A Crazy Idea
Have you ever had the opportunity to drive through an old neighborhood and thought, “Why haven’t they just bulldozed this whole place? This is a mess! This is an eyesore! The people still living here should get a medal.” I heard a story a few weeks ago about a neighborhood in Detroit. Because of the city’s well-publicized problems the neighborhood had been pretty much forgotten. One in three homes had been abandoned. Street lights didn’t have power going to them anymore. There was no police coverage for the neighborhood due to budget restrictions. There are no good grocery stores nearby. Jobs are scarce. Folks in the neighborhood have started doing basically some urban farming in order to provide food for themselves and their neighbors. They raise a variety of produce as well as chickens and goats. They figure that if gas prices go up much more it will become profitable for them to start selling to local markets to make some extra money for the neighborhood. And when asked whether or not all this was legal within city limits they essentially said, “We’ll worry about forgiveness if we ever get caught.” Closer to home, though, some of you have driven through some of the more run-down neighborhoods in Petersburg where you didn’t really feel safe driving down the street. How do we respond to a place like this?
Well, the way I see it there are basically three approaches. The first is to leave and ignore the problem. I’m reading the next installment in a fantasy series I’ve been following for a few years. In this particular book the main character discovers that thousands of years ago some bad people created a major problem that led to some parts of the country becoming so bad as to be just nearly uninhabitable—kind of like some of those Petersburg neighborhoods seem to many of you. Instead of solving the problem then, though, the heroes of old created a giant barrier with an enormous gate and locked the problem away, out of sight, out of mind. They knew this wouldn’t actually solve the problem and that later generations would be forced to deal with it instead, but they didn’t know what else to do so they hid it and walked away. Now the problem had burst through its old barriers and was threatening to poison a whole lot of new areas.
This is probably the solution that most folks—including most churches—have tended to take. Neighborhoods that were once nice, safe, thriving places to live and raise a family gradually lose their luster. New folks move in who don’t share the standards and opportunities as the existing residents. Instead of pouring into their new neighbors, though, the long-timers move out to new communities with more like-minded peers. Over time social problems begin to emerge that weren’t there before. Crime rates go up as property values go down. The church that had been ministering in the neighborhood for many years begins to decline as local members move away and don’t like driving back to the world they left behind. But, the members still present don’t want to change the way they do things to accommodate their new neighbors. So, as the church begins to look less and less like its neighborhood, its decline hastens, and finally the last ten members, mostly octogenarians, sadly hand the deed over to someone else in hopes they can recapture the neighborhood as they once had done. Or, before the church even begins to decline, they have a building campaign in the suburbs and move out there, following their old neighbors. Either way, the old neighborhood gets left behind and forgotten. Locked behind the social walls put up by the people who don’t really want to deal with somebody else’s problems, the issues don’t go away, they concentrate. And when this virus has fully infected its current host, it usually expands to infect the neighboring ‘hoods.
What else can be done with a failing community? Well, another trend which has become somewhat trendy in the last fifteen years or so is called gentrification. You see, around about the turn of the millennia it suddenly became cool to live in the city again. Also, with the real estate bubble inflating to its near bursting size, it became profitable for do-it-yourself developers to snap up old homes in these neighborhoods, flip them, and sell them for a huge profit. I’ve seen the effects of this with my own eyes. Houses not even worth $50,000 standing next to a house currently listed for $350,000. And the thing is, these flipped houses get snapped up by young, wealthy professionals, most of whom are coming out of the suburbs back into the city to be where the action is. Trendy retailers soon follow the crowds and neighborhoods that were once forgotten become centers of life once again. This seems like a great way to deal with the problem…except…the problems that caused the neighborhood to fall into disarray aren’t really dealt with. The people who were consumed by the problems haven’t been changed…they’ve simply been moved. And so they move out to areas that uncomfortably span the gap between the old, rotting urban centers, and the wealthier-than-they-can-afford suburbs. What more, they take all their problems with them. In the end, this “solution” is really no different from the last, it simply moves the barriered-off community around, cleaning up its mess after it goes. It would be like dumping a bucket of soapy water right on top of a pile of dirt on the floor. The original spot is clean, but now the isolated mess has been spread out all over the place. And as you know…a mess always attracts a mess.
So, what else is there? Well, I said before that there are three possible solutions to rescue an old, dilapidated, crime-ridden, broken neighborhood. We can ignore and avoid it, we can gentrify it, or we can transform it. In the 1980s, a guy then living with his wife and small children in a wealthy Denver suburb named Jeff Johnson, felt God call him to go and transform a neighborhood in downtown Denver. So, he and his family bought a house in the Whittier neighborhood, one of those old places that used to be thriving and now was a dump, and moved in. They didn’t bring anybody with them. Retailers didn’t follow them. They made their house comfortable, but didn’t change the property values a whole lot. Instead, they started to get to know their neighbors. They built relationships with the mostly fatherless kids running around. They shared the Gospel with folks who had heard it, but had not ever really heard it. They taught people how to manage money responsibly. They worked to bring some pride in the neighborhood back to the residents. Their house was broken into a few times. They had some tense moments with some unsavory strangers. They lived through what became known as the “Summer of Violence” when gang activity in the city climaxed and it was common to hear assault weapons being fired in the night. They mourned as friends moved away as a result of gentrification efforts. They have learned to love Tupac, a rap artist who has achieved mythic status among his fans since his murder almost 20 years ago. But over time, with a lot of love and patience, they have seen their home—not merely their project—transform into a place worth living again. They didn’t ignore or move the problems out, they worked to solve them. And while things aren’t perfect yet, they’ve come a long, long way.
So why take so much time this morning to talk about all of this? Because I think there’s a spiritual truth here that rings with special clarity at this time of year. This is the time of year when we tend to focus on Jesus coming to earth as a baby. We talk about God becoming human and examine the implications of this great truth for our lives. At least, we do that when we stop to take our minds off of the hullabaloo that is, for most of us, a fully integrated part of the season. This, after all, is the first Sunday of Advent. Twenty-four days from right now we will be gathered around a tree somewhere celebrating the bounty of the season with our families. But, the real bounty of the season, to take on a bit of cultural commentary, is not found hidden behind the colorful paper decorating the trinkets under our trees. The real bounty is found in the incredible truth that theologians call “the incarnation.” Jesus is God-incarnate. This means that God in all His glory came to earth and took on human flesh. Just like the neighborhoods I had us picturing a few minutes ago, our world was a broken mess…it still is in many ways. But 2,000 years ago it was even worse.
God had long before planted this incredible neighborhood called Israel. He built them a great place to live, gave them a neighborhood code that really did ensure life in the community would thrive, and told them to share their secret with the neighborhoods around them. But, the sharing tended to flow in the other direction. New people moved in with different values and expectations. Eventually the original residents moved, or rather, were moved. Years later some of them tried to come back in and gentrify their old stomping grounds, but, as we said, this didn’t really solve any problems. The once-thriving neighborhood may have had a nice coat of whitewash now, but it was really a mess underneath. What more, all the neighborhoods around it were even worse. The whole city needed to be shut up and forgotten about. Except…God didn’t think so. And so instead of making ill-fated attempts at wiping away the problems, God decided that transformation would be the better approach and He moved into the neighborhood.
In case you didn’t immediately pick up on the allusion there, I’m not talking about an actual city. I’m talking about the whole world. Our world was broken well beyond the ability to repair itself. The problems had become self-replicating and the poison from the brokenness was spilling out all over the place. God would have been fully within His rights to simply walk away. We weren’t going to get any better on our own. He would have been fully within His rights to shove all the broken people out of the way, rebuilding and remodeling with the raw materials already here, but He had taken that approach once before in the Flood and it didn’t go so well. Gentrification merely kicks the problems down the road. No, transformation was the only way to effect the kind of lasting change God wanted to see in this world. It was the only way we were ever going to have a chance to be something more than the broken shells of humanity we were without Him. But, the only way to transform a neighborhood like this is to move in and do the hard work of changing not merely lives, but hearts; not merely false wisdom, but entire worldviews. And so, when He set about transforming this world, God moved into the neighborhood.
But think about that idea for a minute. God moved into the neighborhood. A minute’s worth of thought shows that to be an absolutely outlandish concept. It’s like saying Bill and Melinda Gates moved into the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond, only crazier sounding. It’s like saying Warren Buffet moved into a garbage slum in India, except that’s really not extreme enough a comparison. What could possibly possess the Creator of the Universe to take up residence in a tiny corner of the vast place He created? How could the God who is perfect in justice and unapproachable in holiness move into a place so broken by sin and wracked by injustice that there isn’t a clean corner anywhere? By what logic did the one being in all creation whose limits are only those of His own character take on the trappings of a particular creature who is perhaps the most limited of all the creatures in this world? The answer is found in a little verse that spans both of the major holidays of the Christian faith. The first part of this verse reads: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son…” Because of His great love for us, when the world He created was broken seemingly beyond repair, God moved into the neighborhood.
This morning, as we set our sights on Christmas, we are beginning a brand new series called God Moved into the Neighborhood. Over the next three weeks we are going to try to wrap our minds around this idea that rather than leaving the broken world to its own devices, God took up residence here in order to execute His plans to transform the world back into the place He designed it to be in the beginning. He does this transformation work not only on the large scale of the world, though, He also does it on the personal scale of our own hearts. You see, neighborhoods are made of people. Until the people have been transformed, the neighborhood doesn’t stand a chance. What we’ll see over the next three weeks is the process that transformation like this often has to take. Near the beginning of the process light is shed on the realities of the neighborhood in order that they may be understood in their proper light. This often leads to some resistance, but for those who receive the transformation work they will see it completed in their own situations. Eventually, people begin to see some hope and they move and think in new ways that bring life. This is an amazing process, but what makes it even more amazing is understanding where it started. When Jeff Johnson moved into the Whittier neighborhood in downtown Denver the work he dedicated himself to doing was made even more remarkable when we understand what he left behind. Indeed, when someone gives invests themselves in the work of transforming a life, or in this case, a world of lives, when we understand what they gave up in order to see it done, we are able to celebrate the work with even greater awe and wonder.
This is where I want to start this morning in order to lay a foundation for where we’ll go from here. You see, we tend to start thinking about Jesus at His birth and don’t give much thought to what came before. Yet, just like when someone moves to a broken down neighborhood they don’t start to exist then, when someone goes following the call and desire of God to reach the Gospel into that neighborhood, they may very well step down out of comparative glory to take on the brokenness and transform it from the inside out. Well, when we understand what God the Son gave up in order to take on human flesh, the whole notion of the incarnation becomes all the more incredible. Christ didn’t merely come for us. The glorious, pre-incarnate second member of the triune Godhead stepped down out of the full trappings of limitless glory and moved into our neighborhood in order to transform it. And of all the presentations of Christ in His glory in the Bible, at the beginning of his letter to the house churches in the ancient Greek city of Colossae, the apostle Paul gives us the most important image of Christ in His pre-incarnate glory. And, when we see this picture followed on the heels by how Jesus used His glory, the effect is magnified immensely. Find your way to Colossians 1:15. In our few remaining minutes I want to walk you through what Paul says here and then we’ll get out of here to do something about it.
Just listen to how Paul describes Jesus here. He uses a literary device called a chiasm which uses an A-B-C-B-A form to walk us through some of the foundational truths about what Christ stepped out of and into. Check this out: First, Christ is fully God and because of this He gives us a glimpse of what God looks like. Look at verses 15 and 19: “He is the image of the invisible God. . . .for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Second, Christ is the first of all things. We see this in verses 15 and 18: “[He is] the firstborn of all creation. . . .that in everything he might be preeminent.” Third, He is the head, the medium, and the sustainer of creation as well as the promise of the new creation to come. Look in verses 16-18: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . .He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead…” And on what does all of this center? It centers on the church. Christ is the head of the church. Verse 18 again: “And he is the head of the body, the church.”
That’s the breakdown. Now look at everything put together: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” Remember: Paul’s not describing God the Father here. He’s describing God the Son. This is a picture of the baby born to a poor couple and placed in a feed trough just before He became a microscopic collection of cells called a zygote. When in his letter to the church in Philippi Paul declares that Jesus was in the very form, God, this is what he was talking about. Jesus is God, incarnate. God in human flesh. God walking around among us yet as one who fully was us. When God moved into the neighborhood He didn’t step down out of merely comparative glory, but out of glory itself. The one who created everything became one of those weakest among his creations.
But why? Why would he do that? Why would Warren Buffet move into a trash heap? Paul doesn’t leave us hanging. Look at this with me. Let’s start at v. 19 and read from there. Think: why would God the Son take on human flesh? Why would He move into the neighborhood? “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell [meaning that He was fully God], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…” So why did God move into the neighborhood? He did it in order to transform the neighbors—us. God the Son leveraged His glory not for His own sake, but for ours. He made His glory a tool which He could use to transform us fully into the men and women we were created to be. He took His splendor and made it a conduit by which we could be made clean from the sins that made us unfit to get anywhere near God. Christ used His glory for us.
That, friends, is the hope, the miracle, the awesome news of the incarnation. That’s why Christmas is such a big deal. God…moved…into…the neighborhood. The Creator became His creation in order to transform it back into the splendor He originally designed it to bear. Christ used His glory for us. In this season we remember this and celebrate it. We remember it with utter awe and wonder because again, Christ stepped down out of glory in order to live among us as one who was fully one of us. The one who was limitless took on limits. The one who knew no need became needy. The one who needed no home became homeless. The one who had all the power became utterly powerless, unable to meet even His most basic needs without help. The one who was worshiped properly as Lord every second of the day became one who was spit on and ridiculed, condemned and killed. All of this so that we might be made whole. Christ used His glory for us.
He gave all of this because of His great love for us. Remember: For God so loved the world that He gave. This gives us a clue as to what Paul meant when he said that we demonstrate we have received Christ’s transformational work when we remain steadfast in the faith and don’t shift from the gospel we heard. Here’s one takeaway and then we’ll be out of here. In order to show we have signed up for the transformation Christ used His glory to see us receive, we give. We give gifts because we were given one. But, just like we can’t ever payback the gift we received, we make sure we give to those who also can’t pay it back. Christ used His glory for us and so we use our comparative glory for others. It just like we talked about with forgiveness: when we’ve been forgiven, the evidence of this is that we forgive. When we have been transformed by the glory of Christ, the evidence of this is that we use our glory to transform others. Christ used His glory for us. Let’s follow suit. There are two things to do here, then. First, receive the gift He came to give. Everything else hinges on this point. You may be resting in a neighborhood of brokenness, but God’s moved into the neighborhood. You’re not on your own. There’s help and hope if you’ll receive it. Second, give more from the gift you’ve received. You can do that by taking part in our Christmas Blessing 2013. Talk with your Sunday school classes about what your gift will look like together internationally. As a family, grab some ornaments on the Sharing Tree and have a local impact. Go crazy with it. You’ll be both transformed as well as agents of transformation. Christ used His glory for us. Let’s use ours for others.