Surrounded by friends, on March 2, 1791, John Wesley completed his race. Grasping the hands of those who loved him, Wesley declared, “Best of all, God is with us.”
In the early years of his public ministry, Wesley pursued the form of religion seeking to be good enough to warrant eternal life. Most likely you know the story. Confronted with the peace possessed by the Moravians who were sailing with him to America during a violent storm, Wesley struggled with why he did not possess that same peace when facing death.
Later, in Georgia, Wesley met with a Moravian pastor. In a journal entry dated February 7, 1736, Wesley records their conversation, “[The Moravian pastor] said, ‘My brother, I must first ask you one or two questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?’ I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’ I paused, and said, “I know he is the Saviour of the world.’ ‘True,’ replied he; ‘but do you know he has saved you?’ I answered, ‘I hope he has died to save me.’ He only added, ‘Do you know yourself?’ I said, ‘I do.’ But I fear they were vain words.”
Then on May 24, 1738, at the famous meeting on Aldersgate Street, Wesley personally encountered Jesus Christ in a heart-warming experience. Wesley wrote, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Years later, in his sermon “Human Life A Dream,” Wesley would emphasize how central to a vibrant and authentic faith is the claim of Jesus as Immanuel – God with us. Wesley declared, “For, what is religion, — I mean scriptural religion? For all other is the vainest of all dreams. What is the very root of this religion? It is Immanuel, God with us! God in man! Heaven connected with earth! The unspeakable union of mortal with immortal. For ‘truly our fellowship’ (may all Christians say) ‘is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. God hath given unto us eternal life; and this life is in his Son.’ What follows? ‘He that hath the Son hath life: And he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.’”
Immanuel – what a wonderful name for God! Isaiah prophesied, “The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).” In the birth of Jesus, God demonstrated his love for and commitment to humanity. God tabernacled with us. As the late Eugene Peterson paraphrased John 1:14 in The Message, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
The God who gave us life, who watched us reject and rebel against him, traversed the great chasm created by our sin, and in Jesus – in the incarnation – dwelt with us. God moved into the neighborhood. When we call upon the name of Jesus, He takes up residence in our lives.
When we encounter this Jesus – Immanuel, we encounter the Living God. We experience not just the power of God, but His abiding presence in our midst. He tabernacles with us. His presence abides in us and we abide in Him. As the apostle Paul repeatedly observes, we are in Christ. Our life becomes identified with His life. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
After the debacle of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, God directs Moses to lead the people to the promised land, but then God says these crushing words, “But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people.” Upon hearing this, the people are grief stricken, prompting Moses to speak to the Lord on their behalf. Moses says, “If you don’t personally go with us, don’t make us leave this place. How will anyone know that you look favorably on me – on me and on your people – if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth.”
Those who encountered Jesus – Immanuel – during his lifetime knew the truth of this declaration. The apostles knew the truth of this declaration. Wesley knew the truth of this declaration. And we know the truth of this declaration.
As we celebrate this Christmas, may we experience the indwelling presence of Jesus – Immanuel (“God with us”). May we renew our commitment to Him to remain at one with Him – abiding in Him so He abides in us. As I have traveled to so many communities around the world in this year on behalf of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, I have repeatedly borne witness to the reality that God is with us. In the coming months, we must have one aim alone – staying vitally connected to Jesus. Such must be our singular devotion!
Merry Christmas! Best of all, God is with us! Alleluia!
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.