I sat still and silent, unable to reflect on anything more than a question… “Where is God?” We all ask this question, and I think in our fear of asking, we don’t actually pursue an answer. Those who have found faith fear that they won’t find an answer, those who have not found faith fear that they will.
It’s an important question, both for the Christian and non-Christian. It can be so easy to assume things about God’s interaction or whereabouts when things are well, however when it seems like there is no possible way that the darkness of our circumstances could be altered by even the brightest rays of light, more often than not we find ourselves faced with the question… “Where is God?” It has been an unbelievably difficult Christmas season around our world. As we look to celebrate a baby who was supposed to be the hope of the world we reflect on a season where hopes light has all but diminished. Or so it seems.
I am a big fan of Yahoo News. Not the most scholarly news source, however you get everything from breaking stories to who wore the best tux at the Grammys. I frequently peruse the News portion of the search engine website before I go about my daily tasks. I found myself asking this question as I looked through a barrage of tragic stories just before I was supposed to write a message about Christmas… and I had to ask, “where is God?” I didn’t ask it superficially, I sincerely had a moment in which I had to ask, if God is really who he say he is, where is he?
In divine irony or humor, I am not sure I know which, just before I turned on my computer I was reading a passage from Isaiah 7 that is also referenced by the author of the book of Matthew, some thousands of years later. There once was a strong nation who found their identity in following God, but in their comfort, had begun to forget God, finding their identity in other things. It seemed that as people lost sight of God, and as circumstances turned dire, they wondered if he was really even there at all. The prophet Isaiah, a man who’s responsibility and calling was to inquire of the future of God’s relationship with his people and then tell it to the people, said this, “Therefore the Lord himself with give you a sign, the virgin will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). Immanuel in the Hebrew language means, “God with us.” God’s sign to his people was not blessing, removal from harm, or promise of utopia, it was simply that in whatever situation they were in, he is with them.
Throughout the story of history, people have asked, “where is God?” Many of the greatest intellectual pursuits before the enlightenment had started with a pursuit to understand God’s presence in the world. Scripture is saturated with that inquiry. David, a man who was called, “a man after God’s own heart,” even found himself questioning where God was. And yet God did not remain hidden, because he never was, he did not remain silent, because he never was, God simply reminded his people that he is with us.
The author of Matthew begins his narrative in a time of political turmoil, violence, poverty, injustice, and danger. This is not an understatement or over dramatization, the story Matthew tells is by no means a safe story.
Christmas Story. He writes that a representative of God came to a man named Joseph and told him that Joseph’s fiancé Mary was to give birth to a son. His name will be Jesus, which means God saves, and we read in Matthew 1:13 that he will be called “Immanuel.” Joseph was a poor carpenter who was part of a former nation under long oppression from a governmental superpower. They weren’t wealthy or powerful. They belonged to a group of people who could be wiped out at the say so of the king. They had few opportunities for a brighter future than their current struggle.
Where is God? Is he in the strength of political power and resource? The Roman Empire was and is one of the strongest Empires the world has ever seen, and yet God was not to be found there. Was he to be found in the economic success of the merchants and businessmen? Was he to be found with the overly pious, trading transformation for empty tradition?
He was to be found in a child, in a manger. Not with the powerful, the rich or the famous, but simply with anyone who would come.
My son is a little over 10 months old and I remember the night he was born as it was yesterday. The hospital room was chaotic and it seems as if it all happened so fast (although I feel like my wife would disagree as to the speed). I remember that the doctors found out that the cord was around Patrick’s neck. Although they kept calm and preformed wonderfully, it was certainly a tense situation. I remember as he was born the he was helpless to free himself from the bondage of the cord and the doctor in one fluid motion untangled him like he was folding and origami bird. He was not pink but he was grey; because of the distress he didn’t have as much color as he should have right away. I stood in shock of the process unable to even tell my wife it was a boy or a girl. And then I heard him whimper and make noise. The nurses wrapped him up and handed him to me. Such a fragile innocent being…
And I think towards the story we annually reflect on leading to December 25. God, God with us, in the form of a small, helpless child. Isaiah reflected a few chapters later, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
How would he be the prince of anything? People put their hope in Rome, they had put their hope in Jerusalem, the had put their hope in the temple, the religious center of the day, in Israel, in Herod the King, in Pilate the ruler…but what about this small child, in a manger in a small town? We are to put our hope in him? How would he change the world?
People thought that Isaiah spoke of a moment that would cause instantaneous change to their circumstances. He would free people from bondage, aid people out of debt, rescue people from violence, heal people who were hurting, overthrown the dark forces of the world and do it all for us. But God’s plan was not and is not to do it for us, his plan is to do it with us and within us. This baby was to be a sign to all, for all times, in all struggles, that God is with us. The baby born into chaos, into poverty, into struggle, into violence, he is God. This God meets us in our chaos, in our poverty, in our struggle, in our violence, and he is with us.
The problem is when we see this baby, this Jesus, as only the fulfillment of something that god was going to do, we miss impact on our lives now, we miss what God is doing and wants to do today. When we only look to him as future and we miss the weight, the significance of what God has done. This wasn’t a fluke or coincidence. Historians, Christians and atheists alike, overwhelmingly agree and attest that this Jesus lived and moved and breathed and led in the first century. We ask questions like, is he really who he said he was, or aren’t there others who came like him?
We say things like, I will change that when I get older, I will fix that later. I will exit that relationship soon, I will get my integrity straightened soon, I will stop bulling people soon. I will resolve that fight soon… just not now. When we forget what God has done we don’t believe what he will do. When we don’t believe what he will do, we don’t understand what he has done.
Jesus is the now, He is God, “with us,” and that is truly what we celebrate this season. We celebrate a God who is with us when life is pure and clean, in times of joy and celebration. But we also celebrate that he is a God with us when our eyes our closed, and we are alone, when we are afraid and we feel abandoned, when we forget hope, when we are paralyzed by grief, guilt, and regret, we hear the angel’s reminder, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
God’s presence is not affected by our ability to question it. A little over two thousand years ago a baby was born. That Baby’s birthdate would define a new way we would measure time. That Baby’s life would be the most written about, spoken about, influential life of all time. That Baby’s life would change the world. And yet, his reception was fairly small. Masses did not come out to comfort and meet him. Celebrations did not carry on across the land because of his birth. He was born into squalor, all but forgotten by most. And yet he is with us, in the very places we need him most, in the cold, dark night. God is with you, will you come to be with him?
The question that followed, “where is God,” in my reflection I have found equally as important, “What do we do now?” God sent a light into the world, which the darkness cannot overcome. He light can light a path, but we must walk it. God is with us in our love, and how we receive love. He is with us as we grieve, and as we comfort those who grieve. He is with the lowly and how we raise them up. He is with us in our prayers. God is with us, he calls us out to the manger, to not miss the truth of what we celebrate due to the surrounding noise. God is with us .