Where is God when violence and disaster threaten? Where is God when everything seems to be wreck and ruin?
Or less dramatically, perhaps: where is God when personal troubles just seem to suck the life out of Christmas?
Ahaz, king of the tiny southern nation of Judah, is terrified. The northern kingdom of Israel has joined forces with Syria; together they’re plotting to conquer Jerusalem. God therefore sends the prophet Isaiah to encourage Ahaz: Don’t worry. It won’t happen. Have faith and stand firm.
God, knowing that Ahaz is wavering, makes an unspeakably gracious offer: Go ahead, Ahaz, ask me for a sign. It can be anything you want. But Ahaz, who would rather trust his own plans than God’s promise, refuses, taking refuge behind the tepid excuse that he won’t put God to the test.
And amazingly, God gives him a sign anyway: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (Isa 7:14, NRSV).
Scholars agree: in context, God’s words through the prophet Isaiah must be referring to something that would happen in Ahaz’s time. No one knows who the “young woman” was (though many possibilities have been suggested). The child’s name, “Immanuel,” means “God with us,” and serves as reassurance that God has not abandoned Judah. It is not the child who will do anything, but God. As a sign, the child’s life serves as a timetable for watching God work: “Before the boy learns to reject evil and choose good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned” (vs. 16, CEB).
So where is God when enemies are encamped at our doorstep? Isaiah’s answer is: God is with us.
Centuries later, the sign would be repeated. Matthew sees the virgin birth of Jesus as a reenactment of the same ancient promise. God is still with us — and this time, it is the child himself who will save his people (Matt 1:21-23).
Even so, the story immediately takes a tragic turn. The boy and his parents must flee Bethlehem to escape the brutal schemes of King Herod. Enraged, Herod orders a massacre: Kill all the little boys in and around Bethlehem, all the way up to two years old, just to be on the safe side (Matt 2:13-18).
Where was God when the soldiers went from house to house, running children through with the sword? What does it mean in such horrific circumstances to declare that God is with us?
There are no simple answers to the problem of suffering and evil. Yes, in his earthly ministry, Jesus healed hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. But he didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t crush the Roman Empire. He didn’t cure the corruption of the temple system.
Where was God?
The story tells us that he was right there, walking among us, healing all who came to him, forgiving sins, showing compassion and mercy. God with us, showing us that suffering matters.
God with us, suffering on a cross, a torture of our own wicked devising.
And God with us, now, in the person of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in and among his people.
I recently heard again the haunting, plaintive strains of an old, favorite hymn:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
I don’t know what it is that might prevent Christmas from being a day of rejoicing for you. To declare that God is indeed with us will not in itself banish suffering. But we must take what encouragement we can, knowing that God is sovereign and merciful, and that we have not been abandoned.
At Christmas, we remember: God was with us, bodily, in the vulnerable form of a baby. That boy grew up to know the hard knocks of life. He was betrayed and rejected, and died in innocence and agony. And it is the Spirit of that God who indwells us now, who sighs and groans with us, who pleads on our behalf when we’ve run out of words to pray (Rom 8:26-27).
Where is God? With us. Have faith and stand firm.