Christmas 2023

The Christmas story is really about one single, very powerful word. It was a promise made by the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, long before Jesus was born, when he said: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). The Bible was written over many centuries by dozens of different people, but it is all about one idea — God wants to be with you. He wants your life to be a dwelling place for Him. And He wants to make His home in your heart and mind and life.

It’s a tremendous honor to welcome all of you and to get to celebrate part of your Christmas with you.

If we have’t met yet, my name is Matt VanCleave. I’m the teaching pastor here at Blue Oaks.


If you’re here for the first time and you don’t consider yourself a religious person, we’re so glad you’re here. I hope you hang around long enough to discover we’re not that religious either.


If the only reason you’re here today is because you’re visiting relatives and they said they wouldn’t feed you if you wouldn’t attend church with them, my apologies. We all still have a long way to go.


Well I want to talk today about a single verse in the Christmas story — really about just one single, very powerful word in that verse.

It was a promise made by the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, long before Jesus was born, when he said:

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). Matthew 1:23

The Bible was written over many centuries by dozens of different people, but it is all about one thing — God with us.

The central theme of the Bible is this “Emmanuel principle.”

God wants to be with you. He wants your life to be a dwelling place for him. And he wants to make his home in your heart and mind and life.

Jesus said right before he left this earth, “Don’t be afraid. For surely I am with you
always, even to the ends of the earth.”

And then he sent his Spirit so that your life can be the home of the Holy Spirit. You can be a place where God dwells. You can.

Whether or not you think this is true… you can do this.

So the word I want to focus on today is the little word “with.”

Not God above us, or God all around us, but God with us.


We learn how powerful this word is early on in childhood… when we learn that part of being alive means being alone.


No one wants to admit to being lonely, but no one wants to be that kid in the school cafeteria who eats all by himself.


There’s a movie called Forrest Gump.

Forrest gets on the school bus for the first time, but no one wants to let Forrest sit by them.

Everyone says, “This seat is taken.”

In that moment, you can feel the pain of him being alone.

Until a little girl named Jenny says, “You can sit next to me.” Then, he’s not alone anymore. Then, he’s with… and Jenny is like an angel to him.


Christmas is all about being with —

Being with friends.
Being with family.
Going to holiday parties.
Sending out what used to be Christmas cards but are now social media posts of amazing holiday experiences that will make other people feel as lonely as you feel when you look at their amazing holiday posts.


Yet, for a lot of people who have gone through a loss

Or a breakup
Or an illness
Or depression
Or who can’t have children
Or who are looking for a relationship
Or maybe for some reason they don’t even know, Christmas is often the loneliest time of the year.

Maybe it is for you.


Sometimes we think our loneliness can be relieved by another person, and if we’re still lonely at Christmas, it just means we haven’t found the right person to be with yet.


A theologian by the name of Elvis Presley put it like this — “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.”


But there’s a kind of aloneness that’s so deep, no other human being can take it away.


Some of the most influential thinkers in the last century have argued that loneliness is an inevitable human condition.

Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher, said the reason we’re lonely is that we’re meaning-seeking creatures, but we live in a meaningless world.

The scientist, Richard Dawkins, wrote that the reason we’re lonely is the universe offers no design, no purpose, and no hope; just blind, pitiless indifference.


Now, the story of Christmas is a claim that things are not that way — that you were made by God and God actually does not want you to be lonely. As a matter of fact he hates loneliness.

God said, “It’s not good for people to be alone.”

God doesn’t want anyone sitting at a table by themselves in the cafeteria.

In fact, the central theme of the Bible is God’s desire to be with people.


An Old Testament scholar counted 114 times in the Hebrew Scriptures alone where God says, “I will be with you.”

A typical statement from Scripture is found in Joshua. God says to Joshua:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to go through life feeling lonely.


Now, if you’re going to experience that, if you’re going to practice God’s presence in this regard, it becomes very important how you think about the kind of person God is… and what kind of messages God will send you.


A lot of people, when they think about God, think only of messages that are quite anxiety-producing to them.


Someone sent me a list of statements that are supposed to be actual quotes from employee performance evaluations.

I don’t know how many of you have been through an employee performance evaluation. It’s often not a real peak experience in life.

These are actually supposed to be, as far as I know, things that are in someone’s HR file somewhere.

Here’s the first one from an employer about an employee:

“Since my last report, this employee has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.”

Not a happy thing to see in your file.


Or this one. This is kind of sobering:

“I would not allow this employee to breathe.”

Or this one:

“This employee is not so much a ‘has been,’ but more of a definite ‘won’t be.’”


Last one:

“This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.”


Now, I mention these, not so that you will use them for the employees that report to you.


A lot of people when they think about God, they really do think about God primarily as a kind of divine performance evaluator… and they know they don’t ever measure up.


If you think about God in this way, you’ll find yourself avoiding him… and
you won’t talk to him much.


It’s real important that you understand that whatever you do in life, God longs to partner with you. God wants to say to you, “Don’t be afraid, because I’m with you.”


And one of the fundamental ways you can know God is present is when you experience his reassurance.

For instance, someone rejects you. But in the middle of that pain the thought occurs to you, “I’m loved by God. I’m okay.”


You face a challenge at work, maybe even losing your job. But in the middle of all of that anxiety an idea comes into your mind: “I can handle this. This won’t destroy me. My life will go on.”


You’re in transition facing a big change, not sure how it will work out. Suddenly you
have this sense that you’re not alone.


It hit a man named Paul in prison one day. He’s in chains facing a horrible future, and all of a sudden, the thought strikes him: “I can do this,” and he writes it down. In prison, he writes down these words:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13

“He’s with me. I can do this. I can face this.”


When these thoughts come into your mind — it may be through a Scripture verse that you know.

That’s one of the real good reasons, by the way, for reading the Bible and thinking about Scripture.


Or they may come through a book or message or another person.

When that happens, I want to invite you to be open to the possibility that it’s not just a random occurrence.

It’s “God with you” right there in that moment.
It’s the Emmanuel principle at work in your life.


You see, God gives the people in Scripture all of these pictures of his presence with them.

He has them build a temple — that’s like his home — and he says:

I will be with you to hear your prayer.
I will be with you to receive your worship.
I will be with you to give you guidance.
I will be with you through the Scriptures.


And it’s almost like all of that is not enough to satisfy God, so finally he says, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll go down there and be with those people myself.”

That’s Jesus. That’s Christmas, when the biggest miracle of all is also the smallest.


God causes all of his person, all of his presence, all of his majesty, and all of his power to be condensed and to be compacted into one fragile, frail, little human body.


He goes down to earth to be with people starting with this peasant, impoverished girl named Mary and her family.


Because Jesus is Immanuel — God with us — that word, “with,” really becomes Jesus’ signature word if you know much about him.


In the Bible at the beginning of his ministry, we’re told Jesus takes a motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors, designates them apostles:

He appointed twelve that they might be with him. (Mark 3:14)

There’s that word again.

Later, we’re told the authorities were struck by the power of being with Jesus that the disciples experienced.

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)

Jesus is with beggars, and lepers, and foreigners, and prostitutes, and enemy soldiers.


One time they called Jesus the friend of sinners, and they intended it as an insult, but for him it was like a badge of honor.


That little word, “with,” is kind of what got Jesus killed because he kept hanging out with the wrong people (scandalous people).

And religious authorities hung him on a cross where he died.

Then, three days later he was resurrected.

And in that same gospel (the gospel of Matthew), at the very end of it, that little word comes back up.

In the last promise Jesus makes to his friends he says:

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:20

Jesus says, “I am with you.”


People wonder, “How could Jesus be with people if he is not present bodily?”

Well, being with someone is about much more than just physical proximity.

In fact, some people can have their bodies at the same table with you, but their presence, their attention, their mind, and their soul is a million miles away.

We call these people husbands.


What Jesus is saying is that, now, having become human and being crucified and resurrected, he is no longer restricted by a body like you and I are, so he can be present with anyone, and he can be with you, and he wants to be with you.


That’s the personal message of Christmas.


Tomorrow morning, try this when you wake up. Just say, “Jesus, I want you to be with me today.” And he will.

He can be with you in your thoughts.
He can be with you when you go to work.
He can be with you in your family.
He can be with you in your pain.
He can be with you in your hopes.
He can be with you through other people.


The disciple Matthew writes that it’s particularly in the least of these (the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the forgotten) that Jesus is right there.


The sustaining power of the unseen presence of God has made the weak strong.


Down through the centuries it has made the deathbed a place of triumph.

It has brought hope to people in their old age.
It has brought courage to people who are desperate.
It has brought freedom to people who are addicted and couldn’t get free any other way.


It turns out that our loneliness is kind of a clue about who we are.


Just like the fact that we hunger indicates that we were made to eat; and the fact that we thirst indicates that we were made to drink; our loneliness tells us we were made for God and to be with God.


There’s an old Beatles song called “Eleanor Rigby.”

It asks this haunting question — “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”


The apostle Paul gives the answer — “They’re people who live apart from God and apart from his love.”


There are people without hope and without God in the world, and the good news of Christmas is you don’t have to go through life that way. You can ask Jesus to be with you on this Christmas.

What a great time to do it!

You can ask him to forgive you of the wrongdoing — the stuff you’re embarrassed about, the sin, the flaws that make us all hide from each other and make us isolated and make us feel so lonely — and he will give you a fresh start through his forgiveness.


Maybe you’re already a Christian and you’ve known God for a while, but he’s felt far away for some time.


The truth is — I sometimes decide to be lonely because I want to hide.

My desire to be with God can be quite selective.


It’s easy for me at times, like when we’re singing songs in this room, to think, “Man, I just want to be with God more than anything else.”

But the truth is — lots of times I don’t want God to be around.


There’s a kind of parable on this written by Dallas Willard.

This is what he writes:

“Two-and-a-half year old Marissa was enjoying water in the back yard with Nana.”

That was her grandmother.

“Nana gently counsels her to water the flowers, but Marissa had just discovered mud by pouring water on a little patch of dirt.

“Nana told her not to put water on the dirt, because that makes mud and mud will make everything a mess.

“Do you think that stopped Marissa from making mud? No. Marissa felt a deep calling to make mud in her life, and she put mud everywhere. She put it into a little fountain of water nearby and called it warm chocolate.

“Nana, who had been reading facing away from the activity, soon discovered and cleaned up what, to her, was a mess.

“Then she returned to her reading, but was now seated in the other direction so that she was facing Marissa the whole time.

“The little girl soon resumed her warm chocolate manufacturing process, saying sweetly to her grandmother, ‘Don’t look at me, Nana. Don’t look at me, OK?’

“Nana agreed not to look.”

Nana was apparently a little codependent. Dallas didn’t write that. That’s my commentary.

“She continued her reading. Marissa would make some black mud put it in the fountain, and then make some more. Three times as she continued her work, she said, “Don’t look at me Nana, OK?”


Then Dallas writes this. I just think this is so profoundly true.

“Thus the tender soul of a little child shows us how necessary it is to us that we be unobserved in our wrong, because most of the darkness and evil in us depends on hiddenness to be able to survive, and collapses when it is brought into light.”

I depend on knowing that I’ll be hidden so that I can do the things that I know I shouldn’t do.


We talk a lot in our society about the right to privacy. In some ways, the right to privacy
is a very good and a very important thing.

But very often, it becomes an excuse to make sure I’ll be able to have the hiddenness I require to carry out the darkness I want to carry out.


I was thinking that maybe out of all the prayers that are ever spoken by the human race, it might be that the most common one, the one that we least acknowledge making, is simply this one — “Don’t look at me, God.”


That was the very first prayer spoken after the Fall. God comes to walk in the garden to be with Adam.

He asked, “Where are you?”

Adam said, “I heard you in the garden and I was afraid, so I hid.” — Don’t look at me God.


A businessman on the road checks into a hotel room late at night. He knows the kind of movies that are available to him right there in the room and knows that no one will see.

His wife will never know.
His kids will never know.

Hotels often have a disclaimer. Some of you have seen this when you’re traveling. The name of whatever movie you watch won’t be on your bill.

Why do they have that?

Because darkness requires hiddenness in order to exist — “Go ahead, no one will know.”

First, you have to say a little prayer though: “Don’t look at me, God.”


Someone at work who chooses deliberately to make a co-worker look bad.

Someone who makes financial decisions one after another that he knows will keep him from being generous with his resources.

A student at school who is taking a test all of a sudden realizes that he can look at the paper next to him.

The person who has been through a bitter divorce and knows better, but chooses to hang on to resentment and self-righteousness.


You can do any of those things, but first you have to say a little prayer. You don’t say it
out loud, of course. You don’t admit it even to yourself, but it is the choice your heart makes — “Don’t look at me, God.”

|| ||

I want to pause here for a moment to let God be at work, because some of you have been saying that prayer… and some of you are saying it right now.

And right now, God might be speaking to you about this…


Some of you have been far away from God for a long time and you know that.

It doesn’t feel good. You feel lonely and afraid, and it’s because you’ve been far from God because there’s part of your life that you’re hiding from him.

And God is saying to you right now, “Will you allow me to be with you? Will you step out of the shadows and the darkness? Will you do that?”


You must decide right now in your heart. You have to say it.

Everything rests on this.

Will you be willing to just stop and say:

“Alright, God. It’s really hard for me. The truth is, God, there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want you present in this part of my life, but I’m willing to invite you in.

“I’d rather let go of whatever it is — my anger, my addiction, my pride, my junk. I’d rather let go of that, God, than let go of you.”


You can begin all over again with him right now and make space for him in your everyday life.


And you can get help for this because there’s another “with” promise from Jesus right in the middle of the gospel of Matthew.

Jesus says:

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20)

That’s an amazing promise.

He actually has a plan for loneliness — and his plan is that those of us who follow him would create a community that is really kind of a family that would embrace anyone who needs to be loved, because God hates it when anyone is alone.


It’s ironic to me that in our day, as modernization increases, poverty, illiteracy and disease are all going down. But, guess what. Loneliness is going up.


There was a study done recently from UC San Diego.

Loneliness is a much bigger problem than researchers even thought. Three out of every four Americans right now are suffering from loneliness.

Loneliness is so epidemic in Great Britain they’ve appointed a cabinet-level government position called the Minister of Loneliness to try to address this problem.


A whole field of treatment has emerged in psychology called pet therapy.

Numerous studies have shown the presence of animal companions can lessen the pain of isolation.


We buy dogs or cats or rabbits or even goldfish to reduce loneliness because we’re a lonely people.


Over the last 30 years the number of Americans who have close friends they can confide in has dropped 50 percent.


Then, the unexpected happens and people wonder, “Where is God? What do I do?”

Well Jesus had this plan that when tragedies come —

Like when a family loses a child.
Or an aging person battles an illness.
Or someone loses a job.
Or someone goes through a divorce.
Or someone feels rejected… no one stands alone.

This is family, and Jesus is right here in the middle of it, and he has very good news.

This is the message of Christmas — God and sinners reconciled. Immanuel, God with you, if you want.


Would you pray with me?

If you want to, you ask him right now to be with you. Just say something like this:

“Jesus, would you forgive my past, my regrets, my flaws, my brokenness, the mess I’ve made and would you give me a new heart and a clean start? Be my Savior and my leader.”

He will do that. He loves doing that for people. He will do that for you.


Blue Oaks Church
Pleasanton, CA

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