“Emmanuel – God with Us” by Cari Willis

"Emmanuel – God with Us" by Cari Willis 

July 20, 2008



One of my favorite titles for Jesus is “Emmanuel” as it means, “God with us.” I found it interesting that my New Testament professor, Dr. Kavin Rowe, told us that Emmanuel is a framing device for the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew wants to make the theological point that Christ is the definitive fulfillment of Torah because he is the Emmanuel. Green season 2008

As we have spent time this past week reading our lectionary texts from Genesis 28, Psalm 139, Romans 8, and Matthew 13, there was a common theme at least for me which was God is indeed with us. God has not left us. In Genesis 28 v. 15 we read, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land: for I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.” Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, the twin of Esau, is favored by God but still does not have everything go his way. His progeny is put at risk when he finds out that Rachel is barren. Later we will see that Jacob will fret and worry about whether his brother Esau will kill him once he sees him again. Will God deliver him? Will God stay true to his word? And we all know that the story does indeed end up with Jacob getting what God promised – progeny and prosperity. But I pray you noticed that God is giving him all of this to bless not only him but ALL the families of the earth.

We read Psalm 139 where our psalmist writes in verses 1-2 and 7-8, “Adonai, you have searched me and known me. You know if I am sitting or standing; you read my thoughts from far away. Whether I walk or lie down, you are watching; you are intimate with all of my ways. Where could I run from your Spirit? Where could I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you’re there; if I make my bed in Death, you’re already there.”

There is nowhere that the Psalmist can turn where God is not already present. This God that the psalmist has grown to know and love already knows even the psalmist’s thoughts before they are spoken. There is an intimacy there between the loved and the beloved.

In Romans 8 we read that this God is the God we can cry out to and that our spirit can connect with in order for us to know that we are children of God. We know that even if our bodies should decay that God will redeem us. There is hope. There is hope because God will continue to be with us and hold us even during the times we inwardly groan.

And finally, our Gospel text says, even when evil grows up around you and I would assert, even in you, God will not abandon you. God will allow the sinful tares to live alongside the holy and healthy wheat. Jacqie weeks ago called this our shadow side. God knows the tares are poisonous and dangerous. But God also realizes that there is no quick threshing of the weeds so that all will be perfect again. God knows we cannot grow into the likeness of Christ on our own. Therefore, as Trevor Hudson says, “God meets us in our place of deepest brokenness, accepts us as we are, and offers us with crucified hands the gifts of grace and mercy.”  God does not run the other way. God stands with us and gives us what we need which is God’s love and forgiveness.

Our theme for this our green season is “Chosen to Live: Choosing to Serve.” We are chosen to live as Christ lived. We are choosing to serve as Christ served. And what is the essence of Christ’s life? Christ is Emmanuel. Christ shows up. I found it interesting that our preacher last week in her sermon defined her ministry of love as “being present for both the big things and little things of life.”  God for her is defined by love. God’s love is shown by showing up for others.

My first field education placement with Duke Divinity was on two hospice wards in the middle of a prison. When I allowed my imagination to run wild before I started my time there I had paint peeling off of every iron bar, the men sneering at me with brown mangled teeth, and filth at every corner. When I actually entered these wards I realized that the place was spotless, that there were men much holier and better versed in the Scriptures than I probably will ever be, and there were plenty of beautiful men both inward and outward. I realized after just a few hours – no, strike that – after just a few minutes there that I was not the sole person bringing Christ to these men, Christ was already there in many different manifestations. Christ was there as three separate inmates recited Psalm 91 to me. Christ was there as they told me about the transformations that were happening across the prison through the Hispanic ministry. Christ was there when one man told me how big his God was. Christ was there in the hands and feet of the inmates who chose to be palliative care workers for those who were dying.

I realized too that for those who did not know Christ that my call was simply to show up and shut up. In other words, “Christ with us” does not mean talking someone else’s ear off. “Christ with us” means just being with the other person. It means just sitting by someone’s side and saying to them, “I am not leaving until you are finished telling your story. I am choosing to be with you. I will sit here and allow you to know that God is with you too. God has not left you. There is nowhere that you can go that God will not already be. I will let you know that no matter how much you groan and cry that there is a God that understands and who will groan and cry with you – and in fact, I too may shed a tear or two with you. I will stay with you even during your most evil of days when the good and the evil grow up together. And I will tell you that at the end of your life that God will throw away the evil in your life in order to just have the perfect and precious wheat left that nourishes you with God’s self.” 

I wonder if this kind of care for each other is what Jesus envisioned as he told his disciples in Matthew “this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like” Did Christ want us to get it that we are to be the “Emmanuel, God with us” to others? I realized this as I was acting as a chaplain in the prison. And let me be clear about 2 things: 1. every Wednesday that I was there I told God “I cannot do this.” I was very clear in my desperate prayer that it was God that would have to go before, behind and all around me. I was merely a vessel for God to use. And 2. I prayed to be literally clothed with Christ. And this may sound absolutely silly or crazed, but I would actually pretend before going in that I was stepping into Christ’s shell if you will as I wanted to be covered from head to toe. So every week I knew it was not me, but Christ who was meeting these men.

One of my most moving stories was with one inmate that I will call Andrew. When I first met Andrew he was so incredibly angry that I literally could not walk into his cell. I have never felt such a presence of anger in all of my life. I let him rage on about the prison system, his innocence to his crime, the justice system that had kept him behind walls for close to 2 years, his disease, and how absolutely miserable he was. Afterwards I was visibly shaken by our time together. And yet week after week I kept showing up for Andrew – angry Andrew, sad Andrew, suffering Andrew – however he was. And I would always end our time saying, “I will be praying for you this week. I love you. See you next week.”

As the weeks went by his whole demeanor started to soften. Then one week as I was saying my usual “I will be praying for you” I stopped and asked him, “can I pray for you now?” He meekly said “yes, Ma’am.” I then knelt down next to him and started praying. As soon as I did he did one of those clear the throat sounds which mean you need to stop. Inwardly I was saying to myself “see he doesn’t want you to pray – why did I even start?” And then I opened my eyes to see what he wanted. To my great surprise, what I saw him doing was struggling to get his hand out of the layers of blankets in order to hold my hand as we prayed. I will never remember what words I said in my prayer, but I will go to my grave remembering his emerging hand and holding it tightly that day. Andrew was a completely transformed man because of the grace and mercy of Christ – clear and simple.  

I wrote about my showing up at the prison and I want to share with you just a small section:
These moments—where I can see God moving in these men’s lives—are what keep me coming back. I will hope for them when they are out of hope. I will cry for them when they are out of tears. I will show up for them when they feel they are all alone. I will pray for them when they feel that no one cares. Why? Because this is what God does for me and it is the least I can do for them. 


This year my Scripture has been “who am I that you are mindful of me?” which is an adaptation from Psalm 8:4 “who are human beings that you are mindful of them?” Who am I? I literally have prayed “God, who am I that you listen to me and to my prayers?” A lot of the inmates that I met at the prison felt the same way – who am I? And yet Christ’s inbreaking into our world answers this question with – “you are my beloved. You are my precious one. You are worth showing up for. I left everything heavenly behind to be with you.”

It is interesting that this question of “who am I” does not stop there in verse 4. It goes on to say: “and the Son of man that you care for him?” or as some translations have “visit him.” So maybe, just maybe Christ is asking us the rest of the question that Psalm 8:4 poses “who am I – the Son of man that you care for him?”  In Matthew 25:35-36 (NRSV) Christ makes it clear where Christ will be: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Is Christ asking us as well if he is worth showing up for?

Is there a place where God is calling you to go be present? Is there a place of hurt and suffering that needs your hands and feet to be the “God with us” in order to be the hope for the hopeless? Will you allow yourself to be embraced by this all-loving Holy God who says “I want to be with you always in order to surround you with my love”? Will you be the presence of God in a world that so desperately needs to know that God is still present, active, and alive? Will you go where Christ says he will be in order to have an encounter with Christ? And our question for the season: Are you choosing to serve as Christ served?

Alan Jones states: “The challenge of the gospel is, Will you allow your drifting to be consecrated into pilgrimage? Will you entertain the possibility that you matter, that you are here for a purpose, that you have a mission that no one else can fulfill?” 

And finally I received this from the Henri Nouwen Society just last Thursday and I thought it perfect to end on: “Whenever we come together around the table, take bread, bless it, break it, and give it to one another saying: "The Body of Christ," we know that Jesus is among us. He is among us not as a vague memory of a person who lived long ago but as a real, life-giving presence that transforms us. By eating the Body of Christ, we become the living Christ and we are enabled to discover our own chosenness and blessedness, acknowledge our brokenness, and trust that all we live we live for others. Thus we, like Jesus himself, become food for the world.”

  1.  1 See Matthew 1:23 and Matthew 28:20.

  2.  2 Hudson, Trevor, A Mile in My Shoes, Upper Room Books, 49.

  3.  3 Sermon given by Shani Senbetta on 07/13/08 at Seeker’s Church.

  4.  4 This section comes from my unpublished manuscript, The Overwhelming Grace and Mercy of Christ. Reverend Grace Hackney, pastor of Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, presented to my Pastoral Care 64 class on 14 November 2006. When one of her parishioners had asked her why she keeps showing up for other, she replied, “Because God keeps showing up for me.” I have realized that this is truly a gift from God, as we all need others to show up for us. I am grateful to Rev. Hackney for her insight.

  5.  5 Jones, Alan, Passion for Pilgrimage, Harper & Row, 37.

  6.  6 Daily meditation from the Henri Nouwen Society, July 17, 2008, www.henrinouwen.org

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