“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” – John 1:14 (MSG)
“But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” -Jesus, to Nicodemus, in John 3:21
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a consultation to explore the intersections of Christian worship practices and income inequality. It wouldn’t seem like those two things fit together, but we were curious: were they as separate as they seemed?
One of the speakers was a journalist from San Antonio, TX. San Antonio, believe it or not, has the biggest income gap in all of the United States. This means that there is such segregation between the extremely poor and the extremely rich that there is a rare chance that you’ll see a poor person in a rich neighborhood, and a rich person in a poor neighborhood; and that the poor will only get poorer, and the rich will only get richer.
The journalist also did some digging around into solutions to bridge the gap, and came up with this sobering fact: church and nonprofit efforts, in their volunteering, developing programs, serving, giving time, and giving money – all the churches’ efforts combined – made only a small dent in the actual solution to alleviating poverty.
It’s hard not to feel discouraged by this fact. I’ve spent time doing serving trips, giving money and time, making lots of food and numerous donations, going to rallies and signing petitions, community organizing and networking, and you mean to tell me that it really doesn’t make a difference in changing things? That it’s not helpful?
And then, I thought about Jesus coming to earth, and what he actually did. Did Jesus change policies and procedures? Did he enact a health care plan or alleviate poverty? In other words, what problems did Jesus solve by coming down to earth?
This led to me thinking even more about the idea of Jesus living among us. What was the significance of God becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood? I meditated and prayed about this for a long time.
Slowly, it came to me. I remembered this one word, and it really reminded me to understand things more through God’s eyes. This one word changed appeared in my mind and changed the way that I processed all of this information, kept me from getting discouraged, and actually gave me a sense of peace amidst my confusion. This one word is actually a state of being, an adjective, and an action verb all at the same time. This word sums up everything Jesus is and everything Jesus calls us to.
Emmanuel means “God with us.” It doesn’t mean “God fix us” or “God solve us.” It’s a word that is a state of being, a description, and an action at the same time. God wanted to come down and be with us. If you read the book of John carefully, you’ll see that the whole book is centered around the fact that Jesus was sent by God, is God in human form, and came down to be with us. To me, this means 3 things:
When God is with us, we are reminded that God is God, and we are not. There is a bigger plan at play, one that we can only know a fraction of as humans, and one where we are not in control (thank God!). In John 8 Jesus says, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world; I am not of this world.” We are told many times that he has come down from heaven, such as in Chapters 3 and 6. Whatever is happening in the course of Jesus’ ministry, whether it’s people freaking out because they ran out of wine at a wedding, or Lazarus dying, or even his own death on the cross and resurrection, Jesus knows everything that is happening and has orchestrated a perfect plan that goes far beyond our understanding. Jesus is in complete control and he knows how everything will play out.
When God is with us, our main objective is to follow him and declare him as the Lord of our lives. Jesus came to Lazarus, who had been already dead for four days, and his family in Chapter 11:27. After Jesus raised him to life, Martha declared, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” In John 10, Jesus is the good shepherd and we are the sheep in a time where others seek to destroy us. Or in Chapter 15, when Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. These are all clear indications that Jesus is Lord, and we stay deeply connected to him by following him.
When God is with us, we are reminded that there is an open invitation to be with him in the work that he is doing. Jesus invited the 12 disciples to be with him during the course of his ministry, and towards the end of his time on earth as it states in Chapter 13, he told them exactly what they could do to make sure that he would always “be with us”: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another…by [loving one another] everyone will know you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
Doing the work of loving one another, which means far more than relational complacency, would ensure that “God with us” would continue long after his death and resurrection. During this time of the now and not yet, we are to serve, give sacrificially, lament and rejoice, be present in our neighborhoods and our places of exile, and stand up for our fellow brothers and sisters, as an extension of “God with us.”
See the mind shift here? The temptation would be to view my acts of service, donations, and time as ways to alleviate poverty and eradicate the problem. These are all noble goals, to be sure. But if I re-center around the state of being, adjective, and action verb of Emmanuel, I see that my acts are real chances of living and breathing “God with us.”
May I, in beloved community, embody “God with us.”
May I, in beloved community, be described as “God with us.”
May I, in my actions in the beloved community, speak “God with us.”
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*Originally given as a sermonette on Christmas Day at Willow Chicago