Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker • PAstor

What’s the most important word in the Bible? There are a lot of good answers: love, salvation, grace, and Jesus. We tend to think of important words in terms of belief: the most important words in the Bible must be about our belief, right? 

When I was studying at the Corrymeela community in Northern Ireland two summers ago, one thing that was said stood out above all others. It’s that we must hold relationships above beliefs. So often seminaries and churches focus so much on right belief, but we don’t spend enough time on right relationships. This idea of holding relationships above belief has changed my answer to the question: what is the most important word in the Bible?

The Christmas story reminds me of the power of this word. The angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” And then in John’s gospel, we get the summary statement of what Christmas means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.” It’s an unprepossessing little word, but this is the word that lies at the heart of Christmas and at the heart of the Christian faith. The word is “with.” 

Think back to the very beginning of all things. John’s gospel says, “The Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God. Without him not one thing came into being.” In other words, before anything else, there was a “with.” The “with” between God and the Word, or as Christians came to call it, between the Father and the Son. “With” is the most fundamental thing about God. And then think about how Jesus concludes his ministry. His very last words in Matthew’s gospel are, “Behold, I am with you always.” In other words, there will never be a time when I am not “with.” And at the very end of the Bible, when the book of Revelation describes the final disclosure of God’s everlasting destiny, this is what the voice from heaven says: “Behold, the home of God is with mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” 

We’ve stumbled upon the most important word in the Bible, the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purpose and destiny for us. That word is “with.” That’s what God was in the very beginning, that’s what God sought to instill in the creation of all things, that’s what God was looking for in making the covenant with Israel, that’s what God coming among us in Jesus was all about, that’s what the sending of the Holy Spirit meant, that’s what our destiny in the company of God will look like. It’s all in that little word “with.” God’s whole life and action and purpose are shaped to be “with” us.

At Christmas God said unambiguously, “I am ‘with’.” Behold, my dwelling is among you. I’ve moved into the neighborhood. I will be “with” you always. My name is Emmanuel, God “with” us.

The story of the Bible, the good news of the Gospel, the joy of Christmas is “with.” God is with us, but we are also designed and made to be with each other. We need each other. We cannot be Christian or truly human alone. 

So much of the Bible is about how to live well in this world with each other. The promised day of God looks like wolf laying down with lamb, lion and calf dancing with each other, all of God’s children at the same table with one another. 

We’ve been talking about “Home for Christmas” this Advent. Home isn’t a place; it’s a way of being and living. Home is with God and with one another not just in physical presence but in purpose and love and spirit. With is not always easy. Relationships are hard. Those who have large extended families and in-laws coming for Christmas may attest to the stress of “with.” We do not always live with each other well, as the news is quick to remind us. We are not home yet, the world is not as it should be.

God, above all, knows how exasperating, ungrateful, thoughtless and self-destructive company we can be. Most of the time we just want God to fix it, and spare us the relationship. But that’s not God’s way. God could have done it all on his own. But God chose not to. God chose to do it “with” us. Even though it cost the cross. That’s the wonder of Christmas. That’s the amazing news of the word “with.”