Sunday, December 23, 2007

Immanuel - God With Us

Written 700 years before Jesus was born, Isaiah the prophet wrote in the Old Testament, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The Gospel writer, Matthew interprets the name Immanuel as meaning, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). What does that phrase mean, “God with us?” Does it mean literally that, as many Christians believe, that God became flesh and lived as a human? Or, does it mean that Jesus, the Christ, was sent by God to live among mankind?

I grew up with the Christmas story. My earliest recollection as a kid in California was my mom reading the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem where Jesus was born in a barn because there were no accommodations in a local inn. After 2,000 years the story is still being told, quite a record for such a humble beginning. As a missiologist and teacher in cross-cultural communication, I try to hear the Christmas story through the ears of others. What does Immanuel mean to Hindu’s, Buddhist or Muslims?

At a photo studio in Delhi I had a disagreement with the owner on some work he had done for me. Our discussion was not heated but I was firm in my position. The shopkeeper, seeing I wasn’t going to give in my position suddenly said, “Okay, you are my customer, you are my god.”

In a land where just about anything and everything is a god, I quickly told him that I certainly was not a god, but would be happy to tell him about THE God in heaven. He wasn’t interested and quickly changed the subject, but his comment gave me pause. How would this man respond to the story of Immanuel, God with us?

Fifty years ago D. A. Chowdhury, a Muslim background believer wrote that the phrase, “Son of God,” is a taboo term for Muslims:

“…That Jesus is the Son of God raises in the Moslem mind the picture of God as husband and Mary as wife. The title thus, a Moslem thinks, at once destroys the unity of the Godhead. It never raises in his mind a noble and sublime thought but it has unpleasant associations which are quite repugnant to him.”

In a recent Evangelical Mission Quarterly article Rick Brown adds,

“[Muslims] regard the term [Son of God] itself as an insult to God, and they fear that asserting it of Jesus or anyone else will bring upon them God’s wrath and eternity in hell, no matter what the term means.”

In light of this cultural and religious predisposition, is it possible that the Christmas story and the birth of Immanuel is more acceptable than the phrase, “Son of God”?

I read this morning a portion of Max Lucado’s book, 3:16, The Numbers of Hope, and the emphasis, in perhaps the most important verse in the Bible, is that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, and whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. Do we do injustice to Scripture if we translate the passage, as the Amplified Bible inserts, that Jesus is God’s unique Son, avoiding the taboo expression “Son of God”? The issue in communicating the Gospel to unbelievers, for me, is not theological, but rather overcoming cultural preconceived notions and false impressions.

This year, as I listen to the familiar story of wise men, shepherds and a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth, I remain awestruck of this tale as when I first heard it many years ago from my godly mother. I am grateful that I can comprehend the Christmas story without jumping over cultural obstacles. Our greatest challenge, as servants of the Prince of Peace, is telling others this great and wonderful narrative in a way others can understand the significance of His birth -- this one called Jesus. Immanuel. God with us.