Brian Martin Burkholder | God with us – and vice versa?
In the Christian church year, this is the season of waiting, yet preparing for the coming of Immanuel. In worship, we sing the songs of Advent – the songs of Jesus’ Advent – the songs of Jesus’ coming: “Come, though long-expected Jesus” and “Hark! The glad sound!” We sing the songs of prophesy from old: “Comfort, comfort, O my people” and “O Come, O come, Immanuel.”
If we follow the lectionary readings, we’re sure to visit Isaiah 7:13-15. “Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then. O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (NRSV). Immanuel becomes a central theme for our worship and reflection. In this text, the name Immanuel, meaning God is with us, embodies the divine promise of protection to Jerusalem.
In these weeks of leaning toward Christmas, I typically reflect on what it means for God to have been with us. Our record of “God with us” in scripture is significant. Dedicated ones recorded the narratives of God’s faithfulness toward God’s people since creation, through the exodus out of slavery, on to the promised land and beyond. We see how David cried out to God through psalms of worship in times both good and bad. And we read prophesy of the coming of Immanuel.
During Advent, I find myself not only reflecting on God’s faithfulness in days gone by but also on God’s presence and faithfulness today. Jesus told of the Advocate who would be with us until the time of his return. I believe God’s Spirit is present and active in our world and in our lives today. Reading scripture with the expectation that God speaks through it into our lives and culture is but one example of this. Experiencing God’s healing power through the love and touch of others as well as through the inspiration of the natural world is another. God is with us.
Still, I thirst for the coming of Jesus. There is a vast gulf between reading about the mission and miracles of Jesus and experiencing the dynamic presence of an earthly yet heavenly Jesus ourselves. I yearn to reach out and touch the garment of Jesus to receive healing and wholeness beyond anything imaginable. I wish for a similar kind of healing and wholeness for a broken people, communities in conflict, a dying earth and a world at war too. Immanuel – if only!
Given the tension of waiting for Jesus to come again and what can feel like the emptiness of going through the motions of worshiping the God of yesterday, perhaps we would do well to give ourselves to Advent reflections on “us with God.” Rather than focusing again this year on how God was with God’s people of old (way back then) or on a future day when Jesus comes again to make things right in the world (if only Jesus would return now), we might choose to live out the dream of God for this world to the greatest extent possible in these very days.
To work toward these ends, a first step would be to truly reflect on how well we are aligning ourselves with the ways of God and the mission of Jesus. To what degree are we “with God?” Are we shining light into the dark places of this world? Have we been salt and yeast enough to enhance the human experience? Do we choose life and also live in ways that allow others to live with enough? Are we working toward healing, hope and wholeness in our lives, communities and world as followers of Jesus who take Him and what He taught seriously?
O Come, O come Immanuel – but in the meantime, let us be fully with You.
– Brian Martin Burkholder is director of campus ministries and campus pastor at Eastern Mennonite University.
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