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.”
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. 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. 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 15 years or so is called gentrification. You see, around about the turn of the millennium 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 and flip them. And the thing is, these flipped houses got snapped up by young, wealthy professionals, most of whom were coming out of the suburbs back into the cities that their grandparents had left a generation before. Trendy retailers soon followed the crowds and neighborhoods that were once forgotten became centers of life once again. This seemed like a great way to deal with the problem — except the problems that caused the neighborhood to fall into disarray weren’t really dealt with. The people who were consumed by the problems hadn’t been changed; they’d simply been moved. What’s more, they took 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.
So, what else is there? We can ignore it, we can gentrify it, or we can transform it. In the 1980s, a guy named Jeff Johnson, then living with his wife and small children in a wealthy Denver suburb, felt God call him to go and transform a neighborhood in downtown Denver. They didn’t bring anybody with them. Retailers didn’t follow them. Instead, they started to get to know their neighbors. They built relationships with people. They taught good life skills. 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 Denver climaxed. They learned to love Tupac. 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 transform them.
So what’s the point of all this? 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. Theologians call this great truth the Incarnation. Jesus is God-incarnate. This means that God in all his glory came to earth and took on human flesh.
But what’s the connection here? Well, God had long before planted this incredible neighborhood. He built a great place to live. He wrote down a neighborhood code that really did ensure life in the community would thrive. He told residents 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 saw, 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.
Now, in case you didn’t immediately pick up on the allusion there, I’m not talking about an actual neighborhood. 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. He would have been fully within his rights to shove all the broken people to the side and rebuild. But he didn’t. He did something entirely more radical than that. He moved into the neighborhood in order to transform the neighborhood. This is the great news of Christmas. Let us celebrate with joy the fact that when our world was broken God didn’t ignore it, he moved in.
Jonathan Waits (email@example.com) is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Church Road, Va.