Immanuel: God crosses a boundary (or two)
Christmas stories of travel, haste & flight
More than 2000 years ago, in an insignificant part of Palestine, an insignificant couple made a long and onerous journey to fulfil the functional ambitions of a Roman emperor. This journey was to reverberate throughout history and irrevocably change the world.
Nativity scenes on cards and manger tableaux in shopping malls give a false, static view of the Christmas story. The narratives in Luke and Matthew are full of movement: the 90-mile trek to Bethlehem, the rush of the shepherds to see the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, the pilgrimage of the Magi from the East, the flight into Egypt, and the return journey to Nazareth. These are journeys that crossed boundaries and borders, all in keeping with a God moved by love, a God on the move, and people moving in obedience to His command.
From Nazareth in the northern Galilean region of Palestine, Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary would have taken up to ten days to arrive in Bethlehem, travelling south along the flatlands of the Jordan River then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem to finally reach their destination.
The shepherds on the hills surrounding Bethlehem found the strength to run to see the newly born in the adjacent village (Luke 2:17). Meanwhile some sages in faraway Persia (now Iran) were getting ready to make a long journey. Sometime later they arrived in Jerusalem, the natural place to look for a ‘King of the Jews’, and were directed to a ‘house in Bethlehem’ (Matthew 2:11).
The holy family’s flight to Egypt would have entailed crossing dangerous cultural and political boundaries: the Roman Empire had only successfully annexed Egypt after the defeat of Anthony & Cleopatra in 30BC. We are not told where Joseph and Mary stayed as refugees in Egypt, nor for how long. However, soon after 4BC (the date of Herod’s death) they took the lengthy road back, avoiding Bethlehem, to Nazareth.
God crosses a boundary
The most cosmic boundary crossing ever made, as Mary laid her newly born son in a cattle trough, was that between heaven and earth. God took a risk. Although He had appeared in theophanies of angelic beings and dreams, never before had He physically entered into human flesh and blood.
Immanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל), as we are aware, means ‘God with us’, a name first used in Isaiah’s prophecy some 700 years earlier. Matthew recognises the fulfilment of the Isaiah prophecy in the birth of Jesus (Matthew 1: 23). A Hebrew speaker once told me the preposition used here has the same idea as ‘coffee with milk’. It is not just that ‘God is with us’, as He had been in times of trouble. In the Incarnation, He took on flesh and lived among us. Matthew and Luke give the narrative, John spells it out: “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). God had crossed a boundary. His mission to redeem humanity had begun in the blood and pain of a birth in Bethlehem.
Bringing heaven to earth
Throughout his life, Jesus crossed cultural and religious boundaries; through his ministry and for the Kingdom. He taught his disciples to pray “your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). He commissioned his disciples to make more disciples, to teach them what he had taught them (Matthew 28:20) and to cross boundaries whilst doing so (Acts 1:8). He continues to commission us to imitate him in incarnational mission; to bring heaven to earth. This then is the heart of what it means to be missional church. To cross boundaries, to bring heaven to earth. This is the heart of pioneer ministry.
Dr Alistair Macindoe
Tutor in Pioneer MInistry