this separation. An elderly couple was driving to church. The husband was sitting behind the wheel, while his wife was sitting way over next to the passenger door, with a wide empty space between them. The wife looked longingly at her husband and said, “Remember when we used to sit side by side in the car, all snuggled up close to each other?”
There was a moment of silence. Then the husband turned to his wife and replied, “Dear, I haven’t moved.”
And so it is with God and us. He didn’t move. We did. Yet He was the One who took that first step to close the vast gap that sin caused. Since we couldn’t go to Him in heaven, He came to earth as a baby. Hundreds of years after Isaiah’s prophecy, we hear it repeated in Matthew 1:23, “ ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’ ” (NKJV).
I’m sure it must have been extremely difficult for Mary to travel to Bethlehem being full-term pregnant. But the greater journey to Bethlehem was the one made by Jesus Himself. He was traveling not just to a strange city but to a foreign world!
I’ve been on a few mission trips where I thought we had it rough because we didn’t have warm showers, flush toilets, bug-free rooms, and electricity on demand. But think of what it must have been like for Jesus to go on His “mission trip” to this earth. He left the companionship of God the Father to befriend mere humans. He left communication with the angels to live side by side with liars, prostitutes, drunkards, and criminals. He left the peace of heaven to come to a world of anger, fighting, and wars. He left the purity of heaven to come to a place of filth, death, and decay. But He came. And the wonder of it all is that He chose to come.
the greatest gift
I remember another Christmas Eve that wasn’t as pleasant as the one in which my husband and I told our families we were expecting. I was home from college on vacation. My family was gathered around the tree and about to open presents when the phone rang. It was the hospital calling for Dad, the pastor. A teenage girl who sometimes visited his church had unsuccessfully attempted suicide and was now asking to see him. Dad invited me along to help. On the way to the hospital, I asked myself, “Why? Why at Christmas? What was so unbearable in her life that she chose this time of year—a time when we celebrate Jesus’ life—to end hers?”
I walked into her room, not knowing quite what to expect. Seeing both her wrists in bandages made me feel weak in the knees. But I sat down by her bed, took her hand in mine, and listened. She told me how helpless and alone she’d felt. Most of all, she felt hopeless. I was so glad to be able to look her in the eye and share with her the Reason for hope amid the darkness of her world.
I remember thinking on the way home, She didn’t even know that help had already arrived! It had arrived two thousand years ago in the form of a Baby in a Bethlehem manger. This is how the Bible describes that Helper: “For to us a child is born. . . . And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
I wish she’d realized before her private day of doom just how much Jesus had to offer her. And if your own world is full of trouble this holiday season, the gift of Immanuel—God with us—offers you the same hope. Here’s what He longs to be to you:
Wonderful Counselor. Do you have a problem? Do you need someone to talk to? Jesus isn’t just any counselor—He’s the Wonderful Counselor. His words throughout the Bible are full of guidance, answers, and comfort. And He’ll listen when you talk to Him. Even with the weight of the whole world on His shoulders, He isn’t too busy for you. “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
Mighty God. Do you need to be rescued? Do you feel weak? There’s good news! You have a Mighty God who will come to your rescue. He’s strong, and He’s able. He fears no one. And nothing is too big for Him. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said. “But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Everlasting Father. If your dad is physically or emotionally absent, Jesus wants to be your Everlasting Father. This means He’ll be there for you forever. Your earthly father may disappoint you, but your heavenly Father will not. He’s everything you’ve ever wanted in a Father. He said, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).
Prince of Peace. If you’re worried, confused, or carrying a heavy load, He’ll give you peace. He’s the Prince of Peace. He’ll give it to you through His words as you search the Bible and as you talk to Him about whatever troubles you’re experiencing. Shortly before His crucifixion, He said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. . . . Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
Someone who understands
When we humans choose not to have God with us, we feel a void. And so we search for other things to fill that space: addictions, wealth, shallow romances, parties, and careers. But this Christmas, you don’t have to feel empty. God has given you a gift. His name is Immanuel, and He is with you.
When we realize that Jesus is Immanuel—God with us—we can no longer say, “No one understands how I feel,” because He does. He really does. He’s been here and experienced life as we have. Isaiah 53:3 says that “he was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.”
When Jesus was on earth, He experienced being tempted, judged, ridiculed, laughed at, and gossiped about. He was hurt by others, both physically and emotionally. He grieved to the point of weeping at the grave of His friend Lazarus. He was lonely in the Garden of Gethsemane when the disciples fell asleep.
So, this Christmas, along with the tree and the tinsel, the cookies and the caroling, the presents and the pie, remember the One named Immanuel. Remember the One who made the long journey from heaven’s vastness to the little town of Bethlehem and what His remarkable journey means to you personally. Whether your Christmas will be a wonderful time of plenty with family and friends or a time of great disappointment—the loss of a house, a job, a loved one, a marriage, a reputation, a friendship, or a bank account—in the middle of it all, you can celebrate. Celebrate the fact that you’ve been given the greatest gift of all: Immanuel, God with us; Immanuel—God with you.
* Bible verses marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Nancy Canwell is associate pastor of the Milton and Blue Mountain Valley-Mission churches in Washington State, USA. She is an occasional contributor to Signs of the Times.®