When I lived in the high Arctic I took regular skidoo trips out onto the barrens in search of caribou and muskox. Whoever called those lands ‘the barrens’ wasn’t joking. The tallest vegetation in the area where I lived is a 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. 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. Personally I found it breathtakingly beautiful, but I could understand why many would refer to it as a ‘God-forsaken country’.
To many people, the world in general feels like a God-forsaken country too, and it’s easy to understand why. As I was writing this sermon we got news of the fall of Aleppo, and I thought again of the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve died in that city as pawns in a bitter civil war. Maybe you find yourself asking “Where was God for them?” We think of the millions who don’t have enough to live on and who die of malnutrition and other preventable diseases. We think of the depth of hatred that leads people to kill other people just because they happen to be of a different race or religion. We think of the enormous greed that keeps some countries of the world in unimaginable wealth and others in desperate poverty. I know I think of things like this day by day as I say my prayers, and I find myself asking the same question: ‘Where are you, God?’
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 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 or debilitating illnesses. Some of us have had financial difficulties. Many of us have been desperately lonely; 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’ve longed for God to somehow make himself known to us – perhaps we’ve even cried out for him to do so – but we just can’t seem 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 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 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!’ A lot of people think they’d like to see God act in that kind of way – appearing in majesty, wiping out the evildoers, solving 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. This God doesn’t want to ‘shock and awe’ the world. Rather, he wants to woo the world 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. He sends his angel to this couple to give them the news that their child – who will be in one sense just an ordinary human baby – will in fact also 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’ (Matthew 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’ (Matthew 1:22-23)
‘God is with us’! So the world isn’t a Godforsaken place after all – rather, it’s a God-visited place!
If this is true – if the child in the manger isn’t just an ordinary human baby, but is also in some sense God come to live among us – what does it mean? Well, it means that God is like Jesus. It means that if we want a picture of what God is like, the life of Jesus is the best place to look.
When we look at the life of Jesus, then, what do we learn there about God? We learn that God loves us unconditionally – accepting us just as we are, with all our weaknesses and faults – and yet always inviting us to move on and become more than what we are, with his help. We learn 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. We learn that God wants us to love him with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves; he cares a lot more about that sort of thing than about getting religious rituals exactly right. We learn that God reaches out to the poor and needy and calls other people to do the same. And we learn 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!
We also learn 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; he knocks, and waits for our answer.
What kind of answer is he looking for? Perhaps a prayer something like this:
‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin, and enter in – be born in me today’.
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.