Last week there was a programme on the radio that got together a small group of people who had lived in Poland in the 1980s through the era of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement.
The people of Poland had been living under a Soviet-dominated communist regime since 1945, which had brought them great hardship. They had seen uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia ruthlessly suppressed by the Soviet military. And yet, in August 1980, 17,000 shipyard workers in Gdansk - led by a moustachioed electrician called Lech Walesa - had the courage to go on strike and demand an end to media censorship, the freeing of political prisoners and the acceptance of the formation of a trade union with the right to strike.
Walesa was a charismatic public speaker who fearlessly encouraged his followers and soon there were 5 million people in Poland who were on strike. The movement that came to be known as Solidarity was born.
The Polish government responded to this crisis by imposing martial law, arresting many thousands of people and attempting to stifle political protest. This caused great fear and fracture within Solidarity.
But a Catholic priest called Jerzy Popieluszko continued to speak bravely into the situation. His sermons were picked up by an underground radio station and he gained a nationwide following. The authorities tried to silence Popieluszko without success. And eventually he was kidnapped, tortured and drowned in a reservoir in 1984.
More than a quarter of a million people attended Popieluszko’s funeral. And this signalled the beginning of the end for the Polish regime.
A year later the Polish people were allowed to elect 35% of government seats (with Lech Walesa’s Solidarity party winning 99% of these) and in 1989 the Soviets withdrew from Poland.
As I listened to this story I was struck by that single word, Solidarity.
It was a solidarity that spoke of all the ways that people had stood together, had stood alongside those who were in pain or persecuted or living in fear.
And I realised that is what God is. The one who stands with us in solidarity, who remains with us – whatever happens.
In Matthew’s gospel an angel appears to Joseph and says that his son, Jesus, will be called Emmanuel – meaning ‘God with us.’
And the overarching message of the Bible – both Old Testament and New Testament – is that God is the God who is with us. Who stands with us in solidarity.
We see this, of course, in Jesus. But also in Moses and Isaiah and in the Psalmists.
We see it right at the beginning of the Bible – in the creation story – when God establishes a Sabbath. A time for God and his people to rest together, to be with each other.
We see it in the story of the Exodus – when the Israelites escape from Egypt. How God is with his people, not just in their deliverance but in the pillar of cloud that accompanies them in the wilderness. And this presence is established as God’s greatest desire in the covenant that is entered into on Mount Sinai. When both God and Israel commit to be one another’s companions forever.
We see God with us, standing with us in solidarity, in the story of the Exile. When the Israelites have turned away from God and have been taken into captivity in Babylon. God does not abandon his people; he remains with them.
And so, Jesus is the culmination of this longstanding relationship between God and the world. Jesus is with us in our struggles, our suffering, our searching, our striving. And, as the Polish government ultimately discovered, such a solidarity withstands anything – even persecution and death.
Often we feel frustrated with God.
Why doesn’t he answer our prayers more often? Why doesn’t he do something about the injustices of our world? Wouldn’t it be more useful if we had a God who would just get on and sort things out?
But the God we have, the God we see in Jesus, is a God who is not only for us but is first and foremost with us. A God who empowers us by his presence and solidarity.
A friend of mine asked me the other evening why we need to read scripture – what’s the point of spending so much time on these ancient texts.
But reading the Bible helps us to see who God truly is. To learn from those who have been in the closest of relationships with him.
And the essential thing we see in the Bible – from beginning to end is God with us.
God says to Isaiah, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…Do not fear for I am with you.’
Then in the story of Shadrah, Mesach and Abednego - who are thrown, bound, into the fiery furnace - four figures are seen walking in the flames, not three. God is with them.
And in Psalm 23, where David says to God, ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.’
And in Matthew’s gospel – not just at the beginning when the angel appears and proclaims Jesus as God with us - but when Jesus says ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.’ And at the end of the gospel, when Jesus says to his disciples, just before he leaves them, ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Similarly in Mark’s gospel Jesus appoints twelve disciples ‘to be with him’ and is criticised for eating and drinking with tax collector and sinners. In Luke’s gospel the father of the prodigal son says to the elder brother in the field, ‘Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.’ And John starts his gospel with the words ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. He was in the beginning with God.’ And he goes on to say ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among [with] us.’
In other words, if there is one word that sums up all the gospels, all the Bible, it is the word with.
God is with us.
That is the salvation he brings.
That is the salvation he calls us, in turn, to bring to others. To be with our neighbours. Not just in times of joy, but in times of trouble too.
That’s why Jesus is called Emmanuel. God with us. Through thick and thin. Solidarity.
Posted by Martine Oborne
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