Thomas F. Torrance—Sermon: Immanuel
Matthew 1: 18-25; Revelation 21:1-8
“Behold a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”
What a sharp contrast there is between Christmas, with its lovely carols about the birth of Jesus, and the tense life of our vexed world! That is the baffling incongruity of Christmas which we felt during the war, and which we understand again today. It almost seems out of place to sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.”! But that contrast and that apparent incongruity lie very close to the heart of Christmas, for it was into a world engulfed in darkness and despair that the Son of God was actually born. Indeed, the very coming of Jesus provoked it into fearful savagery, as we see right away in the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem by the command of Herod, who was determined to destroy the new-born King. And yet that was but a portent of even more terrible things to come. For seventy long, bitter years the storm-clouds gathered in darkening intensity over Palestine, and then at last they broke in all their fury upon the Jews, as Jesus Himself had prophesied, when the streets of the Holy City were drenched in blood and Jerusalem was ploughed up like a field. It was right in the midst of those seventy years that Jesus was crucified with wicked hatred, Jesus who was born at Bethlehem to be the Prince of Peace.
What is there about the message of Christmas that makes it speak in such angelic beauty of peace and good-will and yet point straightaway to the frenzied tumult of Jerusalem and the agony of the Cross? What is it that links the birth of Christ with the passion of Christ, and that still makes the tender mercy of God manifested at Bethlehem like fire cast upon the earth?
It is the fact proclaimed by the name Immanuel: God with us. Let us try to understand that.
“God with us” means that in the birth of Jesus Christ God has given Himself wholly to us, in a love that is absolutely unstinting and infinitely lavish. It is God’s utmost self-giving that stopped at nothing. God could do no more than come Himself into our humanity, and give Himself entirely to us—and that is exactly what He has done in Jesus. The sheer extent, the boundless range, of His act of love takes our breath away. “God with us” means that God Almighty insists on sharing His life with us. Far from abandoning us to the fate which we men deserve, God has identified Himself with us. Once and for all He has become one of us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. God has committed Himself to us in such unrestrained love in the birth of Jesus, and in such a way that now He cannot abandon us any more than He can abandon Himself in Jesus Christ.
That is why the birth of Jesus was heralded with such sublime joy among men and angels, for now that God is with us, the whole situation in heaven and earth is entirely altered, and all things are made new. Now that God is actually with us and of us, everything else is assured. Whatever may happen in the future, God’s purpose of love and fellowship and peace with man will all be fulfilled. If God is with us, there is nothing that can prevail against us. If God has given us His own Son in the birth of Jesus, then He has already given us everything, and there is nothing that He will withhold from us. No wonder that the whole host of heaven burst out in praise, as the good tidings were announced to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men.” No wonder Simeon said, when he took the baby Jesus into his arms: “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
The peace of God was assured, but the peace of man with God was yet to be gained. This is where the gift of Christmas takes on a deeper meaning.
“God with us” means God with us sinners in our lost and bankrupt state. Where we have sold ourselves irretrievably into slavery and perdition and are hopelessly broken and damned, God has joined Himself to us. God has refused to let us go. He has insisted on making Himself one of us, and one with us, in order to make our lost cause His very own, and so to restore us to Himself in love. “God with us” means that God is for us; God is on our side; that He has come among us to shoulder our burden, and to rescue us from disaster and doom and to reinstate us as sons of the heavenly Father. That is the meaning of the whole life of Jesus from His birth to His death. It was God taking upon Himself our poor human life in all its wretchedness and need, God living out our human life from beginning to end, in order to redeem it. Think of a son born into a family that has gone down in the world and restoring its fortunes, or of a son recovering the family business from bankruptcy and setting it upon a solid foundation. Those are poor analogies, but they may help us to understand the meaning of the birth of Jesus as the coming of the Son of God into our human family in order to make our lost cause His own and to save it from utter disaster.
Child in the manger
Infant of Mary
Outcast and stanger,
Lord of all!
Child who inherits
All our transgressions,
All our demerits
On Him fall.
Yes, it was on our behalf that Jesus, the Son of God, was born—not for His own sake, but for our sake. It was on our behalf that He humbled Himself to live the life of a human infant, to share our life to the full from its very origin. It was on our behalf that Jesus learned to pray at His mother’s knee, on our behalf that He learned obedience both to His earthly parents and to His heavenly Father, not simply to show us the pattern of true sonship, but to restore our human life to perfect fellowship with our Father who is in Heaven. It was on our behalf that He was tempted in all points as we are. It was on our behalf that He involved Himself so fully in the life of His fellow-men, sharing with sinners their daily bread, and in the midst of it all offering to God a life of perfect obedience where they were disobedient. And it was on our behalf at last that He was obedient even unto death, and in our placed that He meekly submitted to God’s judgment where Jesus from the dead, acknowledging Him as His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased, and accepting in His obedient life and death a sacrifice on our behalf.
Jesus lived a fully human life, but all through that human life it was God who was living it for our sakes that He might reconcile us to Himself and gather our frail human life into union with His divine life. The whole life of Jesus was the life of God with us sinners, God taking our place and doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, God laying hold of our rebellious will, making it His own and bending it back from its disobedience to obedience, form its defiance to love. And so we hear Jesus praying in Gethsemane, “Not my will, but thine be done.”
Let us think of what Christ had to suffer in order to do that. Do we remember the parable He told about the man who planted a vineyard and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country? From time to time he sent his servants back to the vineyard to receive some of the fruit that was due to him, but they were all beaten or stoned or shamefully handled and sent empty away. Then last of all the owner sent His only son, His beloved son, saying, “They will reverence my son”, but when the husbandmen saw the son and heir come to the vineyard, they became even more wicked, and they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard, and took possession of it for themselves. When God is in the far country the conflict between man and God does not seem so sharp, but when God is with us, when the Son of God comes into the midst of our human life, then the conflict between God and man reaches its utmost intensity. That is precisely what happened with the birth of Immanuel. With the coming of the Son of God into our humanity, man’s enmity to God was provoked to its utmost intensity, but Jesus Christ came in order to take that very conflict into his own heart and to bear it in suffering in order to reconcile man to God. He came to penetrate into the innermost life of humanity, into the very heart of its blackest evil in order to make human guilt and sorrow and suffering His own. In pouring out His life upon man in utter compassion and love for him , Jesus uncovered the enmity of sin in its terrible depth in the human heart, and drew it out upon Himself that He might bear it on His Spirit and on His body in holy and awful atonement, and bear it all away for ever.
All that belongs to the meaning of Immanuel, God with us. That is why it is only with eyes that have looked upon the Cross that we can look upon the birth of the infant Jesus at Bethlehem and understand the boundless love of God in giving us His only son to be our Saviour. Now we can understand why they called Him Jesus, for He had come to save His people from their sins. And now too we can really understand why He was born to be the Prince of Peace, for it is through the blood of Christ alone that we have peace with God.
It is because of this that we can really enjoy having God with us, and so enter fully into all the rapturous joys of Christmas, and know that when all the festivities are over the joy remains because the peace in eternal. There are some people for whom Immanuel can only bring anxious and disquieting thoughts at Christmas, for they have not found peace with God. But to those who have, Immanuel contains a prophecy of a day when Christmas will no longer be celebrated against the background of a harsh and troubled world, for there will be a new heaven and a new earth, such as John saw in his vision, when he heard a great voice out of heaven saying: “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne,” that is, Jesus, born to be King at Bethlehem, “said: ‘Behold I make all things new’.”