One of the things that makes the God of the Bible different to other gods is that he is invisible and non-boxable. He is beyond size, time, matter, substance. There is a legend told about Abraham and his father. Abe’s dad was a maker of idols, and one day whilst Abe was looking after the shop, he took a hammer and smashed all but one of the idols. He then laid the hammer at the feet of the one remaining statue. When his father returned and saw the carnage Abe made up a story about how one of the idols must have got angry with the others and smashed them all. To which his father told him not to be daft, idols couldn’t move about and do that sort of thing. ‘So,’ said Abe, ‘why do you worship them?’
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all write often about the deception of inanimate idols. Jerry says:
‘The wisest of people who worship idols are stupid and foolish. The things they worship are made of wood! They bring beaten sheets of silver and gold, and they give these materials to skilful craftsmen who make their idols. Then they dress these gods in royal purple robes made by expert tailors. Jeremiah 10
By contrast the God of the Bible is what you might call a shape shifter, making use of lots of images but only temporarily. He appears as fire, cloud, rushing wind, gentle whisper, a figure in a furnace, a finger scribbling on a wall. He uses the stars sand planets as furniture. He allows people to temporarily make helpful images, like bronze snakes, aware that there is always the danger that humans will reduce God down to those objects and worship them instead. Think how dearly we hold onto buildings, pews, church styles, rotas, choir robes. Things like this are only helpful if they point us to the invisible God.
The only image God will accept as being anywhere close to himself is human beings. The Good Book begins with the account of God making people – in his own image. This was similar to something leaders used to do – place an image of themselves in countries they owned but could not visit. So when the next generation asked who was in charge the parents would point to the statue and say, ‘That’s him.’ So it was with the image of God, people were placed on the planet as living, breathing reminders of the compassionate God in charge.
However, we all know this image has become tarnished, spoilt, covered in grime and scars. It is still the image of God, but sometimes it’s so damaged that it is barely recognisable. So God chose another way to establish his presence on the planet. He decided to become one of these vulnerable, fragile people himself. Starting his own story with dependence on a young couple, who he asks to take part in acting out his new story.
Christmas demonstrates God’s reliance on human beings and their choices. He literally enters the world, our world, where tyrants dominate, people make mistakes, and religion often supersedes divinely inspired humanity. He is born under an oppressive regime, under high taxation, and into a hotbed of revolution and discontent.
A startled couple find themselves responsible for a vulnerable child. A gang of rough shepherds must decide whether or not to go and see what the fuss is about. A few rich men read the stars and make a protracted journey, on the way inadvertently alerting the corrupt authorities about this dangerous new child. Angels warn a few people who then must make decisions and take evasive action. A precarious masterplan.
God enters our world and looks to us for help and compliance, dependant on the decisions we will make.
Christmas. The unexpected journey continues.