One Sunday, in advent, in a preparation for worship, Matt Buccheri pointed out something I had never noticed. The book of Matthew, one of the four Gospels, is both begun and ended with the promise of “Emmanuel, God with us.” In Matthew 1:23 we are told that the prophecy of the coming of Christ will be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus,...“and they will call him Emmanuel—which means, ‘God with us.’”
Then at the end of Matthew, when Jesus is returning to reign in heaven, he promises his disciples in chapter 28, verse 20, the very last words of the book, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
While we are just past the season of singing and celebrating the incarnation of God in the coming of Jesus—“Emmanuel, God with us”—we should take time to remember that there is no seasonal time limit on both the joy and the weight of Jesus always being with us, to the end of the age. Joy, because we are not left on our own, to muddle through (or not) with only a vague awareness of God’s presence. Weight, as in a sense of responsibility, because God’s presence is not only a comfort, but also a challenge to live in the new age that has begun.
Here’s an old technique to help you squeeze the meaning out of a verse of scripture. Take the phrase “God with us” and give yourself 10 minutes to write down everything that follows from each of the words in that phrase.
For instance: GOD. It is the maker of the universe, the transcendent, glorious, holy, perfect, wise, omnipotent, Yahweh, our covenantal savior, who is with us. And this superlative, loving, holy being is WITH us: not far off, not uninterested, not attending to the machinery of running the cosmos, but WITH us, every day, every moment, every heartache and every need intimately known to him. Amazingly, this God who is with us, is with US: sinful, easily distracted, self-absorbed, selfish US.
Obviously the above is not an exhaustive list. If you really do take that 10-minute challenge, your list will be much, much longer. But the point will be the same. Jesus is not merely some historical figure who lived a long time ago and far, far away. He is more present to us, in his Spirit, than he was with the 12 disciples who walked around the dusty roads of Palestine with him. Even with only 12 disciples to talk to, they had to take turns conversing with Jesus, struggle to express themselves, contend with others who wanted their turn to talk or be healed or whatever. Now, however, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Third in the Great I Am, is equally and powerfully present with all those who call on him. As someone said to me recently, “Prayer is the ultimate high-speed connection!”
But back to the double sided nature of Emmanuel, God with us. With a little thought, everyone can understand the benefits of having a living, bright, personal, immediate relationship with God. But what of the responsibility of such a relationship? If you have an important visitor (boss, parent, significant other) coming to your apartment, most people take a few moments to clean up the mess, take out the trash, maybe even shower and change clothes. Are we guilty of doing less when our God has come, not for a short visit, but to BE with us? Are we casual? Have we mistaken his condescension for a blanket approval of all that comprises our lives? Is there trash we should be taking out? Do we need a spiritual shower? If we think about it, does it make us uncomfortable to know that God is present WITH us at work, on our vacations, during our leisure pursuits, when we’re online, when we’re with that significant other?
Everyone with a memory of their teen years remembers the wonderful freedom when the parents went out and left you alone for a few precious hours in the house. The television to myself! No one to order me around, or suggest I do something productive, like homework or chores! Food and snacks a, when, and as much as I like! We often feel cramped and judged in the presence of another person, however much we may know they love us. How much more does the knowledge of the presence of God make us uncomfortable in some of our pursuits and pleasures?
So the presence of God, having him WITH US, is a two edged sword. How convenient, we may secretly think, if he would just be nearby, on-call, as it were, ready to come when we need him, but not bothering us with his presence if we’d rather be left alone. But it’s impossible that the burning, shining love that holds every particle of the universe together and which has loved you to death on the cross and beyond could have an off/on switch. The truth of the matter is that many of us have settled for a compromise—God, I sort of want you to be with me when I need you, but I don’t want you to be so close that I feel the need to change my life. So we settle for a vague and unsatisfying not-very-personal relationship to Emmanuel.
As New Year’s resolutions go, how about this one? This year, I want ALL of your Presence, Lord. I want to see your face, know your heart, feel your comfort and be part of the endless cycle of giving and receiving love that the Father, Son and Spirit had for all eternity. And I further want you in ALL parts of my life, correcting me where I’ve gone wrong, leading me to become the person you mean me to be, setting before me those tasks that you have prepared for me to do to glorify you. If there are things in my life that have to change for all that to be true, then I choose to change. Because I want to be WITH YOU.