“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”

-Matthew 1:23

Immanuel, God with us, epitomizes the Christmas season and carries certain implications which we could summarize in the following respects: Firstly, God has come near us not to condemn, but rather to be condemned for our sins. We understand this as a fitting contrast to Genesis 3:8 (and they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden…and they hid). As well, we can see in this a foreshadowing of the blessed future state John prophesies in Revelation 21:3. We have also heard encouragement to consider that the Incarnation means God has confirmed his commitment to literally be with us through every trial, every difficulty, every storm, etc. Finally, we ought to take comfort in knowing that God refuses to leave us alone though we refuse to improve. In other words, we cannot sin Him out of our lives.

These are all good reasons to celebrate God’s gracious invasion into a dark world filled with law, checks and balances, death, and condemnation. But there’s something we rarely consider that I think gets at the root of our anxiety. We are all tired and depressed not so much because of sin (whether sin we commit…or sin committed against us). Life feels heavy not so much because of external things we suffer in this life, but because of our addiction to work and working. We don’t see this….and most preaching doesn’t address this.

As Immanuel, God gives us His presence to comfort us in the storm, console us when we fail, and confirm that we are His kids when we feel the sting of accusation. However, if I may be honest, I seldom find comfort in knowing that the omnipotent God who can do something about my broken and painful circumstances simply resigns Himself to…be with me in it. I know it should be enough…but in actuality, it rarely ever is. When my vessel is being tossed about on the waves (see Mark 6:45-52), I’m supposed to ‘be of good cheer’ and be genuinely relieved that ‘it is Jesus’ and that He’s just…here. But really, I want God to fix my situation. I’m not spiritual enough to not want reciprocation in my relationships…though the gospel should be sufficient. I’m not holy enough to not want Jesus AND a life that feels like it’s on an even keel…all the time. I’m not so sanctified that I would rather have Jesus than silver, gold, or an increasingly improving life. I hate to say it, but I can identify with the impenitent thief on the cross… ”If you’re God’s Son…get us out of this mess…that’s actually our fault!”

God is with me to faithfully forgive my sins…but I’m frustrated because I can’t figure out why I keep sinning in the first place. Why is it that, though He keeps forgiving me, I can’t in light of that stop sinning? Why can’t I live in proportion to the grace He has given me? What good is forgiveness of sins without the power to not sin anymore? I don’t want to keep sinning. I want to love God. I want to sacrificially love my wife. I want to give my full undivided attention to my children all the time. And I must.

Yes, God loves us even if we don’t get any better…but really, this isn’t the full picture of good news. My conscience afflicts me every time I sin. We were created to have our joy established in being obedient to God — we can confirm this in both the Old and New Testaments (consider John 13:17). Yes, life is conditional, and God has not relaxed or diluted the conditions “one iota.” I actually do want to get better and therefore find little relief in a God who is with me in spite of my sin. I actually do want to change and therefore feel indifferent about a God who will unconditionally love me…I need God’s love to be conditional. I need God to love me ‘because’ of a legal, objective reason and not ‘just because.’ Why am I like this?

Because the mechanisms driving my sin are work, self-salvation projects, and self-justification factories… When I see this, I can begin to find some peace in the midst of this mess.

As Immanuel, God has given God with us — and validly for all the aforementioned reasons. He has also given ‘God MAN’ with us…or rather God Man FOR us. God has given us a human who was rightly vertically related to God His entire life…as our inheritance (Mark 1:10-13). God has given us the record of the One whose work never bore the slightest hint of self-justification. Unlike us in our attempts at pleasing God in the flesh, He was able to keep the law without using it to climb upward to grasp at God’s righteousness (Phil 2:6-7).

Our New Years’ resolutions are always a means of trying to attain the righteousness of God by way of our self-reflexive striving. Thankfully, though, God has not burdened us with the need to resolve to do anything in order to get it right. He has blessed us with an eternal record that says, ‘got it right.’ He has liberated us by virtue of the One who resolved and followed through with meeting all the goals and expectations for us. In Christ, God has given us ‘perfect devotion to God.’

As we begin 2018, we will almost certainly carry over last year’s strained relationships, unfulfilled goals, disappointments, past hurts, etc…but we will also carry with us everything we need for life and godliness…i.e. the power of the One who lived a life of godliness in our place. Though we will definitely carry unresolved baggage to the grave, we will also carry the works of Christ done in us and through us as though they were our own. Happy New Year. You’re free.