God is with us
Many of you know that my family and I spent seven years living in two different places in the Arctic – first, Aklavik in the Mackenzie Delta, and later on, Holman in the high Arctic, about four hundred miles north of Yellowknife. When we lived in Holman I took several skidoo trips out onto the barren lands in search of caribou and muskox. Whoever called those lands ‘the barren lands’ wasn’t joking. The tallest vegetation on the whole southwestern side of that island is the stunted willow bush that grows to no more than about a foot high, and it’s not very common, either. It’s true that in the brief Arctic summer the tundra bursts out into colour as dozens of different wild flowers bloom briefly before the return of the cold kills them off. But in the dead of winter the wind howls over hundreds of miles of bare rock and snow. Sometimes the blizzards reduce visibility to near zero, and the most sensible thing you can do if you get caught in one of them is to make camp and wait for it to pass – which can sometimes take a couple of days. And even when the wind is calm and the sky is clear, all you can see for miles is white – snow-covered ground, with rock breaking through here and there. I could understand why some people would call it a ‘God-forsaken country’.
To many people, the world in general feels like a God-forsaken country too. I’ve found myself feeling this way more and more over the past few years, as I think about the enormity of the suffering that goes on, on any given day, all across our planet. I think of the millions who don’t have enough to live on and who die of malnutrition and other preventable diseases. I think of the depth of hatred that leads people to viciously kill other people, who they’ve never met and who have never done anything to harm them – just because they happen to be of a different race or religion. I think of the enormous greed that keeps some countries of the world in unimaginable wealth and others in desperate poverty. I think of the impending catastrophe of climate change and how we seem unable as a civilization to do anything about it. I find myself thinking of these things day by day as I say my prayers, and I ask the question ‘Where are you, God?’
And I expect many of us know what God-forsakenness feels like in our own lives as well. Most of us have gone through difficulties of one sort or another. For some of us they were relational difficulties – family problems, the loss of a relationship, the breakdown of a marriage, perhaps even abuse of one kind or another. Some of us have lost much-loved spouses or partners. Some of us have struggled with addictions of various kinds. Some of us have struggled with chronic illnesses, and some of us have even received the sentence of death from our doctors. Some of us have had financial difficulties. Many of us have been desperately lonely; many of us have felt that what life is asking of us is far more than we can give; many of us have known the sense of failure and have wondered what to do about it. And I’m sure we’ve all had times when we have longed for God to somehow make himself known to us – and perhaps have even cried out for him to do so – but just haven’t seemed to be able to break through to him in any meaningful way. And maybe we’ve asked, as Jesus asked on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
How would God answer our prayers, I wonder? If, like me, you’re troubled by all the human suffering and misery in the world, all the poverty and hatred and violence and so on, how would we want God to address those issues? The Old Testament prophet Isaiah prayed that God would answer in a dramatic way:
‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!’ (Isaiah 64:1-2).
This is God as Rambo, the Arnold Schwarzenegger view of a God who suddenly appears before all the evildoers of the world in power and majesty and says to them, ‘Go ahead – make my day!’ I’m sure a lot of people think they’d like to see God act in that kind of way – appear in majesty, wipe out all the evildoers, solve all the problems of humanity in an instant, and so on. It’s a tempting vision.
But the God we read about in the Christmas story chooses a different way of acting altogether. The God we read about in the gospels doesn’t want to shock and awe the world – he wants to woo it gently and patiently, calling people back to him, inviting them to turn away from their foolish ways and embrace his love and his kingdom. And so, when God comes among us, he chooses not to lead a mighty army or become the head of a powerful nation. Instead, he chooses an ordinary couple in an obscure province on the edge of the Roman empire, and he sends his angel to them to give them the news that their child, who will look for all the world like an ordinary human baby, will in fact be far more than that. And so in Matthew’s gospel we read that the angel says to Joseph:
‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Mt. 1:21).
And Matthew adds,
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us’.
God is with us! So the world isn’t a Godforsaken place after all! Rather, it’s a God-visited place!
If it’s true – if the child in the manger isn’t just an ordinary human baby, or even an extra-ordinary human baby, but is also in some sense God come to live among us – what does it mean?
It means that God is like Jesus. It means that God loves us unconditionally – accepting us just as we are, with all our weaknesses and faults – and yet always invites us to move on and become more than we are, with his help. It means that God takes no notice of differences of wealth and class and gender and social status and race, but treats all people as special, made in God’s image and precious to him. It means that God is far more concerned that we love him with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves than that we get all of our religious rituals right. It means that God reaches out to the poor and needy and calls other people to do the same. And it means that God chooses not to destroy his enemies, but forgives them and loves them instead.
Do you think you could love a God like that? I know I could!
Furthermore, it means that God knows what our human life is like, because he has experienced it firsthand. He knows what it’s like to be driven from your home by death squads and to have to live as a refugee in a foreign country. He knows what it’s like to lose a parent at an early age. He knows what it’s like to have to make your living by the strength of your hands and the sweat of your brow. He knows what it’s like to live in an occupied nation. He knows what it’s like to be misunderstood and even abandoned by your family and your friends. He knows what it’s like to be the victim of an unjust trial and to be executed for a crime you didn’t commit. Yes, he even knows what it’s like to die.
This is not a God who is far away from us. This is ‘God with us’, ‘Emmanuel’, God who has become one of us and lived our human life.
And he doesn’t want to be far away from any of us, even today. He wants to be very close to each of us – in our hearts and homes and our minds and our actions. And so he waits for us to welcome him in. He doesn’t batter the door down like Rambo – he knocks, and waits for our answer.
What kind of answer is he looking for? Consider these words that we sang in ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in – be born in us today.
We hear the heavenly angels the great glad tidings tell.
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.
I encourage you to pray a prayer like that today, from your heart, so that you too may learn to experience ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’ – for yourself.