Journeying Together: “God with Us”
Since July we have gathered as a church around the sermon theme of Journeying Together. Spending some time using this phrase and exploring the Exodus community behind it, has been a helpful way of describing a vision for our church at a time of transition. I hope in some small way that this has refocussed our expression of Christian life here in Scar-borough and in this article, I will conclude this bringing the series to its ultimate horizon. Quite naturally Journeying To-gether has concentrated on how we as a community might walk before God with integrity and with the eyes of faith. While we might expect that the Lord will both direct us and provide for our needs on the way, this approach starts with us, which is not nearly sufficient and certainly not the whole story. For instance, there are times when “life” throws too much at us and we can’t cope. Our work of supporting the Rainbow Centre is a testimony to the complexity of hardship for those foundering at the edges of our society. The depth of sadness felt recently in the town through untimely bereavements, or just the increasing significance of the Remembrance services each year are notable examples of the difficulty of life. At times like this we need help from beyond us and the confines of our Journeying Together.
The Christmas season introduces a really important phrase into the Christian vocabulary: “God with us.” Immanuel is the Hebrew counterpart and is first introduced in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This verse recurs enigmatically as part of a prophecy that the New Testament writers clearly identified with the birth of Jesus as it had been explained to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:23). They were making the bold statement that the birth of Jesus was a sign, or more than that, it was the embodiment of God-with-us. Our series on Journeying Together through Exodus has already taught us that God periodically intervened to save his people. The deliverance from Egypt at the shores of the Re(e)d Sea; the provision of manna in the wilderness, or water from the Rock, even the Word of God pronounced and recorded on the tablets of stone are all examples of this divine intervention. These are momentary. Instead, God-with-us describes a horizon of intervention that is wholly different and significantly greater than what we read in the Exodus narrative.
The significance of God-with-us is that in Jesus, God joined the journey that we are on. We are given further clues to this journey of God in the prologue to John’s Gospel. John says “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world, (John 1:9)” and “the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14)” to show us that God has made a journey to us. They tell of how God dared to clothe his glory and infinitude with our frail flesh and tread our dusty journey of life. What a risk that represents! In Jesus, God entered into the deeply unfriendly territory of the difficulties, hardships and sadness of our lives. To every exclamation that “God doesn’t understand what I’m going through” there is the gentle reply: “God-with-us.” It is no surprise then that the writer of John’s gospel compares Jesus with Moses (John 1:17), because the journey that God made into our flesh fulfils the mandates of the ten commandments written on tablets of stone. God no longer commands us what to do or not to do. Instead, Jesus completed our journey for us and calls from our flesh to follow him “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).”
How does this help us? Traditionally, the Christmas message is about exchanging presents. This is rooted in the gift of God’s son Jesus Christ, in whom we recognise God-with-us This exchange has two sides, so “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …” As we look to Jesus and receive the gift of God-with-us; it’s like God takes on our flesh anew. A famous Christmas carol points to this: “O holy child of Bethlehem descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born to us today.” God-with-us is the promise that our circumstances can change, because God can change us from the inside out. It is the eternal promise that despite the darkest times of life when we simply can’t cope, we can draw on the strength of both God-with-us and in us. This is about allowing God to take the Initiative because he has already made the journey before us and for us and now in us. This is the ultimate horizon of Journeying Together and I pray that this Christmastide we all may find the faith to perceive its importance, receive his presence and be strengthened by the reality that is God-with-us.
With blessings from Richard