I haven’t always been a Christian. I know what it is like to feel alone and feel like there is no God, as if I were in a deep, dark pit with no way out and no one there to hear. I resonate with David in Psalm 40 when he said that God “lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”
As a Pastor, people have often asked me the question: “where is God?” in reference to their own slimy pit experience. What I have learned since in my own dark night of the soul is that God was there all the time. So, in response to that question of where God is, I can say with both confidence and compassion that he is right here, weeping with you; he is right here, walking alongside you; he is right here, sitting beside you; right here with you if you will have the eyes of faith to see. I know God is here because it is Christmas; God came down and moved into the neighborhood with us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us.
It was not just Mary that was pregnant with Jesus, but history itself was pregnant because the time had fully come for the kingdom of God to break into this world through a child who would save the people from sin, through an infant, Emmanuel, God with us.
What I believe we need to know more than anything is that God is with us! God is so great that he is not somehow trapped in heaven; he can come down; he wants to come down; he did come down, literally becoming one of us – he is Emmanuel, God with us.
God did not come to this earth with a big advertising campaign letting us know of the grand opening, or with a huge and expensive party to draw attention. Neither did God come through a rich and powerful family. Instead, in order to fully relate to us, to genuinely be with us, he came in through a lowly stable. There are many theologians and scholars who are able to articulate this truth for all kinds of curious intellects of how this could take place, that God became man. Yet, sometimes it simply takes a personal story, a testimony so to speak, to bring clarity. Bono is the lead singer for the pop/rock band U2. He tells of a time when he returned to his native Dublin, Ireland for Christmas and, on a whim, decided to sit in a church service. At some point in the worship, he came upon the great realization, with tears streaming down his face, of what it is all about; he says,
“The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty, in manure and straw, a child, I just thought, ‘wow!’ I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…. Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered…. Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh and dwell among us.”
God has descended to our messy, mixed up, broken world, standing with us in our suffering and shame, plunging head long into our pain and hurt and loneliness. Paul Louis Metzger has wisely pointed out that a God who is simply nice and decent would take pity and send some help, maybe an angel or a prophet – at least some sage advice for us. And, we would respect that, maybe even be satisfied with it. But the good news is that God went far beyond nice and decent. On this very day God became a naked baby. He was a fetus, then an unwanted pregnancy, then a slimy, screaming baby – he grew up and ended up a criminal, stripped naked, tortured by those who knew not who he was, and condemned to die. There is nothing nice and decent about that! It was done for us.
Perhaps you are not feeling close to God this holiday season, but rather far from God. Perhaps this holiday season brings you more sorrow than joy. Perhaps the weight of a situation that seems beyond your control has caused you immeasurable worry and concern. Maybe you are wondering where he is. I will tell you: he is right here. And he is waiting for you to respond to his coming, his Advent, his incarnation. Throughout the New Testament Gospels Jesus is presented as God with us. He was with the disciples when the storm struck and threatened their lives, and he rebuked the wind and the waves and saved them; Jesus was with his people as they were rejected by others for preaching that the kingdom of God had broken into this world through the Emmanuel. Jesus is not an idea, not a myth, not a historical figure to be debated, not a nice guy with some pithy wisdom; he is Emmanuel, God with us! And he is with us to the point that whatever happens to us, happens to him.
Since he is here, since Jesus is Emmanuel, now is the time to recognize him for who he is. God with us means that God is here! Since he is present with us, we can and must respond to his presence by admitting that we have made a mess of things through living by the illusion that we are in control of our lives and living as if he weren’t here at all. But God is here, and he is looking for us all to center our lives on the person of Jesus, and to give up going our own way and instead pursue knowing God in Christ.
Maybe you are a person who has gone to church all your life, and like me years ago, are familiar with the baby Jesus and Advent wreaths and Christmas carols and worship services. Yet, you have not come to the point in your life where you seriously and deliberately responded to the presence of God in Jesus and devoted your life to him so that everything centers on him and not you. One of the realities of Christmas is that God is calling us all to feel the impact of the baby Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and to let that joy fill our souls to overflowing. The Christmas story is a story of invitation. We are invited into the story of Jesus. Come and see the angels singing glory to God; come and see the shepherds praising God for what they have seen and heard; come and see Mary and Joseph rejoicing in the birth of Jesus; come and bend down and look into the smelly, lowly manger, and you will see God with us. You are invited into a new life.