God is with us at Christmas - and every day of our lives
The awful events in Connecticut are a terrible reminder to us that we live in a very messy, and at times, very evil world. Sadly though, what we have witnessed in recent days is nothing new. Men have always behaved atrociously and war has been a constant feature of human existence.
The horrifying carnage that took place in Newtown was yet another example of just how wicked we can be, with or without guns. I witnessed similar acts of evil in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s when a combination of inter-ethnic hatreds and economic inequalities exploded in an orgy of violence that spared no one, not even children.
It's at times like this that is worth reminding ourselves of the historical contexts in which the name Immanuel was used. It was used first when the King of Judah (Ahaz) felt caught between a rock and a hard place. He was unsure whether he should throw in his lot with the Assyrians or the coalition that was preparing to go to war against them. He stood to lose either way. As he saw things It must have seemed a case of "heads I win and tails you lose".
It was at this point that the prophet Isaiah offered him a "Third Way": put your faith in God. Sadly, Ahaz felt that that this course was far too risky and refused. He wouldn't even ask God for a sign that would prove that Isaiah was telling the truth. Consequently, God gave him a sign anyway: a child bearing the name Immanuel, which means "God with us".
In the short term Ahaz's lack of faith resulted in a period of intense suffering for his people. But his kingdom was not totally destroyed. God finally intervened in the most dramatic way, and Jerusalem was miraculously delivered. God kept his promise: He was true to His name. He was with His people.
We find the name being use used again in the opening chapter of Matthew's gospel when an angel encouraged Joseph to marry his pregnant wife-to-be. We should never underestimate the difficulties facing Joseph. In his day and culture, a woman could be stoned for adultery. At the very least Mary's behaviour would have opened them both up to scorn and ridicule. And if that was not enough there was another 'small' challenge: he was expected to become father to the son of God!
But, as history shows, Joseph was willing to accept this challenge. He risked his reputation, and even the support of his family and his friends, perhaps because he trusted that God would be with him.
Seen from this perspective, the Christmas story is an annual reminder that God has not abandoned this messed up world and that we can trust him to be with us whatever the size of the challenge we have to face or the cost of being faithful to Him.