Did Marco miss Christmas?

December 15th, 2015

Where was God?

Article VI of the Constitution is clear that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office.” That means that questionable theology is not a disqualifier for election.

But when a candidate who wears his faith on his sleeve like a flag pin on his lapel starts talking theology, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to make a theological point.

Speaking in Iowa after the terrorist attack in Paris, Senator Marco Rubio said he was asked, “Where was God on 9/11? Where was God in Paris?

That’s a good question. Thoughtful people are asking it again in the aftermath of another mass killing in California. It’s a gut-level question that goes to the core of what we believe and the way we live.

Senator Rubio’s response? “I said, ‘Where God always is — on the throne in Heaven.’”

Did Marco miss Christmas?

Hearing that, I wanted to ask, “Did you miss Christmas?” I was tempted to send him a copy of my Advent study When God Came Down.

The earth-shaking, life-transforming affirmation of the Christmas gospel is the fulfillment of the promise to Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

Christmas is God’s response to the persistent, soul-level question, “Why don’t you tear the sky open and come down?” (Isaiah 64:1) We call it the incarnation — real God becoming real flesh down here with us, among us, one of us.

We sing it in Wesley’s great carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.

The most important word the Christian faith offers in the wake of 9/11, Paris or San Bernardino is not that God is “on the throne in Heaven” but that God is down here with us in the face of human suffering, injustice, pain and death.

Not heresy ... not helpful

Placing God “where God always is — on the throne in Heaven” was the beginning point for the Senator’s theological reflections.

“The question was how could God allow these bad things to happen? It always challenges us to understand that God’s ways are not our ways. What we may interpret as bad, and most certainly is in the case of Paris or 9/11, even that is part of a broader plan for the universe and for our lives that we are just not going to know the answer to. God’s ways are not our ways.”

Senator Rubio compared God’s hidden purpose in hard times with the way a child feels when a parent lets the doctor hurt them to receive a vaccine.

“All that child understood at three years or four years of age is that my father and my mother, who love me, is allowing a stranger to stick a needle in my arm, in this case, some other region of the body, and it hurts, it hurts a lot. ‘Why are they allowing me to be hurt by this stranger? I don’t understand that?’ But I understood. While that needle hurt for 3 or 4 seconds, that needle was going to prevent something much more dangerous and much more painful and much harder later on.”

He said God’s promise in these difficult situations is “the peace of being able to handle whatever comes our way … knowing that all this comes from God and is part of his plan, which we don’t fully understand.

Setting aside the fact that God intends for us to grow up and not continue to be theological toddlers, what the Senator said is not heresy. Lots of faithful people believe that. It represents a branch on the Protestant theological tree that reaches back through Jonathan Edwards and the New England Puritans to John Calvin.

While it may not be heresy, I don’t find it to be very helpful.

As a pastor, there’s simply no way I could look into the faces of the people who are burying their loved ones in California and tell them that “all this comes from God and is part of his plan.

God did not cause this … God cannot fix it without us

There is another branch of Christian theology on which I am willing to hang my soul. It says that while God does not cause everything, God can use anything.

God did not cause the deaths of 14 people in San Bernardino. I don’t believe it was part of God’s plan. People did that. But I do believe that God can redeem these horrendous events to awaken his people to become a part of his redemptive purpose in this world.

There was an unintended element of truth in the New York Daily News headline: “God Isn’t Fixing This.” The evidence in Scripture and in history is that God’s way of “fixing” things is to work through people who dare to live and act in ways that are consistent with God’s saving purpose for this world.

The senator was biblically correct in saying that “God’s ways are not our ways.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) God’s way of saving the world is not the human way of increasing violence, arrogant pride, political power or overwhelming force. God’s way is the way of radical obedience to the way revealed in Jesus Christ. God’s way is the way of self-giving love revealed at the cross. God’s way of fixing all the things that human sin has broken in this world is the way of grace. It’s the way that was promised by the angel to Zechariah:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)

Listening for the bells

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow faced Christmas of 1863 in dark despair. His wife had recently died in a house fire and he had just received word that his son, who had joined the Union army against his father’s wishes, had been severaly injured in battle. Searching for a word of hope for his own soul, he wrote these words on Christmas Day.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

May we not miss the sound of those bells this Christmas.

Jim Harnish is the author of "A Disciple's Heart" and "Earn. Save. Give." He blogs at at JimHarnish.org.

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