Throughout the churches of North Alabama United Methodism, we are preparing to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. The proclamation that God became flesh and moved in with us (John 1) is one of the most distinctive affirmations of the Christian faith, perhaps the most distinctive. Comparison with other accounts of who God is and what God does is instructive.
In Islam, at least from my amateurish reading of the Koran, there is this constant distancing of God apparently as a means of honoring God. The view of God that emerges in the Koran is noble and exalted, but God is clearly at some remove from the world. God is as absolute, as majestic as God can get. You would have to know the Christmas story to know why that’s a problem.
Christians don’t know that God is sovereign, noble, exalted, absolute, high and lifted up. We know that God is in the world, with us, for us, Immanuel. Jesus is a prophet, but prophets, even the most truthful and courageous of them, cannot save. When we see God next to us, stooped toward us, in the muck and mire with us in order to have us, that’s what we call sovereign, noble, and exalted.
A story: A man died. He had not lived the most worthy of lives, to tell the truth. In fact, he was somewhat of a scoundrel. He therefore found himself in Hell, after his departure from this life.
His friends, concerned about his sad, though well-deserved fate, went down to Hell, and moved by the man’s misery, rattled those iron gates, calling out to whomever might be listening, “Let him out! Let him out!"
Alas, their entreaties accomplished nothing. The great iron doors remained locked shut.
Distinguished dignitaries were summoned, powerful people, academics, intellectuals, prominent personalities. All of them stood at the gates and put forth various reasons why the man should be let out of his place of lonely torment. Some said that due process had not been followed in the man’s eternal sentence. Others appealed to Satan’s sense of fairplay and compassion.
The great iron gates refused to move.
In desperation, the man’s pastor was summoned. The pastor came down to the gates of hell, fully vested as if he were to lead a Sunday service.“Let him out! He was not such a bad chap after all. Once he contributed to the church building fund and twice he served meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Let him out!”
Still, the gates of Hell stood fast.
Then, after all the friends and well wishers finally departed in dejection, the man’s aged mother appeared at the gates of Hell. She stood there, stooped and weak, only able to whisper softly, in maternal love, “Let me in.
And immediately the great gates of Hell swung open and the condemned man was free.
Something akin to that great miracle happened for us on a starry night at Bethlehem
William H. Willimon