Monday, December 21, 2015

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns

It’s only been six months since the shooting at Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston where nine people were killed. In some ways, it seems like we’ve lived through a lion’s share of long, difficult days since then. Paris bombings, San Bernardino shootings, and a thousand-year flood right here in our own neighborhood all contributed to some very long days lately. I’ve spent more time than usual reading or watching news reports in order to stay informed about terrorism. I also had to do a good bit of rescheduling, waiting for the water to recede. Long days, indeed.

In other ways, it’s as if the days are flying by because of progress we’ve made in some of our attempts at unity. I am still alive and well and on the other side of all of those tragedies, and I am not alone. I cannot take credit for that, though. If I had been in a different place or time, I very easily could have been one of the casualties. In that respect, every day is a gift and the days are fleeting. 

I remember thinking at the time of the Charleston shooting that if nothing else good came out of that situation, at least the name of the church included a meaningful reminder to all of us, especially in difficult times. Emmanuel. It’s a Hebrew word that means “God with us.”
Now, it’s Christmas. Some of our favorite Christmas carols include the word Emmanuel in the lyrics. It makes sense because when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are celebrating that He left heaven and came to earth to be with us. Emmanuel. 

Centuries before it actually happened, Isaiah said that a virgin would give birth to a child and would call him Emmanuel. Generations later the apostle Matthew wrote about the birth of Jesus and quoted Isaiah saying, “They shall call His name Emmanuel.” Isaiah and Matthew were lifetimes apart but were inspired by God to tell the same story. 
Sometime after Isaiah died and before Matthew was born, God stopped talking to people on earth. No revelations. No dreams. No inspirations. No promptings. He was silent for 400 years. 

In my own life, I often find that God makes all kinds of attempts to get my attention. He orchestrates people in my path, songs on the radio, articles in my email, sunshine after a rainy day, and all sorts of things to help me recognize Him. He is here with us so it shouldn’t be difficult, but sometimes I’m a little blind. Or obstinate, rebellious, or deliberately ignorant. He never gives up though. He keeps trying to get through to me. That’s why I can hardly imagine what it must have been like during all those years of silence with no word from Him. 

When I think about all that silence, it makes me grateful that I live at a time in history when I can hold His word in my hand and carry it in my heart. Even if terrorism and devastating natural disasters are close to home, I have Him and His word with me. Truly, Emmanuel. 
God’s voice was silent on earth, but I’m thinking maybe the decibel level in heaven might have picked up during those years. The residents of heaven must have felt the anticipation that God was about to do something life changing. The volume probably went up on their singing and praising. When the time finally came, the silence on earth was broken when God sent His son, Jesus, to earth as a man. To us. For us. With us. Emmanuel. 

What was heaven like when Jesus left? I don’t know for sure, but maybe the silence that blanketed the earth for the previous 400 years found its way there for a time. Heaven without Jesus? None of us really knows what heaven is like, but heaven without Jesus is not something I have any words for at all. 

That’s exactly what makes His coming to earth so extraordinary. He left heaven and came to earth because of us. The good news is that Jesus’ time as a man on earth was only temporary. He had to get back to heaven, but one prerequisite for a human to get to heaven is to die. So He died. Then, he conquered death and after three days was alive again. As humans, the other requirement to get to heaven is believe that Jesus did all of that for us. He did it to make a way for us to be able to go to heaven too. 

Being on this side of the history of Jesus’ birth and return to heaven means that Christmas is a time to remember His first arrival on earth. More importantly, we should be anticipating and celebrating His next arrival on earth. Just as I imagine the volume level of praise increasing in heaven leading up to Jesus’ first advent, maybe we should be doing the same thing here and now as we wait for Him to come back. The next time He comes He won’t be leaving heaven behind. He will bring it with Him. Emmanuel! 

Go ahead. Sing it loud, “Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; Let men their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy!” 

 This was originally posted Sunday, December 20, 2015 on the Press and Standard website: