Exhausted from the semester and finals, I sat in Boston’s Logan airport more than ready to go home. As I slouched in my chair, which faced away from the gate, I saw people in front of me start standing up, taking pictures with their cell phone cameras. At first I was simply perplexed, but I quickly whipped around to see what was so notable going on behind me. All I saw was a troop of police dressed in green standing at the gate, and five black coats walking into the jetway. I thought I caught a glimpse of a familiar face before it disappeared, but I wasn’t sure. So I asked the person sitting next to me, “Who was that?” Her response confirmed my suspicions: “That was President Bush, the older one.”
President George H. W. Bush was on my flight to Houston! When I got on the plane, sure enough, there was the 85 year old former world leader sitting in the first row of first class. He was on the phone as I passed by on the aisle: I smiled at him, and he back at me. As the four hour flight progressed, I started thinking about what I would do if I got to see him again after the flight. “I’ll get him to sign my pocket Constitution,” I thought. I began to wonder about other ways I could make the most of my time with the President: what if I got to have a five minute conversation with him? What would I ask or say? Most fun of all, what if I convinced him to let me join him next time he goes skydiving on his birthday? How great would that be?!
(Apologies to those who dislike the former President’s politics. Personally, I was only four years old when he left office, so I don’t remember much, but it was him, and not anyone else, I ran into on my Continental flight to Houston. If it makes it easier, go ahead and substitute Clinton, Obama, Carter, or whichever President or world leader you like.)
None of this happened, of course: not the signing nor the skydiving. But it was all very exciting nonetheless. It did, however, make me wonder: do I have the same anticipation, or will I have the same excitement, when I get to meet God Himself? Instead of flying through the air 20 rows back from my President, I’ll be flying through the air side-by-side with My Maker and My King! Maybe I’ll get Him to sign my Bible…and I certainly will have more than five minutes to talk to Jesus. I must say, I will have a child-like excitement.
But imagine that President Bush* had not been on the phone, and had instead spoken to me, and asked “Son, what is your name?”
“Mithun, Mr. President,” I would respond.
“Where are you from, Mithun?”
“McAllen, Texas, sir. I’m heading there after my layover in Houston.”
“Say, I’m thinking of spending the rest of my retirement down in McAllen. Would you mind if I lived in your house, with your family?”
Could you imagine that?! What an honor, a privilege, and an opportunity! The President dwelling with me. And yet, a much greater opportunity has been afforded all mankind throughout history. As we enjoy the Christmas season, we are constantly reminded of what makes it special: that one night, God Himself embarked on the mission called Immanuel: “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23).
Yet this really is nothing out of the ordinary for God. Throughout human history, one of the great themes of the Bible is this yearning of God to dwell with man. No matter how many times we push Him away, hide from Him, cheat on Him, break His heart, or break His body, His consistent mission is to dwell with us. In the Garden, where the first of mankind lived, God made the daily practice of walking with His children (Genesis 3:8), living with them. But despite this, our first parents fell away, hiding themselves from their Father in shame. Id. And yet Yahweh pressed on: at Sinai, amid smoke, fire, and trembling, God made yet another provision to fulfill His desire for Immanuel: “Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8). Through the Holy Sanctuary, God’s glorious presence was among His people (Exodus 40:35), and through ceremony and priesthood, the recently freed Israel had the privilege and joy of dwelling amongst their God.
But a spirit of rebellion set in again. The trials and temptations of life outside the house of the Father was too much for Israel, and time and again, the Sanctuary where God dwelt was taken from them. Eventually, the people of God were sent away in chains, in exile to Babylon, longing for Jeremiah’s 70 years to finish, when they can return to their holy city. But even after the return, and the rebuilding of wall and temple, God’s presence seemed strangely afar. People, with mournful longing, cried out in darkness for God to dwell with them once again. Yet Jeremiah’s, and other’s, pre-exilic prophecies contained more promises than merely homecoming; they spoke of Immanuel. Isaiah probably said it best:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned. . . .
For unto us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. — Isaiah 9:2, 6, 7
But this Immanuel was special in a certain way. Immanuel this time was not mighty footsteps in the garden; Immanuel was not terrible fire and gloom on a mountain; Immanuel was not glorious, life-ending presence in a veiled temple. Immanuel was something most counterintuitive: a baby. The majestic words of Isaiah were fulfilled in a little boy, laying in a feeding trough, hair probably still soaked with amniotic fluid and nostrils filled with the dung-scented air of a stable. His mother, still aching from delivering her Deliverer, was an unwed peasant of an occupied territory far away from the kingly throne of power. A mere thoughtless kick from a nearby mule would have snuffed this little life out of existence. This was the very God who came to dwell with man: poor, oppressed, powerless, and conceived in darkness like the rest of us.
The righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?'” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the deep?'” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart. . . .” — Romans 10:6–8
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” — Revelation 21:3–4.
Upon pondering with wonderment all these things, 30,000 feet in the air, I thought to myself: “God with us. Amazing, wonderful, joyous. But God with me?” God does not want to dwell with me alone, true, but He does want to dwell with me personally. Do I have that? Do you? Do I walk with Him in the evening time as Adam did, or have I set up a sanctuary for His presence in my very heart and mind, furnished with the best and swept clean, by His grace, of all that is incompatible with Him? My heart still longs for the opportunity with really dwell with Him, to really in all truth and honesty experience Immanuel, God with me. For this reason, with yearning this year I sing, and I would ask that you join with me,
O come, O come, Immanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear. . . .