Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Savior. (Isa. 45:15)
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18)
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I love the posture and the expression on the face of the kneeling wise man in Jacopo Bassano’s painting, “The Three Magi” (c. 1562) above. His look of utter incredulity as he leans in to get a closer at the baby Jesus in his Mother’s arms captures the essence of Epiphany. The God who hides himself has made himself known, but in such a strange way! How can it possibly be?
Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
(Christina Rosetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter”)
If there is one teaching that American Christians like me need to learn it is that of God’s hiddenness.
In our worship and devotion we are ever and always asking for God to reveal himself to us so that we might see his face, and we forget God’s decree: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Furthermore, we are ever seeking visible signs of God’s comfort, God’s presence, God’s help, and God’s blessing. How disappointed we are when God hides himself, when where he is and what he does in our world is so puzzling and enigmatic!
Before we think of God revealing himself to us, we must remember that God intentionally hides himself from us.
Indeed, he must hide in the world, because humans have rejected God’s Kingship, plunged all creation into a fallen state, and he is not welcome among us. And yet he will not abandon the world, so he hides in it and works his will through mechanisms and actions we cannot fathom. Sarah is barren, and when she has the promised son, Abraham is commanded to sacrifice him. Joseph is sold into slavery. A harlot leads the way to victory in Jericho. King David takes refuge in caves. Cyrus the Persian restores Israel from exile. Job loses everything. Jesus dies on a cross. Paul spends most of his apostleship years as a Roman prisoner.
Who could criticize the Preacher for concluding, “All is vanity!”
Romans 8 says that the present cosmos is groaning like a woman in childbirth. Just as the joy of new life is hidden in the pain and distress of giving birth, so God hides from human beings in the workings of his world. God wears many masks and we cannot recognize him in our experiences of this life. The evidence is at best mixed that he even exists. Our philosophies and speculations never lead to certainty. “Clear” answers to prayer are always subject to other explanations. Even the church that supposedly represents God in the world is weak, divided, sinful, and beset by suffering. Babies die. The wicked prosper. Spouses cheat. People go hungry. Wars and rumors of war persist.
We cannot comprehend, much less explain our world and what God is doing in it. He hides from us, and he does so intentionally. Why? This is mystery, but with fear and trembling let me suggest one possible explanation: God hides because he will not be found where humans want to find him, for that would only further confirm us in our pride and self-justification. We do not define where God is to be found! By hiding, God assures that we will not.
Here’s a second thought about the hidden God: even when God reveals himself, he does so in a “hidden” fashion. That is, when he takes off his mask and lets himself be seen, it is still hard for us to recognize him. God defines how humans will find him, and those ways always catch us by surprise. Look again at the green-robed magus in Bassano’s painting. This, this is God revealing himself to us? The baby of poor parents? Here in this ramshackle stable? Is this what we came so far to see? How can it be?
Even when God comes out of hiding, he hides himself. Though “with us” (Emmanuel) in plain sight, we are forced to get down on our knees for a closer look. Even then we wonder. From Bethlehem to the Jordan, from the wilderness to the Temple, from Galilee to Golgotha, we find ourselves continually rubbing our eyes as we try to process what we are seeing. Remember how the disciples who walked with him struggled, and Jesus had to ask them in the end, “Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me?” Three years of being with him every day, and they could not yet see!
God reveals himself in this hidden fashion most fully on the cross. The clearest vision of the face of God ever afforded to humans was cloaked in darkness.
Today many of us will go to worship, and there God will make himself known in words spoken by sinful lips to sinful hearts, through bites of bread and sips of wine, and in the faces of our weak and imperfect sisters and brothers. The glory of God in clay pots.
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This is Epiphany — the day on which we celebrate the revelation of the glory of the Son of God. But how does he reveal himself? To recognize the hidden fashion by which God shows his face, we need look no further than the narrative that we in the Western Church read this day, the one portrayed so well by Jacopo Bassano, the story about when “wise men came from the east” (Matthew 2).
Jesus’ glory was revealed:
- To pagan astrologers –
- Who, by means of an astrological phenomenon divined through pagan arts, travel to Jerusalem –
- And receive directions from a wicked king and his counselors –
- Who know the Scriptures but do not recognize their fulfillment –
- Who serve a king that responds to this Good News by slaughtering a village full of baby boys.
- Meanwhile, after seeing the Christ child, the pagans return to their pagan land, never to be heard from again –
- And the baby and his family are forced to flee to Egypt.
Hmm. This is how God reveals himself.
Glad I could clear that up for you.