As we approach Christmas, most of us anticipate the joy of celebration saying things with great excitement like, “A baby came, a Savior, Christ the Lord!” This is a good thing. Focusing on such truths as the Incarnation, the belief that Jesus came down to earth from His heavenly throne as Emmanuel, or God with us, is worthy of much celebration. All that Jesus did for us, everything from living a perfect life to dying an atoning death and conquering death by His resurrection, is possible only because He first was born to Mary in a barn in Bethlehem. There’s a reason angels were there to announce it. It was big deal.
Although the birth of Jesus was an amazing expression of God’s love and favor shown to His people, it came after a long-endured ache of a people in suppression. The birth of Jesus finally ended the deafening silence where no word from God was heard for over 400 years. The absence of the long-expected Savior must have been unbearable. Many of us are familiar with at least the first verse of the old hymn which begs Emmanuel to come and ransom a captive nation, Israel, which mourned in exile waiting for the Son of God to appear.
There’s a sense that we mourn while in miserable exile here and long for God to appear! Often times we feel angst. Many of us can identify with the question a leader of King David’s choir once asked, “Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?” (Psalm 77:7). We sometimes wonder if He will ever reveal Himself to us again?
In the midst of these feelings, we need to keep the history of God’s people in perspective. Israel began when God called a man named Abram to leave his dwelling (Genesis 12). Essentially, the rest of the Old Testament is about how God revealed Himself to and through His chosen people, who later took the name Israel after Abram’s grandson. Despite the fact that God chose these people as His own and lavished incredible love and blessings on them in very visible ways, even though He gave them great military success and royal renown, they rebelled against Him. They took credit for their success and chased earthly pleasures while worshiping foreign gods. In Ezekiel 16, God compares His rebellious people to an adulterous wife, one who has less dignity than a prostitute. But nonetheless, they are His people and in many places throughout the Old Testament we read about the hope of Savior who is to come. Perhaps the best known of these passages reads:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
There is this deep expectation that even though Israel had walked away from God time and time again, He would send someone to break the back of their oppressors and to sit on the throne of David forever as promised in 2 Samuel 7. But when Jesus finally did come, Romans ruled the world and Judea was ruled by Herod, a puppet king and ruthless man. Before the Romans, the Greeks had ruled over the Jews until the Maccabean revolt gained the Jewish people temporary autonomy. Even before they were unwillingly subdued by these powerful governments, they were exiles in Assyria and Babylon. By the time Jesus is actually born, Isaiah’s prophecy is over 700 years old.
If we had gone through all of that, as the Israelites did, what would we have felt at the time of the Savior’s advent? After having grown up being taught the accounts of how God saved His people from slavery in Egypt, brought them into the promised land and established them as a nation, it must have been difficult for any Israelite to believe God would do it again as they looked around at their hopeless oppression, which had continued for so long. As they cried out for Him to deliver on His promises, He appeared to be nowhere to be found. For those who did believe that the God of their ancestors existed, there must have still been some overwhelming doubt that He would ever show His face again.
Who knows exactly what we would have felt as first century Jews. However, we face a similar crossroad every year at Christmas time. Do we approach this season with more sorrow, anger or confusion than we do joy? Do we wonder if God is ever going to show? Sometimes it’s difficult, but there is hope.
There is hope because Jesus did come once and He said He would come again. There is perhaps a greater hope offered to those who doubt than to those who pretend to have unshakeable faith. The world we live in is extremely broken, and it’s natural to wonder if God still has a plan to save His people. It is only from that lowly position of confused waiting that we can start to grasp the immense glory and beauty of God stepping down into humanity to save His people. God did not sit back from afar and send someone else in to do the work. He came in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus left His place at the right hand of God the Father and became one of us. He was born to an unmarried mother in a barn. His birth is first announced to shepherds, the lowest people in society. God’s great King, the hope of humanity came not to a palace but to a place where hurt and pain was the most real. He came to the most broken of the broken.
No, the hope we have at Christmas isn’t told as some squeaky clean story. It is about God, who promised to save His people, coming into a messed up and wrecked world and personally doing what He promised. He had to start by first becoming one of us.
We can rejoice for our Emmanuel has come to us, the new Israel!