There is never a time that God is not with us.

Isaiah 7:10-17; Matthew 1:18-25

Christmas Eve 2016

The hunt for clues

How has this week been for your family?  Mike and Cathy May, who spent this week last year in the hospital battling cancer, returned this past Thursday to Levine Cancer Center to distribute Christmas trees for other families spending the holiday in the hospital.  Roger Young learned this week he had developed a potentially serious heart problem at 1ge 42, and had a pacemaker implanted Friday at Duke.  Wayne and Gigi Miller experienced the birth of their first grandchild on Wednesday, followed by the death of their 17-year-old nephew in an auto accident the next day.  At such times we tend to wonder where God is.

Other than our concern for those families and others, the Thompsons have had a delightful week, with all three of our grown children home since last Saturday. On Wednesday night our son Phil and his wife Carlie took us to Charlotte for dinner at the King’s Kitchen.  Before that, the six of us took a surprise adventure trip to Codescape.

If you haven’t been in an escape room, my guess is that sometime soon you might be.  The idea was first hatched in Japan in 2006.  Today there are almost 3000 escape rooms across the planet, including a growing number in America.  A group of people enters a closed environment for an hour, searching for thematic clues as a team in order to escape.  I think it’s a fairly good comparison to the Christian world view.  God has left clues about who he is and who we are.

Love, sincerity, and truth

In his book, Simply Christian, N. T. Wright calls the clues “echoes of a voice.”  Sometimes we can’t hear the voice, only the echoes that make us sure there must be a voice behind them.  Wright’s echoes include beauty, love, our thirst for spirituality, and the desire for a just world.

One of the echoes, or clues, in the Bible is found in the names.  Even today, many of us can find a clue to our identity in our names.  A few years ago a teenager in Somerset, England thought his name George Garratt didn’t say enough, so he legally changed his name to “Captain Fantastic Faster Than Superman Spiderman Batman Wolverine The Hulk And The Flash Combined.” I wonder how he’s doing.

Our “baby Jesus” this year at Corinth is Tatum Patrick Young, born just two weeks ago to Brittney and Taylor Young.  Tatum was born on his Daddy’s birthday, and their middle names are the same.

My first name, Robert, offers a clue to who I am.  In April 1956, my mother was four months pregnant with me as Mom, Dad, and three older siblings made their way back to the U.S. from Pakistan, where they had served as missionaries.  They stopped in England and stayed with an old family friend named Robert Kerr.  The day they departed England for the U.S., Mr. Kerr wrote a letter to my parents reminding them that they had promised to name the new baby either Roberta or Robert.

I still have that letter, as well as another one he wrote a month after I was born, addressed to me.

My dear boy Robert, At present you are too young to understand anything which is said or written to you, yet our Lord has seen fit to bring you into this world to bring with you LOVE.  Why do I write to you now you will certainly ask some day.  I’m often called a Sentimental fool, but I don’t mind that.  What I do know is this, and I want you to try and attain it in your life, far more than I ever have done, is the Great Gifts of love, sincerity, and Truth.

I pull out that letter from time to time and read it to better understand who I am.  I don’t think Robert Kerr was a “prophet” or mystic who was predicting the course of my life, but as my life has played out it has indeed become a quest to attain love (I constantly preach the centrality of grace, received and given), sincerity (being real and genuine), and truth (the Gospel, the Scripture).  Robert Kerr never knew, nor did my parents, how my life work would play out, but that letter offered a clue.


Names are important in the Bible.  Consider Joseph, Mary’s husband.  I’ve been singing his song for about thirty years every Christmas, including every Christmas Eve service at Corinth since 1993.  The name Joseph means “may God add,” which is basically a prayer for prosperity and for offspring.  That’s ironic since his most famous baby is one the Bible tells us he had nothing to do with, biologically speaking.  I suspect that his father (whose name was Jacob) named him Joseph to honor one of the patriarch Jacob’s twelve sons, the one whose brothers sold him into slavery out of jealousy.  Joseph would later say to them, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”  Talk about love, sincerity, and truth.

The Bible presents Joseph as a good man, the kind of guy who wanted to do what was both right and kind.  Sometimes those values seem to conflict, and they did for Joseph when he found out his bride was pregnant without his participation.  The right thing was to end the betrothal, but he knew that once he did so he would subject Mary to shame at best, probably to open scorn, and maybe even to death.

He was pondering a way to “divorce her quietly” when a messenger from God appeared to him in a dream and said, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph.  Take Mary home as your wife.  The boy in her womb is from the Holy Spirit, and you will name him….”

Another name important to the story:  Jesus.  That’s the Greek form of Joshua, which means “The LORD saves.”  The original Joshua led Israel’s campaigns to occupy the promised land as a legendary war hero.  But his name deflects the credit away from him.  He didn’t save the people; the Lord did.

Joseph is to give Mary’s baby the name “Jesus” because “he will save his people from their sins.”  Whenever that name is spoken, and it’s been spoken millions of times since the time the angel spoke it to Joseph, it should remind us of our need and of God’s provision.  The name is a clue.

Matthew goes further with this theme of names.  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and be with child and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us.’”

Christmas Eve is not the time to go into technicalities, but Matthew’s use of this Scripture passage has been controversial among Bible scholars and students.  We read the passage from Isaiah, and honestly, it seems like an odd one to weave into the story of Jesus.  A much better connection would be Joshua or Joseph.

Isaiah 7 has to do with a king named Ahaz, who is not one of the Bible’s heroes.  His name means “he has grasped,” and he grasped the wrong things and ideas according to the Bible.  When threatened by his neighbors, God said to him, “Ask me for a sign.”  But Ahaz refused to ask.  So Isaiah said, “You’re going to get a sign anyway.  A young woman will become pregnant with a son and will call him Immanuel.”  Sure enough, Isaiah and his wife had a baby and they named him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, which means, “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil,” a long way of saying, “God wins.”

So why use that quote in reference to Jesus?  Because as Matthew writes the story of Joseph, he sees the birth of Jesus being woven as a new thread into an existing tweed of hope and promise.  It’s the most important clue yet to the meaning of life – that God has not left us alone.  He is “with us.”  He has not abandoned his people or this world – whether there are Ahazes in charge or Caesars, whether our lives are full of inexplicable, unbearable heartache or times of joy and promise.  There’s never a time in our lives that God is not with us.  The name “Immanuel” and these biblical stories are clues.

Mystery solved

Codescape in Charlotte has multiple escape rooms.  Ours was titled “Shipwrecked.”  A guy named Brendan told us that hundreds of years ago the legendary Asi sword was stolen by pirates, who then perished in a violent storm.  We are archaeologists who must sort through the wreckage for clues to find the sword.

I must admit if I had done this exercise alone, I would have been in the room for days, if not months.  I might would have been the next skeleton in the corner.  I don’t particularly like solving mysteries.  I prefer more obvious deductions.  My patience level compares to that of my granddogs at suppertime.  My first reaction to the idea was not excitement.  After the experience, I was so glad we went.  It is much better to force me out of my comfort zone into a process that not only engages my brain but requires my helpless self to join with others in the search.

My pitiful attempt to find clues by groping the stucco walls most likely prompted smirks if not LOLs in the control room, where our group was being monitored with a live video feed.  Brendan was always with us, even if we didn’t see him, and occasionally he intervened if we were getting too far off base or if we asked for help.

Only a third of groups solve “Shipwrecked” in the allotted hour, but with two science Ph.D.’s in the room, a therapist, a musician, and two church workers, how could we miss?  The genius of this idea is that success requires group brainstorming, physical teamwork, and general cooperation with these occasional hints from the outside.  My most valuable contribution might have been when I said, “No, I think west is the opposite direction.”  We got the sword just prior to the bad guys swooping in to steal the treasure (though we never actually got a glimpse of them so they might have been bogus.)

The Christian faith essentially sees the world like an escape room.  Life is mystery, and there are many counterproductive ways to solve it.  We get a limited amount of time on the planet to escape, and God has planted clues that become more obvious once you’re actively looking for them – clues hidden in Scripture, in names, in circumstances – good and bad.  Most of all God knows that nobody can figure this out on his or her own.  Faith is not a solo venture.  We tend to self-isolate when puzzled by life’s complexities.

God’s greatest gift to us is each other.  The “each other” he has designed is what we call the church.  Sure, it is necessarily a group of other flawed individuals with blind spots and problems of their own.  But he gives us these communities so that we can better recognize his clues in cooperation with others.  The stories of Christmas in the Bible, especially the greatest story of all – that Jesus (“Savior”) is Immanuel (“God with us”) who has come to suffer with us and for our sins – is the greatest clue of all.

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