There is nothing lonelier than the feeling of isolation in the time of year when we are supposed to feel the most connected.
Does anyone here know what I am talking about?
23 years ago, at this time of year I felt that isolation. That night I was walking through the streets of a quaint little ski town in central New Mexico called Ruidoso. In one snow covered, Christmas-y cabin after the next I could see families gathered together, eating a meal or playing games. I can’t begin to describe the loneliness and alienation from the world I felt on that long walk.
That morning I had left my home, not going to school to start my first day of first semester finals but to drive to a drug store to buy a bag full of sleeping pills, pain killers and other chemicals. I drove to Ruidoso to find a mountaintop where I could end my loneliness.
What I didn’t know at the time is that I was not alone that day. I didn’t know my efforts would be thwarted and that in the next year I would discover three words which would turn my life upside down and reorient everything I thought I knew.
Would you like to know those three words?
This morning we are continuing our series Good News of Great Joy, discovering a joy deeper than the surface level feelings promised by our commercial holiday season – a joy warm and bright enough to reach into the darkest places.
Our text this morning is just one verse in Matthew chapter 1.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).
The last three words of this verse are our text this morning. God with us. We could spend years unpacking the meaning wrapped up in these three words.
Before we begin with the text, we may need to take a moment to address another word in this verse. Virgin.
Do we really believe in 2019 that a virgin conception is possible? Isn’t this doctrine of the virgin birth a stubborn holdover from a superstitious and unscientific past?
Here’s what you have to understand – if you think about it, every one believes in a virgin birth. In a poll just in the last decade ¾ of Americans said they believe in the virgin conception of Mary the mother of Jesus. This is the plain teaching of Scripture. It’s there in Matthew and Luke, two independent accounts both written in the first century in the early decades of the church. It’s been the teaching of orthodox Christianity since that day. We believe it and teach in at Vintage.
Not everyone does. It’s likely not everyone in this room does. What’s the alternative? Our modern scientific view of the world tells us that what we see is all there is, that miracles are impossible. A virgin human conception is impossible.
But what alternative does this view provide? If there is no invisible hand in this world, if there are no miracles, how do we explain our existence?
Here’s Stephen Hawking:
“…the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.”
Quintin Smith, a materialist and atheist philosopher wrote:
“The fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing . . . We should . . . acknowledge our foundation in nothingness and feel awe at the marvelous fact that we have a chance to participate briefly in this incredible sunburst that interrupts without reason the reign of non-being.”
We came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing.
So you can reject miracles and instead believe in a supernatural sunburst of existence flashing out of the void of nothingness or you believe in an intelligent hand at work in the cosmos with the power to create something from nothing. Both defy the constraints of human reason in time and space.
A belief in the virgin conception of Christ is no more unreasonable than a belief in the virgin conception of the cosmos. It is not hard to argue that the Christian account of existence is more consistent and has more explanatory power. Now let’s get into that account and our three words.
God with us.
These three simple words have an explosive power to change everything. God with us.
Let’s begin with US.
Us is complicated. We are a complicated species aren’t we? We are capable of profound acts of love and connection, we can be a source of goodness and beauty. At the same time we are just as capable of horrific acts of violence and destruction. We can be Mother Teresa and we can be Hitler.
Listen to how the brilliant French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal described us:
“What kind of freak is man? What a novelty he is, how absurd he is, how chaotic and what a mass of contradictions, and yet what a prodigy! He is judge of all things, yet a feeble worm. He is repository of truth, and yet sinks into such doubt and error. He is the glory and the scum of the universe.”
Glory and scum. In 2019 it’s hard to argue with that, isn’t it?
US is complicated. We are capable of tremendous highs of pleasure and satisfaction and we sink into terribly low valleys of suffering, sorrow and disillusionment.
C. S. Lewis, who was an immensely intelligent philologist and a student of human nature, made this observation about our humanity:
We are creatures of desire. And for every desire we find a corresponding object of our desire. We experience hunger – my oldest teenager currently lives in a constant state of acute hunger – we experience hunger and we have food which satisfies our hunger with the supplies our body needs. We experience thirst and we have fluids for our body. We experience sexual desire and we have in one another the object of our satisfaction. Our desires seem to be almost programmed into us to lead us to the things we need for survival.
But there is a desire underneath these desires that seems to be different. C.S. Lewis describes that desire as joy. We are looking for a happiness that will not end, that cannot be interrupted by pain or disappointment. We long for a permanent joy.
What’s different about this desire for joy is that it never seems to find fulfillment. Our highest moments of joy are just that, moments. They do not last. The thrill of joy is also a pain, the high comes with a stabbing ache in our souls. Have you felt that?
Lewis describes it as
“absence of fulfillment, a deep-seated longing, an awareness of one’s lack, the realization of incompleteness. At times it manifests itself as a tantalizing, fleeting flood of euphoria. At other times it comes as a hollow, painful pang of loss. In either case, Joy is characterized by its elusive, unpredictable, consistently inconsistent nature. It never surfaces on command, and often when one least expects it.”
The French writer André Breton said all of this in a much simpler way “All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.”
What does this desire for joy, this un-nameable yearning in our hearts tell us? In C.S. Lewis’ reasoning, if I find in myself a desire nothing in this world can satisfy, the most logical conclusion is I was made for something beyond this world.
Matthew 1:23 offers us a name for that yearning.
God is different than us. God is complex, but not complicated. He is consistent, He is whole, He is wholly good and right and true. He is the source of all life and beauty. He is our source. He is the only thing weighty enough, consistent enough to satisfy our deepest desires. He is the only thing permanent enough to provide deep joy.
But how do we access that joy? That’s the problem isn’t it? How can flawed, complicated creatures like you and I hope to access the perfect glory of the eternal God?
The Bible gives us such a profound explanation for our experience. We once had access to God. We once walked with Him in perfect communion, in perfect peace. But in one terrible moment we turned from Him in violation of His created order and we began to look for things in this world to base our life upon Him.
Lewis once wrote
“All that we call human history–money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery–[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
This is our predicament. This was my despair that night in 1996. Created for a perfect world, programmed with a desire for true and lasting joy – and yet cut off and alienated from the only thing that can satisfy that desire.
But there’s one more word.
God WITH us.
How did God respond to our rebellion? How does a holy and just God respond to our sin and idolatry and our stubborn insistence on looking everywhere but Him for life?
He enters our world to become one of us. He enters our world to experience our weakness. He enters our world to know our temptations and sorrows and limitations. He enters our world to fulfill all our human potential and live the good and righteous life we should have lived. He enters our world to take on his shoulders all the terror of our collective greed and pride and lust and self-obsession. He enters our world to take all of that onto the cross so that it can receive the just judgment of God – He in our place.
He enters our world to create a bridge through which we can be restored to the source of all life. God with us.
Because of the life of Jesus, we are not alone.
Because of Jesus, our Immanuel, God is with us.
God is with us in our loneliness.
God is with us in our sorrow and grief.
God is with us in the midst of our worst fears.
God is with us in the darkness when we cannot see or feel He is there.
God is with us in moments of fierce temptation
God is with us in our worst moments of sin and failure.
God is with us when everyone else abandons us.
God is with us when the world seems to be spiraling out of control.
God is with us when the storms are raging and the waves are crashing on our heads.
God is with us when the thick darkness of depression descends on our souls.
God is with us in the mind numbing monotony of daily routines
God is with us when the world promises happiness and comes up short.
God is with us when the holidays come with stabbing aches of sorrow and loss.
Some day Jesus will come again and we will see God with us with our own eyes.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
When I discovered these three words – God with us – it changed everything. It named my longing. It gave meaning to my sorrow. It gave hope to my desire. It changed everything. I have never been alone since.
Maybe you’re learning these words for the first time. Maybe you have not yet crossed the bridge to God through Christ. You can do that this morning.
For those of us who have known the joy of God with us, we sometimes drift from that joy, don’t we? We are prone to turn again to created things for our joy. Listen one more time to C.S. Lewis as we close:
“If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy [my desire]…[then] probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.
I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown