God incarnate and omnipotent
Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
Our world is a noisy world. Right now, our furnace is running and the fireplace fan is blowing. In my office at church, the incessant noise of the computer, always on, ready to be accessed remotely, is buzzing away. Outside, there is barely a place we can go without hearing ‘road noise,’ the noise of tires flowing against pavement. There are trains at the end of our street, the regular crashing of the CP and BNSF train yards we live close to, planes flying overhead, hospital helicopters scooting past, and so many other crankings of our modern machinations.
All this to say that we probably don’t know what quiet means. I read a book while on paternity leave called, ‘World of Wonders, Days of Judgement: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England.’ It’s quite fascinating to read about how troublesome 1600’s New England Christianity was (as is our own day). This book, however, mentioned two things relating to my point right now. The first is that Samuel Sewall (someone discussed in the book) recognized every errant sound as providential. So when there was an extra peal of thunder, a faint sound of trumpets or the like, he thought it meant something. This is because 17th century Boston was astonishingly quiet. The buzz of modernity had not yet reached the world.
At the end of 2020, we are quite far from quiet. You have to go to the Boundary Waters perhaps to find a quiet spot, though there you might have too many mosquitoes buzzing in your ear. But now when we hear curious sounds, we of course have a merely natural explanation for it. Oh, a thunderstorm came through, lightning is just electricity doing its thing. Or, I heard a bang, let me look on Nextdoor, I think it was a gunshot…or firework…or a banging container in the railyards. In the news, a forest fire is only connected to climate change, a short in the power lines, poor forest management, and too much dry underbrush. Even among Christians, God is distant in how we speak of the world. While we could read too much into various happenings, most of the time we have swung the other direction and removed God from the picture entirely. This is problematic.
In his summary of World of Wonders, the author mentions a second thing I think is astonishing given how well it applies to 2020 (though he is speaking of 1650-1700): ‘And in contrast to this world of print [about God’s providence in the world], other readers were withdrawing into fiction or the kind of history in which providence was generalized and distant.’ Couldn’t we say that today? Perhaps if we were to replace ‘fiction’ with ‘diverse multimedia,’ we would see how distracted America has been for most of the 20th and now 21st century. We also have as Christians lived and believed in a world where providence is general and distant, and have learned to find solace in our entertainment. The entertainment rarely sees God’s providence in anything and instead teaches us of man’s triumphal mastery over the world.
During the Vikings game, Fox has been advertising traumatic television shows with explosions, firefighters, hospitals, and the like. To have good stories, I assume these shows mostly include doctors saving patients in the nick of time, firefighters putting out fires, and police putting away the bad guy. When does the detective fail to get his man? In other words, they are all masters of their universe, and so we assume we can be too. This is a lie, subtle thought it may be. We would do better to think God is speaking through a whirlwind to us. But in fact He has spoken to us in His word. He is intimately at work in the world to finish what He has begun. It is no coincidence that Deism was famous during the 1700’s, and I think it is alive and well in our day as well in our churches and hearts.
This Christmas season, we celebrate Jesus Christ the Lord, who is the Son of God, but who took on flesh to dwell with us. One of the wonderful doctrines that I love so much is called the ‘extra.’ This is the doctrine that says Jesus was still upholding the world by the word of His power even as He was living his human life. He never lost His divine nature or person. He only added to His divine nature and person a human nature. In other words, as a babe in the manger, He still was exercising His majestic work as Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Yet He was personally present, God with us: Emmanuel. He was majestically present ordering the wind and waves of the far away oceans even as He was in the flesh in the cave (or stable) at Bethlehem. Let us not neglect God’s providence this Christmas season in similar manner. He is at work to build his church cosmically, but he is also present in your life, attending to the mundane details of of it as you do your work on a computer or washing the laundry. Although we probably would not want to return to 1600 New England, it would be wise to learn from it and remember God’s omnipresence and omnipotence.
And it may just be that we can consider this more fully when we are still and quiet, and consider God in his majesty and rule over the nations and earth. May we not be content to celebrate this Christmas season with such a generalized and distant view of God’s providence. Instead as we are remembering the glorious coming to earth of the Son of God, may we comprehend not only His humility but His majestic power that is still at work intricately and broadly in our world today.