Lightning split the sky open in a long streak of white, and thunder echoed like the whole earth cracked within its depths. My brother and I stood outside to watch as rain pattered against our hoods and soaked through our shoes.
At the end of the storm, a cloud drifted across the shining street and above the house, moving with speed and glowing orange and white and silver tones. It looked like it was painted with curved brush strokes. It looked so close we could touch it, but even if we could ever reach so high, we would touch only particles of water. We could never grab hold.
I thought of the story in Exodus of God going before Israel as a pillar of cloud in the wilderness. Is this how he seemed to them, so close but so out of reach? So breathtaking, yet completely unknown?
By the days of Jesus’s birth, I wonder if Israel truly believed these stories of their ancestors—the days their God parted a sea for them and appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Did they watch storm clouds roll into Jerusalem and wonder, Yahweh, are you coming for us? and watch those same clouds roll away in silence, wondering, Yahweh, have you forgotten us? Were we ever truly yours?
It was four hundred years since the prophet Malachi declared to them the last word of their Lord,
“For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal. 4.2-3)
They could count the prophets’ promises of a Messiah—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace—but they were still waiting, silent under Roman rule; each year the high priest stepped into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for sin. Each year at Passover they remembered the blood of the lamb spread over their doors to spare their first-born sons in Egypt and rescue them from slavery.
Their prophet Hosea recalled this moment in the words of the Lord,
When Israel was a child, I loved him
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But where was this Father-God now?
God’s existence is as believable to me as anything else, but I often wonder how accessible he is.
If God created all things, he must be somehow separate and outside of all things. And if I can’t understand the basic phenomena of our universe—black holes and galaxies, or the smallest atoms and quarks—how could I know anything about God?
The great miracle then, the answer to Israel’s wondering and mine, is Jesus. Immanuel, God With Us, the day God was born inside his creation. Suddenly Yahweh was not a burning bush or a pillar of fire, not even a cloud. He wasn’t partitioned off in the Holy of Holies; he was a baby born in a stable, lying in a manger.
This is a God Mary carried nine months in her body, a God the shepherds could hold in their arms, a God who walked with his disciples—speaking, eating, praying, and weeping with his people.
The infant God who grew into a man who laid down his life for his friends.
Jesus is who God is, the complete revelation in one man. John calls him the Word, because Jesus is everything God wants to say to us.
I think there’s a tension still, because all God’s promises are fulfilled in Jesus; yet we wait for his return. The Kingdom of God is among us, and the Kingdom of God is yet to come. We wait like Israel, in solemn acknowledgement that we cannot draw near to God on our own, and we rejoice at the birth of our Messiah, that our God has been revealed to us this night.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone. (Isaiah 9.2)