Course of Study Lecture 1.3: The God Who Moved In
Throughout the month of July I am teaching in the Course of Study for Ordained Ministry here at Duke. Twenty-one United Methodist local pastors (nearly all of them rural clergy) are taking part with me in "Course of Study 513 - Our Mission from God: Transforming Agent." The purpose of the course is to gain theological understanding for leading congregations to carry out the mission of the church as God's agent of redemption and transformation in the world. Periodically I will be posting my lectures and lecture notes from the course on this blog. I hope that this will benefit my students: and perhaps a few other readers as well.
The God Who Moves In
You see, this God who hears the groan is also THE GOD WHO MOVES IN.
When Moses encounters God in the burning bush in Exodus 3, he asks God’s name, and God gives a puzzling response that has remained a mystery to us ever since. The words mean something to the effect of “I AM,” or “I AM WHO I AM.” But some Bible Scholars think one translation of the phrase is “I AM THE ONE WHO WILL BE THERE WITH YOU.”
And God is just that to God’s people: the ONE WHO WILL BE THERE WITH THEM in a pillar of cloud and fire, then tabernacling, going camping in a tent in the wilderness.
And if God doesn’t prove this before, we learn the truth of “THE ONE WHO WILL BE THERE WITH YOU” in John 3:16 and 17. “For God so loved the world (not, “God so loved the church,” not “God so loved only individual souls,” not “God so loved our own country,” but “God so loved the world”) that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This God of love, the Trinity, seeing a world broken fallen, destroying itself, refusing God’s invitation to join God’s life, hearing its cries, finally comes himself, sends the Son. When we read in John 1 about the incarnation, that the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the word for dwelt is skeenao, which means “pitch tent.” In Jesus, God has set up God’s tent right in our midst. Eugene Peterson, in the Message translation, translates that verse on the word becoming flesh in John 1, ““The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
God, hearing the cries, moved in. Heaven came to earth. The Creator became a creature, made the downward journey, the limbo of love: how low could God go?. God moved in.
A pastor I know of serves a church in South Africa that’s located in a very comfortable, very safe, very middle class area. But at the outskirts of this comfortable suburb in South Africa there is an informal settlement, we would call it a shantytown, called Ivory Park. In Ivory Park, there is no electricity. There is very little running water. Tens of thousands of people live in two room shacks that are made out of whatever metal scraps they can find. They sleep on cots on a dirt floor. The local health clinic has a line every day that stretches out the door. There is plenty of petty crime. Children play in dirt streets that run with raw sewage.
Now, you and I, somewhat to our shame, make it a point to move as far away from areas like this as is possible for us.
But this South African pastor decided one day that as a follower of Christ, he could no longer live such a comfortable and safe life in his suburb while so many so many of his brothers and sisters, God’s children, lived in such squalor just a mile or two away. How could he preach Christ’s command to serve the poor when he did not know the poor, when he could not understand what their life is really like?
So, Alan moved in. He began to live three days a week in a shack in Ivory Park.
That may sound like a strange thing to do, to move in. But it’s not strange when you remember that Alan serves a God who not only sent, but who moved in.
For God so loved the world that he sent the Son. The Word became flesh and lived among us, pitched tent. God took on flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. God moved in.
A man takes up residence in his sick wife’s hospital room, showering in the sink, sleeping every night in the uncomfortable recliner, won’t leave her side. Instead, he moves in.
A woman’s friend just lost her husband, and so she packs her duffel bag, knocks on the door, and, to help her friend the new widow through the first few dark lonely nights, she moves in. A group of firemen receives a call that a plane has crashed into a building. There are flames and grave danger. People are trapped. Everyone else is going down the stairs. They make their way up. Every instinct of self-preservation would till them to move out, but love leads them to move in.
And the Word became flesh and moved in with us . . .
Heaven moved into the earth.
God moved in.
There is an idea among many Christians that God does not care about this world: that Jesus is an escape hatch to flee this sinful, doomed world and get safely to a far-away place called heaven. But you know, when you read the whole story of the Bible, it is not primarily a story about human beings going from earth to heaven: it’s the story of a God who wants to bring heaven to earth: who wants to bring the two together. It’s the story of a God who wants to bring up there down here. I’ve heard people refer to God as “the man upstairs.” I know why people say that, but in Jesus we believe in a God who climbed down the stairs: that heaven came to earth. Read the end of Revelation and realize, read it close, that it’s not earth that goes to heaven, it’s heaven that comes to earth.
In a way, all of this is to say that the Bible is the story of a God who wants to move in with his children, who, in order to be close to them, was willing to live in a tent in the wilderness, in a Temple, in a human being named Jesus, and now in individual human hearts, and most completely in this community of heaven planted on earth that we call church.
God has moved in, and brought his toothbrush.