Justin is a good friend and fellow campus minister at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This post originally appeared on his blog, which you can follow here.
The Gospel is the most captivating, inspiring, and compelling story ever told. It is the story of a perfect and righteous God, who spoke the world into existence, entering Human history to become present with His people and face the total punishment for all sin committed against Him past, present, and future.
He came not as a disembodied spirit. Rather, as a man.
A person who experienced the entire range of human experience.
From heights and depths of life to the final breath in death.
His name is Jesus and his name means, ‘God with us.’
Just sit and think about that for a moment.
God with us.
What would our life look like if we woke up each morning thinking, ‘God is with us.’
Maybe this reality of God with us is difficult to imagine.
Maybe the reality of God with us does not move us like we know it should. Maybe we want to believe that God is with us, but in reality we have strong doubts concerning the presence and activity of God in our present age. Maybe it is difficult because we are so busy we never stop.
In the awe and wonder of the incarnation of God.
When have you last stopped and given yourself permission to stand in awe of something? As a child you would do this all of the time. Noting the beauty of the world around you.
The breeze in your hair.
The clouds in the sky.
The joy in a rainy day.
It was once said that awe is the beginning of faith. If we no longer take the time to stand in awe; to feel the limits of ourselves and the beginning of something greater, can we wonder why we posses so little faith?
So, maybe it is here, in our forgetting.
The forgetting of ‘God with us’, that we have lost our Gospel Imagination.
Maybe we have exchanged the reality of ‘God with us’ for the idea of ‘God with us.’
And maybe the idea of ‘God with us’ has become:
Go to church.
Read your Bible.
Be a good person.
We know we have been commissioned to tell the story of Jesus. But in exchanging the reality of ‘God with us’ with the mere idea of it, we find ourselves less than compelled to share the ‘good news’ of Jesus—which, when left as an idea, is not good news at all. And it is with this idea we instead find ourselves asking the questions of:
Why are we even at church this week?
Does it even matter if I take time to pray?
What does reading the Bible really offer to my daily life?
Shouldn’t every good person make it to heaven whether they know Jesus or not?
We ask these questions because our imagination of ‘God with us’ has become an impersonal to do list. And when we let these questions linger with our limited imaginations, we quickly find ourselves disillusioned with the church, prayer, the Bible, and the idea of faith.
So I ask again, “what does it mean to have God with us?”
What if the words, ‘God with us’ moved us to a place where we were able to truly believe in the reality of God with us?
What if God is telling you: “(Your Name) I am with you.”
What does that inspire?
What does that reality do with your relationship with Him?
I cannot think of a more encouraging, equipping, empowering, and life-giving reality than that of:
“I am with you.”
The reality of God with us has inspired normal everyday people like you and I to do spectacular works for God. When Moses is confronted by God at the burning bush God tells Moses that he is to go to Pharaoh and demand the release and exodus of the Hebrew people. To this idea Moses replies to God with the question of, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring these sons of Israel out of Egypt?”
Do you see that? Do you understand the weight of Moses’ question? Moses is wondering: “How is it that You, God, think that I, a runaway ex-murderer and nomadic shepherd could possibly go to Pharaoh and lead an entire people out of Egypt?”
Up until this point in Moses’ life, the imagination for his life seemed fairly minimal. It probably consisted of fending off wild beast, providing for his family, and staying alive. And in many ways we share the same imagination as Moses in our own lives where we find ourselves asking God, “Who am I?”
As you know the story doesn’t end there, and to Moses’ question God replies, “Surely, I am with you!” It is with this reality that Moses has the imagination to walk up to Pharaoh and declare, “Let my people Go!”
Moses leads one of the greatest exoduses recorded in all of history because he believes in the reality and the imagination that God is with him.
As the story unfolds Moses’ generation exchanges the inspiring reality and imagination of God with us for the toxic idea of God with us. The physical presence of God in the pillars of cloud and fire, the faithful supply of manna and quail, and water flowing from rocks was no longer seen as spectacular. Their lack of awe kills their imagination of conquering Canaan and reduces them to dwelling in the desert. This will be the death of this generation.
As soon as Moses dies God speaks to Joshua and declares to him. “Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God is with you wherever you go!” It is with this reality then, that Joshua, son of a slave, professional dessert wander, with limited military experience, has the imagination to become the commander of the Israelite army.
It is with this reality of ‘God with us’ that Joshua is able to rally his generation, a rag tag group of dessert wanderers, into believing in the imagination that they could actually invade and conquer Canaan.
This generation of Joshua’s is different than the previous. It is a generation who experienced the limitation of the previous generation’s imagination, and they are ready to carry that same imagination one step beyond what the previous generation could.
This is important to note because it becomes easy to criticize the previous generation’s lack of imagination. It is just as easy for the former generation to find itself critical of the next generation’s imagination. Humility and grace are required for each generation to understand that no matter the era, we will always have a limited imagination because of our humanness. The important thing is that we share the same source for our imagination: The reality that God is with us, even when it looks like the next generation might be walking away from Him.
David understands this reality and reminds us that God is with us no matter what. In Psalm 139 David writes, ‘”Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence…If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,’ Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You.”
David’s imagination of, ‘God with us’ allows for God to be present even in the darkest of situations.
A few years ago, I was studying aboard at Oxford University. I was with a few students in Queen’s college, waiting to go out to the club for the night, when suddenly an intoxicated girl stumbled into the dorm room.
It just so happened that moments before I had been discussing with those in the room the possibility of God. I found myself alone in my belief of such a reality due to a lack of evidence. And before I could open my mouth with some contrived argument this woman came crashing in.
Immediately everyone around me had transformed into a highly trained medical unit. The student who’s room we were in offered his bed for the night. Others grabbed the trashcan and held out for the woman, as she vomited. Others supplied her with fresh washcloths and water to drink.
So, there we were, tending to the care of a selfish drunk waiting for her to pass out.
For two hours.
During that time one of the girls who had been tending the trashcan apologized to me for the situation we found ourselves in.
It was in that moment I realized that God was with us and I had to share it.
As she finished her apology I said to her and those present, “It’s okay. Actually, this is amazing. The last two hours have been truly redemptive.”
“’Redemptive?” The girl questioned with a crossed look on her face.
“Yes, redemptive. Look, it is because of this girl’s great selfishness by getting drunk and stumbling into our room and making a big mess of things, that she elicited great good from us tonight.”
Looking around the room I began to point out what they had done.
“You just gave up your bed to this stranger. You held the trashcan while she was throwing up into it. You were serving her water and making sure she did no further harm to herself or anyone else. You sacrificed the past two hours you could have been enjoying at the club.
“I do not know many people who would have done what you just did, and because of that I just cannot help but think what a redemptive moment this is for her and how great it is we get to participate in it.”
The girl, with wide eyes, said, “Wow, I never would have looked at it like that. I just think this is what I would hope for the night I do something this stupid.”
And just because neither this girl, nor any of my other God-denying friends acknowledged it, God was with us. The imagination of the Gospel had penetrated the hearts of those who denied its very existence and redemption took place that night in a very real way.
Because God is with us!
Even the darkness is not dark to Him, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Him.
God is with us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Our God is not a God who is content playing hide and seek waiting for us to find Him. No, He is a God who is in search of humankind and comes to earth as a man declaring:
“I am here!”
“I am with you!”
“I will never leave you!”
“I am sending my spirit to live in you!”
“I will be with you until the very end!”
Because of this:
“Go; declare to the world that I am with you!”
How do we go as if God is with us?
It begins by sitting in awe and wonder and sharing in it with those around us.
It begins by realizing the God of the universe lives within us.
We need to grab a hold of the imagination of our priesthood, fully equipped to serve one another in Christ Jesus.
What if the reality of ‘God with us’ allowed us to reimagine: church, prayer, how we read the Bible, and the way we live out our daily lives?
What if church was a place where the gospel was truly experienced, and in this experience the gospel would be declared. What if it were a place where we would come together and say to one another, no matter how dark, no matter how confusing, ‘I am with you!’
What if God is not looking for people to read the bible, or pray, or try to live good lives, but rather that He is in search of those who are desiring to rest in His presence, know His heart more, and be transformed to live the life only the reality of ‘God with us’ could inspire.
So what does Gospel imagination look like?
When it comes to specifics I do not know.
For some, you will be able to find this imagination in your current context, while others might be called to imagine something far more radical.
But at the end of the day I think it has something to do with us realizing that God is with us. And us declaring to each other, ‘because God is with you, I am with you!’
Moses never could have imagined the Exodus of the Hebrew people.
Joshua could have never imagined leading an unskilled army to capture Jericho.
The gospel imagination inspires us to go places we never would have dreamed of on our own, because the gospel never leaves us on our own.
It leaves us with the God of the universe saying, “Surely, I am with you!—Always! Now let us get going!”
Sign at the UW Episcopal Center this past Tuesday.