More than two decades ago, Bette Midler released a song that topped the music charts: From a Distance. (If you’re old like me, you remember it. If you’re too young to remember it, well, that’s what You Tube is for. Check it out.)
The song’s overall message is that all of us, across the world, share a great deal in common. We share common desires for hope and peace and we must learn to share this world and its resources. But I do take issue with the song’s recurring chorus that God is watching us from a distance.
Today is Christmas Eve. On this day followers of Jesus celebrate that God does more than watch us; that our God is not one who monitors the situation from a distance, keeping us at arm’s length. To be a Christian is to reject the notion of a “distant” God. The baby whose birth we celebrate today is a God who came to live among us (see John 1:1-14).
It’s a remarkable thing if you stop to think about it. The God of the universe chose to put on human flesh. And not just any human flesh. He came as a baby… which was particularly bold and risky. In the first century Middle Eastern world, children weren’t adored and doted over as they are in our culture today. From a first century perspective (read some first century writings and you’ll discover this is true) children had little value aside from their potential to grow up and become adults who could maintain the honor of their family and provide “social security” to their parents in their old age. The rate of infant mortality was incredibly high. To be a child in first century Palestine was to be in an incredibly vulnerable position. That’s why Jesus points to children as model citizens in the kingdom of God.
That the God of the universe chose to put on human flesh of any sort is astonishing enough. But to come as an infant makes it even more remarkable.
Right now we are living in a world where everything and everyone seems to be “amping it up.” We’re awash in rhetoric of power and dominance. But, if we believe the Christmas story at all, we must accept the truth that love is expressed (and life is truly lived) through vulnerability. Today is a “holiday” not for the mighty and powerful; but for the most humble and vulnerable among us. Luke (chapter 2) communicates that it wasn’t the Emperor Augustus who showed up to worship the baby in a manger; it was shepherds, blue collar laborers working the third shift. Matthew (also chapter 2) tells us that King Herod never made it in time to see Jesus (and slaughter him as he hoped to do). But little Jesus was visited and worshiped by a bunch of “heathen” foreigners with dubious religious and cultural customs.
Johann Christoph Blumbardt wrote: “The Savior of the world is one of us. He placed himself in the midst of our human condition. He is not like one who stands apart and looks high above us.” Our God is with us.