Call Him Immanuel, Call Him Savior (Isaiah 9:6, Matthew 1:18-25)
Christmas is the season of giving. Most people step up their gift buying sometime around Thanksgiving and drive on through Christmas eve. Retailers count on a spending surge before year’s end, and shoppers are happy to oblige. Parking lots are full, traffic is heavy, stores are crowded, websites get overwhelmed, and people get cranky. Everyone is looking for that perfect gift for someone special.
Sometimes we Christians get so caught up in the shopping frenzy that we forget why we give. Well, we know we give because we love the person we’re shopping (or making) for, but why does love mean giving? Here’s a hint: “We love because [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:19). And we give because God first gave to us. So many things! He gave us a beautiful world to live in; the ability to work and earn a living; an abundant food supply; water to drink; the rhythm of the seasons to remind us to use time wisely. Of course, the state of our home depends on us. Whether the water is clean and food is available and the air is clear—those are all up to us as stewards of the earth.
God also gave us life itself. The breath in our lungs, and the blood that runs through our veins and arteries. Eyes to see and ears to hear. Voices to raise in encouragement (or condemnation). Bodies to care for (or abuse). Time to spend in honorable and productive pursuits (or waste in useless activities). It’s all up to us. God gave us life at the moment of our conception, and then he gave us new life at the moment of our salvation. When Jesus was born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, he took on human flesh and became Immanuel: God with us. There were times in the past when God had been with his chosen people, the Jews. The time he led them through the desert after he delivered them from slavery in Egypt, a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The times he informed them through the prophets. The times he preserved them during their exile. But this time was different. This time he would be with them—with us—forever.
What is the appropriate response to such gifts? Traditionally, we exchange gifts, but what do you give the One who has everything? It’s true: everything that was made was created by him, and he is the owner of it all. Everything we think we own is already his, so what can we offer him? Actually, there is one thing that he does not own. He gave it to us freely in the Garden, and we still have it. It’s our will. The only thing God does not own or control is our free will. It is the only thing that truly belongs to us, and it is the only thing he wants from us. Our praise and adoration. Our gratitude. Our love. Given of our own free will. Never demanded or coerced. Not even required for our salvation. His gift of grace is freely given in the hope that we will reciprocate with our own unconditional love, not just for him but also for our fellow human beings. We love him because he first loved us. We care for our home because he made it for us. We care for ourselves because he made us. We love others because he first loved us, despite our flaws and shortcomings.
To the One who has everything, we can use our free will to take on the tasks that he wants us to do. We can align our priorities with his. We can invest in the kingdom by loving and serving. All God wants for Christmas, and every day, is for us to love him and to love one another. Not just in words but in action, the way Jesus loved: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending the lonely. One imperfect person to another, we can offer his gift of grace and belonging. When we do, we experience more richly and acutely the presence of the one who is always with us: Immanuel.