God Drew Near

2020 Christmas Eve Sermon by the Rev. Marek ZabriskiE.

We celebrate Christmas as the days get shorter and the nights seem to go on forever. This is the darkest time of the year, and what a dark, difficult year this has been. Perhaps you have found yourself gazing up at the night sky and wondering, “Is there really a God up there looking after us?” Sometimes, we feel so small, so cut off and vulnerable. So much of our lives seem out of our control, and we wonder, “Does God really care?”

Many years ago, 1990, to be exact, Bette Midler recorded a song called popular song called “From a Distance.” Midler sings, “From a distance, there is harmony, and it echoes through the land.” As you watch the video, we can see ourselves like a bird flying over the earth. “God,” she sings, “is watching us, God is watching us from a distance.” It’s a comforting thought, but it’s not actually what we Christians believe.

The Deists – people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and I suspect a fair amount of Episcopalians – believe that God is like a cosmic watchmaker who fashioned the earth, wound it up like a clock and left it on its own. They envisioned a very hands off, distant God. But the message of the Christmas story is that God draws near. God came down to earth. God was born in a manger, and that same God eventually died for us on a cross. Two billion people, one in every three humans on our planet, will celebrate Jesus’ birth this evening, bowing their heads in reverence that as all of us recall how God came among us and drew ever so close.

And God came near not just once, but God comes time and again, nudging, whispering, dropping hints to help guide us safely on our journey. God’s response to human pain and suffering never comes in the form of a proposition, but always in a person. Jesus gives God a human face, and Jesus’ face is the face of love. In his poem, “Christmas,” the English poet John Betjeman, marveled at what it must have been like to be a shepherd or one of the kings who visited Jesus and could see:

The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

You know the story by heart. A young Jewish couple traveled 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be registered for a Roman census. The wife was nine months pregnant. When they arrived in Bethlehem, there was no room for them at the inn. So, Mary delivered her baby in a stable. The boy grew, lived, loved, taught and died for us.

Isn’t it striking that when God enters our world, there is no room? The empire treats this young couple like they were some kind of refugees or immigrants. It’s not so different from today, is it? Our world is filled with refugees at the border just looking for a safe place to rest their head, and there’s racial strife, economic devastation and COVID-19 gripping our world. We have so many concerns of our own that it’s easy to avert our eyes from a poor, immigrant family who come seeking shelter. Sorry, there’s no room at the inn. Oh, we cannot imagine ourselves saying that, but we do.

Many of you know Pieter Brueghel’s great painting “The Numbering in Bethlehem,” in which the Flemish painter places the story of the nativity in the daily life of his own sixteenth century Flemish village in winter time. As our eyes sweep across the canvas, we see a variety of village life – logs being cut, hogs being butchered, a cask of ale being tapped, children skating on a frozen canal and happy men and women tumbling out of a tavern.

Only after looking for a long time do we see two tiny figures down in one corner, a woman on a donkey being led by a man. Isn’t that how God so often enters our lives, not with trumpets and fanfare, but quietly and unobtrusively in an unexpected time and an unexpected place. We sometimes envision a powerful God waiting to wallop us for doing something bad, but in reality God came as a helpless infant, who was utterly dependent on humans like us. Simply amazing!

Over the years, the number one spiritual difficulty that I’ve seen people struggle with is how can we believe in an all-powerful, loving God in a world where people suffer and die. Haven’t we all wondered at some point, “How can God permit this?” Few have understood the answer better than a World War I English chaplain named G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, who met a bright young officer suffering from severe wounds in a French military hospital. As he listened to the officer talk, the chaplain heard anger and despair in the voice of the soldier, who had witnessed horrible things in trench warfare.

God seemed either inaccessibly remote or completely uncaring to the soldier, who kept asking the chaplain, “What I want to know, Padre, is what is God like?” Studdert-Kennedy was silent. He didn’t know what to say, but as he groped for words his eyes fell on a crucifix nailed to the wall beside the officer’s bed. Pointing toward it, the chaplain said, “God is like that.” For a while, there was only silence. Then the broken man said,

What do you mean?… God can’t be like that. God is Almighty, Monarch of the world, King of Kings. That is a battered, wounded, bleeding figure… I admire Jesus of Nazareth… But I asked you not what Jesus was like, but what God was like.

The soldier could only comprehend a distant God, above and beyond us. But Studdert-Kennedy’s response was “No, that is God on the cross.” God is Christlike and drew close to us at Christmas and eventually drew even closer on a cross. God enters our suffering, our trenches, our warfare, and there lies our hope and our strength.

So, if you’re battling illness, or if you who have lost a loved one, trust God is with you and for you. If you’re a high school senior waiting to hear from colleges, God waits with you. If you who have just been asked for a divorce or you have a difficult decision soon to make, God is with you. That’s a promise. God draws that close, because, of course, each human heart is the ultimate creche where Christ is laid. As St. Augustine wrote, “What difference does is make that Christ was born so long ago in Bethlehem, if he be not born again in me?”

Emmanuel – God is with us – doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us or to those whom we love. Emmanuel means that we are never truly alone. The One who set the sun and stars in motion draws close to us. God’s grand strategy is to win over the human race one heart at a time. So, today, I invite you to make room in your heart so that the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings and the Author of Love, who longs to bring you joy, healing and wholeness. Amen.