There are times when it feels like the promises contained in Scripture mock us—moments when the words intended to bring us comfort seem remote, detached and distant. Friday morning in Newtown, Conn., was one of those times.
On Friday afternoon, I stood outside my children’s elementary school with hundreds of other parents. In the midst of small talk about what we were doing for Christmas break, there was a somber heaviness. On that day the world witnessed unspeakable evil juxtaposed with the season of Advent.
Advent is supposed to be a season in which the people of God remember, anticipate and celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promise to be here with us. In the person of Jesus, the long-hoped-for renewal, redemption and restoration had come. This is what Matthew spoke of in his gospel when he quoted the prophet Isaiah.
Matthew wrote, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ [which means ‘God with us’]” (Matthew 1:22-23). Matthew was eager to point out to his readers that in the person of Jesus we can confidently say God is here, that surely God is with us.
But on Friday, for many people, the feeling was more like, “God is here? Really? Where, exactly?”
When I heard the news on Friday, my gut response was to say, “God, why?” My heart wondered where God was in all of this. Many people wondered the same thing. Sometimes it is hard to mesh the words of Scripture with our world.
One commentator suggested it was precisely because God was not there that this heinous act happened. Governor Mike Huckabee claimed we should not be surprised to see this kind of violence since we have removed God from our schools and our society. Huckabee’s sentiment says, “God is not here.” If that is the case, then it surely can explain the existence of pure evil that we saw displayed on Friday.
However, thinking like that suggests we somehow have the power to remove God from our schools and our society. The kind of God for whom this would be the case is quite small, weak and impotent—one dictated by the mere whims of humanity. This is not the God of whom Matthew spoke.
Matthew spoke of the Almighty God fully embodied and revealed in the person of Jesus—so much so, in fact, that He claimed He was Emmanuel, God with us. God is here not in spite of the pain, nor did He come to explain it away. God is here in the midst of our suffering.
The hope of Advent is that God responded to the suffering of humanity by entering into it with us. He did not stand outside of it and look in with a wincing face and hope that everything would somehow work out. Nor did He see humans who removed Him from their schools and societies and say, “Well, fine, then, have it your way!” Not at all.
God saw the mess humanity had gotten itself into, and His heart broke. The writer of Genesis wrote that when God saw the evil hearts of humankind, His response was one of pain and a grieving heart. God’s pain was the same pain Adam and Eve experienced as a result of their sinful choice to eat the fruit in the garden. Which raises the question, “What kind of God allows himself to experience the same pain as mere mortals?”
The same God who willfully chose to enter into this world and stand alongside us in our misery. This God is not a stranger to suffering, but one well-acquainted with it. In the person of Jesus, we learn of a God who took upon himself our shame, our wounds and our burdens. He is the heavenly Father who also lost a child to horrible violence and weeps with the parents of those children killed in Newtown—one whose pain is as real as ours.
To speak of Emmanuel is to speak of a God who is found in the midst of suffering. Try as you might, you cannot remove him from schools, society or anywhere. For wherever there is pain, agony or heartache, there God will be also. He is a God who suffers with us.
This enables us to say, “God is here.”
When we utter these words, somehow the promises of Scripture seem a little less distant. They turn from mockery to comfort. What we do not need in these moments is a long and deep explanation of why this happened.
Too often in our attempt to move on, we try to comprehend the incomprehensible. In the midst of the media frenzy, the conflicting reports and clamor of social media, the God who is with us whispers words comfort, saying, “I know your pain, and I am in this with you.”
Indeed. God is here.
These are words we can sit with—words that will sustain us in the darkest moments. At times, we will struggle to believe them, and other moments they will be for us our surest salvation. All the while we know that God is with us. For now, we ache and cry out together, “How long, O Lord?” Each time we do, we wait expectantly for an answer, longing for the time when we will not speak of our wounds and those who caused them but of our wounds and the God of grace who healed them. Our cry is one filled with faith, for we know the story of Jesus does not end in agony, but in glory.
And so, armed with this hope, may you, my brothers and sisters, see the day when God will at last restore, renew and redeem all things–whether things in heaven or on earth. The day when all things will be made right and even our greatest moments of suffering will be transformed into glory.
And may we always long for and hope for that day when the God who suffered with us and for us will have made his dwelling among us, and we will stand alongside one another and exclaim, “God is here!”