Christmas changes everything. It upends everything we think about God. And even more than that, it offers a completely different way of experiencing God. For in one event, it shows us that God is both “with” us and “for” us.
This isn’t how everyone experiences God.
A few decades ago, Bette Midler sang her theology in the words “God is watching from a distance.”
The words were meant to be comforting. She seemed to be saying, “Our day-to-day lives may not have a sense of God watching over us, but he is.” That is comforting. But she didn’t stop. “It’s just that he’s really, really far away. The problem is that because he’s so far away, we’re not really sure if he’s on our side after all. But he is. Somewhere. Out there. Watching.”
That distance part is what gets us. We’ve got this sense that God is for us, watching over us, but the perceived distance between us keeps us from knowing that it’s true.
We can’t see his face. We can’t hear his voice. We can’t feel his touch. All those nuances that we interpret in our daily communication are missing in our relationship with God.
But this felt distance isn’t necessarily true when it comes to a Jesus-centered encounter with God. Jesus, whom the angel called Immanuel (which in Hebrew means “God with us”), isn’t just God for us, but God with us.
It’s possible to be “for” someone from a distance. For instance, I can cheer for the Oregon Ducks football team from the privacy of my own home and they’ll never know about it. I can take a significant step closer and cheer for them at Autzen Stadium and they’ll hear my voice as part of a crowd. I can tweet about them and to them and they may respond, as Vernon Adams did to a tweet of mine in August. Or I can move to Eugene, get a job with the athletic department of the University of Oregon tutoring athletes, and spend significant time helping them. (If you don’t like the Ducks, I apologize for the example. But you get it, right?)
There’s a big difference in simply being “for” someone and being “with” that person. In Jesus, our God does both.
We see it throughout the gospels.
Jesus doesn’t just advocate for sinners. He eats with them. He befriends them. He teaches them. He dies for them.
Jesus doesn’t just say, “Be nice to tax collectors, they’re people, too.” He seeks them out. He engages with them. He invites himself over to their houses. He shares meals with them. He points to their repentant generosity as the coming of the kingdom of God.
Jesus doesn’t just smile at kids as he walks past them. He heals them. He blesses them. He makes sure that no one hinders them from coming to him.
Jesus doesn’t just download info into his disciples’ brains. He walks with them all over the place. He spends time with them over years. He tells them stories and then explains those stories to them. He challenges them. He gives them his mission and his authority to do that mission. He gives them his very Spirit. He promises to always be with them to the end of the earth.
When we lose this sense of the withness of God in Jesus, we end up with something less, something distorted.
Without an ongoing experience of the presence of God, we often end up with a reduced Christianity that is a worldview and a moral system. But that’s not what Jesus was after, not what the entire Bible offers. What Jesus is after is a relationship — a relationship with God that entangles us in a bunch of other relationships. And yes, this all-encompassing relationship colors our way of viewing the world and the ethics we use in relating with others, but those are by-products.
The Spirit of Jesus holds the power of God and the presence of God together.
Gordon Fee wrote a massive scholarly work on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul. It’s an incredible book called God’s Empowering Presence. The title alone is worth the price of the book. The Spirit is God empowering his people (i.e. God for us) and God’s presence with his people (i.e. God with us), given to us by Jesus. (I love how he squished an entire theology of the Spirit into a three-word title.)
The Spirit of God makes the “withness” of Jesus real in our lives.
The gospel of Matthew begins with the birth of Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). And it ends with Jesus promising, “Take note of this: I am with you always. Right up to the very end” (Matthew 28:20, my paraphrase).
These two verses bookend the entire gospel. They tell us that everything in-between is about Jesus being God’s presence with us. He is God’s ultimate demonstration that God is in fact for us.
The Spirit of God is the expression of the withness of Jesus that he promised would always be with us.
Unlike Bette Midler, we believe and declare that God is not watching from a distance. He’s right here. Closer than air. Tighter than skin. Never leaving. Always with us. Always for us. Always.
If you get nothing else from Christmas, I hope you get that.