"If Jesus is raised from the dead, then he is alive and I can know him today!"
These words shared by a young Chinese seeker cut right to the heart of the matter. Jesus is either alive and at work among us, or he is a fairy tale to help convince people to behave properly and not feel so helpless in the face of an unruly and broken world. I know that's blunt... maybe harsh... but if you think about it, I believe you will find this to be true.
Unfortunately, many folks who say they believe that Jesus is alive and at work among us do not really expect to "know him today" in any tangible way. For them, Jesus is about ancient documents, good behavior, getting goodies from heaven, and going to church.
To be sure, our faith is partially built on the testimony of ancient documents that describe what Jesus did. In addition, Jesus does call us to righteous and compassionate behavior. God does bless us far more than we deserve. And being part of a faith family, a community of believers, is part of Jesus' plan. Yet experiencing the real presence of Jesus in the middle of our modern lives is not really the consuming passion in most of our lives. We have to worry about other things, like...
"How do I make my money stretch all the way to the end of the month?"
"What are we going to do with our parents, they seem to be falling apart all at once and are so vulnerable?"
"How am I going to deal with my daughter and this mess she has made for herself?"
"How could you have cheated on me... and especially with him/her?"
"What's wrong with our boy — he seems to have dropped out of life completely?"
"How do I get the courage for another round of chemo?"
"Will anybody ever love me enough to risk spending their life with me?"
Our list of questions could go on forever because...
Life is hard.
We face problems we can't fix.
We make messes we can never totally get resolved.
Evil people dump pain and grief into our lives.
National disasters and global markets can rock our own little private world with no escape.
Folks we trusted can prove untrustworthy and ruthless.
Yet underneath our human realities and our struggles with our own flawed and broken flesh, we still have an ache, a hunger, a deep yearning, that can only be met by the very presence of God with us. We need Immanuel! As the young Chinese woman said, "If Jesus is raised from the dead, then he is alive and I can know him today!" We desperately need to know him and experience his power, presence, and grace... personally.
We are not alone in this need. The children of Israel had blown it as Moses received the first tablets of stone on the mountain. While Moses was on the mountain, they had built a golden calf, called it their god, and began worshiping it so they could have a "god up close" that they could see. They then fell into all sorts of debauched behavior.
Moses knew God was angry with his people for their sin and he "came unhinged" — breaking the tablets of stone. After speaking with God, Moses also let the people know of God's plan not to continue with them on their journey to the Promised Land. The people grieved. Moses was grief-stricken and fearful.
[Moses said to the Eternal,] "If Your presence doesn't travel with me, then don't lead us away from here. ... Isn't it the very fact that your presence travels with us that distinguishes us from every other people on the earth?" (Exodus 33:15-16 The Voice).
Yes, our young Chinese friend spoke the truth when she said: "If Jesus is raised from the dead, then he is alive and I can know him today!" And that reality should distinguish God's people more than any other thing: we are God's people and his presence travels with us — he is "Immanuel, God with us!"
So if we ache, hunger, and yearn for the Lord's presence, and if his presence is what distinguishes us from all other people, then...
Why don't we tune in more when Matthew's gospel presents the four clear ways to experience Immanuel,* "God with us?"
Why don't we make our church plans around these four ways to experience Immanuel?
Why don't we teach people to expect Jesus to show up so they can know and be touched in ways that most only hear about but never experience Immanuel for themselves?
I can't answer those questions with authoritative data. I've got my hunches. I've got my biases. Yet, I've also got my own blind spots. But, I do know one thing: We can tune in, we can make our church plans, and we can teach people to expect to experience Immanuel. The "God-shaped hole" in all of us can only be filled by Immanuel. Our ache, hunger, and yearning can only find their satisfaction in Immanuel. So let's not settle for less!
As I look at the "missional community" movement exploding across the world, I am not surprised to see that at the heart of nearly every successful one of these major movements is an emphasis on these four practices we are calling the Immanuel factor. These four elements are at the core of what they do and who they are. So I want to challenge you to pursue each of these four ways to experience Immanuel in your own life, your own spiritual community, and your own family and circle of friends.
One, or possibly two of these, will most likely resonate strongly within your heart and feed your spirit when you enter into them expecting Jesus to be present in powerful and undeniable ways. This special way of experiencing Immanuel may change you forever. For some, on-the-other-hand, a different life-stage can open their hearts to be blessed by a different one of the four Immanuel factors.
The key is to be part of a community — a true spiritual family — that is committed to doing all four as a part of their discipleship experience.
If you are a leader — group leader, spiritual family leader, parent, youth leader, university leader, or church leader — then spend time in Matthew. Listen and look at Jesus as he teaches and ministers. Most of all, focus on his promises to be present. Then, make sure you give the people you lead the challenge and opportunity to experience Jesus as Immanuel in each of these four ways!
So what are the four ways? Where can I find these promises in the Gospel of Matthew?
- Experiencing Immanuel by Entering His Story: Matthew 1:23 — O Come, Please Come, Immanuel
- Experiencing Immanuel through Sharing in Authentic Missional Family: Matthew 18:20 — I Need More than Me!
- Experiencing Immanuel by Giving Others Compassionate Care: Matthew 25:40 — Jesus with Dirt on His Face and No Place to Sleep
- Experiencing Immanuel in Cross-cultural Mentoring People to Jesus: Matthew 28:18-20 — Love Will Travel
As I come to the end of this 5 part series, I want to share something heavy on my heart. All around, church after church and family after family wants to know how we are going to keep or reach our younger generations. So many groups are "watering down" and "entertaining up" their younger generations to try to keep them "in the church." Guess what? It isn't working.
Let's not treat our youth, and especially not our young adult men and women, as if they were that shallow! Yes, many of our younger generations crave louder, vibrant, music that speaks to their music driven culture. Yes, many want something more than what their parents and grandparents grew up on in Sunday school and traditional church formats. However, let's be sure and not confuse that with a desire for lack of strong content, bold challenges to make a difference in the world, and bold steps out of our safe ruts and involving us in ways that risk safety and security for a cause bigger than "going to church."
Bottom line, we've bored the last two or three generations of our young adults right out of the church. Let's use Matthew (and the other gospels and the book of Acts) as examples and guides about what discipleship looks like and what disciples do. Let's expect Jesus to show up and do the kind of things now that he did then and promised us he would do now in the lives of his disciples.
When you look at the four ways Matthew tells us how to experience Immanuel, you are going to find a pretty good road map out of the forest of wimpy church and into the wilds of a life of depending upon and experiencing Jesus. So I want to go over them one more time, but with a little different wording. Then, after committing to them, let's hold them up as our personal mission and our congregation's mission and our group's mission. Then let's all hold each other accountable to do them and expect to experience him!
I can experience Jesus as Immanuel, God's presence with me and with those who share the journey with me, when I commit to...
Live in authentic community — genuine spiritual family — where we practice self-accountability, radical forgiveness, passion for those who have lost their way, and commitment to love back into fellowship those caught in sin or who have lost their way (Matthew 18:20).
Serve those in need with compassionate, hands on care so that they know the compassion and love of Jesus is real and practiced by the people who love him as their Lord (Matthew 25:40).
Reach out of the safety of my own culture and invest in others so they come to faith in Christ and are baptized, and then walk beside them to mentor them until the life of Jesus becomes their own (Matthew 28:18-20).
For a moment, many folks are re-awakening their passion for Jesus because of the movie. Many are hearing and experiencing the words and actions of Jesus for the first time. Let's don't bring them to churches that tone down that passion and bore them to death with the same ol' same ol' of churchland. Let's join them in the grand adventure of making Jesus our consuming passion! And be looking here in the future for more news about experiencing Immanuel, because anything less is simply that... so much less than what Jesus promised!
Comments, Reactions, and Questions from the Partners:
I am so humbled as I read the final post in this series. You have captured in a handful of posts what I have believed for years, but have struggled to articulate. Growing up in a tradition that generally preferred proof-texting and pontification over power and presence left scars that have taken years to heal. Here's the thing though — on my own, I attempted to heal my scars by doing everything, but fully giving my heart and mind to Jesus. When I chose to give myself to him in the context of community, then and only then did I begin to experience "God with us" in the way you describe. I could see Christ in me because I could see Christ in others around me. Their changed lives allowed my life to be changed, and I pray for the rest of my days, I will be able to help others experience "God with us" as you so beautifully describe.
Greg, you captured the essence of it when you wrote: "fully giving my heart and mind to Jesus." Of course that's the first great command, "loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength." I think Matthew is pointing us to ways to take our yielded heart and use these four channels as ways to meet the living Immanuel.
Graphics are from the trailer of the recently released movie, "Son of God."