GOD WITH US
Thursday, December 12, 1995
Location - Newtonville
. . . and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is “God with us.”
The Christian church has been arguing for centuries about just what happened on that first Christmas. If we read the Gospels with care, they turn out to be not so much an answer to that question as a record of a debate about it. Some thought Jesus was the son of God, some thought he was the carpenter’s son. He himself seems to have gone from one extreme to the other, now announcing that he and the Father were one, now crying out, “Why have you forsaken me”?
The conviction of his divinity seems to have grown stronger in the decades after the ascension. For some, this raises doubts about his divinity, on the principle that he was best understood when he was right there to be understood, but this is not necessarily the case. Some things come clear only with time, and one of those things is the meaning of an individual’s life. Again and again, it is only when people die that we see their lives whole, unobscured by all the oddities of mundane existence. Surely the greatest obstacle to believing that this individual was God with us would have been the physical body itself.
Perhaps a more serious ground for questioning the divinity of Jesus is a concern for non-Christians. Some who see in Jesus the one and only instance of God incarnate draw the conclusion that only those who accept him are saved.
Our own theology would draw the opposite conclusion, in a way that is actually more rational. That is, if the divinity that we see in the figure of Jesus is that of the one God of heaven and earth, then it must be in the figure of Jesus that we see the God who is actually present everywhere else. To put it in a slightly different way, to the extent that Jesus truly expresses the nature of the Divine, we must expect that nature to be the same always and for everyone.
Swedenborg put it very concisely in Heaven and Hell (n. 399): “. . . the Lord’s love is a love of sharing everything it has with everyone . . . .” At Christmas we focus on a first step in that sharing. One of the essential characteristics of love is that it does not force itself on anyone. The helplessness of the infant is a powerful image of this. God’s first approach to us is as gentle as can be, so gentle that we—like most of the world in Gospel times—may not even notice it. It may be a faint stirring of the heart toward someone we have not liked very much. It may be the first little suggestion that we ourselves are more than we suspected, more than we have been pretending to be. It may the first suspicion that there is more meaning and purpose to life than we have seen. The important thing is that it is God—the infinite Divine itself—at work within us.
By themselves, these first motions do not accomplish much. Like newborn babies, they are ninety-nine percent promise. But when God makes promises, surely we should take them seriously. We are bombarded with so much negative news that it can be hard not to fall into the delusion that C. S. Lewis identified so tellingly, the delusion of thinking that everything negative represents “the real world,” while everything good or beautiful is illusion or wishful thinking.
Our theology claims that the promise of this infant, this Immanuel, this “God with us,” is absolutely real. This baby will grow into the savior of the human race, the one who will defeat both hell and death. For some reason, the picture comes to mind of a little blade of grass barely showing in a crack in the pavement of a parking lot. Surely it is no match for that mass of asphalt. But give it time, and see who wins.
The miracle of the newborn babe is very simple. It is the miracle of life. The blade of grass can defeat the mass of asphalt because it is alive. Swedenborg tells us over and over again that the Lord alone is life, and that we are simply recipients of that life. In the manger we see the very essence of that life. The baby is not just partly alive, but completely alive, as is every soul on earth. The Lord’s gift of life is a complete gift, an image of the divine will to share “everything it has with everyone.” It is because Jesus is truly “God with us” that we can recognize that gift in people of every language, race, and creed. It is because Jesus is truly “God with us” that we ourselves share in the hope of the world.