Tis the season of seasons!
One of the great evangelists of the 19th century, Charles Spurgeon, preached an unforgettable Christmas Eve sermon in London in 1854. The sermon was based on two oft-quoted verses from the prophet Isaiah.
The British preacher's Old Testament text contained the familiar messianic passage: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel."
George Frideric Handel, in "The Messiah," his majestic oratorio, lyrically marries that verse with the highly descriptive phrase from the Scriptures, "God with us."
Immanuel is, in fact, the Hebrew word for "God with us."
The verse used by Spurgeon and Handel forms the central tenet of the Christmas season, and of the Christian faith. Isaiah's magnificent prophecy foreshadowed by 700 years the actual birth of Christ. Isaiah announced a future event of such epic proportions that it would change the course of human history.
"It is wisdom's mystery, 'God with us,'" Spurgeon thundered from his pulpit nearly 160 years ago.
"Sages look at it and wonder; angels desire to see it; the plumb-line of reason cannot reach half-way into its depths … 'God with us.'"
The great orator went on to describe the Christmas story — God stepping into human history as the man, Jesus — with further poetic alliteration.
"…Tis eternity's sonnet. Tis heaven's hallelujah. Tis the shout of the glorified. Tis the song of the redeemed. Tis the chorus of angels. Tis the everlasting oratorio of the great orchestra of the sky. 'God with us!'"
Today the world rejoices over the fact that the prophecy was a promise kept. God became flesh-and-blood. Christ, the second element of the Trinity, entered his own creation and became the willing and perfect sacrifice for humanity's sins.
I recall my church pastor telling an unusual Christmas story many years ago. It helped clarify, in simple terms, the purpose of the incarnation.
Why would the God of the universe choose to set aside his absolute power to walk as a mortal along the dusty byways of the world he made?
As the story goes, a Midwestern farmer noticed during a severe blizzard that a scruffy flock of sparrows had taken up a miserable residency in his yard. With sub-zero winds howling across the plains, things got so bad that many of the exhausted birds began to freeze to death while perched on utility lines. They fell lifelessly to the ground.
The farmer's heart was broken by the sparrows' plight.
He threw open the doors of his barn, turned on the lights and attempted to shoo the sparrows inside in order to shield them from the elements. To no avail. The birds misread — or simply failed to understand — the farmer's shouting and wild gesticulations. Try as he might to convince them of his loving intentions, the birds fell shy of comprehending the farmer's actions.
Hopeless in their circumstance, the birds continued to fall, one by one.
Finally in frustration, as ice blanketed everything in sight, the farmer said to himself: "If only I could become like them — a bird! I could communicate to them in ways they'd understand. By my example, and through my efforts, I could encourage them to choose warmth and safety over a certain and horrible death. They'd listen to me!"
Then the farmer realized that he'd given a perfect characterization of what God did for humanity that first Christmas. The people of Planet Earth were lost and separated from their God. So God sent his son, Jesus — a man — to convey to the world the path that leads to salvation.
But, as with the birds, individual humans must make a conscious decision to "take shelter" in the barn.
The 17-century priest and mystic Angelus Silesius put it in terms that couldn't be clearer: Christ can be born "a thousand times in Bethlehem," but he's of no help to one who chooses to ignore him.
Have a blessed Christmas!
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.