Israel was silent. As we suffered and despaired, we were silent. And so, it seemed, was God. The glorious Israel of the former days seemed nothing but a myth, an old story whose truthfulness made little difference now. The judges Deborah and Samson, the kings David and Solomon, the prophets Samuel and Elijah, their days were over. Now was the era of depression, of oppression, of broken hearts and broken backs. God, who once delivered us from slavery in Egypt, seemed to hand us back over from one slavery to another, the great and terrible empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and, now, Rome, pressing Israel deeper and deeper into the mud.
And, just like our ancestors in those old, old stories of Egypt, we cried out to our God, saying “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1). We longed for our God to do something—anything, to stop the oppression we experienced each and every day. But God, it seems, did not answer. “After all this,” the prophet Isaiah laments, after all this pain and suffering and brokenness, “will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (Isaiah 64:12).
Of course, now Isaiah is just another one of those long gone heroes of old. His is another one of those books we read to comfort ourselves in our moments of despair. It has been almost 500 years since God has spoken to Israel through a prophet. 500 years of heavenly silence. 500 years of unanswered questions. 500 years of wandering, not the deserts of Sinai, but the deserts of our own hearts.
We are not free. We are alone. Our God is nowhere in sight. We offer our sacrifices in the temple; we lift up our prayers like incense; we seek what is best for the poor, and yet our God is nowhere to be found. For a long time, we held our peace, waiting for God to say something. We kept still and restrained ourselves. But now, now we cry out like a woman in labor, we gasp and pant and groan, begging God to speak. A word. Just one. Anything at all.
The night is silent. We are asleep in our beds, the shallow, restless sleep of the grieved and discontent. But not so far away, in a little backwater town, something is happening. It’s in the town of David, the birthplace of that long gone king. Anyone who happened to be in that town might not even notice a young woman lying on the floor of a stable, her husband at her side. The silence of the night is shattered by her groans and labor pains. The baby comes. He is swaddled. Father and mother look upon him in rapture. God finally speaks a word to us. Just one word. The Word.
But we sleep through the darkness, unaware that unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. At long last, God has finally spoken, and the Word he has spoken looks like a little family, huddled together, overflowing with joy. And the joy of this little family will soon spread, like whispers rippling out through an astonished crowd, first to some shepherds, then to us all. The sun is beginning to rise. We are beginning to rise. We still do not know this great little thing that has happened in Bethlehem, but we will soon.
Over the 2,000 years of church history we have designated one single day each year to celebrate the incarnation, God coming to dwell among us in the person of Jesus. One day a year. That’s kind of crazy when you think about it. Adam and Eve longed to walk with their Lord in the cool of the morning again; the Israelites longed to hear a word from their God again; all of humanity longed to be united with its creator again. The hope of thousands of years, thousands of generations, is consummated on Christmas. And we only celebrate it once a year.
But the Christmas message endures beyond the winter months, outside the holiday season, after all the festivities are over. The Christmas message is one we need to hear every single day. It’s the story of God coming to dwell with us, to be among us, as one of us. It’s the story of how God saw a broken world and decided to step into it, to save us from it. The incarnation is not some old story we dust off once a year. The incarnation is a living event. It’s happening every moment of every day. All the needy people in this world are Jesus. When you help someone in need, you are Jesus. When we gather together, Jesus gathers with us. By faith, Jesus is born into the manger of your heart each and every day. The incarnation isn’t over. It’s happening in you.
This is the good news of the gospel: Emmanuel—God is with us.
It’s a message we can’t afford not to hear each and every day.
So here, at the end of July, in the midst of the summer heat, in a sanctuary with a broken air conditioner, I bring to you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger of your heart and in the heart of your neighbor.
The silence is over. God has spoken a word, one that will live in your heart forever.