God Comes Close

In a dream, wrapped in the swaddling bands of confusion caused by Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph hears God’s comfort and direction as to what to name their child. And Matthew, with customary editorial license, reminds us of Jesus’ pseudonym and purpose, “Emmanuel … God is with us”.

In the shadowed mystery and wonder of the Christmas story, we find ourselves relieved and thankful that God is such a God as this. The delight of a newborn baby, even in these fearful circumstances, is joy incarnate. We sing Emmanuel.

Yet Emmanuel seems to slip from our vocabulary as we read further into the gospels. We bias one side of the scales, to speak only of Jesus’ earthed humanity, or elevate him beyond our laughter and fears and grumpiness to a hologram. Neither is sufficient.

The sacrilege of God’s behaviour is in breaking all the rules, to defy and surpass the expectations of what a God – our God, any god – is supposed to be and do. To assert that God is born, as we are all born, that God lives and stumbles and serves and loves and laughs and grieves, moves us into the depths of the promise cracked open in Joseph’s dream and Mary’s faithful acceptance.

In this season, of all our recent seasons, this promise of God is vital. We have been meeting and worshipping on screen or, perhaps, at double-arms’ length and wonder if we will ever shake a new friend’s hand again. Our singing is constrained (unless we’re barracking), and we are wary of holding those who have lived (and we have loved) longest for fear of infection. We have seen the suffering across our world, acknowledging the danger of being close.

In these difficult days, we proclaim Emmanuel.

It is not simply COVID 19. The viruses take many forms and are equally infectious: social distance caused by mistrust; endemic violence blamed on race and gender and sexual orientation; callous disregard for the world which God created in love and joy.

Because of these, and in their midst, we assert Emmanuel.

In our churches, disciples can lose hope, as we struggle to discover the rhythm of this new journey. If worship is not how we have known it, then what might it be? If we cannot break and share the bread in the manner known and loved, then how? Can we stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer for our world, and if not, who are we?

Precisely here, we preach Emmanuel.

Easter is history’s darkest moment, before the startling light of resurrection. The resurrection will always bear the signature of the cross. We need it to be so.

God not only knows the struggles through which we live, but has also suffered. More than that, we assert with hope and profound thanks that God is with us in each moment. Easter is not a theological maths problem, solved by God’s clever calculation.

Easter is God’s engagement, beyond expectation, even beyond hope, entirely in prodigious love.

The brokenness of Friday is Emmanuel at its most necessary, most wonderful and most awful. The Word is framed in wood.

Friday is God in solidarity with us, in injustice, or suffering, even when caused by our own hand. Solidarity even with those whose hands hold the nails.

Saturday’s silence is the waiting that people experience all the time; waiting for COVID – or other – test results; waiting for justice, or for hope; waiting for the struggle, or grief, to end.

Sunday is always more than we expect: death defeated, life proclaimed. Forgiveness for all who seek it. Mercy to quench all those who thirst. Christ’s resurrection transforms history and creation, and each of us.

Hold this promise carefully, offer this hope gently, because many live in Friday’s grasp, or Saturday’s hiatus.

Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel “the reign of God has come near” are most completely true at Easter. On Friday’s cross, in the silence of Saturday and when the triumph of Easter is revealed, God, in Christ Jesus, has come close.

Here, wonderfully, from Jesus’ birth, and life, and death, and life, we sing Emmanuel.