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God moves into the neighbourhood

Dave Hopwood describes how we no longer need be afraid of having God in our midst

This article was published in the January to April 2023 edition of Rapport magazine.

If we race through The Message Bible to stumble across the first page of John’s gospel and flick to verse 14 of chapter one, we find John describing Jesus coming into contemporary life like this:

‘The Word became flesh and blood,

    and moved into the neighbourhood.

We saw the glory with our own eyes,

    the one-of-a-kind glory,

    like Father, like Son.

Generous inside and out,

    true from start to finish.’

It’s a refreshing, welcoming and vibrant start. And surely not unlike the encounters folk had with Jesus in those Galilee days. It must also have been startling for those first disciples too.

In the Old Testament the people had feared an encounter with God. In Exodus 20, when the tribes of Israel saw smoke and lightning representing the presence of God on Sinai, they said, ‘Er, Moses, be a good chap and go up the mountain to meet God, we’ll just loiter at a safe distance. Go on, off you go!’ And centuries later, as the first Christmas was breaking across the world and the sky bloomed with angels bringing good news, the shepherds ran for cover, ‘sore afraid’ as Luke 2 puts it. An encounter with God was a terrifying experience. So those shepherds thought, but then they put their fingers in the warm hand of a tiny, beautiful baby and their hearts melted. Things would never be the same again.

And this is what John is telling us. God has come and he makes life better, not worse. God has come, and we need not be afraid. Jesus would go on to say that the poor, the grieving, the lost and the oppressed are blessed; and then he would demonstrate this by spending his time with them, opening their eyes, lifting their heads, warming their hearts and showing them how much God cared for them. Children and women – second-class citizens in Jesus’s day – all felt at ease in his company; in fact the children couldn’t get close enough, quickly enough! God had moved into the neighbourhood and he looked very welcoming indeed. And more than just welcoming: he had come with rescue in his open hands.

Jesus brought hope and new direction to so many people: a tax collector looking like a fool up a tree – men didn’t climb trees back then; a woman who had suffered and been ostracised for 12 years; a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands; two sisters who had lost their brother and so – being women and unable to inherit – were in danger of losing everything else … Jesus always had time for those in need, was always ready for the interruptions and complications that life throws at us. Jesus’s daily plans were regularly ambushed – as ours are – but we find him always willing to adjust and change direction.

There’s a scene I really like in the film Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, when Mrs Harris arrives at the premises of Christian Dior, hoping to buy a dress. She is an embarrassment to that posh establishment as she is a ‘mere’ cleaner, not their normal kind of haute couture customer. The staff at Dior panic and do their best to encourage her to leave, but then one man steps forward and offers Mrs Harris his arm. He will take her in to see the new collection and to choose a dress. And Mrs Harris is rescued. That’s Jesus – one who is always looking out for the marginalised and overlooked, for those without power and influence – the God of the ‘small’ people.

And as we read of these folks having their lives changed by the king of kindness, our lives are changed a little too. When a blind person sees, lots of other eyes are opened too. When a girl is resurrected, lots of people start to live again. When a man on a stretcher walks, lots of people get moving once more. When we see someone forgiven, we start to believe we can be forgiven too.

And when people are seen and known and understood by Jesus, we discover he sees and knows and understands us.

And of course Jesus didn’t just move into the neighbourhood for those three years of public life as a compassionate teacher and miraculous leader, but for thirty years before that: as a vulnerable, dependent baby, as a curious and tottering toddler, as a child racing here and there, as a teenager weighing up life through narrowed, wondering eyes and as an apprentice and working man who struggled to make a living in difficult times. These experiences were so important to our ‘God with skin on’. He experienced everything that we experience: the uncertainty, the laughter, the questions, the discoveries, the relationships and the pressures of ordinary life.

Not long ago I wrote this poem that I hope is a helpful reflection on the full life of Jesus – which included days of plenty and days of waiting, days of thunder and days of quiet:

Jesus on a dull day,
There were many of these,
When nothing much came his way,
Just hammers, nails and bits of trees.

He’s famous for the full days,
Of miracles and signs,
Of arguments with Pharisees
And weddings full of wine.

But Jesus had the dull days,
With not much going on,
So he understands our own ways,
When the streams of life meander on.

And Jesus had his bad days,
When the world it brought him low,
When friends and enemies alike
Just did not want to know.

Being fully human, now that meant
Living life like us,
Knowing arguments and banter,
Frustrations, fears, frowns and fuss.

And taking all that with him,
Washing feet on his knees,
He went from Gethsemane to Calvary,
To hammers, nails and killing trees.

Jesus had his dull days,
Thirty years and more,
God with skin on, full of life,
That’s what he came here for.

I love the way the writers of the Bible tell of these things. At the start of his gospel John effectively says, ‘We met Jesus and we weren’t afraid, in fact our lives were better, not worse. He was full of grace and truth, full of kindness and honesty. Come with me, take a walk through my book and find out what the glory of God on earth looks like.’ He is a God who has sweat on his brow, and grit in the creases of his palms, unafraid of the dark, dank and dirty places; always ready with a smile and a kind word that resurrects hope, love, courage and purpose in us and those around us. He fills us with his living water so it may quench our thirst and then bubble out to refresh others, even if we are often not aware of him doing that.

Lord, please save us from sticking your Living Word into a glass case, from holding it at arm’s length when it belongs in the sublime and crooked ways of our living. Help us to find ourselves in that Good Book – to lose ourselves and find ourselves in it – and to allow it to bleed across the pages of our dull, ordinary, magical, happy, heartbroken nights and days. Let us find reality, acceptance and grace in those pages and the raw, startling and heartening truth that your love is with us in the dark and the light. Help us if we need to struggle with it a little, to wrestle it to the ground and to allow it to wrestle us to the ground; and in the wrestling to discover again the meaning of grace, and the God who really does work in unexpected ways and unexpected people – none more unexpected than us, none more unexpected than me and those around me.

And so, to finish, I have a short creed of sorts: a statement of our faith in the God who has moved into our neighbourhood, the God who has come up close and personal.

We believe in light,
And Jesus is his name.

We believe in peace,
And Jesus is his name.

We believe in meaning,
And Jesus is his name.

We believe in kindness
And understanding;

We believe in forgiveness,
And Jesus is his name.

We believe in justice,
We believe in hope and freedom,
We believe in resurrection,
And Jesus is his name.

Dave Hopwood

Author of several books, including The Bloke’s Bible, Dave is a freelance Bible communicator dedicated to bringing the message within the Bible to anyone and everyone using contemporary media and relevant language.

Join Dave at Lee Abbey Devon

Jesus comes to town

1–5 April 2023 (Sat–Wed)

The Message Bible describes the coming of Jesus as ‘God moving into the neighbourhood.’ As we reflect on Palm Sunday and the events following it, we welcome again the God who has stepped into our shoes and lived life on this earth, the God who cares and understands and draws close to us each day.

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