When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.—Matthew 2:10–11
Even though many of us are surrounded by family and friends during the Christmas season, this time of year can feel lonely. We feel the absence of those who have died and gone. We feel the tension as families and friends try to reconcile differences and come together to celebrate the coming of Jesus. For many of us, this time of year brings with it a set of recurring questions: Why does this time of celebration always bring with it a sense of sorrow? When will Jesus return? When will sorrow end?
King David asked a similar question: "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" (Ps. 13:1).
The people of Israel wondered when God would remember them. They waited for the coming Messiah, even as we wait for the Messiah’s return. Like them, we long for God to show up, for Jesus to be with us, for joy to come to the world. If you feel as the people of Israel did—if you long for God to show himself—then you have caught the spirit of Advent, the time of year leading up to Christmas.
Advent is a season of waiting, of expecting, of hoping, of trusting. It’s a time to prepare for God to come, for God to act, for God to save. It’s a time to remember that God has come, God has acted, God has saved. It’s a time to recognize that God has hidden himself in places we don’t expect to find him:
- as a baby in a feeding trough
- as a carpenter who worked the family business
- as a Jewish rabbi who suffered and was crucified
- in God’s broken and distressed people
- in ordinary water, bread, and wine—the signs of God’s presence
God Hidden for Our Salvation
The Christmas story begins with God hiding himself. Taking on a true human nature, God became a man. The second person of the Trinity became Jesus Christ of Nazareth. The second chapter of Matthew presents Jesus, Mary, Joseph, wise men from the east, King Herod of Judea, and the Jewish religious leaders. The wise men came, following a star, to worship the king of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). Apparently, the Jewish people and Herod had no idea their messiah had come. The religious leaders told Herod about a prophecy regarding where the Christ would be born: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6).
The wise men came to worship a king. Herod sought the child’s death. An angel aided Mary and Joseph as they fought to protect the almighty God who came in the form of a helpless baby. God was hiding out in a feeding trough, experiencing all the difficulties of life that you and I experience. He humbled himself. He identified with us. He became one of us. He came to suffer the death we deserve and pay for our transgressions, failures, and sins.
God hid himself, and still hides himself, for good reasons—he wants people to trust him, to depend upon him alone for life and salvation. God is visible to eyes of faith that accept him as he came, trusting him in the middle of life’s challenges. God hides himself from the proud who refuse to look in the humble places where God chooses to dwell: in his messy church and in the poor and weak who trust Jesus for salvation. God hides himself from the faithful to teach them how to live by faith. God hides himself in weakness for our sake—for our salvation. God is with his people. God hears our prayers and answers with Christ.
The reality of God’s mercy and grace is seen in the work of Jesus Christ. In the death of Christ—where God seems most hidden—God is most present, giving his life for the sake of his people. Through Jesus’ life and death, our sins could be forgiven and God could declare us righteous. Jesus came to save us from sin, death, and despair. He has come to bring us to our eternal home, to our resting place with God. When we believe, we receive all that God has promised: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, God as our loving Father, and the beginnings of a new creation. Christmas is God’s self-giving for our salvation.
Trusting the God Who Hides Himself
David shows us the only response to a God who hides himself: "I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me" (Ps.13:5–6).
Trusting God is hard. It may seem at times as though God has abandoned us, but we need to look to Jesus, because it is in Jesus alone that we find hope. Saint Augustine knew this fact. He experienced the difficulties of life. He tasted suffering, he longed for God, and he was a great sinner and keenly aware that his heart was torn, that he loved the world too much and God too little.
Because he was a human being just like us, Augustine's advice to his congregation in North Africa in the winter of AD 406 is still relevant for us today. He described the Christian life as a journey across the sea to a homeland that one could barely see off in the distance. Christ is the only boat able to cross the sea. It takes faith to make the journey; but on the other side, faith gives way to sight, the journey ends, and God is no longer hidden from our eyes. His advice is simple: trust Christ as he has revealed himself, not as we would like him to be:
If you wish to live in a devout and Christian way, cling to Christ according to that which he was made for us, so as to come to him according to that which he is and according to that which he was. He came here so that he could become, for us, what he was not, because, for our sakes, he was made into the one who would carry the weak across the sea of this world and so arrive at their home country, where no boat is needed, because there is no sea to be crossed. (Saint Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40, , 57)
The church has called this time leading up to Christmas Advent. It’s a time of preparing, waiting, hoping, expecting, and trusting. It’s a time when we recognize how God hides himself and how God shows himself. It’s a time to share the good news that God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ who came in the form of a baby, who will return as a triumphant king, and who will gather his people to dwell with him forever. God requires our faith, because faith shows the nature of our relationship with God. We depend upon him for our life and salvation.