A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
December 22, 2011
What does Jesus' coming teach us about God that we would not know otherwise? According to Matthew, Jesus' birth fulfilled an obscure prophecy by Isaiah that God's messenger to deliver Judah would be named "Emmanuel, which means 'God with us.'" (Matthew 1:22-23)
In fulfilling this prophecy, Jesus demonstrated once for all that God is with us - whoever else might be nearby, whatever our situation, God is nearer to us than our very breath. The God of heaven and earth, Creator of all that is, is closer to us than we can imagine. God is with us, so whatever our situation, we can live free of fear. The coming of Jesus as Emmanuel confirms the strongest claims of psalmists: "The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge - therefore we will not fear though the earth should change." (Psalm 46) "If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up." (Psalm 27) All human companions may fail us, all the elements may assail us, yet the coming of Jesus assures us that no matter what life may present us, God is yet with us.
Moreover, Jesus' coming assures us that God is with us - not our adversary, but our ally. God knows better than anyone all our failures, and is thus in prime position to condemn us; but in Christ we learn that the One who is our Judge is in fact our Advocate. (Romans 8:34) Sometimes the psalmist assumes that if God is with me, God must be against those who are not in my corner. But in Christ such distinctions between "us and them" are broken down; we discover that all the ways we tend to say who God is for and who God is against evaporate in the unconditional mercy of God revealed in Christ. In Jesus, I learn that the word of God - God's promise for everyone, including me - is forever Yes! (1 Corinthians 1:20) God is passionately partisan toward us, just as any good parent is toward their child - not to the denigration of others, yet unquestionably, unfailingly our champion.
Finally, Emmanuel is God with us. Not just with "me," but with "us." In Jesus we come to know that God's presence with us is no private possession, but residence with folk in company. Jesus' own life demonstrates this communal character of abundant living, as from start to finish he walks in company with others. When he sends his followers out to preach, teach, and do mighty works, he sends them at least in pairs. There is no solo godliness in Jesus' realm; God is God of us all, together. Thus, early Christian leaders went so far as to say that we cannot credibly claim to love God if we do not live in love with one another. (1 John 4:20) According to the ancient bishop Tertullian, this was the mark that set Christians apart from all other religious peoples: "See how they love each other!"
To know God as Emmanuel is to know that the God who binds himself to us irrevocably in Jesus binds us the in the same way to each other. If this is the character of our God and Savior, we no longer have an option of whether to live in company with each other. Because of Jesus, we know that to alienate ourselves from one another is nothing less than functional atheism.
In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' final words to his disciples are these: "Remember, I am with you always." (Matthew 28:20) Emmanuel forever. At the Lord's Table we remember not who Jesus was, but who Jesus is - God ever and always with us. "Where can I flee from your presence?" the psalmist asks rhetorically. (Psalm 139:7) The right answer is obvious enough - nowhere! In Jesus, we see that answer written in indelible red ink, underscored, all CAPs, boldface. Because of Jesus, we know that nothing can separate us from God (Romans 8:40). This is what the coming of Christ shouts out to all who receive him.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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