As you likely know, the holidays, which are a time of joy, feel like a curse for so many—because during a time of celebration, many people are never more aware of feeling alone. Whether from memories of lost love ones, regrets of things that have happened, feelings of abandonment—those or many other things—depression spikes, loneliness hits, and sadness reigns instead of joy. Have you experienced lonely seasons among the crowd? Have you found yourself there, hoping that maybe showing up at church will help? Truth is, even if you’re not suffering holiday depression—whatever time of year you’re reading this piece, you and I can understand and feel the loneliness. Pretty much everyone feels alone at some point, because being alone and feeling lonely are two different things. Loneliness is a subjective feeling, so it can happen even if you’re not socially isolated. In fact, often people are most lonely when they’re anonymous among so many people. New York is one of the loneliest cities in the world—all 11 million people of it.

But the irony of being connected but alone isn’t isolated to big cities. Despite internet connectivity—Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and 15 new startups that we haven’t even heard of yet—we’re connected like never before and yet more isolated than ever. We can reconnect with high school classmates, but we feel less known and connected with those who live across the hall. And the worst can be when you’re in a relationship, but that person’s not really with you—loneliness in marriage, loneliness in family, a college student out on your own, with roommates but not really known, a mom or dad home dealing with young kids. Here are the news headlines, sampled from a Google search: “Loneliness is a modern-day epidemic.” “Loneliness is a threat to public health.” “Widespread loneliness is killing people, and we need to talk about it.” According to one BYU researcher, Julianne Hold-Lunstad, the negative impact of loneliness on our health is the equivalent of 15 cigarettes per day.

In the end, we all feel a need for someone to really be with us, and in the Bible Matthew 1 works with the text of Isaiah 7 to remind us that in Jesus we have exactly that.

Way back in the year 734 AD, Ahaz, the king of the land of Judah, was in a terrible spot. He was diplomatically and militarily alone. His land had been invaded by a coalition of nations that included the kingdom of Israel up to the north and most all of modern-day Lebanon and Syria. In other words, he was facing an enemy about 40 times his size and power. It wasn’t a fair fight. And that enemy coalition had conquered pretty much his entire land and had Jerusalem, the capital city, under siege. They intended to conquer the last bit of Judah, forcibly annex it to their coalition, kill Ahaz, and install a puppet king in his place. Ahaz’s options were few—alone, surrounded by an enemy army that would settle for nothing less than destroying him.

In that situation, God sent the prophet Isaiah to king Ahaz and said, “Trust me, and I will deliver you.” I know it looks like you’re alone, but you’re not. I will save you. But you have to trust me, not anything else. And Isaiah was about to get married, in fact, but his wife was still a virgin. And Isaiah said to the king, “Look, by the time I get married, and my new wife has a child, and that child grows up to be a young adult (which to them was probably more like a teenager), God will have destroyed this whole coalition that is threatening you. The name of the child will be Immanuel—God with us—because God will be with us in this terrible, threatening situation. God will be with us to deliver us from peril.”

1 In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it. 2 When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. 3 And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. 4 And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. 5 Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, 6 “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” 7 thus says the Lord God: “ ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. 8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. 9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.’ ” 10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. – Isaiah 7:1–16 (ESV)

But Ahaz didn’t trust in God with him. The prophet warned him to stand firm in faith, but Ahaz decided that another, more visible answer, was far superior to trusting God. Way off to the north and east, on the other side of that huge coalition, was a mighty empire, called the nation of Assyria. And 2 Kings 16 tells us that Ahaz decided that trusting the emperor of Assyria was a safer bet than trusting the God of Isaiah. He sent a message to that emperor saying, “You come save me from these people who want to destroy me.” Ahaz’s answer to being diplomatically and militarily alone was to call for the king of Assyria, not to trust God. He preferred the visible answer of a human military power, not the invisible trust that God would be with him. And before we’re too hard on him, how well does the invisible hold us?

Well, the sad end of that story is that Ahaz’s call was answered. The king of Assyria did come and destroy that attacking coalition. But he also subjugated Judah. The king that Ahaz called for to end his loneliness ended up ruling him. And, a couple decades later, when Judah rebelled, that same nation of Assyria ended up destroying the entire nation of Judah except Jerusalem itself. Ahaz ran to the visible answer, the king of Assyria, and that answer ended up ruling him and then destroying his land.

And then we realize that we’re just like Ahaz. When we’re lonely, we run to the wrong things. And those things then rule us and eventually even destroy us. There’s the chemical version, where we run to something because we’re feeling lonely again, or a failure, or don’t know how to relate well. That drink seems to save us at first. It loosens us up, or it dulls the pain. It gives the buzz. But before long it starts to rule us—we need it, and we no longer have control. And eventually it doesn’t just rule us, it destroys us.  Or there’s the relational version, where we run to that person that we think will meet all our needs, will fix all our loneliness, will make us feel loved and accepted and connected and secure. But he or she ends up ruling us, controlling and distorting us, and the relationship that we hoped would bring fulfillment brings only toxicity. Or there’s the internet version. Lonely singles run to the dark places of the internet, because for just a moment those videos or pictures give the feeling of intimacy, even if it’s false. And lonely spouses run to the same places, or to the message boards that make it seem like someone will listen to us and accept us.

So, what do you run to? After four years of management consulting and 70-hour weeks, completely burned out, I took a two-month leave of absence and spent the first month of it in California with only a rental car and a plane ticket back a month later. I woke up each morning and followed my nose until I found the day’s fun. That meant is I spent almost a whole month alone. There were whole days where the only person I talked to was the grocery store clerk or the campground attendant. And for me the introvert, of course, it was glorious. But when you spend a month alone, you learn what you obsess about really quickly. Your mind runs to certain places. When you’re alone, what do you obsess about? Where do you run? Is it a healthy place?

Loneliness drives us to things that rule us, hurt us, and even destroy us. Isaiah had a vision of Judah, God’s people, trusting him fully, living in the perfect peace of Immanuel, knowing God’s presence to save and deliver them. But Ahaz, as the king, the leader of the people, had turned his back on it. And because of that the child, Immanuel, became an indictment of Ahaz’s unbelief. The child Immanuel represented what Ahaz could have had, if he would have only trusted God instead of human power.

And that meant there was still a waiting, still a realization that God hadn’t brought the fulness of Isaiah’s vision. Because “God with us” had proved to be ephemeral—an offer that was lost due to unbelief. And so, in the successive centuries, Judah lived under the domination of successive world empires. The Assyrians gave way to the Babylonians, who gave way to the Persians, who gave way to the Greeks, who, after a short period of Judean rebellion and independence, gave way to the Romans. And through it all, Judah waited for Isaiah’s vision to come true, for a time that God’s people would really experience the blessing of Immanuel, that God would be with them to deliver them and save them.

And one day, 730 years after Isaiah’s conversation with Ahaz, at just the fulness of time, God made Isaiah’s vision come true. Mary was a young woman, engaged to be married, just as Isaiah’s new wife to be was engaged to him. And Mary became pregnant, even though they had not yet come together, nor had she ever been with any man. Now Joseph was sure she had cheated on him, and he was doubtlessly heartbroken. But he was going to treat her well. There was an amazing mercy in this man Joseph. Engagement in that day was legally binding, so in his mind, he assumed she had committed adultery. She was legally liable to death for that offense in her culture, but Joseph did not pursue that. In fact, all the more, he actually tried to protect her reputation. Because engagement was legally binding, he would have to divorce her to end the engagement, and he determined to do that quietly, not to besmirch her, even though, from everything he assumed he knew, she must have done wrong. I mean, people don’t just get pregnant on their own…

The man who would be the human father—though not the biological father—of our Lord had an amazing kindness and mercy about him. And an amazing belief. As he thought through all this—and notice that he didn’t act rashly—as he pondered what to do, God sent a messenger to him, this time an angel, similar to how he had sent a prophet to the king long ago. And Joseph must have woken up and said, “Was that God, or did I just eat something really weird last night?” Because God said, “Mary hasn’t cheated on you. The child she has is hers but is also God’s. She is pregnant not because of sexual intercourse, but because God has determined to bring Isaiah’s vision true. This child will be named Jesus, which means salvation—because he will save his people from their sins. And that means God will be with us. Isaiah’s vision is now to come true.

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. – Matthew 1:18–25 (ESV)

And Joseph believed the angel, even though he must have wondered at some level whether he was in his own right mind. He would have endured huge embarrassment for marrying her. But he did not consummate that marriage until after Mary had given birth to Jesus. And this would be Immanuel—bigger than anyone could ever have fully understood—God with them. Yes, to deliver them, but not just in a metaphorical battlefield sense like it had been with Ahaz. Literally God incarnate, come to earth. God stepped into history incarnate—he came to be with us.

But the real sense of Immanuel wasn’t just at the beginning of Jesus’ life, but at the end. You see, all those years ago, Ahaz, the king of the Jews, had the offer of Immanuel, of God with him, and he rejected it, instead preferring the support of a foreign human king to deliver him. Thirty-three years later, the leaders of the Jews (the Judeans) in Jerusalem would do the very same thing. They would re-commit the sin of Ahaz, but even worse—as hard as that is to fathom. When faced with the choice of God with him or the Assyrians, Ahaz chose favor with the Assyrian emperor over trust in God.

Now the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had an even greater offer—they didn’t just have the offer of God with them on the battlefield to save them from a foreign military power. They had God with them in the flesh! God himself, incarnate—Jesus Christ the son of God made flesh, born of a virgin, born as a human baby, grown and healing many and preaching the good news to the poor, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, telling them that it was time for Isaiah’s vision to finally come true. And they rejected that. Just like Ahaz before them, they preferred currying favor with a foreign king over trusting Immanuel—God with them—so they went to the Romans and said, “Crucify this man. We have no king but Caesar.” And they bullied and pushed and threatened unrest against Pontius Pilate until Jesus was hanging on a cross, dead. Ahaz had an offer of Immanuel and rejected it. The leaders in Jerusalem had Immanuel himself—the one all of Isaiah’s promises looked towards, God incarnate, God with us—and rejected him, hanging him on a cross to suffer and die.

But three days later, they would find that God’s plans could not be stopped. Because that tomb would be empty and the cross would be a memory, but God would still be with us. Because God had come, and the worst that the devil and humanity together could offer had nothing that could stop God’s plan to be with his people. The tomb was empty and Christ had risen, conquering even death itself.

Why did God do this thing? Because he had in mind something bigger than just saving the land of Judah from foreign domination. To Ahaz “God with us” meant on the battlefield. But in Christ we have so much more. We have Jesus, a friend of sinners. Think what Immanuel, Jesus Christ, died and risen from the dead means for us.

First, it means he has delivered us. Look at what the angel said to Joseph in verse 21, “for he will save his people from their sins.” They had lived under foreign domination for over 750 years because, due to Ahaz’s sin and the sin of others after him, they had never received the fulness of Isaiah’s promise of Immanuel. Even Joseph might have thought that the angel’s promise meant deliverance from the Roman occupation—the consequence of the sinful leadership of the nation. But when God said, “save his people from their sins,” he meant more than just the temporal consequences of sin. He meant to save us from hell itself. Because every sin has the power not just to cause us harm in this life—to rule us and eventually destroy us—but the power to destroy us for eternity, what the Bible calls hell. To realize that there is a God but to spend eternity cut off from his grace, feeling only the judgment of having rejected our creator. As Paul says in Romans, “The wages of sin is death.” But Jesus, by taking death for us and rising from the grave, had something bigger in mind—to save us from sin itself, that death itself would not be the end, but that death in this world would be the gateway into life eternal. He did that for you, and for me. He died so you and I wouldn’t have to, so we would be freed from sin, both its power and its punishment.

Second, this means that Jesus “gets it” when we feel alone. Jesus, God with us, the one who had every right to perfect fellowship with God the Father, would end up alone, on the cross, shunned by God the Father. So, when we feel forsaken, Jesus says, “Yes, I really do know what that feels like—in ways and a depth you can’t fathom.” I still remember well a time in my late 20s where it seemed like every human on earth had abandoned me. That was a bit melodramatic I now see, but then I really did feel completely alone, forsaken. Even God himself seemed dry and dull and uninterested. I so well remember opening a Bible, mumbling a halfhearted prayer—doing what I knew I should even though I didn’t feel it—and then it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks: Jesus said, “Yes, I do know. When my best friends had abandoned me, when they had cursed my name, it was still okay. But then on that cross, when God the Father turned his face away, I was truly and fully forsaken. And I did that for you. I do understand what it means to be alone. And I became alone and forsaken so you never truly would be.” It means Jesus “gets it” on our loneliness, because he entered it to save us.

And third, that means we aren’t out there on our own as we live the Christian life. He says that he is with us, forever and always, that he is our friend. But how is he with us if we can’t see him? I mean, I’m not sure that the invisible holds me any better than it held king Ahaz 2700 years ago. So how is Jesus with us right now? How do we commune with someone we cannot see or touch or feel? Long ago, the apostle Thomas was able to put his hand into the healed wound in the side of the resurrected Christ, but you and I believe with a faith that cannot be by sight, because Jesus has ascended to be with the Father until he one day comes again. Until then, Jesus has left us his spirit. The theological term for that is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that when we come to faith in Christ, we have his Holy Spirit indwelling our hearts, that we have God with us in a way that can never be taken away.

As I was thinking about loneliness, I read a fascinating article in the Economist daily email update focused on social media. The researchers are still teasing all this out, of course, so it’s not clear what causes what, but the correlation between much of social media and depression and loneliness and anxiety and even mental illness is starting to very much look like it’s there. But the fascinating thing about this article was that it decomposed the different types of social media, focusing on happiness rates for various types of electronic technologies. And the best ones were things like FaceTime, Skype and the like where you had real connections with real world people, where you talked back and forth, where you could talk to them and they could talk to you, not just read things about how great they were and how perfect their lives were and then try to fight the feeling that you were missing out.

That’s what prayer is—it’s a two-way conversation, walking through life together. We talk to God in prayer, and he leads us back by showing us truth as we read the Bible. The great promise of Immanuel is not just that he saves you from your sins and then disappears. It’s not even just that he understands when you feel completely alone. It’s that he’s with you always, and always available for a FaceTime chat. We can walk through life in prayer, in the study of the Bible, expecting God to be with us and speak back to us. We can even be brought together in fellowship with each other because we know he is in us and with us individually but even more as a community.

Remember that being alone and feeling alone are two different things. There are still times in our lives where we feel alone, because that’s a subjective thing. But the promise of the gospel is that if you are in Christ, even at those times you feel alone, you aren’t. God is with you, even if you can’t see him or feel him. If you are his, he never abandons you. So, start talking to him and see what might happen.

Here’s the sum of it all: we all feel alone at certain times. It’s common to human experience. Even if we aren’t alone, we feel it. And when we feel alone, we run to the wrong things, things that destroy us. What is it for you? Is it the chemical version? The relational version? The internet version? Or some other version? Do you see how it’s ruling you? How it dominates you, even threatens to destroy you? We need to run to Jesus. How do you do that? Next time you feel alone, instead try praying, try your Bible, try worship, try fellowship with other believers. God hasn’t given up on you; don’t give up on him.

An ordained minister and the first professor of Reformed Theological Seminary NYC in Manhattan where he serves as Professor of Old Testament and Dean of Students, Bill earned a Ph.D. in Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America. He completed his M.Div. at RTS Orlando and serves as a pastor at McLean Presbyterian Church.

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