As strange as it may sound, some people even at this Christmas time do not want to get too close to God. If God is kept at a distance, so the thinking goes, he is a lot easier to manage; you do not have to worry about him looking over your shoulder too often; and you can basically run your own show, checking in with him from time to time to make sure he is blessing your plans. Getting too close to him might lead to messiness, slow you down, and be too intimate. The only problem with this kind of thinking is that God does not want any part of it. His character is built in an entirely different way. Every day, he wants to barge into our lives, disrupt all our nicely arranged furniture, and make a home in our hearts. He wants us to call him Abba, the Aramaic word for Daddy. This is the story of Christmas in a nutshell. God came to earth to live among us whether we liked it or not.
In the 18th Century, many Americans and Europeans developed a new philosophical framework called Deism, which espouses the belief that God created the world with all its natural order and beauty, but then backed off and gave humans the responsibility and privilege to run it with their own intelligence, rationality, and creativity without his meddling in their affairs. After his magnificent act of creation, God concluded he no longer needed to interfere in the day-to-day affairs of humanity by providing any additional revelation or words of admonishment or encouragement. Humans were fully capable of running their own show without his assistance or interference. In this Deist view, God is benevolent, but distant and essentially unavailable.
It is likely that more people today hold this view than many may realize. After all, Deism is super convenient. It does not require you to pray, attend church, or get entangled with the spiritual world. Advances in technology can now take care of most of those needs according to many current and popular views. You can simply believe that God exists, not call yourself atheist or even agnostic, and be content with his general presence in the world, unless he decides to interrupt you.
In many ways, this philosophical worldview was active in Israel during the First Century – until the moment God decided to send his son into the world in the form of a child, born quietly in a manger tucked away in the back streets of Bethlehem. At the time, the Jewish leaders had put themselves in charge, pushing God’s prominence off to the side, although they did not want it to appear that way entirely. Although they denied it, they had become hypocrites, and everyone knew it. They no longer needed God to tell them what to do on a day-to-day basis. They assumed they were in charge themselves and did not need a lot of input from God, or anyone else.
Little did these Jewish leaders know that God was about to rock their world big time. In the span of just a few years, God came to earth in the form of a human, established a New Covenant with his people, tore down the temple and threw out many unnecessary practices and structures of the Old Covenant, and then sent the Holy Spirit to live inside believers’ hearts. Those leaders who had been holding God at a convenient distance were suddenly powerless and desperate, even turning violent and disobeying many of their own religious laws. The new people in charge, according to God’s will and plan, were lowly fishermen with little formal education, but full of faith that God had miraculously appeared and revealed himself as loudly as the world had ever heard in the form of his son, Jesus Christ. He was not acting like a distant God. He was who he truly was – a fully present Lord, intimately involved in the lives of those he had lovingly created.
The same kind of scene is playing out in Iran today. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 established one of the world’s first fully theocratic forms of government in modern history. The religious leaders put themselves in a position of extreme authority, giving themselves the power to call the last shots even after parliamentary decisions had been made. However, as often happens when a religion places itself in charge of a government, the leaders begin to compromise their religious beliefs in order to maintain power, and in the process become corrupt and cruel. The religious leaders today in Iran are being called modern-day Pharisees and Sadducees, outwardly religious, but inwardly self-serving and morally corrupt. The vast majority of Iranians are now calling for a regime change believing they made a terrible mistake letting the Ayatollah Khomenei and his mullahs establish their Islamic theocracy, which is not working for them.
In recent years, God began revealing himself in dreams and visions to individuals throughout the Middle East. Middle Eastern people love dreams so it makes sense God would reveal himself to them in this way. Whenever there is a lack of Christian presence in the form of a church or Bible, God often chooses to reveal himself directly to people through other means, often through friends, but in dreams or visions, too. During my travels to Middle Eastern countries, I often hear testimonies that are jaw-dropping from former terrorists or common Muslims having a direct vision of Jesus Christ, which causes them to become followers of our Lord. Central to our Christmas story is the same belief that God spoke directly to Joseph in a dream after the three wise men returned to their homelands. God’s messenger appeared to Joseph and spoke to him: “After the wise men were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up! Flee to Egypt with the child and his mother,’ the angel said. ‘Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’” (Matthew 2:13)
Unfortunately, the leaders of the Islamic Revolution in Iran are running their country into the ground which is causing great hardship for the common person. There is a severe water shortage throughout the country. Iranians are suffering mentally and emotionally from a sense of hopelessness, feeling trapped by their authoritative government. Over eight million Iranians are addicted to hard drugs. The country is in a free-fall from economic struggles made worse by the number of international sanctions against its government. On top of it all, Iran has become the hardest-hit country in the Middle East with COVID-19, which is running through its society at an alarming rate, far outpacing the Iranian medical community’s ability to respond.
However, in the midst of this suffering and turmoil, the underground church in Iran has become the fastest growing church in the world. Thousands of Muslims are finding faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior. Their parched souls are being filled with the refreshing presence of the Holy Spirit. What I hear most often is the excitement Iranian believers are now experiencing in discovering a brand-new way to look at God. They are now more fully grasping the Christian claim that our God is a suffering servant who came to earth to identify with his beloved creation, including a suffering humanity, empowering them with his love and concern and dying a criminal’s death on their behalf. As a result, they are now seeing God in an entirely different light.
Islam, unfortunately, teaches and believes something different about the character of God. Muslims describe and obey a more distant, all-powerful, all-knowing God, who has little to do with humanity on a personal basis other than ruling, guiding, and judging them. A Muslim’s daily objective is to follow the rules, please God with his behavior and performance, and hope for a favorable, final judgment at the end of his life. Over the centuries, Muslims have rejected the idea that God would ever become human and live among his people, promoting an intimacy with humanity that would run contrary to their understanding of their divine creator. However, that kind of thinking is slowly changing among Muslims worldwide. Muslims’ immense suffering in the Middle East today is demanding a new way to understand and relate to God. A growing number are beginning to understand and believe that God is love, having fully come down-to-earth to be present with us, reside in our hearts, and embrace our sufferings along with his own. As our Lord said to his disciples, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)
Yes, there are more risks involved in being intimate with God, allowing him to be close to us, than not. But the rewards are enormous and far outweigh what we may perceive to be inconvenient if we allow him into our lives. If we invite God to be close to us, we certainly need to talk with him on a daily basis as a trusted friend and constant companion; we have to wrestle with him honestly when we go through hard times; we need to commit to his desire to reach the whole world with his love and compassion, confess when we become wayward or hurt others, and praise him for the many gifts he bestows upon our hearts. At the end of the day, we need to decide whether this close relationship with God is all worth it or not; whether we want to be a Deist or a Christian. There is a big difference between the two.
One of the things I hear most often during our current pandemic is people’s new appreciation for human relationships. We now know how valuable it is to be able to sit down in a restaurant and dine with a good friend, attend a conference or church service where new and exciting information is shared or connections are made, or experience the fun or excitement of watching a sporting event, listening to music, or enjoying a theatrical performance with people you cherish as friends. Being isolated we are more apt to become grouchy, irritated, or even depressed. Our souls need love from others and direct, intimate love from God, too, or we can become miserable to ourselves.
With the rise of technological devices at our disposal, we are tempted to live more apart from our neighbors and friends. However, has the pandemic caused us to question all that? People now yearn to be outdoors hiking or even taking up an activity like golf, just to get outside and be with others. There is great disagreement and even mystery associated with how this pandemic descended upon our world. However, if one of its effects is to make us more appreciative than ever before of human relations, the beauty of the outdoors, and the miraculous presence of God’s love in our lives, then perhaps this enormous time-out in our world has had a great benefit, getting us back on track with what matters most to our God. Once the vaccine finally arrives, may we never forget these valuable lessons we are learning.
I am not a Deist. I do not believe our God is a remote being not wanting to get his hands dirty with us. If indeed he is love, how in the world would he be able to live apart from us? His most wonderful, triune character craves a close relationship with us and we with one another because that is what love demands. I am in awe of the Christmas story, not because of the commercialism and all the fantastic presents and fun that come along with it, but because of the audacious, bold, courageous act God initiated to come crashing into our world, remind us who is in control, walk in our shoes, suffer along with us, and save us from ourselves.
“So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” (John 1:14)
We are never alone in our common faith. We will make it to the other side of this pandemic with each other’s love, encouragement, and support. My family and I send our love and support to you and wish you a Merry Christmas. May the love of God be with you, not at a distance, but as close as your heart may allow.