What do you need today? There are so many ways we could probably answer that question. Some might say, “I need a vacation. I need a break. I need to get out of my apartment or house.” Others might say, “I need safety and health.” Still others might say, “I need help with my finances,” or “I need a new job,” or “I need something to lift my spirits.”
But let me ask us to consider: What is it that we truly need today?
Now, this is church, and I am a pastor, so you might expect the answer I’m going to suggest. It’s this: “What we most need right now is Jesus.” That comes right out of a very simple Scripture we often read at Christmas time from Matthew 1:20-23, where an angel appears to Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
(Read Matthew 1:20-23)
I know, you may have heard that before, but let me suggest to you a few reasons why it is true that what we most need today is Jesus. I am not here to argue about the value of a vacation, or a new job, or good health—these are incredibly important. However, I do believe that what we really need—underneath it all—is Jesus.
Some of us may remember the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian who later served in World War 2. During his service, Zamperini was shot down over the Pacific, survived 47 days at sea, was interned in several prisoner of war camps for more than two years, and survived to come home at the end of the war. Zamperini’s story was told in the 2014 movie Unbroken.
One would have thought that what Zamperini most needed was rescue from his terrible conditions. He did need that, but it wasn’t enough. After returning home, he struggled with PTSD and began drinking heavily to cope with it. His wife, Cynthia, was a strong Christian and eventually asked him to attend an evangelistic meeting led by Billy Graham. In 1949, at that meeting, Zamperini turned away from alcohol and gave his life over to God, eventually changed so much that he was able to forgive his captors. What Zamperini really needed wasn’t just rescue and relief, but a total transformation that only Jesus could provide.
I’d like to suggest this is true not just for Louis Zamperini in his situation but for all of us in all our situations.
Jesus—the One Who Truly Saves
One of the reasons we truly need Jesus is something we read earlier in Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is told he should name this miracle child Mary is carrying, “Jesus.” The angel visiting Joseph tells us this name means: “he will save his people from their sins.”
What does it mean that Jesus saves from sin? Well, that requires us to understand what sin is. According to Scripture, sin describes both our actions that violate God’s commands but also our state of alienation from God himself. We have this amazing capacity to do what is wrong, even when we know it’s wrong. But we also have a startling inability to change who we are and our tendencies to short circuit ourselves. Jesus came, we’re told, to deal with this.
Sin is more than a short or long-term financial, medical, or societal problem. It is a cosmic problem, something bigger than us that we cannot solve and we need to be saved from. Notice that when the angel mentions sin, he does not stay in the realm of the general but becomes specific. The angels says that Jesus’ name means he will save his people from their sins.
I had an elementary school teacher who used to tell us that when we would point our fingers at someone, we had three fingers pointing back at us. The point of that illustration was to remind us to be aware of our own problems or contribution to the problem, not just focusing on someone else.
When we start talking about sin, we often want to point the finger at someone else. You know, the really sinful people. But the angel doesn’t do that because Jesus is here to save everybody because, guess what, we’re all caught up in the power of sin. We all do things at odds with God’s ways, and we are all in one way or another in a state of relational rupture or alienation from God. Sin is a personal problem for all of us.
The wonderful gift of Jesus that we celebrate this Christmas is that we are not left in our sins—our wrong actions or our alienation from God. Jesus is the Savior we truly need. Like Louis Zamperini, even if we get the rescue we want, we still must deal with the people we are. Thank God for Jesus, the Messiah, whose birth leads to the Cross, where Jesus, the sinless sin-bearer, brings salvation for everyone who reaches out to him.
Jesus Our Immanuel
Not only is Jesus the One who we need because he truly saves, but we find out something else profound about Jesus that speaks to one of the deepest places of our lives. Letting us know that Jesus is the fulfillment of a message from the prophet Isaiah, Matthew tells us that Jesus will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
2020 was one of the hardest times of our lives. We experienced so much distance from others, leaving many of us feeling lonely. In Spain, one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19, amidst very strict guidelines, nursing homes restricted visits for almost four months. This meant that family members—spouses, children—were unable to visit with their loved ones for more than a third of the year. Some of us have experienced this too.
Recognizing the need for touch, the nursing homes in Spain eventually developed ways for loved ones to not only visit one another safely but to physically hug through plastic for protection from the virus. We need connection. We need to know we are not alone and that we are loved.
Jesus’ birth, the center of our Christmas celebration, is a resounding message from God that we are not alone and that we are loved. Immanuel—God is with us.
One of the most common questions we ask as humans, especially in times like these, is, “Where is God?” When we go through suffering, darkness, or challenges, we wonder, Is God really there? We can at times feel like God is not with us.
But the message of Christmas is that God is with us. Our feelings at this moment, while still important, do not determine reality. God has not forgotten us and has not turned away from us. Instead, God has drawn near. In fact, God is here. Immanuel—God with us.
I love the way that The Message paraphrase of the Bible renders this idea from John 1:14: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
Christmas reminds us that God is not an idea. God is not simply a feeling. God is real and, more personally than that, God is close to us. Even when we feel alone, God is close at hand. He is with us in the deepest darkness, and the darkness is not dark to him. Like a sunbeam breaking through the window of a prison, God is with us. Like the beating of our hearts in the middle of the night, God’s heart beats with love for us. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.
So what do we really need today? I think we’ve all figured out that what we need is not just one more cool Christmas gift—a tech gadget or a beautiful sweater or whatever else comes to your mind.
These past few years brought us back to some of the basic matters of life: surviving, health, shelter, and a good job. It has brought us back to what matters most: The people we love, being with them, and being able to wrap our arms around them in a hug.
So what is it that we need? I mean, what do we really need?
Something more, because these past few years taught us that life is fleeting and that we are not in control. We need something to come from outside of us and totally transform our lives. We truly need Jesus.
Yes, I know this might be the expected answer. But it’s expected, perhaps even cliché, because it is so true. We need to know God can save us from sin, both now and for eternity. We also need to know that God is with us, Immanuel.
I don’t want to miss the chance for us today to consider what that means for us in our lives that God has come in Jesus Christ. I don’t want to miss the chance for each of us to consider how we might respond to that. May this be the time we take a step forward in our life with God.
Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.