The Paradox of God

December 23, 2014

(published 7 years ago, but adapted for this post)


7 years ago, I was pastoring an eager church. A church had been experiencing significant decline and decided they wanted to change that. So the congregation decided at that time that they must rebirth or recreate the church in order to stop its downward direction, and that is what we tried to do- we attempted to rebuild and recreate the church. While in the end, this particular ministry did not work out, it was a gift at that time 7 years ago to have a church eager to change- no matter how short lived it may have been.

But even the best of gifts can come with challenges. Paradoxes, I suppose. Even as a congregation is eager and ready to do the work of revitalization, it can sometimes be overly eager. Ready to build ministries that once existed- or new ministries entirely- but at the present, the infrastructure and foundation are not yet in place. Ready to move ahead when it seems we might be called to dally in one spot for a few more moments.

So over breakfast with my leadership just shortly before Advent began that year, I brought up this subject of building too fast. The leaders were quite responsive to conversation over such a topic, agreeing that we must not be too hasty to recapture what was at the risk of losing what could be. But there was still an undercurrent of confusing questions running beneath our conversation, “Why wouldn’t God want us to build as quickly as possible? Isn’t he able to do miracles? So would he ever choose to move so slowly and strangely?” The questions hung in the air unanswered. I was too tentative to address them, and so we turned to prayer.

After a long time in prayer, we lifted our heads with a unison “Amen,” only to find that one man had his head still bowed and he was staring at his hands. In silence we waited a couple seconds for him to finish his private prayer. After a moment, he lifted his head and with tears in his eyes told us, “God gave me this picture.” The man lifted his hands, cupping them in the front of him as he spoke, “‘It’s like this,’ God said to me. ‘When you try to light a campfire, and you finally get a small flame, you don’t just heap piles and piles of wood on it right away. Instead you crouch down, get as close as you can and gently blow.’” The man paused, but only for a moment as the image fixed itself in our minds. Then with a shaking voice, the man continued, “That’s what God is doing here- crouching as close as he can to us and gently blowing. It doesn’t make entire sense to us when we want the raging bonfire right away. But it’s how he wants to start.” We were all deeply touched by this man’s vision, and perhaps stunned a bit as well. To us, it only made sense that God would do miraculous things in big, spectacular ways with our little church. And yet, it seems as though he is restraining himself from such power and choosing instead the gentler, slower, softer route for us. A paradox to human minds indeed. 

On the heels of this conversation, Advent rushed in, and I became fascinated by paradoxes of the Advent season. The world is full of them, you know. But it seems this time of year paradox becomes a very present companion, even if we close our eyes to its presence, hopeful that if we simply do not look, it will go away. But it will not go away.

On one side of the paradox is the glitz and glamour of Advent and Christmas seasons. Deep colors accentuated by flickering lights. Decorations of greenery with flowing ribbons and berries and all things that speak of creation’s life in the dead of winter. Full tables with special foods- family secret recipes, items eaten only on occasions like these, extended tables for families to gather. But coupled with it is the heightened stress of shopping and plans, of multiple invitations and the temptation to overcommit; the deep longings we stuff way down inside us and hope they do not show through the cracks; the pains we hide away, or at least attempt to put aside, so we can function; the nagging fear that December 26th will come and it will be a let down, and at the same time, a hostile release of all that we have kept at bay for the season of beauty and peace. A paradox of being, I suppose, in this season of the year.

But even beyond the paradox of our inward and outward selves during this month, there is the paradox of the Christmas story itself: the great miracle that God who would choose to implant himself in the womb of a common Jewish girl, a girl who was not expected to be expecting; the wonder that the Word takes on our limits, pains, struggles and exhaustions and is birthed into the smells and sounds of a stable; the strangeness in the result of the Spirit’s hovering over Mary who would live in the form of a baby enraged at the cold, bright, bigness of a world outside the womb. Paradox. And a risky one at that.

And then there are the enthusiastic angels, marveling at their Lord who now yells at the top of his newborn lungs at the night sky. Angels who bring a baby announcement not to the whole world, waking those asleep in their beds with the news that Jesus was here, that the Word was among us. No, instead angels visit shepherds- poor blue collar workers on the 3rd shift, who could bring nothing to the baby shower and might not even have much of an audience to listen to their babble of a stable and a baby and goodwill to all people on whom God’s favor rests. Why not the whole world? Why not a loud announcement with trumpet blare and clouds rolled back in the sky? Why such obscurity when the greatest news to humankind was finally here?

Paradox. To think of God as newborn, red and vulnerable, small and unnoticeable. To think that angels would be sent to those who could do little more than visit the exhausted holy family and talk with neighbors, friends and sheep on the hills. Paradox to think that Jesus would grow up in such obscurity, little told of his schooling and friends, his toys and suppertime conversation- little mentioned other than a move to Egypt and a visit to the temple where he shocked the religious with his words.

It is the grand paradox of the scriptures right before us in this season.

Isaiah 64:1 tells us, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you.” 
We expect the mighty acts of God- a God caught up in cloud and pillar, in fiery bushes and parted seas. We count on the sky rent in two, the mountains trembling, the holy arm of God bared. While miracles cause us to rub our eyes and pinch our arms to ensure they really happened, it sometimes seems easier to believe in a God who reveals himself only in power and might; miracles keep their distance in some ways, making clear that they come from a place and a person beyond us entirely. Perhaps somewhere within us, there is a part that longs to only know the greatness of God, the majesty and might. It seems somehow safer to keep God distanced by miracle and might. A God who gets close gets too personal for us, so it is sometimes easier to only receive his greatness.

In fact, if I had been God, I think that is the way I would have done it. Come grown up and strong, if as a human at all. Loud and noticeable. No questions about who or what or why. No need for gestation and birth, for swaddling cloths and shepherds. No need for the paradoxes of an all-surpassing God making himself humble and frail and weak. It causes too many questions the way God chose. If it had been up to me, I would have made sure everyone knew right then and there who I was and why- it would be easier that way, not so messy. Not so risky. Not so personal. Yes, I would have done it differently.

But instead, we read these words: (Matthew 13:33) “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Rather than a heavenly announcement of a fully grown up God come in power and glory, we find a Lord who enjoys and marvels at his creation, so much so that he puts on organs and skin, blood and bones, and he chooses to gently sprinkle his leaven over a lifetime of work and worship and weeping, growing up among us, growing up within us a new kingdom which began in a womb and a manger.

A miracle of might turned into the faithful kneading of God. A miracle of grace turned into the gentle growing of a Savior’s body bent toward breaking for the world. A miracle of power turned into the soft nudges of the Spirit. A paradox indeed… that ironically seems to make perfect sense to a God who causes us to look twice, as he crouches down, leans in as close as he can, and gently blows.

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