Evelyn turned down the TV, so that she could hear the microwave. It would only take two minutes for dinner to be ready, but sometimes she sat down and got engrossed in a show and forgot until the microwave gourmet was already cold. Those things aren’t that great re-warmed once, but re-warmed twice? Might as well play racquetball with the cordon bleu.
Those were her favorites. Her daughter had insisted that she change to the lean cuisine varieties, making mealtime that much less enjoyable. “It’s for your heart, mom,” she insisted. “It’s got to get by my taste buds first,” Evelyn would mutter. She knew that her daughter had only her best interests in mind. That’s why she had moved her away from her home to the city where she and her husband lived. She had her best interests in mind. That’s why she took the car keys, after the accident in the parking lot. She had her best interests in mind. That’s why the dinners crafted by Goodyear. Her best interests.
And when Evelyn sat down and thought through everything, she agreed. But that didn’t change the feelings. She missed her friends. She missed her church. She missed her favorite restaurant and a good piece of pecan pie.
And she missed her family. Sure, one of her daughters was closer now. But the move had taken her away from the grandkids, too. They couldn’t come to visit at the townhome like they had in the old place. She missed that, too. In a word, she was simply lonely.
Looking down, she realized that she had been running her finger over the call button on her emergency necklace. It was strange, but she had found herself doing that more and more. She felt great, surely a byproduct of the “health food” warming in the microwave. But over and again, she found herself pulling it out and running her finger over the button. She found herself dreaming about what would happen if she hit that button. People would rush in and find out how she was. They would ask questions of her. They would touch her arm to check her pulse. And she blushed a little at the thought, but she realized, that if she did, then for just a few moments, she wouldn’t be alone.
And as she stared past the television, dreaming into space, the microwave alarm went off…for the fourth time…as the mashed potatoes started to congeal again.
Steve stared into space as he lay in bed. Another two hours until the alarm would go off. Time to get another sleep cycle in. Even though he knew that he wouldn’t. He never did. He played over the conversations of the day before, wondering what he could have said differently. Done differently. Four months into his new job, he still felt completely alone. The conversations he had were empty and shallow. The friendships between those who had been with the firm much longer were deep and familiar. But every time he walked into the room, they changed their conversations from what happened last weekend at the barbeque quickly over to work topics. He wasn’t in. He was alone.
He laughed at the thought. How could he be alone with so many people around all the time? He and his wife had four girls, and three cats, and a goldfish named Steve Jr. (at the fourth girl, he insisted that someone was going to have his name.) Even as he lay in bed, he was thankful for his wife. He could tell her anything. He had such a great family. He felt selfish for not being more thankful for them. But in spite of so many people, he struggled to find a time and place to be able to really connect with them, or with anyone.
Sometimes, when he was particularly worked up and it was early in the morning and his logical capacities were not at their highest, he blamed his parents. They should have had more kids! He had read somewhere that only-children had a harder time making friends. They didn’t get to practice on their siblings when they were young. Maybe that’s why he wanted to keep having kids – so they wouldn’t have to deal with the same thing.
He felt silly for having such a pity party. “Get over it,” he told himself, “are you a middle schooler?” Stop being so self-centered. You have your health. You have your family. You have a great job. But that didn’t stop him from asking himself again and again. With all this stuff and all these people, why did he feel so alone? So he flipped the pillow over to the cool side, hoping it would relax him enough to fall asleep.
Katelyn closed the door of her apartment, locking every lock and double checking it twice. She knew that she was safe, but it didn’t hurt to double check again, right? She threw her keys on the table and turned on the TV. She turned on the oven in the kitchen and switched on the radio. She went to the bedroom to take off her shoes and stuck her phone on the iHome and turned on the music. He friends laughed at her whenever they came over and saw that every room in the house had some kind of noise, but she didn’t care. It helped her feel less…alone.
She had never loved being alone, but it had become harder and harder over the last couple of years. She followed her career to a new town, and in the process lost contact with a lot of her friends. She told everyone it was worth it, for such a great job in such a fun city. But deep down, she wondered. She thought that she had fallen into some level of depression. At the homeless shelter where she worked, there was a quote on the refrigerator to remind everyone of the difficulty of working with those who are emotionally depressed. “To those who deal with depression, even the most marvelous thing is like music to the deaf. Even the greatest thing is like a shower of stars to the blind.” She had told herself this again and again, that so many of those who she worked with were not simply going to cheer themselves up and pull themselves up by the boot straps. Psychologically, clinically, practically, it was darn near impossible.
Then one night, as she sat watching her favorite show, eating takeout from her favorite place, relaxing with her new and exciting boyfriend, that it all seemed a little empty. Meaningless. Lonely.
She had had several relationships since she moved to the city. More than once, they had moved in with her, at her suggestion. It seemed like it made the loneliness go away a little. But again, deep down she knew that none of them were really for her. They were just placeholders. Little more than the TV or the radio or the iHome. Keeping her company. When the last one moved out, she was devastated. Of all of them, she thought that he had the most potential for being “the one.” Until that night with the takeout, when she looked at him and knew that something was still missing. She smiled and faked it for a while, but that night, she knew it was over.
Now, with the dial on her electricity meter spinning and the night wearing on, she plopped in front of the TV. Before she knew it, tears were streaming down her face. Her loneliness was palpable, as she asked herself how long before someone really knew who she was. Would she always be alone? Was there anyone who cared? She was just so tired, of being alone.
Ahaz the king sat on his throne with his head in his hands. He hadn’t a friend in the world. The kings of the neighboring kingdoms had it out for him. They had put his city under siege, trying to kick him out and replace him with a king who would be on their side, who would go to war with them against the superpower Assyria. Those in his royal court vacillated between hawks that wanted to take on Assyria and politicians who wanted to use the coming war as a way to further their own power interests, even take the throne if they could. Everyone was afraid of what would happen if the siege lasted. The city had begun to turn on him. But no one understood the king. No one understood his fear, for the king could not appear to be afraid. No one understood his ambiguity, for the king had to be wise all the time. No one could understand his vulnerabilities, for the king must be in charge. So, head in his hands, he waited for the prophet to enter.
Finally, Isaiah strode into the court. Ahaz lifted his head and sat proudly. The prophet wasted no time, “Are you ready for a sign from the Lord, that everything will be okay?” The king paused. Was it a trick? Was he testing him to make sure that he would say the right answer? The king hazarded a guess at what he was supposed to say. “I do not need a sign. I will not put God to the test.”
Isaiah smiled, and Ahaz relaxed. He figured had answered correctly. Until the smile disappeared, and Isaiah called BS on him. Ahaz was a lucky man…if you have someone who loves you enough to call BS on you, don’t let them go. Theirs is a holy gift. Isaiah called BS on him. “Of course you want a sign,” he responded. “You want to know desperately that you have made the right choice. That your choice of peace will succeed. That someone is on your side. That God is going to be with you. So here it is.” He brought a young woman to the king. Ahaz had no idea who she was. She could have been one of the members of the court. She could have been a wife of a visiting dignitary. She could have been Isaiah’s wife. All he knew is that she was pregnant, and she was big. “This young woman will deliver a son. And before he knows right from wrong, before he grows up, when he is weaned from milk to solid food, he will not eat the dried crumbs of a besieged city, but instead eat curds and honey in a time of peace. And this young woman will name this child Immanuel – God with us – because she knows that even when you are afraid, even when you are unsure, even when you are vulnerable, even when you are alone, God is with you.”
Pastor Mike lifted his eyes from the story of Isaiah. It was Christmas Eve and he looked out on the smiling faces on the front row. He knew that so many of them were lying through their teeth. It looked to him like the picture that hung up above his family’s couch. There they are – mom and dad and kids, all in color coordinated outfits, standing in front of the Christmas tree. What a beautiful picture! What a big, fat lie! We all know that those pictures only come after through minutes, of not hours of scrubbing, and jamming unhappy bodies into those matching outfits, and pleading and bribing and threatening children for that one shot that can be printed and sent grandparents. But everyone who looks up at that picture knows it is a lie. It is not representative of real life. The preacher saw beyond the smiles and the Christmas sweaters, and saw with a moment of truth the pain, and the sadness, and the fear, and the loneliness that so many of them felt. He knew that so many in that place that night were hurting and afraid and alone. They wondered if they had anyone who cared about them, who knew them, who heard them. He looked on the third row at Steve. At his mother in law Evelyn who had moved to town a year ago. At his eldest daughter Katelyn who was back from the city to visit for Christmas. And he saw in each of their eyes that they needed someone to name for them that they were not alone.
So his voice got stronger as he spoke. Immanuel – God with us – is not just about a king in the Old Testament, or even a baby in the manger, but it is also about God here and now and present and alive and real in our lives. That the baby in the manger came to preach and teach and die because God is a God who does not leave people alone. Because God is a God who knows who we are and what we need. Because God is a God who is with us as a matter of definition.
And that anyone who feels alone or afraid or depressed or sad has a reason to hope. For those who are restless will find their rest in God. God with us. For God is not simply God who once was, but God who is eternal. God is not simply a God who is up there, but a God who is right here. God is not simply a God who knows things, but a God who knows us.
And as Pastor Mike invited them to raise their candles that night, he prayed for each and every one of them to know that God loves them, that God knows them, and that God is with them. Because that’s who God is.