This is the manuscript for the teaching on the gathering on January 3rd that was canceled due to weather. The text is Philippians 2:1-11.
God Has Come to Be With Us
Emmanuel is not not merely “God sent to us” or God doing something for us, God healing us, or even God speaking to us. Emmanuel goes beyond some function of God to his presence. God with us.
This is actually the entire trajectory of the Christian Bible and the message of Christianity: Humanity can only thrive, be what it was supposed to be, healed and whole if it is with God. God with us…this is the blessing, this is what made the holy-lands holy, the chosen people chosen: God’s dwelling presence among his people, in that place. (Moses and burning bush, pillar of fire from heaven, and as Sharad so eloquently taught on last week, God in the whisper to the downtrodden. God’s redemption is about nothing less that estranged refugees being brought home yet again in the presence of God, with us. God’s resurrection is about nothing less than the sick and dying meeting the power of life in God’s presence.
This is the power of the name given Jesus: Emmanuel, God with us. This is the line that makes the restoration and recreation of the world in Rev 22 worthwhile at all: “The dwelling place of God has become the dwelling place of humanity.” God with us.
This is what Jesus came to be and came to make possible. Everything that was done was bringing that hope into reality. The healing of the sick, the teaching of the way to abundant life, the combating evil, the seeing, the hearing, and the touching the downtrodden, the oppressed, the heartbroken, the world crying out for a savior was experiencing the savior with us, in our world. The Incarnation is God with the depressed, the sick, the tired, the unorganized, the humble, the poor, the downcast.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor, the merciful, the mourners, the hungry, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted: for there’s is the kingdom of God and they shall see God and be satisfied.” Jesus clearly came for the humble.
God with the Ambitious?
What about the ambitious? What about the put-together? The task oriented achiever? What about the driven? The proud? What does it mean for God to come to us in our ambition? Does he come? Is he even needed?
Ambition put plainly: the drive to achieve goals, to move up, to better our lives, our standing, or our perceived self. The belief that we can make things better, at least for ourselves. Ambition is the deep belief that we can gain what we must and gain the things we desire: Whether it is a new position, new possession, or a new persona. Does God come to this person? More direct, does God come to us?
This is what Eugene Peterson wrote on the subject:
“The one temptation that is dressed-up to the point of acceptance, with special flourishing in America, is ambition. Our culture encourages and rewards ambition without qualification. We are surrounded by a way of life in which betterment is understood as expansion, as acquisition, as fame. Everyone wants to get more. To be on top, no matter what it is the top of, is admired. There is nothing recent about this temptation. It is the oldest sin in the book, the one that got Adam thrown out of the garden and Lucifer tossed out of heaven. What is fairly new about it is the general admiration and approval it receives.”
Our hearts and minds struggle to see this pride as an issue at all. This ambition, after all, is what New Year’s is all about: make some plans to improve your house, your body, and your life. Then, go after it. This is what it means to be American, and it works out well, doesn’t it?
This my own personal, seemingly, lifelong struggle: the drive to achieve, produce, and make a name for myself is what got me where I am. I pursued this life and took initiative to do and be what I wanted, without ambition, I wouldn’t have this life. To which Peterson responds:
“It is difficult to recognize pride as a sin when it is held up on every side as a virtue, urged as profitable and rewarded as achievement.”
This celebrated “virtue” gives credence to the struggle. That’s exactly what it is, a struggle to be self-sufficient. That’s what this life has really been all about. Our attempts to escape the pain of dependence on others. Or rather, the messing up of our lives, or even further still: our ambition is to rid ourselves of the pain of being let down by others. Our ambition is a shield from an unreliable world.
Only, sporadically, we take time and effort to step into this unreliable world and improve it. We step outside of our lives to help others gain what we have gained. This makes us feel even more secure.
At Great Cost God’s Presence Comes
How does God with us sound in those ears? Is God’s presence necessary? How does the incarnation of God with us fill, engulf, transform, and bring hope to the self-filled, the self-engulfed, the self-improved, the self-reliant?
In our sickness we might think: “Yeah! God is here to help me make myself and my world better.” Or, in our ugliest: “God’s presence is the cherry on top of a pretty well made cake, if I have to say so myself.”
You might think: “God’s presence probably passes over people like that, God moves on to the ones who really need him.” But not so, God comes to the ambitious.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Each of the four gospels of Jesus spend a disproportionate amount of time with Jesus speaking to the pharisees, the epitome of: “Let’s help God do something wonderful by fixing ourselves, by ambitiously making ourselves whole and helping others do the same.” Jesus engages them, he goes to them, he directs teachings and even piles of stories to them. Perhaps the best story is the one about a father and two sons, famously referred to as the Prodigal Son.
The hinge of this story for the Ambitious is at the end, after the younger son has returned and been welcomed home, the story focuses in on the older brother and his stewing over his newly, and for the second time, lost inheritance. His plan was working and the father didn’t keep his end of the bargain—(aside, this is usually how we know where our ambitions lay, when we are angry at God for his withdrawal or withholding of their success). This son refuses to partake in the party with his father and brother because his way of achieving acceptance, security, and success has been vanquished.
And yet, the father goes to him. The father walks to him and leaves his party to sit down next to the pouter and ask: “Why are you angry?” After hearing his sons pain of dashed dreams and worthiness the father says: “But I’ve been with you the whole time…this whole time you’ve had me, me with you is the blessing.”
“Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man, and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.”
God with the ambitious is found in Jesus giving up equality with God, emptying himself, taking our form which always leads to death, but Jesus goes further to the humiliating and wretched death on a cross. God comes to the ambitious, not with a more powerful voice or a show of power, but by being like us, by being a servant. By dying. By coming to our hurried and overwhelmed lives asking, listening, and speaking.
God With Us Interrupts and Exposes
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
God comes to the ambitious, the same as he comes to the meek and persecuted: he comes bringing life, he comes with death, he comes to you with glory. His coming into your world induces worship of someone other than yourself.
He comes the same, but the impact is different. To the naked, hungry, and burdened his coming is like a much need robe, a much needed meal, and a quick rest. To the ambitious, prideful, and self-confident he comes like a wake-up call: “You are naked, hungry, thirsty, and burdened. You are in chains.” In the same way that the younger brother’s arrival home exposed the older brother’s ambition and self-bondage, Jesus’ inescapable arrival in the world exposes you.
God With Us Interrupts and Exposes Our Fantasy
The fantasy is you can somehow attain a world of security, peace, and prosperity for yourself. The fantasy of a world and each person in it conspiring to give you what you need or directly conspiring against you. Jesus’ arrival in the world alerts you that none of that is true. The world is not about you: it’s about him, everything is made in and for him. His power and love is what sustains everything. Your feeble attempts to manipulate the ones you love, scheme to get the response, things, and relationships, prove to be nothing short of fantasy.
God With Us Interrupts and Exposes The Lie
It exposes the lie: I can save myself. I can save them. I can save us. If I love enough, if I live well, if I do my bit I can save everyone. God with us awakes us to the terrifying mystery, power, and salvation and it isn’t you! It’s Jesus. God is with us to free us from the self-deception that we are God, too.
This reminds me of the Empire Strikes Back: Luke Skywalker abandons his training with Yoda to save Han, Leia, Chewy, C3PO in the cloud city. He goes full of belief that he can not only single handedly break into the city and find them, but also rescue them from Vader and hundreds of storm troopers. Upon arrival, he realizes the whole thing was a trap. His friends were only in danger because of his ambition to be the savior. His predictable desire to play hero is what created their horror. He also arrives to the reality, that it was a lie: he can’t save them.
God with us, destroys that lie. Why? Because we see the true savior and he looks nothing like us. We see Jesus with all his humility, grace, love, and power to pull back death by stepping into it. The incarnation shows us what real humanity looks like as much as it shows us what God is like. We see ourselves truly and God truly.
God With Us Liberates Us from Bondage
Lastly, it frees us from bondage. We live in a cage of our own making. We are confined by our ability to love, forgive, and move. From the bondage, we are welcomed home to be with God. We are bound up in chains and don’t even know it. The incarnation breaks these chains and ushers us into reality. Similarly to the moment when Neo is awoken out of the Matrix to experience life as it really is not as it is nicely constructed to be. Except for us, instead of being liberated into a dark, metallic, and gloomy world, we are awoken into a world in which the God of heaven has condescended to make our gloomy world thrive.
This is the Gospel
This is the power of the gospel. This is the message of the gospel. This is the beginning of humility. This is very thing Paul is exhorting the Philippians in. God with us, is the only remedy to pride. This is the only invitation back to humility. The 19th century South African pastor, Andrew Murray describes this so well in his classic work, Humility:
When God created the universe, it was with the one object of making the creature partaker of His perfection and blessedness, and so showing forth in it the glory of His love and wisdom and power. God wished to reveal Himself in and through created beings by communicating to them as much of His own goodness and glory as they were capable of receiving. But this communication was not giving to the creature something with it could possess in itself, a certain life or goodness of which it had the charge and disposal. By no means. But as God is the ever-living, ever present, ever-acting One, who upholds all things by the Word of His power, and in whom all things exist, the relation of the creature to God could only be one of unceasing, absolute, universal dependence…As truly as God by his power once created, so truly by that same power must God every moment maintain.
The life God bestows is imparted not once for all, but each moment continuously by the unceasing operation of his mighty power. Humility, the place of entire dependence on God, is, from the very nature of things, the first duty and highest virtue. And so, pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil. It was the first sin. The first evil. In sin we lose humility.
Hence it follows that nothing can be our redemption but the restoration of the lost humility, the original and the only true relation of the creature to its God. And so Jesus came to bring humility back to earth, to make us partakers of it, and by it to save us. In heaven He humbled Himself to become man. The multi we see in Him possessed Him in heaven; it brought Him, He brought it, from there. Here on earth, “He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death;” His humility gave His death its value and so became our redemption. And now the salvation He imparts in nothing less and nothing else than a communication of His own life and death, His own disposition and spirit, and His own humility as the ground and root of His relation to God and His redeeming work. Jesus to the place and fulfilled the destiny of man as a creature by His life of perfect humility. His humility is our salvation. His salvation is our humility.
God with us is our ransom. God with us is our liberation. The proclamation that God has come into your world means that you are not the God of it. At the conclusion, Paul says, “every knee will bow and confess Jesus as lord.”
Our response to this salvation and liberation through Christ’s humility will and is nothing less than worship. In that “one day” Paul describes, our confession will likely be this sort of prayer. May this be our confession, our hope, the beginning of our adoration of Jesus, God with us:
“Jesus, you are worthy [we are not], our Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for you have created all things and for your pleasure they are and were created…Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” — Revelation 4:11 and 5:11