As soon as the heavenly messengers disappeared into heaven, the shepherds were buzzing with conversation.
Shepherds: "Let's rush down to Bethlehem right now! Let's see what's happening! Let's experience what the Lord has told us about!"
(Luke 2:15 The Voice)
Feel the excitement behind the words "buzzing," "happening," and "experience"! We are not dealing with a couple of skeptical sheep herders headed to town. Their words suggest far more than, "Well, I guess we'd better get this over with."
These shepherds, likely not much older than boys, were buzzing with conversation. Luke emphasized that they were continuing to talk with each other — maybe even talking over each other — with excitement. They spoke with a sense of urgency. They wanted to experience the word that was happening at that very moment.
God's word never returns to him empty (Isaiah 55:11). In that moment with the shepherds, his word was being fulfilled. In fact, his word was cramming the spectacular into the shepherd's slice of history.
When we are honest, many of us admit to ourselves what we would never dare say to others: "I am seldom as excited about the 'God stuff' I find going on in my life as I want to be." We long to be excited about the things of God going on in our lives.
We don't want to feel bored and unenthusiastic about our faith. Unfortunately, the watered down version of Christian faith often passed off today as life feels... just too safe and predictable. Most of us find this bland version of sitting, listening, and being entertained far too boring to capture our hearts beyond an hour or two on Sunday. Reading the Bible feels out of touch with a world of blockbuster movies and special effects. Being a nice person feels less than special; it feels more dull, drab, and lifeless compared to the train wrecks we see on reality TV and the exciting versions of sin Satan uses to entice us.
So, how does a 2000-year-old faith fit in a world that moves at such a rapid pace?
How does a story from long ago with such a limited geography speak to an instant on, always connected, multi-cultural world?
How does a big, long, book that is very old and hard to read speak with relevance in the visually saturated world of today's culture?
How do sixty-six books from long ago and far away speak to us when we tweet what's most important to us in 140 characters, then move on to the next experience to share with a selfie on Facebook?
How do we find the urgency, the emotion, and the interest to encounter Jesus and experience his presence in our world when faith events have to compete with all that entertainment offers us today?
Have we bought into a false promise of life that might have worked a hundred years ago, but seems dated, out of touch, and boring?
I am convinced God wants our faith to be more than how we package it today in our churches. I can't help believe that we have selected forms from a bygone time that have made the explosive and exciting message of Jesus seem drab. But we cling to these man-made packages of faith that are our church culture rather than asking the Holy Spirit to awaken us to be fully alive in Jesus!
In our first book in the New Testament, we find the story of Jesus. Embedded in that story is Matthew's theme that Jesus is to be experienced in fresh ways in each new era. Here's Matthew's plan. Here is Matthew's opportunity to enter the world of the shepherds with excitement and urgency and experience what the Lord has told us about. Here's a way to embrace what God is doing in our time that propels beyond "church in the box" on weekends and calls us to experience Jesus in his kingdom work in our world. Matthew describes four ways to experience Immanuel, God with us.
Enter the Story
Jesus came as Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). What he did and how he did it showed God to us. What God values, Jesus did in his ministry. Who God loves, Jesus loved. So rather than reading static words from the page, we can invite the Holy Spirit into our encounter with Jesus through his words and his actions. We are not looking to Jesus for more information to learn. We are looking and listening to Jesus for truth we can incorporate and experience in our lives.
A great way to start is by reading a chapter from one of the Gospels each day.We want to pursue Jesus each day. That's what it means to be a disciple, a follower, a learner who longs to become like her or his teacher (Luke 6:40). So rather than just having a daily Bible reading from one of the four stories of Jesus — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, often called the four gospels — let's look for more. Let's look for an encounter with the story of Jesus.
As we approach these daily interactions with the Lord, we enter into the story. We begin to look at the story from the differing few points of each of the key characters. We look for people who are like us, then learn to hear what Jesus is saying to us through them. We look for people not like us, and we learn to be challenged out of our settled predictability and closed circles of friendship. We notice the people Jesus touched and ask him to show us why he touched them and how we can touch them today. We enter the story and make it real and make it our story. When we do, Jesus comes to meet us as Immanuel, God with us.
While many churches today look to provide pews as bun warmers, we want our churches to be incubators of redemptive action. Matthew didn't focus on following Jesus as Bible study. Yes, he wanted us to know and memorize Jesus words. But, he wanted more for us in giving us his story of Jesus. He wanted us to experience this word. He wanted to shake us out of our salt shakers and into the world that needs seasoning and preservation. So, Matthew points to three key ways we can further experience what the Lord has told us about! We begin to do the things that Jesus did with the people. When we do, Jesus promises to show up and make his presence known.
We live with each other as his followers in a radical community (Matthew 18:20). Jesus talked about this more as living in his family with God as our Father. Families are messy, but also committed to love each other. In God's family, we are called to forgive as we've been forgiven — recklessly and generously. We find those who have wandered away, those sucked back into darkness and decay, we find them and bring them home. We limit our freedom to keep others from stumbling over our choices. We confront those who have wounded and mistreated us. We don't do it to prove ourselves right or shame them. We do it to redeem them and bring them back into relationship with us. Living this passionately in relationship with others requires our dependence upon Jesus. It is hard work, yet when we do it, Jesus shows up. In this kind of authentic fellowship, we experience his presence and power.
We live with compassion toward those in need (Matthew 25:40). Compassion is not just the feeling of emotions for those wounded by life, but it is an emotion that stirs us to action to help in tangible ways. Jesus mentions visiting the sick and the imprisoned, clothing those in need, giving water to the thirsty, and feeding those who are hungry. As we offer this face-to-face hands-on care to others in need, we experience Jesus. He is not only empowering us to love people in practical ways like he did, but we see him in the faces of those we help and learn to love in costly ways.
We step out of our cultural security and interact with people of other cultures. We do this because this is what Jesus did for us (John 3:16; Philippians 2:5-11). We also do it to share Jesus story with them in ways they can understand; and, as their faith emerges, we baptize them into the family. We then walk beside these new disciples to see Jesus' truth and lifestyle formed in them (Matthew 28:18-20).
As we take these cultural risks, we embrace the heart of God. Our God is the God of all peoples. He wants all people to understand and come to his grace. As we do, we experience Jesus. He shows up and makes us better than we are. Why? Because we are doing his work in the world. And as our hearts are tuned to his heart. There is great joy when these people who appear, at first, so different from us, become part of our forever family, enriching us with their culture and their perspective of God's grace.
So what's the point?
Genuine discipleship is not a religion to be learned or a set of facts to be mastered. It is life to be experienced. Jesus promises to show up and enable us to experience God with us! We become more than reservoirs of biblical facts, attendees of religious gatherings, and consumers of religious services. We become children in God's family. We become salt poured from God's salt shaker. We become light in the world's darkness.
Come! Let's experience what the Lord has told us about!