The JOY of God-With-Us 4th Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16 Ps. 80:1-7, 17-19 Matt. 1:18-25
Those of us who have had toddlers remember a phase our kids went through. I call it the “I do it!” phase, because kids begin to understand that they are capable of things they were never able to do before, and they INSIST on doing them! “I do it!” It’s an important step in the continuous process of becoming independent and creative. However, there are milestones along the way that remind them of the inter-dependent nature of our lives.
For instance, when they learn to ride a bicycle. We stand alongside them, holding the seat, keeping them upright and providing crucial thrust until they, wobbling and swerving and screaming, begin to pedal and balance and experience the wonderful rush of riding a bike! This is a milestone in the process of growing up. It means doing something on their own (while grown-ups stay close) and it means achieving a certain degree of self-reliance—and mobility. Driving is soon to follow!
You and I have a similar relationship with God. As much as we wish to be independent (we never truly outgrow I do it!), and as much as God wants us to grow through the process of becoming independent and creative, we were never meant to live our lives in a disconnected fashion. God calls us into a partnership, an INTER-DEPENDENCE that maximizes our JOY and our effectiveness in this world. Like this quote from John Owens: “God works in us and with us, not against us or without us.”
Our Scriptures for today mark a distinctive progression in the development of our Judeo-Christian faith. The ancients perceived a god that was powerful but distant, one who manipulated the lives of mortals for entertainment, rather than a God who is intensely interested in the welfare of humanity. Isaiah proclaims the coming of One who will be known as Immanuel: Imma-Nu-El, with-us-God. These words have been used for over two thousand years, so the revolutionary quality of them has dimmed. Having God with us was once a startling idea, and it’s one that can still make a difference to our jaded and self-willed generation. Let’s take a look.
From Presents to Presence
Let’s listen in as Moses talks to God, after leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. He says, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If I have found favor in your eyes, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Wow! MY PRESENCE WILL GO WITH YOU!
You see, Moses had been looking for a helper, a co-leader, a human being who would help shoulder the burden of leadership. He did not expect God’s actual presence! And when you and I have a sense that God has given us a task, a special commission, God’s Presence is with us as we face those challenges. I want to keep this in mind in these days leading up to Christmas. God’s Presence is with us!
I don’t know about you, but I need to keep working at shifting my focus away from gifts and shipping and food and stress, and allow some silence in which I enjoy the Presence of the Holy One of Israel! A time to remember God’s decision to come and be with us. To picture God as an attentive parent alongside a kid learning to ride a bicycle, our loving God alongside you and me as we are learning to LIVE!
In the Old Testament, God’s people are commanded: “Rejoice before the Lord your God.” The Psalmist declares, “I will be glad and rejoice in You!” And the prophets look ahead to the time when “The people will rejoice in the Lord.”
In the New Testament, we hear Jesus’ command, “Rejoice and be glad.” Paul advises the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice!” And we find songs of praise that encourage us: “Let us rejoice and be glad.”
It’s obvious that rejoicing is an act of the will. It’s a rational decision to look for joy, to expect it, to imagine it, to anticipate it. Those who look for joy are far more likely to find it than those who wait for it to sneak up on them!
Learning how to rejoice is part of the development of our Christian faith.
Ministry of Presence
Another thing you and I must grow in is our giving of ourselves in a ministry of presence—being WITH those who need us. Jesus is described as Immanuel, “with-us-God,” and those who wish to follow Jesus are learning how to BE with others. For example:
- Holding a hand of someone in need, alongside their hospital bed or just walking alongside someone who is struggling;
- Inviting someone into your daily life—practicing withness
- God’s presence with us empowers us to be present with others!
Remember the movie “E. T.—the Extra Terrestrial”? At the end, young Elliot is stricken with grief when ET is preparing to return to his home planet. And ET touches Elliot’s heart and says to him, “I’ll be right here.” Sounds very much like what Jesus said to his Disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
So, friends, you and I can choose to experience the Joy of God’s Presence:
- When it seems the struggle is fruitless—God is there;
- When it feels kind of lonely—God is there
- When everyone around us seems to be spinning out of control preparing for the celebration of Christmas, you and I can take comfort in the simple name “Immanuel”—God is with us.
I’ll finish with a story about a medical doctor named Amy Givler. Amy was pregnant, but was diagnosed with cancer. Her treatment process was tricky, trying to be careful of her unborn child. But the whole ordeal brought her closer to God as she constantly prayed the Psalms. She completely trusted our “with-us-God.”
She was healed, and reports that now she is much more present to her own patients—she listens much more carefully. She is experiencing the JOY of the Presence of God!