“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” –which means, “God with us.” Matthew 1:23
There is a Christmas sentimentality about the Immanuel – “God with us” promise that often belies or misrepresents its true meaning. The concept of God’s presence in our lives is both a complex and expansive topic. Doctrinal differences about God’s presence have spawned all the world’s religions and hundreds of different Christian denominations.
But for Joseph this promise of “God with us” spoken in a dream from the angel of the Lord was simple and specific. The context was a divine intervention urging Joseph not to quietly end his engagement to Mary, but to take her as his wife. Joseph was being called to an obedience of faith in which he would desperately need God’s presence. Challenging times lay immediately ahead of them.
There was no need for deep theological discussion or debate regarding God’s presence. All their plans had just been changed. They needed God’s help. They were about to face family opposition and misunderstanding, travel hardships, accommodation cancellations and threats upon their lives. They needed the assurance of God’s presence with them that would provide for and protect them.
As we celebrate the birth of Immanuel it is imperative for us to understand what this promise of His presence really means. For clarity’s sake let us first consider two types of God’s presence that the Immanuel presence is NOT.
First, omnipresence is not Immanuel presence. Omnipresence is a theological term that speaks of God’s all-knowing presence. In a very real sense God is everywhere and sees everything. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding good and evil.” (Proverbs 15:3) This is an example of the all-knowing presence of God.
There is also a presence of the Lord that the Bible talks about which moves beyond simple all-knowing presence to an engaging prevenient presence. I am deriving this term from the theological concept of prevenient grace. Prevenient here means “coming before” or specifically “before [His] coming.” A prevenient presence is therefore God not only seeing and knowing us, but engaging our hearts and drawing us to Himself before we know Him.
God drew back the veil His prevenience in Jeremiah the prophet’s life. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:5) And He prophesied through Jeremiah this same prevenient presence to generations that would follow: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with loving kindness have I drawn thee.” (Jeremiah 31:2)
When I consider the prevenient presence of God in my life I am overwhelmed with gratitude. When I was a self-willed agnostic college student He spared me from a near fatal bicycle accident and protected me from harm in several reckless auto accidents. His engagement in my life was prior to and totally apart from my knowing Him or acknowledging Him as my savior and Lord. I can look back now and see how His presence was protecting me and drawing me to Himself.
God’s all-knowing presence sees us and His prevenient presence draws us, but both are distinctly different from His Immanuel presence. I would contend that the Immanuel, “God with us” presence, is a presence that is tied to our obedience of faith. It is a conditional presence based on our willingness to acknowledge and obey Jesus, God’s Immanuel who has come in the flesh.
There is a sentimentality and greasy grace that seem to accompany the Christmas Immanuel message. It soft sells a syrupy assurance of God’s incarnational presence as an infant. And it bears little resemblance to the required obedience of faith conditions for such a presence as promised throughout the Scriptures and in the teachings of Jesus.
By my count there are at least eighteen scriptures in the Bible where God promises specifically to “be with you.” Every one of them was given as motivation for and contingent upon obedience of faith action. They were given to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Jehoshaphat, Jeremiah, Zerrubabel & Joshua, Israel, the Disciples and Paul. They were calls to trust God in famine, return to face a difficult situation, rebuild, confront an oppressor, go where God sends, say what He commands and preach the Gospel. “Therefore go and make disciples . . . And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
It has been said that where God guides He provides and those whom He appoints, He anoints. That is God’s Immanuel presence promise. If we go and do what He commands, He will be with us and provide everything we need to be successful.
Mary and Joseph are the quintessential examples of this truth. They were obedient faith-filled servants. Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s intervention in her life says it all “I am the Lord’s maidservant, may it be with me in accordance with your words!” (Luke 1;38) God found in this humble couple people who would not only name their child Immanuel, but would live lives worthy of that Immanuel presence calling.
Can you think of a time when you experienced His prevenient presence in your life? What about the reality of His Immanuel presence?
As you consider all this may your heart be filled joy and may you have a truly merry Christmas!