A Long Expectation
God’s glorious and protective presence over the nation of Israel is a marvelous wonder strewn throughout the pages of the Old Testament. He walked with Adam and Eve in the midst of the Garden of Eden. He moved in power to deliver the Israelites from their slavery to Egypt. He guided them from the foot of Sinai to the cusp of the Promised Land. And He descended upon Solomon’s temple in fire and cloud to display His lasting presence with His people.
But it didn’t take long for this climax to descend to its nadir. Before Babylon destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BC, the prophet Ezekiel saw the same cloud of glory rise up and leave the temple, moving its way off toward the eastern horizon (Ezekiel 10-11). Though Israel would eventually return from their exile, the closing of the Old Testament yields a centuries-long period of silence. No prophets, no word from God. Just the shattered pieces of a broken covenant and the continued trampling of foreign empires through the Promised Land with the echoes of a distant promise of restoration. A once-kindled hope flickers and fades as darkness falls over Israel.
As we step into this Christmas season, reminding ourselves of this circumstance draws us into the longing of Israel as she awaited her Messiah. The departure of God’s glory would open a chasm that could only be bridged by the shoot springing from the stump of Jesse (Is. 11:1). We sing along in a minor key the words of the ancient hymn:
O come, o come, Immanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear
With Old Testament Israel, we look at our sinful state and realize that only God can save us.
A Dramatic Inbreaking
We enter into this dreary silence with Matthew as he writes, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” (Mt. 1:18). In the darkest night, a ray of hope has shone forth and this hope has a name: Jesus, “God saves.” A light is kindled, not from the pillar of fire in the wilderness or the storms over Sinai, but in the miracle of the eternal Son of God humbling himself to take the form of a human. As Isaiah puts it, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:2a, 6).
The mystery of the incarnation stands at the heart of our faith. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” and “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15, 19). “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3a). As Immanuel, God With Us, Jesus is the very presence of God such that He can state, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). The glorious God who walked with Israel throughout its history has now entered into that history and taken center stage. Thus, with the angels that first Christmas, we likewise glory in the revealing of the long-awaited Messiah. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk 2:14) Our Messiah has come!
A Lasting Hope
Matthew beckons us into the reality of God’s enduring presence through Jesus Christ, Immanuel. He bears this name because “he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). These people are the ones who follow Jesus on the path of discipleship (Mt. 4:18-20, 9:9-13, 10:37-39, 16:24). His people obey the Great Commandment (Mt. 22:36-40) and the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20). To these, Jesus promises that He will be in their midst (Mt. 18:20) even until the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). From “God with us” (Mt. 1:23) to “I will be with you always” (Mt. 28:20), the presence of God is emphatically stamped on the Gospel of Matthew from beginning to end.
This is the good news of Christmas and the lasting hope of the disciple of Jesus. The baby named Immanuel broke into the darkness of our sin and despair. He lived a perfect life, died a sinner’s death, and rose again in victory over the grave. He now sits at the Father’s right hand and has given us His Spirit to be our comfort and guide. Like Joseph, who was flummoxed by an unexplainable mystery, let us yet walk in righteous obedience and joy knowing that God is with us and always will be.
Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel Has come to thee, O Israel!