Adapted from a talk given at Reformation Fellowship’s Christmas Celebration on December 18, 2011.
In a popular Christmas carol we plead, “Be near me, Lord Jesus! I ask thee to stay close by me forever and love me, I pray.” At one time or another, all of us have felt the longing expressed by that prayer. Do we not all long for God to be near, to be tangible? Deep in our psyche, do we not all desire to know that we are known by our creator?
But this desire is never satisfied. Instead, God seems remote, far away. He feels uninterested and inattentive. I feel lost—an insignificant speck in an overwhelmingly huge cosmos. If only the maker of that vast cosmos would know me—if only He would know specifically and particularly ME!
This profound sense of disconnect from my creator has many different manifestations. I feel bad, condemned, damnable. I have an inexplicable sense that everything about me—my life, my behavior, and my way of being—is all wrong. I am deeply and profoundly bothered by who I am and the way my life is going. This bother haunts me. I feel that I am excluded, that I don’t belong to God, that I am on the outside of His purposes.
When I understand this about myself—when I understand this universal sense of mankind’s separation from God—then I better understand the joy that came into the world for a few short years, for a very few people.
It all began on the day we celebrate as Christmas. For a very brief time, God began to exist in and among the Jewish people. He came and made himself known to them. And He let them know that they were known. This handful of human beings got to experience—for a few brief years—a connection with their creator.
Granted, Jesus was not the transcendent creator himself; He was God’s Son, God’s representative, His proxy. But it all came to the same thing. To be known by Jesus was to be known by God. To belong to the people of Jesus was to belong to the people of God. To be connected to Jesus was to be connected to the creator. A few men and women received the wonderful gift of being around this representative of God and of knowing that they were known by Him. Christmas is the day we celebrate this man’s coming into the world, the coming of the man who was created to be God Himself.
But that original Christmas event was not God’s permanent answer to mankind’s disconnection from God. Christmas did not finally fulfill our yearning for tangible contact with our creator. It was not a permanent joy. Jesus himself describes its end in the course of telling a parable:
You cannot make the attendants of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? But the days will come when, in fact, the bridegroom is taken away from them, then they will fast in those days. (Luke 5:34-35)
Jesus characterizes the days when He is present with His disciples as days of joy and celebration. But days will come, He predicts, when He will be taken away from His disciples. In those days, His disciples will mourn.
Primarily Jesus was speaking of His days in the tomb, prior to His resurrection. But, indirectly, He also describes the rest of history. He describes our condition after His ascension. Jesus is no longer with us. He is not tangibly and physically present. So, in spite of the Christmas event, that yearning still plagues us. How can I know if I am known by God? There appear to be no tangible, obvious indicators. And with no such indicators, I often feel like I do not belong to God; that I am excluded from those who are His.
This ongoing sense of disconnection from God presents me with a serious temptation. I am tempted to find relief by forging a pseudo-connection with God. Unwilling to accept the state I am in, I take it upon myself to do what I must to draw close to God.
Here are some of the many different strategies I might employ to forge this pseudo-connection with God:
(1) Doctrine: Devoting myself to a mastery of sound theology, I tell myself that, by doing so, I have secured a place as one of God’s chosen people. (But that is not so. It is not the one who studies theology who belongs to God; it is the one who lives theology who belongs to God.)
(2) The Bible: Devoting myself to accurate interpretation and translation of the Bible, I assure myself that I have thereby come to know God. (But that is not so. It is not the one who translates the Bible into English who has come to know God; it is the one who translates the Bible into life.)
(3) Worship: Pursuing continual encounters with God in and through the liturgy and aesthetics of worship, I convince myself that in such a subjective experience I am entering into His presence. (But that is not so. It is not the one who feels close to God who has entered into His presence; it is the one who believes the Truth in every ordinary moment of his day.)
(4) Exotic Spirituality: Replacing the ordinariness of my life with some truly exotic form of spiritual practice, I tell myself that my escape from the ordinary is a flight into the transcendent presence of God. (But that is not so. It is not the one who transcends the ordinary who has found God; it is the one who integrates the transcendent into the ordinariness of his life.)
(5) Moral Purity: Successfully obeying a demanding set of moral rules, I convince myself that I have thereby made myself pleasing to God. (But that is not so. It is not the one who can pretend that he has dutifully done what is good who pleases God; it is the one whose very existence is defined by an authentic hunger for moral purity.)
(6) State of Consciousness: Practicing the repeated attainment of a particular psycho-emotional state of mind, I tell myself that, in just such a state, I have made contact with God and His power. (But that is not so. It is not the one who feels empowered by God who has made contact with Him; it is the one whose inner being has been completely reoriented by the power of God’s spirit.)
(7) Community: Committing myself to a loving relationship to a community of fellow believers, I tell myself that I belong to the people of God. (But that is not so. It is not the one who loves a community of Christians who belongs to the people of God; it is the one who loves the Truth who belongs to the people of God.)
The menu of items for forging a pseudo-connection with God could continue: participation in the life of an institutional church, a social life revolving around other Christians, adoption of a particular culture and lifestyle, personal piety, charity, social justice, and so forth. The list of options seems almost endless. Or, we may invent a whole new strategy for connecting with God.
But none of these are valid ways to find a connection with God. None of these bring us into His presence or give us standing as members of His people. They are all counterfeit spiritualities. Yet most human beings—indeed, most Christians—are deceived by them. The way to eternal Life is exceedingly narrow, and few there are that follow it.
So, what does it look like to be authentically connected to God? Ah, that is the six billion dollar question.
True connection with God is very difficult to describe. Taking his cues from Jesus, the philosopher Kierkegaard described it as “inwardness.” All counterfeit spiritualities are superficial, cosmetic, and outward by comparison. True spirituality occurs deep in the core of what makes me me.
On one important occasion, Jesus defined it this way, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit; and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
But what does that mean? True spirituality, true connection with God, true intimacy with our creator, true acceptance by God, true membership in the people of God—all of these are found when a person is doing business with Truth in the depth of his personal commitments. True worship is an inward confrontation with Truth, an inward embrace of Truth; it is to freely acknowledge the Truth in one’s spirit. Jesus is explicitly stating that true worship is a deeply inward, existential reality that goes much deeper than one’s involvement in moral, spiritual, or religious practices.
So, what is this Truth that the true worshipper must confront and embrace in his spirit? Fundamentally, it is the truth that God is the creator and I am but a creature; the truth that I exist to serve the creator’s purposes. It is the truth that, by my free choices, I will reveal who I am and how I fit into the unfolding story that God is authoring. It is the truth that apart from serving the purposes of God there is no point to my existence. Additionally, it is the truth that I am an unworthy creature and that it is only by God’s mercy that my story can end well. It is the truth that I am a created rebel who must repent of his rebellion and bow his knee to God.
To truly worship God is to embrace all these various aspects of the Truth and to allow them to penetrate into the very foundation of my beliefs and perceptions and values and actions and choices. Only then is one actually making a true connection with God.
Most human beings will reject what I have just said: “This cannot be what it means to know and be in relationship to God. It is too invisible, too intangible. If this is what true worship is, how could I ever assess where I stand?” Most people will opt for a counterfeit instead.
That brief period of history that we celebrate at Christmas, that period when God made Himself tangibly present among human beings, was a harbinger of things to come. The day will come, in the eternal Kingdom of God, when our nagging discontent will be permanently solved. In that final kingdom, God will be among us, and among us for all time. No longer will we know Him only from a distance. In Jesus, we will know Him close up. That will be a day for feasting and celebration forever. But now is a time for fasting, for God is distant. We can only know Him from afar. Because of Christmas, we can hope. We can look forward expectantly to the day when God will be with us again. But we cannot enjoy His tangible presence now.
It is important to understand this: we live in a time of mourning, not a time of joy. Blessed are we who weep, not we who laugh. God has been removed from us. He is no longer here. Therefore, we must be on guard and not accept cheap substitutes. We must not embrace counterfeit spiritualities. We must not fall for false promises that tell us we can be tangibly connected with God. They are pits of destruction.
The only connection with God that is available to us right now is mediated by Truth. By doing business with God’s Truth, I am relating to and knowing God. Christmas brings us the hope that, one day, we can have a tangible, unmediated connection with Jesus, the man who will represent God for all eternity. But, until that day, I can only know God by confronting and embracing His Truth.
And by doing so, I am also preparing myself to receive the everlasting gift that Christmas anticipates. When the kingdom of God does arrive, I will not know and love Jesus instead of Truth; I will know and love Jesus because I love Truth. So, to prepare for that kingdom, I must grow in my love of the Truth now. I must choose to define my very existence by my relationship to that Truth. I must make everything I am and everything I do answerable to that Truth. I must seek to become a living expression of that Truth. I must become a person who actually believes in Christmas.
I recently heard about a young man who was told throughout the whole time he was growing up that God wanted a close personal relationship with him. Several times in earlier years he told himself that that is what he had experienced. But over the course of time, he had to honestly admit that he had been deceiving himself. True connection to God is not what he had experienced. God had never drawn close to him. He had never truly entered into God’s presence. As a consequence, he concluded that Christianity was a lie. There is no God who wants a close relationship with mankind. In fact, there is no God at all.
If we are unwilling to admit that our longing and yearning for a tangible connection to God will never be satisfied in this age, if we are unwilling to admit that its fulfillment still awaits us, with Christmas being the promise of its fulfillment, if we embrace counterfeit, pseudo-connections with God and declare them to be true spirituality, then we not only condemn ourselves, but we do incalculable harm to others. To lie is evil; to lie about God is blasphemy. The message of Christmas is not “God among us”; the message of Christmas is that one has come into existence who will be “God among us” in the eternal age to come. May we believe the true message of Christmas and reject the subtly false gospel of our Christmas cards.