Experiencing Emmanuel—God with Us

Sermon, Grace Presbyterian Church, January 2005

[Note:  With respect to any individuals mentioned, Jen liked to exaggerate a little for the sake of theatrics and humor.]

In preparation for speaking today, I reflected on my college experience and Emmanuel—how God was with me the past four years.  Some of the first things that came to my mind were negative events, though—within the past two years I have gone to three funerals of close friends, all of whom were under the age of 22; I was diagnosed with a serious illness, and I’ve met several other people with similar diseases.  It seems only logical that I’ve had a heightened sense about God being with me and others dealing with loss, health problems or other tragedies, in order for us to get through these difficult times.  However, today, I’d rather focus on God being with us especially through the good times and as we go about our normal, every day routine—when we’re not necessarily seeking Him for comfort in our times of trouble and despair.

In the Old Testament, we read that God will be with us:  Deuteronomy 31:6: "Your God, the LORD himself, will be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you."

Then Isaiah 41:10 says: "Do not be afraid, I am with you.  I am your God!"

Not only is the theme of God being with us in the Old Testament, it is re-emphasized in the first book of the New Testament.  We learn in the beginning of Matthew that a baby will be born, and that he will be called Emmanuel–which means, “God with us.”  And then later in Chapter 28, Jesus proclaims “… I am with you always.”  Then in Revelations we are reminded again that Jesus is always with us.

We don’t have time to forget this theme of God being with us.  It’s throughout the Bible.  And it can also be seen throughout our lives if we take a moment to step back and increase our awareness of His presence.  This can be through appreciation for nature and beauty outside, children, music, laughter, or a relationship, to name a few examples. I’d like to talk more about how we recognize our awareness of Emmanuel—God being with us. I became more aware of this last year—when I was in a positive psychology class.  The class was small and led by a newer professor—his name is Professor Haidt.  He was younger than most of the professors I had ever had, and was already very successful…and not afraid to let that be known.  Nicely put: he was a very confident and proud man—naturally, several of the books he wrote appeared on our required reading list for the class.

In our discussion one day we were talking about happiness and what sort of things make us happy.  Marjorie, the girl who always had the answers—the right answers—and the girl who always went to office hours to discuss Professor Haidt’s latest research and tell him how brilliant it was, was telling the class that listening to music made her happy and usually put her in a good mood.

I agreed, and raised my hand to add on to what she was saying.  “Jen do you agree with Marjorie?” Now the answer to this was always yes, since Marjorie was always right! so I said “Yes, but…. for me, music doesn’t just make me happy, it does something more for me, kind of on a different level, a spiritual level I guess.”

I went on to explain to my classmates how music can overwhelm me inside; sometimes I cry when I hear certain songs—even if I’ve never heard them before—“there’s just this great power that music has—it does something more than merely make me happy.”

Now Marjorie was not pleased that I had disagreed with her, plus I had essentially one-upped her by saying music was more powerful for me than for her, and to no surprise she came back saying, “Well, if you really like music then I guess that makes sense, but Jen you’re still agreeing with me that music makes you happy, right?” 

“Yes, music makes me happy, but there’s more to it than that…” And my Professor cut in at this point and said, “Jen you’re onto something…can you explain more how you feel…” And so I went on and described how music makes me feel.  That night for reading, Professor Haidt assigned us to read a chapter in his book about elevation.

Elevation is his ‘baby’ in the world of psychology research.  It’s something new and Haidt defines elevation as an emotion that is elicited by acts of virtue and moral beauty, or acts of love and witnessing or experiencing different forms of art. It is frequently triggered by people behaving in a virtuous, pure, or superhuman way. Listen to an example of an ‘experience of elevation’  from Professor Haidt's article "The Positive Emotion of Elevation."  He writes:

Myself and 3 guys from my church were going home from volunteering our services at the salvation army that morning. It had been snowing since the night before and the snow was a thick blanket on the ground. As we were driving through a neighborhood near where I lived I saw an elderly woman with a shovel in her driveway. I did not think much of it, when one of the guys in the back asked the driver to let him off here. The driver had not been paying much attention so he ended up circling back around towards the lady’s home. I had assumed that this guy just wanted to save the driver some effort and walk the short distance to his home (although I was clueless as to where he lived). But when I saw him jump out of the back seat and approach the lady, my mouth dropped in shock as I realized that he was offering to shovel her walk for her.

When they saw unexpected acts of goodness, people commonly described being surprised, stunned, and emotionally moved. 

Elevation causes warm, open feelings in the chest; and it motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.

Professor Haidt recently performed a study on elevation at UVA using three groups of participants.  He induced elevation experiences to Group 1 by showing those participants selections from a documentary on the life of Mother Teresa. Then there were two groups for control: Group 2 was shown a clip from America’s Funniest home videos and Group 3 was shown an interesting but non-emotional documentary. When compared, participants who watched the elevating Mother Teresa video clip reported feeling more loving and inspired, they more strongly wanted to perform prosocial and altruistic actions, and they were more likely to volunteer to work at a humanitarian charity organization in the following months. 

 Further, those participants in Group 1 reported physical feelings in their chest, especially warm, pleasant, or “tingling” feelings while they watched the Mother Teresa documentary…To this day, there is no known biological reason to explains why watching a video of someone helping others should make us feel elevated; it just happens--heart rates increase, and serotonin levels skyrocket. This concept and study supports Haidt’s theory about “Elevation”… or in my mind, supports the notion of Emmanuel--God with us.

It is no coincidence that Paul says in Galations 4:6 that “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts"; and that it is in the heart and the chest where participants reported feeling sensations such as tingling, openness or faster heartbeats.  Not only is it ironic that my Atheist professor taught us this concept (which can be viewed as support for God’s constant presence in our lives), but Professor Haidt is also starting to fill the gap between science and religion.  I personally think he has, and still is, unknowingly conducting research that could use science—through biological and physiological responses—that will ultimately support religion.

Good things happen to us all the time, and perhaps so often that we don’t even realize the frequency with which they occur!   But fortunately, we sometimes get to experience those special sensations…or as Professor Haidt calls them “elevations”—that serve as reminders.  I ask that the next time you feel one of these sensations, you take the time to not only appreciate the moment, but to also be grateful that you had the pronounced experience of Emmanuel—God with you.