“God with us” is not always good news. It depends on who you think God is. It depends on how you think God is active in the world. It depends on who you need God to be.
For those of us inclined to believe that Immanuel is good news, I surmise that we might have a more favorable portrait of God in mind. For the most part, when God shows up, justice is done, righteousness abounds, and love reigns. We expect that God is indeed going about God’s work, which, of course, corresponds to who we imagine God to be. We might not always be privy to God’s goings-on, but we trust that God is busy doing particularly positive things toward the betterment of our lives and our world.
On the other hand, for those of us who might respond to the promise of God’s presence in our midst with mixed feelings, God might not be viewed as propitiously. We might be content with keeping God at a distance, preferring instead to invite God into our lives when the timing is better, when the time is right. We envisage God as meting justice, but with judgment and condemnation directed specifically at us.
It may very well be that both kinds of people are sitting in our pews this Sunday. God with us — “That’s great! I need God close, I’ve missed God. I have a lot to tell God. God is committed to improving my life and the lives of those I love.” God with us — “Oh, crap. I am not ready. This Advent time of preparation has not gone as planned. I don’t really want God that close because if God is, then God will likely see more of me than I want God to see. God is coming to expose my life for the farce it is, to call me out for all of my faults of faith.”
At the same time, both groups could benefit from knowing the perspective of the other. Those of us happy to have God around might profit from remembering that this is God we are talking about. And sometimes, God is not our BFF, but has some hard truths to tell, truths we would rather not hear but are necessary to know. Those of us reluctant to have God near by, even afraid of God’s presence, would do well to recall that God’s truth-telling comes from a place of love and relationship. God does not always come to us from a place of frustration, anger, or disapproval, but because God needs to be near and yet we have chosen to keep God at bay.
The both/and of “God with us” exposes our rather quick defaults to the either/or of how we imagine faith and how we go about being church — those binaries we want to maintain as church — believer/non-believer, member/non-member, name a denomination/not that denomination. Yet, the lines we draw are far more permeable than we want or are willing to admit. And the more the church insists on these rigidities, the more it will make itself irrelevant. Our world is far more ambiguous and the church might know a greater impact if it decided to come alongside its devotees so as to help navigate the tension rather than resolve it.
“God with us” is fundamentally the fullest confession of the both/and of God. God became incarnate. God, in Jesus, is never one or the other, but miraculously, mysteriously both God and human. Were we to stake our preaching on this essential claim of our Christian faith, it may very well cause us to stop and consider just how often we lean toward the either/or of the world, how often we tend to fall victim in our preaching to the same binaries on which our world insists.
“God with us” is the foundational truth-telling of the Gospel, not just the truth about God, but also the truth about how we should share the good news. In this season of Advent, this period of prophecy, that is, this time of truth-telling, we preachers would do well to remember that prophetic preaching is not the opposite of pastoral preaching. When we preach, we are not either being prophetic or being pastoral, but preach as a truth-teller and as a pastor.
The truth can rarely be heard outside of relationship, outside of a certain level of trust. Only you can know, because you know your people, how much truth they can hear at a certain time, at a certain place, and for a certain purpose. At the same time, you also need to remember and believe that they can hear a hard truth that needs to be told because they know you love them.
“God with us” is God’s very own homiletic. God tells the truth about God’s self — I am here — as an expression of love and relationship. How that truth gets heard might change depending on where we are, but its truth never changes because of who God is.