When our daughter was four years old, she was entertaining a young friend during Advent. The visitor’s family were not active church people, and the girl was interested in all the Advent and Christmas things in our house, particularly a very beautiful hand-carved manger scene. The two of them were inspecting it very closely, identifying each of the characters. The little girl asked, “Where’s God?” “Oh,” replied my daughter, “he’s right there on that hay.” Already at four she had her Christology in order.
“Right there on the hay,” right there in the manger, in the stable. That baby in Bethlehem, that’s where God is. We can use that very profound response to understand more fully the contemporary echoes of the question, “Where is God?” That is, after all, a question that resounds in every age, certainly in ours. Where is God when a madman attacks worshipers in a synagogue? Where is God when children are separated from their parents as they are attempting to find refuge from their own violent society? Where is God when there are devastating fires, storms, floods, that leave entire cities desolated? Where is God when we cry out to him in our own distress, and find no answer?
God in unexpected places
He’s right there on that hay. And that means, first of all, that he is in an unexpected place. Who would have written the script that would have the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord of heaven and earth, born in a stable? And not even a royal stable, but one in an inn, in an unimportant little town on the outskirts of Jerusalem? Who would have expected the Son of God to be born to a young girl like Mary, and announced to lowly shepherds in a field? And yet all those things are true. God came to us in a way, in a place, in circumstances, that we could never have predicted or expected.
Once there was a school that had a program each year where young children brought pennies they had saved to help families in need. One year there was a snowstorm, and school was cancelled. A young lad nonetheless walked two miles through the snow to bring the seventeen cents he had collected, and he marched into the principal’s office to turn it in. The principal accepted it with a lump in his throat, for the boy’s family was one of those designated a recipient for this holiday offering. The boy’s gift was unexpected. It is in unexpected places that we find God, right there on that hay.
God in lonely places
Yes, he’s right there on that hay. That means in cold and lonely places. Thirty years ago now Armenia, one of the oldest Christian nations on earth, was devastated by an earthquake that left much of the nation in ruins. An Armenian priest was asked how this tragedy could be squared with God’s will. “This was not God’s will,” he replied. “This is part of the fallenness of creation. God’s will is revealed in the outpouring of love and assistance that is coming to us from all over the world.” In the cold and dark and difficult places, God is there.
He’s there in the lonely places in our lives, too. Think of the situation Mary and Joseph were in—far from home, she about to give birth, no place to stay. They finally had to make do with a stable. Childbirth is supposed to be a joyous time, but how could it be in that place? Alone, perhaps cold, no doubt frightened—and yet God was there. I doubt there was a halo over Jesus’ head to prove to Mary and Joseph that what they had been told was true. There’s nothing in the gospel story about angels hovering round the manger. But there were shepherds, who came and perhaps reported that they had seen angels. And so Mary and Joseph were reassured. In that lonely place, that cold and dark place, God was there.
That’s how it is with us. When we get into those places where we feel lost and alone, where we have to make do with situations we wouldn’t have planned and didn’t want, still God is there, reassuring us that we are not alone. It was supposed to be a cradle, but hay is all there was—yet God was there, right there on that hay.
God with us
Yes, he’s right there on that hay. That means, bottom line, that he’s here among us. That’s his name—Emmanuel, “God with us.” And he is. He’s right in our midst, in our neighborhood. Wherever we find ourselves—in church, at work, at home, at school, at the food ministry or homeless shelter, at the doctor’s office, or out in the fields, or away in a manger—in all those places, God is there. He’s right there on that hay in your life and in mine. The Child, born in Bethlehem, is Emmanuel—God with us.
Richard O. Johnson
Editor of Forum Letter
Published in volume 47, Number 12, December 2018