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Advent Week 3: The Hope of “God with Us”

Flames from the candles cause light to flash and dance on the faces of my family sitting around the table.  I listen to half a sentence my father reads but then my imagination whisks me off to a rocky hillside in Bethlehem.  The light of angels’ flash and dance on the weathered faces of the shepherds showing shock and disbelief.  They shuffle down the hill towards the dark buildings in the valley.  I look up and see my mother shaking her head at me as my hands mess with the wax of the candle.  Even as a distracted and fidgety child, celebrating advent was a time for slowing down and joining creation in mindful waiting.  

Matthew begins his story of the Messiah highlighting some interesting people in the genealogy of Jesus.  Judah sold his brother Joseph into slavery.  Tamar pretended to be a prostitute. Rahab was a prostitute.  David killed a man for his wife.   It is through this bloodline that a baby is born to a girl betrothed to a carpenter.  Uneducated and unkempt men crowd in the small space to see this baby.  Polytheist Persian Astrologists discover a new celestial object that guides them to this young Judean family.  The paranoid King Herod kills his own sons and even attempts to murder other children as he scrambles to secure his power and control.  Bethlehem was a city full of Jews who desired to be independent of the Roman Empire.  This is a story full of the lowly of society.  It is full of desperate people in dark and unjust situations who are longing for change.  

Then a baby enters this world.  A baby named Immanuel.  God with us.

However, we tend to clean up this story of “God with us”  when we skip over the sexual sins, murder, and betrayal found in Jesus’ family history, instead diving into the story of a young innocent girl; when we clean up the surroundings, concluding that the excruciating birth by a virgin teenage girl produces a baby who doesn’t cry; when Mary isn’t a sleep deprived new mother who is learning how to nurse her baby for the first time; when the shepherds aren’t men accustomed to being on the outskirts of society; when a narcissistic and paranoid leader is never someone we would follow; when we brush over the fact that God uses astrology to guide the Magi to the Christ child.

We clean it up, and then hurry to invite God with us.  Immanuel, God with us, but only when we polish up our story.  

But maybe it’s God with us in the process.  Maybe God with us isn’t the immediate gratification that comes after presenting a refined outside.  Jesus comes from a line of murderers, adulterers, unloved and unlikely people.  He is born into an environment that lacks wealth and is among a people who are subject to a foreign empire.  He is surrounded by those who would never surround a King.  He begins his life on earth as a human; an undeveloped, helpless baby who relies on the guidance and assistance from a teenage mother and carpenter father.

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
1 Corinthians 13:12-13

It is in this process that Immanuel invites us into hope for the restoration of a messy world, reconciliation for broken people, redemption for sinners, and the righting of an unjust system.  Immanuel brings us a hope that calls us to action–action that brings the world back to how it was originally intended to be. Hope for our personal lives, for our immediate community and hope for a better world, a new world.

Faith in this “God with us” motivates us to work towards what we hope for and through love we introduce this hope to our world.  When the darkness in the world is all we can see, let us remind ourselves of this hope and that light has entered and will come back fully into this world.  Let us love like Jesus loved.  Let us be Immanuel to others.  In this season of reflection and slowing down to remember the story, let us join in creation’s hope for the here and the now and the not yet.

Nilah MacLean, New City Stories Contributor 

God is Good to Everybody

Perhaps one of the most popular cultural and religious ideas is the notion of karma. It’s an Eastern teaching that is everywhere is pop culture: the philosophies of celebrities like the Beatles, the sub-plots of films like It’s a Wonderful Life or Pay it Forward, or, my personal favorite, TV shows like My Name is Earl.

In the show, Jason Lee plays a middle-aged low-life (he’s the one whose name is “Earl”) who has enjoyed an entirely self-centered existence of theft, drunkenness, cheating on his various partners, and general debauchery. One day on a whim he decides to buy a lottery ticket, wins $100,000 and, as he runs outside to celebrate, gets hit by a car. As he recovers in the hospital, he learns about karma, the idea that we are repaid, at some point in the present or future, for our daily actions, good or bad. He decides that day to use the $100,000 to make a list of every bad thing he has ever done in his life and, one-by-one, try to make up for it. The rest of the show documents Earl tackling his list one bad decision at a time, leaving room for a lot of what is honestly pretty hilarious comedy.

Karma appeals to our innate sensibilities for justice. It makes sense for people to be punished for what they do wrong and rewarded for what they do right. Not only that, but we inwardly rage about the unfairness of the world because it so rarely reflects that instinctual reality. Who hasn’t had thoughts about who really deserves those promotions, what that paycheck should look like, or whether that person will get what’s coming to them. It’s a lens many of us look at the world through that always leave us upset when our idea of justice is not played out.

Believe it or not, Jesus spoke on this issue. In Matthew 5, Jesus spends a lot of his time redefining what it means to follow God. He attacks the conceptions of the people at the time in terms of their view on divorce, relationships with their friends, how we view people, and even justice. In the final section of his teaching, right after he calls his followers to love their enemies (ouch), he makes this statement “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45b).

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

What is Jesus saying here? That God has no standard of right and wrong? That our actions have no consequences? I don’t think so. What I think Jesus is doing here is drawing a constant comparison between what comes to us instinctively and what God desires for his people. Remember, this is a passage where, at the end, Jesus says to his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

This is not a literal moral perfection, but instead a call to us to act in the world as our perfect God does. And our God shows love to people (through the sun and the rain) to everybody (evil and good, righteous and unrighteous). Remember, Jesus was talking to a farming people; the sun and the rain were absolutely essential for their livelihood and well-being. It would seem to make sense to us that the God of our instincts, the God of karma, would set up the world so that the rain would only fall and the sun would only shine on those who are good to others and worship God correctly. However, that is obviously not the case; instead, God shows love and goodness to all people, whether they acknowledge him or not.

What are the implications here? It seems like Jesus is calling us to look at the world through a different lens, and that lens is grace. The more we use words like deserve, or should, or payment, the more we are getting away from the good news of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came and died for us, through no power or work of our own, so that we could be forgiven and live in relationship with our Creator and Lord. Grace is the unmerited favor of the Lord, and our response to that should be gratefulness for the love he has shown us, and a desire to share that grace and love with others.

This is our call: to love all people, evil or good, unrighteous or righteous. Remember, God rejects our own instinctual, retributive justice that would call us to be condemned for our sin and instead embraces a justice that brings redemption through the cross. Hallelujah, amen.

 Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor