"God is with us."
The statement fills us with awe. As scientists discover more of how wide and complex the universe is, so the greater becomes our conception of the "God who made the world and everything in it" (Acts 17.24); of the Word about whom it is stated "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being" (John 1.3). In the material world in which we live, God is present. He is "not far from each one of us ", "in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.27,28). His intention is that we should "search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him" (Acts 17.27). These are facts that anybody may take on board as a personal belief. Through history there have been many believers who have discovered, or been told, or proclaimed, that 'God is with us'.
Sometimes the presence of God comes as a surprise, as in the case of Jacob. Opinions differ about Jacob. Was he grasping and selfish? Or was he an enthusiast for the family faith and traditions whose zeal, inspired by his mother, led him to overstep the mark in unfair dealing? However it was, he found himself exiled from his family and running for his life. When he slept he had a vision of the Lord, who stood beside him making a promise. The promise was of the land of Canaan, of a great family, of descendants who would be a blessing to all the families of the earth.... and, "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Genesis 28.13-15). Jacob's waking reaction was "Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it." He took steps to celebrate the place ‑ and he vowed that if all this mind-blowing promise was real, the Lord would be his God. Jacob had found an unexpected Holy Place where God was present to him. But God is not limited to holy places. 'If we lead a life of prayer, God is present everywhere' - not only present, but there to be found, as has been the experience of people through the centuries. Jacob discovered that God would guide and protect him.
Samuel found that He gave confidence in speaking out. "As Samuel grew up the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground" (1 Samuel 3.19). "And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord." This did not mean that Samuel's words were always well received, or acted on. It did not save him from frustrations and disappointments, particularly in the case of King Saul. And there could have been difficulties for the leaders of the people to accept that Samuel was always right! Wherever Samuel went, in the holy place at Shiloh or on journeys throughout the country, the Lord was with him.
The phrase "you are with me" appears in the psalm which revels in the thought of the Lord as our shepherd. The shepherd is present with his flock to find grazing and water, even through dark and fearsome paths at which they might baulk. "I fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me " (Psalm 23.4). The purpose of the rod and staff? To protect from predators, doubtless. To control the flock, also. Sheep are not always docile or obedient, or submissive to wise guidance. And we, like sheep, realise that when the 'Shepherd' is with us, we cannot go our own way, though Jesus in his parable of the lost sheep does tell of the shepherd rescuing us from the consequences of our wayward actions. God with us brings both blessing and restraint.
Jeremiah was another who received the promise "I am with you.... to deliver you, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 1.8). The context is this young prophet being appointed God's messenger, and venturing into the sphere of politics and warfare, in which the very life of a nation can be destroyed. In such a world, life is cheap, and a message may be not only unacceptable to the authorities but dangerous to the messenger. "Do not be afraid of them " the Lord said. But in chapter 20, after Jeremiah has been put in the stocks, we find him saying, "You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it. You were too much for me. And now I'm a public joke. They all poke fun at me.... all I get for my warnings are insults and contempt.... But if I say 'Forget it! No more God - Messages from me', the words are fire in my belly... and I'm worn out trying to hold it in " (Jeremiah 20.7,9 The Message). All the same, Jeremiah still went on to say "The Lord is with me... like a dread warrior" (v.11). The Lord would protect the message and the messenger from those who commit evil, but Jeremiah's experience of God is not entirely comfortable.
A hundred years before Jeremiah, Syria and the northern 10tribe kingdom of Israel had made an alliance against Syrian invaders. They tried to compel Ahaz, King of Judah in Jerusalem, to join them, or else be deposed by force. Ahaz and the people of Judah were in panic. Isaiah the prophet tried to reassure them, told them to trust in God. "Hold God in doubt, you'll not hold out!" When Ahaz refused to ask God for a sign that he could trust in, Isaiah gave him one. He said a girl would have a child, and call him "God with us ". Before the child knew good from bad, their enemies would be out of the picture. It was the way of prophets to give names which had significance, so this name pointed to God being actually with his people, the results of which would appear in the immediately foreseeable future. So much was for Ahaz. But 800 years later the gospel writer picks up the name Immanuel with greater significance. Now, the girl with child is a virgin, and God is 'with us' in a startling new way.
Christian writers have never ceased to marvel that the Word of God should appear on earth as an ordinary child. No fanfares, except for a localised appearance of angels; no recognition, apart from a handful of students of the stars, some working shepherds and a group of elderly Jews in the temple. As far as China or India or Rome was concerned, nothing had happened. When Jesus began the serious work He had come to do, he compared the Kingdom of God to a tiny seed, insignificant. We all know how that seed grew, and how He completed that phase of His work with a death valid to save humanity from their sins. It was His resurrection that got people talking, that news spread. Even so, only 500 or so out of all the world's millions had actually seen Him alive from the dead.
Yet during those few years of His lifetime, God had been with us in a special way. "He that has seen me has seen the Father. " His miracles had been of a piece with the whole work of creation, his teaching embodied a pattern for all human life, and his death had been planned by the sacrificial love of the heavenly Father. When He said goodbye to his disciples he told them, with authority, to make disciples of all nations... "and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age " (Matthew 28.18-20). Through the period of His ministry, Jesus had been with them in person. His Spirit had been with them: now it would be in them (John 14.17). And before them lay a vision for the future: a new heaven and a new earth, the home of God. "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, they will be his people, and God himself will be with them... " (Revelation 21.1,3). This is a time which makes universal the blessings of 'God with us'. The healing and teaching of Christ, the challenge and discipline lived out by Jeremiah and Isaiah, the strong comfort of the Shepherd, the assured success enjoyed by Samuel, the guidance and protection received by Jacob: these blessings are for all.
We, meanwhile, having this optimistic world view, must live our lives in the present time. Learning the lessons of our predecessors in the faith, we trust, and we obey. And the wondrous power which created the universe is focussed for us at the Christmas season in a tiny human child.
Like a candle flame, flickering small in our darkness,
uncreated light shines through infant eyes.
Stars and angels sing, yet the earth sleeps in the shadows.
Can this tiny spark set a world on fire?
Yet His light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing
as we touch the flame of His holy fire.
God is with us, alleluia,
Come to save us,