One of the beautiful things I've seen in Scripture over the years is what I like to call the increasing "withness" of God. I've come to see that it defines our message and impacts our ministry.
In the garden of Eden, God walked with Adam and Eve. He came down and interacted with them in the world He'd created for their dwelling place. Sin disrupted that communion, and ever since man has tried to find ways to reach up to God, to experience that "withness".
Amazingly, God's plan of redemption didn't stop at restoring the lost fellowship of garden-walking-and-talking. His plan involved deepening the fellowship beyond anything Adam and Eve could have dreamed.
We saw glimpses in the pillar of fire and the cloud that led the Israelites, and then the tabernacle. God's presence would come down visibly -- the "Shekinah" glory -- and it was so great that the Israelites asked Moses to go up on their behalf. Moses would so shine with the glory of the presence of God that he would have to wear a veil over his face for a period of time afterward. God's Shekinah glory also visited the temple designed by David and built by Solomon. Intermingled in the stories of the Israelites are times when God's Spirit would visit not merely the temple, but rest upon individuals as well, equipping them for a task.
But it wasn't enough. God was merely setting the stage for an unveiling of a withness no one could imagine. When the time was right, He Himself would come down to earth in human form, and live among the people He created. Just imagine for a minute: You build an ant colony (like many of you probably did in elementary school). Curious what life is like for the ants in your glass enclosure, you find a way to enter their world - not as a human, but as an ant. That's a weak analogy of the Incarnation. God - the Word - became flesh and dwelt (literally, "Tabernacled") among us as Jesus Christ. Philippians 2 says He "emptied Himself".
Now in our human understanding that seems sufficient. He's walking with us again, just as in the garden. But God in His wisdom had an even bigger plan ... a Promise of intimacy deeper than a walk in the garden. Jesus Himself described it the night before His death:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. - (John 14:16-20 ESV)Jesus would die, be resurrected, and ascend to the Father so that we could experience a deeper level of intimacy with God than walks in the garden. He sent the promised Holy Spirit to dwell in the hearts of believers. Paul later would teach that the Holy Spirit is the sign of a true believer (Romans 8:9-15) and the seal of our salvation (Ephesians 4:30). So believers in Jesus now have the constant presence of God, a withness beyond imagination. And after a lifetime of walking by faith that His unseen presence is with us, we have the promise that immediately upon death we will behold Him - we will be with Him, in His presence. Heaven will be, first and foremost, the deepest level of withness imaginable.
So - if we have experienced such deep "withness" from God, what difference should that make in our ministry and work to advance the kingdom of God? Obviously, we are motivated to want others to experience what we know to be true. But I think there is another key lesson for being on mission with God.
God is God. He could have redeemed any way He wanted. Yet He chose a path of "withness" - of presence, of incarnation. And once He started that path, He chose others to minister with Him. Certainly the day-to-day work of ministry would have been easier for Him if He hadn't had to constantly teach and correct the disciples. He knew all the right answers. He had a firm grasp on which demons required prayer and fasting. He knew ahead of time what people were thinking and who would believe and who would reject Him. And yet, He still chose to have others on His team -- 72 that were sent out in pairs to minister in the region, 12 to be apostles, 3 that would be with Him at the most personal moments of His ministry.
The example of Christ shows us that we don't advance God's kingdom in a vacuum. First, we have to be incarnational ourselves -- going and adapting to those we long to reach. That might be another people group across the world, an international population in our country, an inner city youth group, or just the women in our Bible study. People need to know we identify with them, and when that happens we will be able to minister at a deeper level. Cancer survivors are great at ministering to cancer patients because they truly know what they are facing. Missions studies over the past few generations have shown that simply adapting to the food and dress of a culture makes a big difference in how the message is received. There are many ways to become incarnational - the main point is that we see ourselves not merely going to a people but in some way emptying ourselves in the process.
But incarnational ministry goes beyond how we approach those we serve. Jesus - who held full authority, was completely perfect, and had all the answers - ministered with others. Too many times we think of ministering to a group of people, especially those in need: ministering "to the poor"; "to the abused""; "to the drug addict"; is all part of the evangelical lingo. But with few exceptions, our ministry can always find a way to be with, not to. Ministering to can easily become patronizing or enabling. Ministering with grants the other a level of dignity, an honor that says we see them in the image God as having something significant to contribute.
One of the most significant books I've read this year is When Helping Hurts. It talks about alleviating poverty and points out that with few exceptions (such as the immediate hours and days after a natural disaster), people can participate in the rebuilding and development process. When we go in thinking we have all the answers, some unfortunate things happen: tractors are donated to people who lack the ability to purchase gasoline; a harvest is increased on land that is worked by tenant farmers who only get a limited return on their labor; and so on.
When we practice "withness" the results are very different. One missionary received a hearing for the Gospel after introducing earthworms to meet a basic need of improving soil. The development is sustainable and the farmers are receptive to the truth. A ministry I know of establishes communities of believers within cities in Asia, living as close as possible to the people and helping meet basic needs in ways that honor the people's traditions, such as neighborhood dinners. In another part of the world, a young woman is learning to garden and plans to establish a community garden where everyone contributes to the effort and shares the rewards. Along the way, conversations about God flow naturally.
Withness doesn't have to happen overseas. It can happen when the homeless population helps serve and clean up the meal provided, such as the Salvation Army and Southchurch do in our city. The main point is to see ministry as with not to. And intentionally seek ways to bring those we serve into a relationship that involves ministering to their own.
Truly God changes everything. Even the way we look at serving. May we humbly serve with others, leading them to know the One who came so we could experience His withness forever.