Can you imagine a world without signs? No “No Standing” signs – that might be good. No “Stop” signs. That might be disastrous. No “Exit” signs. No “No Smoking” signs. No “One Way” signs! Not so good. Our world couldn’t operate without signs could it? But tonight I want us to think about one particular sign – perhaps it was a warning sign; or was it a sign of hope? This sign was announced by Isaiah some 700 years before it actually appeared. The sign was this: a virgin shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
This is not just any virgin, nor any child. This is the child whose birth we celebrate today: Jesus the son of Mary.
And it isn’t just the birth that’s the sign. More important than the birth itself is the name that he’s to be given: Immanuel. In Hebrew the name means “God with us”. Here is a sign that’s full of meaning.
You know, the church year can be a useful tool for remembering and celebrating. You probably know that we’ve just been through the season of Advent. There are no doubt some here who’ve had an Advent calendar on the wall or the fridge and have opened a panel each day for the last 4 weeks as we’ve counted down the days until Christmas. We often think of Advent as looking back to Jesus first coming and looking forward to his second coming but that misses something of the significance of the season. You see advent means “He comes.” Not he came or he will come, but he comes; present tense; right now. God comes and takes up residence among us. That sign that Isaiah gave us says the same thing. God is with us. Not he was with us or will be with us. No, God is with us.
If I were to ask you what your image of God is, I wonder what you’d say. Is it a God who’s remote, sitting up in the clouds looking down on us from afar? Is it a God who lets us do our own thing without interfering; who doesn’t seem to get involved with human history anymore? Is it a God who sits on the judgement seat waiting for us to appear for the final judgement? Is it a God who sees everything we do? Is it a God who’s sits in unapproachable light? Who is so righteous that nothing impure can come into his presence?
Apart from the bit about the clouds and God not interfering in history, all those descriptions are correct to some extent. Yet they’re not the whole truth are they? Why? Because the incredible has happened: God has turned all of that upside down by sending his own son to be born as a child and to dwell among us. No longer is God remote from us. He’s taken on human flesh and shown us his glory in a form that we can actually take it in. God is so gracious towards us that he takes the initiative in bringing us back into relationship with him.
But then in the process things for us have changed. If God has come among us; if God is with us, every day, hour by hour, then we too need to change. And again, God enables that change. He sends his Holy Spirit to be with us, not just as a companion but as a life force within us that begins to transform us to be more like him. John puts it like this in John 1: “12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” It’s like we’re born afresh, filled with God’s Spirit and remade in his image – as we were meant to be.
So our lives are different from that moment forward. Now we walk through life expecting God to be present, acting as though he’s with us at every moment and that in itself changes how we behave – or it should at any rate.
But there’s more than us that changes. Mary expresses this in her song of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” With God’s coming among us the old standards of greatness are reversed. The lowly peasant girl becomes the mother of God’s son. She’s lifted up to the highest status in God’s world. Then she says: “51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The way we expect things to work in this world are now shown to be false; human constructs that are at odds with God’s view of the world. I like the old translation: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” You know the sort: They’re a legend in their own mind? They imagine that they’re the greatest and then get upset when the world doesn’t fit in with their plans? They think they can get away with anything and sometimes they do for a while, but in the end they all come to an end.
Jesus talked about those who make a big thing of praying in public or fasting in an obvious way: he said they have received their reward in full. But he said his followers would receive God’s reward in secret.
We live in a world where there’s a pecking order for everything. There’s a hierarchy that determines who matters and who doesn’t; who gets the cream and who waits until everyone else has eaten before sitting down to the leftovers.
Sadly this is even the case in the church in many places. The higher up the chain of command you go the more privileges you have. But it’s not the way it should be. Jesus’ coming among us as a baby born to an insignificant peasant girl is the sign that things have changed.
The powerful are thrown down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. It’s a radical picture, isn’t it? It sounds like something out of the Communist Manifesto. Unfortunately the Communist revolution may have thrown down the powerful from their thrones but it simply put others in the same position.
In fact we won’t see that picture appearing much in our world will we? People love power too much. But here’s the thing. We Christians can start to make a difference in our own area of influence. God has drawn the outline. Now it’s up to us to fill in the detail. You see, “God is with us” is in fact a rallying cry to radical action. God with us means equally that we’re with God. So, what we do matters. We could ignore his presence and go through life as if nothing had changed. We could follow the rest of the world in applauding the rich and famous and ignoring the lowly; or we can take seriously the things that God thinks are important. We can offer kindness and support to the homeless, to the asylum seeker, to the single parents in our midst who are doing it so hard. We can give more credit to the quiet people who humbly go about serving God without looking for praise. We can give recognition to the little people who contribute so much to our life together.
We can refuse to be swayed by the voices of the popular media that want to persuade us to put things other than God’s wishes at the top of our priorities.
As you sit down to your Christmas dinner this year I’d like to suggest that you stop for just a moment to reflect on the fact that it isn’t just your family or friends (or your cat or dog) that you’re sitting with: that God is here with us right now. He may not be visible among us but he is here nevertheless, sharing our fellowship, speaking to us through his Holy Spirit within us. And may that make your Christmas celebration all the richer and your joy even greater.