There is a phrase that comes to focus during the Christmas season. It is found in the word “Emmanuel” – “God is with us!”
But some who know the Scriptures well say, “But God has always been with us.” And they are right He is omnipresent, which means there is no place where God is not. He has always been everywhere, throughout all of human history. That’s why the Psalmist centuries before Jesus could ask the question, “Where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend to the heavens, or make my bed in the grave, or fly to the ends of the oceans, you are there.” Even in our moments of most terrible villainy, he is not absent. In the hour of our most fervent grief, he is not absent.
So why do we trumpet the declaration “God is with us” as though that were a new thing? Because the coming of Jesus, was the coming of God in a brand new way. We meet God more directly in Him than we had ever met God before. The coming of God in Christ was a leap forward in the evolution of things so that the God/people relationship would never be the same.
Let me expand what I mean.
God Beyond Us
There has always been a tendency among people to put God off into the wide blue yonder. Each of the ancient religions created their versions of a Mount Olympus where the gods lived, above and beyond this world, who occasionally made forays into our world, worked their will, then slipped back into the never-never-land of the upstairs universe, showing little concern for humanity.
Even in Israel, where they had been encountered time and again by God, still saw him as a God at a distance. Sometimes a great distance. Out there. Beyond the heavens. Unapproachable.
In our own culture we like to keep God at a distance. We do it in very sophisticated ways. We are glad to think of God as the jump starter of the big bang that got the universe going. We see Him as the creative inventor who gets the universe off to a fabulous start, but leaves the rest of its development to the laws of nature, and who does not interfere much anymore. God is the original author of all, but remains aloof and remote.
Some of these people will say, “Sure I believe in God. How else could all this have taken place.?” A God of beginnings, and perhaps a God at the end, when we go floating up into the ether at the end of life or go down the long tunnel called death to the bright light of a distant star and a distant God. The God of the bookends of life. But in the meantime, in between times, we have to live the best we can.
But this may be a false development of a wonderful truth.
The Scriptures do speak of God as “out there”
– Jesus says when you pray, say, “Our Father who art in heaven….”
– The Book of Genesis says often “God looked down from heaven….”
– The New Testament reminds us that “Jesus ascended back to His father and is seated at the right hand of majesty on high, from thence he shall come again….”
All of those passages and many more beside, give the impression that God is out and beyond. But, they were used as metaphors. It is not true that God is at a geographic distance. Then why speak of God in those ways then? The answer: to solve a worse problem. The scriptures wanted to avoid the idea of God locked inside an idol or a located in a bit of sacred space like a temple. King Solomon, at the dedication of the temple knew that God could not be contained by the heavens, how much less the newly built temple. God filled the whole universe with himself.
But even more is intended by speaking of God up in heaven. The writers of scripture wanted us to understand that God is “Wholly Other” than we are. He is in a class all by himself. He is not a part of creation like we are. He is the creator God not bound by time or space. It can be said that there are two things that exist. The first thing is God and the second thing is the universe; there is the creator and the created. To make that clear, God is described as the high and holy one, the one who is exalted and lifted up.
But though the Biblical pictures paint him as “in heaven”, they never meant to communicate that He was aloof. He could never be disinterested! He has never been non-caring! And the coming of Jesus into our life is to repudiate the view that God is just out there, distant and aloof. God is down here, with us.
God in the Atmosphere
But that leads to the other dilemma. Part of the reason for describing God as being “out there” was to correct the impression that God was down here.
For one of the attitudes towards God in the ancient world was that God is in the world, under our feet, in the atmosphere we breathe, in trees and rocks and rivers and in all things. There is a name for this ancient conviction about God. It is called Pantheism, which says that God is everything, and everything is God. By the way it is not only ancient, it is very modern. It is part of the new religious culture of the early 21st century. It has made a resurgence in some of the new trends of our day. This view causes people to worship the creation rather than the creator. It causes people to take their signals from nature, rather than from God Himself. Doing what comes naturally is more important than doing what comes supernaturally.
Now among more recent theologians that view point has been adjusted a bit. The new view is called – Panentheism – God is in everything. The world is indwelt by His Spirit. Therefore, the planet is sacred. The planet is alive with the spirit of God. God is sacramentally present in a 1000 ways in this world. And when we are out in nature we sense the presence of the God of this world. We sense his power in the thunder and his beauty in the daisy, and his presence in the fragrance filled spring air.
But this too is a false development of a wonderful truth.
St. Paul said, quoting a Greek Poet, “In him we live and move and have our being.” The poets have told us “He is nearer than breathing. Closer than hands and feet.” Since He is omnipresent there is nowhere that He is not fully present. So He is in the air we breathe, the water in which we swim, the woods in which we walk, on the prairies with their vast horizons.
All of nature is an extension of his power & beauty and personality. But it is not God – it simply carries his fragrance. The world is not divine, it is created by One who is divine and who has invested this world with much of Himself. The world is to be highly valued, but it is not to be worshipped or confused with God Himself.
The difficulty with the god of the environment is that he is made too impersonal. He is more like a force of nature, than a person with whom we can relate.
The Incarnate God.
Which brings us back to the Christmas message. Matthew tells us: Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”
The Christmas story tells us that Jesus is the God from the Heavens above and the God from the environment around us, who has entered into our lives, in a brand new way. In Jesus, God has become God in the concrete.
The other two approaches made God a bit unreal. He was either out there in never never land, or in the wisp of the wind and the fragrance of a flower. John could say it well, “No one has really seen God at any time.” All of our other ideas were imbalanced. We saw only hints. We had only a few of the jigsaw puzzle pieces. “But” John continues “the only begotten son, who comes from the heart of the Father has made Him known to us.” “And when we see Jesus,” says John, “we have seen the Father.”
If we want the best photograph of God, we need only look at the life and actions of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the invisible God, made visible. He is not the God who is unknowable, but God in our face. God at our side. God asking for a relationship, and not simply admiration for his creation or his inherent greatness. He wants to be our neighbour. Our co-worker. A member of our family. God wants to become an integral part of life for every man, woman and child. Jesus Christ is the God who has come knocking on our doors saying, “If you open the door, I will come in and dine with you.” Thanks be to God.
God with US
But there strikes a sober note. God is with us, but it is possible for us not to be with him.
A husband and wife can be in the same bed, and yet be a million miles away. Two people can spend an entire life together and still not share a life.
On the other hand, two people can be continents away from each other, and yet be close. They are together, though they are apart. They share one life.
God has drawn near to us in Christ, and by his spirit. He asks us to draw near to Him. This day and at this season of the year, let us put aside our aloofness, and let us move closer to Him, and share our lives with him. A relationship with God can be as real as any of the other relationships of our lives, and can strengthen every other relationship.