December 21, 2011
The Beauty of God With Us
By Matt Woodley
A few years ago I had the chance to work at a group home for six developmentally disabled adults. I assumed my job would be fun and easy, hanging out with the residents, watching television, eating communal meals and bringing them to concerts at the beach. I was wrong.
The job wasn’t always easy or fun. I discovered that I could do things for them, but I found it difficult to be with them. They continually confounded my tidy expectations about people with developmental disabilities. “William” would tell clever lies in order to pit staff members against his vindictive, overprotective older sister. “Robert” dealt with his sadness by watching Johnny Depp movies for hours on end.
Whenever the residents acted manipulatively, expressed rage or withdrew into their sadness, I often felt anxious or inadequate. Facing my own powerlessness and incompetence terrified me: I either wanted to fix them, numb my feelings or just quit.
Thankfully, I stayed long enough to learn a valuable lesson: authentic relationships require personal presence. In order to grow in love, the real me must show up and be present to the real you—not the you that I think you are or that I want you to be. Authentic love includes my willingness to be with you in all your beauty and promise as well as all of your brokenness, sin and anguish.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with a remarkable claim: Jesus is God with us (Mt 1:23). In and through Jesus God walks among us, offering his personal presence to us in all of our beauty and brokenness. This Gospel records many of Jesus’ miracles, but perhaps these are the three greatest miracles: (1) in Jesus, God is with us and he wants to be with us; (2) through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God is still with us; (3) through his Spirit, Jesus is with us as we go into the world sharing the gospel.
Surprisingly, although Matthew’s Gospel contains a huge story of transformation (Jesus calls it “The renewal of all things” (Mt 19:28), and although Jesus asks for our wholehearted commitment, he also never asked us to follow him on a triumphant, overachieving, failure-free path to the spiritual life. This “Big Way” of discipleship eventually leads to spiritual burnout, disillusionment or self-righteous pride. Instead, Jesus constantly asks us to follow him along his “Little Way,” allowing the Father to work through our poverty of spirit, our failures and suffering, our quiet obedience and trust, and our small acts of mercy for vulnerable people—sinners, outcasts, the poor and the forgotten. This “Little Way” makes discipleship accessible to all of us—except the self-righteous and the alleged experts. Jesus himself provided the way to follow him: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28-30).
So based on Jesus’ open-hearted, merciful invitation, we come and we keep coming back to Jesus. We come not because we’re worthy or qualified. We come not because we won’t stumble or fail. We simply come because he told us to come, and that’s always enough.
Matt Woodley is managing editor for preachingtoday.com. He served as pastor for over twenty years most recently as senior pastor of Three Villages Church in Long Island, New York. He is the author of The Folly of Prayer and, most recently, The Gospel of Matthew, a commentary in our Resonate Series.
October 1, 2006
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Mall
I love to look at all the house and yard decorations during Advent. (My kids say that by my comments you would think I am the Christmas-decoration sheriff.) Of course, we all have our preferences when it comes to Christmas displays. Some people decorate with lights all of one color; others like to mix and match. Some folks are minimalists—one display lighted simply—others have their yards filled with Christmas symbols of every shape and color. We’ve all seen houses with Santa and his reindeer on the rooftop and a manger scene down below. One of our neighbors has a little bit of everything: candy canes lining the sidewalk; toy soldiers guarding the house; Santa, the elves and reindeer bearing gifts; some carolers singing joyfully; and Mary, Joseph and the wise men worshiping the Christ child—all together in the front lawn! My family calls this Christmas Rococo.
One night on the way to the mall, I saw a display that really caught my attention. The house was lighted quite simply. At one corner was a lone manger. No Mary and Joseph to be found. No cattle lowing, no wise men bearing gifts, no angels hovering, no shepherds adoring. Only one other figure stood by the manger—Santa Claus! It immediately caught my eye. Santa was intently peering at the baby lying in the manger. Santa meets Jesus!
What was the purpose of this stunning display? Unfortunately, I did not stop to ask. Perhaps the folks in the house hadn’t finished decorating yet; but this curious display definitely made me wonder. Was Santa Claus thinking, What in the world is this kid doing on my turf? Was he pondering the meaning and significance of this helpless child? Or was Santa rightfully paying homage to the Christ, the real reason for the season?
These questions represent very different views of Christmas. And as we peer into the manger, these questions assail each of us. Who is Jesus? What place does he have in our life? Why is Jesus such a small part of typical Christmas celebrations? Does our gift giving, feasting and decorating take so much of our time and attention that Jesus is but another Christmas bauble, or a necessary but momentary interruption? Or does the baby in the manger accentuate the truth that nothing else really matters? God is with us!
We need to clearly communicate to our children, our neighbors, our friends and our congregations that the cute baby in the manger is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Do our lives display the fact that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, this baby in the manger, that we might not perish but have everlasting life? What do our “decorations” say to others when they “drive by” our lives?
A funny thing happened on the way to the mall. I had to ponder once again the place Jesus has in my life. As you view all the decorations this Advent season, think about it. Stop, like Santa, to peer into the manger. Who is this Jesus, and what place does he have in your life?
Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:58 AM