“What is God like?”
The question came from the backseat of the car on the way to soccer practice. The voice was curious, high-pitched and childlike. The set-up definitely came from his mother in a “That’s a great thing to ask your father” moment. The question was perhaps the most significant we chase in our lives. And my answer was as clumsy as you’d imagine.
What is God like? Well… I began to talk about creation, all the power and might revealed around us; I spoke of the mystery that leaves us curious and wondering all our lives; I shared about the strength that surrounds us and gives us what we need; and I watched my 5 yr old’s fading interest in the rearview mirror until I finally said with some exasperation, “Well, look, that’s why we talk about God so much in church…”
To which he said, “No we don’t.” And then he continued amidst my confusion, “We don’t talk about God in Sunday School or Junior Church… We only talk about Jesus.” And then there was a pause, and he wondered aloud, “Do you think my teachers know about God?”
Well, do any of us?
Most of what we know — or what we want to know — about God is of the power that can save us, the strength that can sustain us, the might that we hope will make a categorical difference in the world.
It’s so what we look for when we want to see God. It’s what we listen for when we want to hear God. It has always been this way. The prophets called for this — for God to make God’s self known in ways large, imposing, and undeniable.
The prophet Isaiah — the prophet of Advent whose voice speaks so clearly with expectation right along with us in this season — can be heard at times crying out to God almost with frustration or desperation: “God, how we wish you would break open the heavens and come down. How we wish the mountains would move. How we wish you would make your name known to those who oppose your goodness. How we want you to cause the nations to tremble in your presence.”
In other words, “Show us something God. Do something. Rend the heavens. Break open the mountains. Do something we can see. Make some noise.”
Because a God that makes loud noise is a God I can always hear, right? A God that breaks things open and comes with great displays and strength is a God that I can always see, right? A God that shines the light so boldly brightly is a God that I can always know and a God I can easily explain.
But then, God doesn’t come that way.
Tonight is the night, where amidst all our hopes and expectations of a God of strength and might, spectacle and display, size and power, we remember that in the definitive moment, God doesn’t break open the heavens to come down. God sneaks into a barn on the edge of town to be born in the stable of the world that held little room or awareness amidst all its urgency, clamor and noise.
Oh, there are powerful moments throughout the story of Jesus’ birth — grand moments of great spectacle and strength. Like the angelic chorus, described as appearing across the deep blue of midnight where you can’t miss it. Or like the star, shining so brightly and compellingly that it has sages searching, traveling, setting out for a light unlike other lights before it. Or like an angel appearing to Mary in the midst of her swelling fear and again to Joseph in his troubling uncertainty.
But the definitive moment — the moment when it happens — is quiet. It’s intimate. It’s particular. It’s detailed.
It’s at a specific time, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria. It’s in a particular place, as small and seemingly inconsequential as Bethlehem. It’s to individual people whose names are known: Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. It’s amidst their own intimate struggles. It’s full of raw detail, from the manger in which they place him, to the strips of cloth they find within reach to wrap him against the night air.
God comes to us like that. In ways small, soft, and intimate as our lives.
We so often want Jesus to be large and powerful — a King of kings, a Lord of lords, a Savior that will make a definitive difference. We so often want Jesus to demonstrate the same characteristics we want to see in God.
Much of Christian theology — and many of the historic debates of the church — have centered on the claim that Jesus is God, and the soaring expectations that Jesus is like God. We want Jesus to be one who will save us with power and might. Show us something, Jesus. Do something. Say something.
That’s what we look for. It’s what we listen for. Especially on this particular night of this particular year, in our time and place. We huddle in from a long year, that brought so much we could have never anticipated. And how we want Jesus’ birth to come in ways large and powerful As you know if you are with us tonight missing that friend, that loved one, that soul mate. Or as you know if you’ve waited for that call with test results from the doctor. As you know if your loved one is facing new challenges, new needs, and you’re attempting to help them as they stumble about in the shadows of a new life stage. Or as you know if you’ve welcomed a child this year, and their sounds fill this sanctuary even as the challenges and joy mingle. Or as you know if you’ve experienced loss and the fragility of a dream — if you’ve waited and wondered in this season always so focused on the the manger, “Will this dream of being a parent, like Mary and Joseph, will it ever happen for me?” As you know if you’ve seen the violence, the fanaticism, racism and hatred found all about us, and even possible within us. As you know if you’ve lost a job, or struggled to keep it all balanced and healthy, or sensed the growing impact of pandemic taking its toll on you or those you love. You know how much we need Jesus to appear, in ways perhaps you don’t even want to talk about.
We’ve grieved deeply. We’ve lost significantly. And we want Jesus to come, to appear, and to be like what we expect from God.
But then, if you’re always looking for a star so bright you’d follow it, you might fail to lower your gaze and find the glimpses of the mother, father looking for a room right in your midst.
If you’re so focused on the heavenly hosts, you might not notice the earthly, elemental signs of God’s grace and presence.
If you’re always listening for the earthquake or the rumble, you will not hear the softness of a baby’s cry.
God comes to us like that. Which is to say, God loves us like that. Not always in the ways we want and expect, as much as in the ways we truly need — intimately aware of our lives, softly making an appearance in the details of our places, knowing so well the needs and struggles of our times.
I suppose there are still some who experience an angel choir so loud you can’t ignore it. Some who see a bright and morning star so blazing you can’t help but follow. Some who have an angel appear so clearly you can’t miss it. But not me. Not most of us. I think most of us know instead that we will find God coming near to us in ways intimate as our own needs, particular as our own lives, individual as our own names… the details in our story, the things that we can find within reach, the grace we can see if we lower our eyes, the quiet nearness of people we love, the tender acts of care we share with a neighbor, the ways we seek to be a part of birthing hope and making known the love and justice of Jesus of Nazareth, the things we bring to offer of ourselves, the baby sleeping quietly wherever room has been found… in all these ways, God-with-us.
Yes, we talk a lot about Jesus at church. And we do so because God is like that.
So glimpse again the little town, the rugged manger, the straw on the floor, the strips of cloth, the young and breathless parents, the small acts of love and grace, the child softly present amidst it all. Every elemental detail tells us what we need to know this night.
Not the historic claim that Jesus is like God. But the far more essential truth this Christmas Eve: God is like Jesus.