Christmas Eve—it’s finally here. After all the preparation, the hurry, and the scurry, whether the shopping is done or the stockings are hung, Christmas is here. And it’s time for—presents!
Are they waiting under the tree? Maybe more, maybe fewer. Maybe what you want, maybe what you need. Is this what we’re waiting for?
What if we didn’t get any presents this year? Would it still be Christmas? Of course we’d all say yes, right? After all, our gift-giving and gift-receiving are only signs and symbols of the real meaning of Christmas. But Christmas without presents? We’d probably be a bit less than honest if we didn’t admit that we’d be a little disappointed to find no presents at all under the tree, in spite of the fact that for many people in our world, even one present would be special indeed.
Yes, Christmas means presents, to be sure, but the true presence we receive—and the presence we’ve come here this evening to celebrate—is not the plural presents but is indeed quite singular: Oh, it is a present, all right, a gift from God himself of himself: Christmas means God’s presence with us, and
GOD'S GIFT OF HIS PRESENCE IS THE BEST GIFT WE RECEIVE
That is what our text says when Isaiah speaks of the Messiah by the name Immanuel, for this Hebrew word means simply “God with us,” “God is present in our midst.”
Of course, we know that Christmas has something to do with God; indeed, it has everything to do with God. At this time of year, almost everyone will agree with us; even many who would not be considered or who would not want to be considered religious, church-going types, acknowledge the presence of God at Christmas. Chances are they may not have all the facts real clear. Chances are that come next week or next month, they’ll probably be back to their more familiar cry: “Don’t bother me with all that religious stuff and talk about God.” Chances are that whatever joy and happiness they may experience this Christmas will be very short-lived.
Why is it that all the holiday good cheer seems to evaporate so soon afterward? Why is it that all those so concerned about making the world a better place this week will continue to contribute to the world’s problems next week? Why is it that all those who would shout “God bless us, everyone,” may well curse God soon thereafter?
And why is it that even we, who know the true meaning of God’s presence, can at times misunderstand and forget what his presence really means? That is, after all, why the Christian Church spends four weeks preparing for Christmas—not as the world prepares, with shopping and cooking and looking and worry and hurry and scurry, but with four weeks of humble soul-searching, with confession and repentance, with true reflection on what it means to be a sinner in the presence of God.
What if God really did come on Christmas? Oh, I know he already came, born a babe in Bethlehem. But what if he came again: what if God’s real presence were really here, and the end of time had come? Would we be ready, now that Advent is over? How would we react? What would we do with all the presents? How important would they seem now, in the presence of God?
Some would no doubt be disappointed if Christ came today—all those new toys and clothes and no time to enjoy them?
Some might, in fact, be pleased. For many, a holiday is a sad reminder of the loneliness of life, of problems and tensions and worry and fear—and some would just as soon be delivered from this vale of tears.
Most of us, I suspect, would be rather surprised—Christ’s coming in that way is not really what we had in mind when we set out to celebrate Christmas.
Consider our text. King Ahaz was really quite contemporary in his religious thought. He wanted God to be with him, but only on his terms.
Judah was about to be invaded, and the king was concerned. But instead of turning to God and to God’s great promises for comfort, security, and peace, Ahaz took matters into his own hands. God was nice to have around, but to surrender control of our lives and of our salvation to him, well, Ahaz had some serious problems there.
Sure, the king recognized God; he no doubt went to church more often than just the holidays, even observed the holy days. But when he came face-to-face with the effects of sin, with the trouble caused ultimately by his own sinful forsaking and forgetting the one true God— trouble caused by taking God for granted, as Isaiah would put it: “This people . . . honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13), trouble made worse by his failure to look at himself, admit his sin, and turn to God in repentance and faith and trust—then Ahaz did not want any Christmas presence. “I’m in control here. Don’t bother me with all this religious stuff.”
To be sure, he should have known better. He had the word and promises of God. He was the son of the house of David. He was the king—and it’s good to be king! But sometimes knowing gets in the way of needing. Sometimes the power gets in the way of God’s promise. Sometimes even we who should know better forget that this is God’s story, God’s history, God’s salvation, God’s holiday, and God’s holy day.
Isaiah called the king to return to his humble faith, to trust in the trustworthiness of the God of the whole world and indeed of his salvation. But Ahaz thought he had it figured out. Do you know what he actually did? He turned to the power—and to the powers—of this world. He made a deal with the king of Assyria to help him out. And with the king of Assyria came the gods of Assyria. And suddenly his self-assured shrewdness in the ways of the world wrecked his relationship with the God of his salvation.
“Ask for a sign, then,” Isaiah answers, “if that is what you need to turn ba ck to God.” But Ahaz refuses God again. And now Isaiah has some hard words for Ahaz: harsh words about the presence of God, for God would come to Ahaz, whether Ahaz wanted God or not.
And a hard word it is. We tend to think that the presence of God, especially amidst the glow of the Christmas season, is always and only something wonderful, joyful, and peaceful. But you see, the presence of a holy God amidst the world of sinful people should mean judgment, not joy. The presence of God amidst the absence of faith means punishment, not salvation.
Isaiah knew this himself. Just one chapter earlier, he had experienced the very presence of God, and his response was “Woe is me! For I am lost” (6:5). Isaiah knew that a sinful man cannot stand in the presence of God and that the message of God’s Christmas presence could be, even should be, one of judgment, punishment, and fear.
But what kind of Christmas message is this? What happened to peace on earth, goodwill toward men? We don’t want our Christmas stocking filled with coal and switches of sin and judgment.
And yet isn’t that the reason the Christ Child came: to deal with sin and judgment? For here—and here alone—is the true and real essence of Christmas presence: God gave the gift of himself, his own Son, a Savior, to bear the punishment, to receive the judgment, to die for the sins of the world.
This is the message that Isaiah would proclaim to Ahaz and to you and to me! So that in the spirit of Advent repentance, we might consider the effects of sin in our lives, trouble caused by forsaking and forgetting the one true God, trouble caused by taking God for granted, trouble made worse by our failure to look at ourselves and admit our sin.
And then in the spirit of Christmas presence, realize that God has not come to judge and to punish us, but he has come to take that sin-caused death upon himself. God has taken on human flesh—born as a baby, as you and I were, to live amidst a sinful world, as you and I do, to die a death as you and I will. But in the death he died to bear the full punishment of sin that you and I will not. And then he rose victorious into everlasting life so that you and I will too.
Yes, here is God’s Christmas presence, and it is the best gift we receive. It is his Christmas present: the forgiveness of sin, a new life in Christ, a relationship with God. The crib of Christmas leads the Christ Child and the Christians to the cross of Calvary, and he who came forth this day from Mary’s womb would one day come forth victorious from Joseph’s tomb, to give to you and to me, this day and every day, newness of life.
Christ—a Savior—is born! This is God’s Christmas presence, the best gift we can receive. AMEN!