What Only God Can Do [Part 1: God With Us]

They shall call his name Immanuel, which means God with us. Matthew 1:23 People who believe the gospel do so at two levels. At one level, when the gospel says that God is with us, we believe it. We read verse 23, “They shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God with us,” and we believe that. We’ve crossed a line. We’ve entered in. And we’re glad of it. At another level, let’s also admit that sometimes it isn’t easy to believe the assurances of the gospel. The Bible says here that, when Jesus was born, God came nearer than ever before, that we finally knew for sure that God is with us. We might think, “Really? Sometimes I feel like God is far away, uncaring, uninvolved.” The Bible says many things we don’t fully believe. It says, for example, that all things work together for our good (Romans 8:28). We might think, “Most things, okay. But all things are actively, constantly advancing my good? Really?” The Bible also says, for example, that we are so included now, so accepted, so drawn in by God’s grace that we are now “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:30) and that our lives are now written into his life, his death, his resurrection. So we’re no longer stuck inside our own backgrounds, no longer limited to our own potential. We are now ensphered within all the grace that Christ is for us. But we might think, “I don’t feel relocated. I don’t even know how to connect with that.” The Bible can be hard to believe not because it’s cheap and small but because it’s huge and audacious. Even the terrifying parts of the Bible, like the teachings about hell, are, for the believer in Jesus, God’s way of saying, “Here’s how much I’ve rescued you from.” God’s grace can be hard to believe because it includes massive realities we never would have thought of. So sometimes we’re like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Can’t we all admit to that? Those of us who don’t believe might believe more than we realize, and those of us who do believe don’t believe as much as we should. Is there a single one of us who doesn’t need God’s help with our unbelief? Wouldn’t it be great to get free of everything that holds us back and run like the wind with God? He says here that, in Jesus, he is with us. It is the message of Christmas. It’s what only God can do. We love one another. But we just can’t be everything for one another all the time. But the Bible is saying here that God is our personal ninja at every level at every moment. In fact, it gets better. At the other end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus himself says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). There is no limit to God being with us. How can we move toward believing that with a whole heart? There is a way. Let’s think it through. What does it mean that God is with us? “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which means, God with us. Matthew 1:23 Seven hundred years before Jesus, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said there would be a miracle birth, a son, the Messiah. The ancient prophecy said that in this boy God himself would come down and prove to us that he hadn’t forsaken us but was with us. God himself would be with us in the sense that he goes with us, into the battles we face, as our own Special Forces Navy Seal Green Beret. For example, the apostle Paul was put on trial before Caesar in Rome. And he told us what happened there: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. . . . But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me” (2 Timothy 4:16-17). This is Christianity. In Jesus, God came down to be with us when everything else is against us – especially our own sins. The ancient prophecy, therefore, helps us to see that everything about Jesus comes to one focal point of meaning in these three simple words: God with us. That is what we can expect of him. That is his commitment to us. It’s what only God can do. That message really matters around here. Immanuel is our name, our identity. From the start, all we’ve wanted was to be living proof of what only God can do. And the best things about Immanuel Church we did not mastermind. We stumbled into them. From the beginning we’ve been led into green pastures and beside still waters we didn’t even know existed until we got there, because God is with us, for his glory alone. Barbara Parrish, one of our founding members, said to me recently, “I witnessed it. I participated in it. But I can’t explain it.” Exactly. So this morning let’s take this great Christmas assurance one word at a time and think it through and enjoy it and see the difference it makes for people like us who don’t always believe it. Three words: God, with, us. First, God is with us. So who is God? Maybe the best definition of God ever stated by man comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648. It goes like this: Q. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. That is the one who is with us – no one less than God, for all that he’s worth. His spirituality making him unlimited. Eternal because he was here first and he’s never going away. Unchangeable and never moody or erratic. And all that he is, he is with all that he is, in his being. Smarter than all of us put together. Powerful in such a way as to be incapable of fatigue or depletion or reluctance. Holy and pure and unmixed with no dark side we have to placate. Just in all his thoughts and ways with no bias or spin. So simply good that there is nothing in him we need to filter out or worry about. Finally, true, honest, realistic, straightforward to the point of being blunt but without being rude. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. That’s who is with us. We start out each day feeling that everything in our lives is bigger than God. We treat God as a vague theory rather than a relevant resource. One time Martin Luther was going on and on in despondency about his own life. So his wife Katherine put on a black dress, as if she were in mourning. He asked her, “So who died?” She said, “God, apparently. I’m just joining you in mourning his death.” That helped Luther. It helps us. The coming of Jesus into this world at that first Christmas had one clear and permanent message: No one less than God is with us. Let’s correct our dark and small thoughts of God. The Bible says, “And I saw a great white throne, and God was seated on it, and earth and sky fled from his presence” (Revelation 20:11). The most formidable person in the universe chose to come down as a baby, vulnerable to the point of suffering and death, in order to reach out to us in a non-threatening way we could accept. He reaches out to us still, with all that he is. Think of the names of God in the Bible: Yahweh, the one who is near; El Shaddai, the Almighty; El Elyon, the Most High; Adonai, Master; El Olam, the Everlasting God; El Qanna, the Jealous God; Jehovah Jireh, the Lord will provide; Jehovah Sebaoth, the Lord of Armies; Jehovah Ropheka, the Lord who heals you; Jehovah Tsidkenu, the Lord our righteousness, and more. Think of the images of God in the Bible: king, shepherd, warrior, rock, refuge, shield, father, maker, judge, lawgiver, comforter, savior, lion, lamb, and many more. Think of the attributes of God in the Bible: living, powerful, shrewd, just, merciful, pure, honest, faithful, joyful, patient, rich, sovereign, kind, and above all, loving. God has made himself knowable. Why? So that we can get past our own vague notions that don’t help us. God is knowable, not because we figured him out but because he revealed himself clearly, so that we can be sure of him. Let’s not settle for the idols of our own thoughts and fears. Let’s stretch our minds out to the grandeur of who this is who is with us. Second, God is with us. There is not one moment when his eye is off us or his attention distracted from us or his heart weary of us. There is not one moment when his care for us hesitates. He hears our cry. He sees our need. He knows our sin. And he is with us in it all. At the cross God did abandon his Son, so that he would never abandon us. A Savior who is with us at all times, except when we sin, a Savior who says to us, “I’m with you, as long as you stay perfect,” is no Savior for us! But verse 21 says, “He will save his people from their sins.” It does not say, “He will save his people from being sinners.” It is sinners to whom he gives himself forever. And if God is with you in such faithfulness it starts looking like dogged tenacity, if God is with you in such steady commitment that in anyone else it would seem foolhardy – if God is with you that much, who can finally be against you? Not even you. God is so with us, he gets personally involved. Every time I see the word “himself” in the Bible, when it refers to God, I perk up. For example: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). God does this himself. He might recruit some angels to help out. But God himself, God personally and directly, enters into your struggle as his struggle. Here are some more “himself” verses: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). “The Lord himself will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). God is so with us, he could not be more personally involved. Third, God is with us. It’s amazing, but true. We matter to God. God treasures us. God rejoices over us, for Jesus’ sake. He came down into this world to be with us, and he’s with us today. He’s not just with me; he’s with us. He’s not just with big important people; he’s with us. He’s not just with cool people; he’s with us. And he promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). How can we believe this more? One approach to growing in faith that doesn’t work is to try to make ourselves believe. Will-power cannot create belief. It can only intensify our frustration. We cannot make ourselves believe things we suspect aren’t real. Nor should we try. It’s unfair to God, and it fails us. Another approach to growing in faith that works to a degree, but cannot completely close the gap, is amassing evidences in favor of faith. I’m talking about historical and archaeological evidences, logical and philosophical evidences, and so forth. There are good and sufficient reasons to believe the whole gospel of Jesus. And we can stack all those reasons up. We can do the research and read the books and tally up the facts and arguments that favor belief in Christianity. And that does help. It’s worth a lot. God wants to satisfy our minds. But here’s the problem with evidences. You just never know what contrary evidences are going to show up too. For every reason to believe today, tomorrow might present some new reason not to believe that we hadn’t thought of before. So evidences, while important and helpful, don’t have finality built into them. And the buffetings of real life demand of us finality and commitment. For example, when we come to die. But the scientific method, the inductive method, must stay open to new data. So it cannot be conclusive. Evidences help, but only so far. There will always be one more question, one more blank to fill in. Meanwhile, life keeps happening, and we need God. The best way to grow in faith is not willpower or evidences but imagining. When we’re stuck in unbelief, and we’re not sure what to think, and we could go one way or the other, here’s what we can do. We can ask imagining questions like, But what if the gospel is true? What if God really is with us in Jesus? What if all my dark thoughts of God and my suspicions about God are unreal and unfair to God? What if God really is my ally and not my enemy? What if every assurance in the gospel is literally true, and true for me, right there, right now, today? What if I am, in fact, surrounded by the love and care and mercy of God, especially when I least deserve him? So let’s say it’s all actually true. What difference would it make in my life? It’s helpful to think that through. So why not take out your journal or turn on your computer and for fifteen minutes sit there and imagine, with sustained thought, how the new reality of the gospel changes your old reality? Jot it down. Make a list. Even in my unbelief, I can imagine how the reality of Jesus would free me here, how it would give me confidence there, how I could let go of this and make peace with that, and how I could face my future unafraid, and so forth. If God is with us, the dominoes start falling over in all directions. So, could we paint the picture in our minds of what it looks like if the gospel is completely true? This helpful and hopeful way of thinking reminds me of something my dad said: Always begin your thinking and your planning and your deciding from the standpoint of Jesus’ fullness in your life. Always begin with the plenty of God. Face life with all you have in Christ. Never face life from the standpoint of all the problems and all the needs and all the difficulties. Always begin with your standing in Christ. You have rivers of living water, Christ in you, fullness of grace and truth. That big gospel is easier to believe than a small gospel. Why? Because real belief is like falling in love. Faith in Jesus is scientific to a small degree, but romantic to a huge degree. When you fall in love with someone, you aren’t scrutinizing your beloved in case they make one false move. Love has gotten you past that. You don’t know what the future holds, but you don’t care, because all you want is the one you love forever, whatever happens. Love trusts. Love believes. Love gets past hesitation and closes the deal with a glad definiteness. Which by the way, is why God judges unbelief. Unbelief is hostility. It’s a stand-off-ish hostility at the core of our beings. Unbelief treats God as an enemy we must suspect, rather than a Lover we can embrace. It’s why unbelief is a sin to repent of. When that man said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” he was praying repentance. He was turning the tables on himself. He wasn’t doubting Jesus; he was doubting himself. He knew enough of Jesus to come to him for help, but not enough of Jesus to be certain of him, and he realized that the gap between hoping Jesus might help and fearing Jesus might let him down – the man realized Jesus could help him close that gap. The one we offend by our suspicions is also the one who can help us get past them. Have you ever prayed, “Help my unbelief. Help me get past my doubts. Help me become decisive for you, since you are decisive for me”? He’ll answer that prayer. Only he can. God being with us in our unbelief so that we start believing – that too is what only God can do. Why notdecide to treat God as real and present? What would we lose if we stopped treating him as a theory and started treating him as a reality, right here, right now, where it counts for every one of us? The Bible says he is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). That’s Jesus. When we take him straight, full-strength, well, among other things, that’s when Christmas becomes a celebration. May we all turn to God right now and pray, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”