November 1, 2014

The Hidden God Revealed

magi bassano

Adoration of the Magi, Bassano

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)

* * *

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.

magi bassanoThe God who made the world hides in the world.

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.

* * *

magi bassanoThis 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.

Comments

  1. So God is hiding Himself from us? God is running away from us when we seek Him?

    Why pray, then? Why seek comfort and peace from Him? He doesn’t want us to find Him.

    What’s all this nonsense the churches tell us about how God wants a “personal relationship” with us?

    Would you continue to pursue a relationship with someone who never returned your phone calls, ignored your emails, and refused to open the door when you pleaded?

    Color me confused by this post. I don’t disagree with you, but it leaves me wondering, “What exactly IS our relationship with God–do we even have one???”

    • Aidan Clevinger says:

      ^God hides Himself from us only so that He can be found where *He* wants to be found, and not where our pride wants Him to be. If He revealed Himself visibly, or through our feelings, or through our personal experiences, then we would be tempted to think that we were hot stuff because we’d found God. Instead, God comes in such a way that no one can recognize Him unless He gives them faith to do so, in order that everything would depend on *Him* and not on *us*. God hides so that we cannot find Him – instead, He finds us.

      Thus, when God takes on flesh and becomes a man, He doesn’t become a great potentate or military conqueror or any kind of powerful person. He becomes a Jewish carpenter and itinerant rabbi who ends up being tortured and executed by the Romans. To think that God can be found in the naked body of a condemned criminal dying on a cross is ludicrous – and yet, that is precisely where He was. Likewise, when we want to find God today, where do we turn? To the Word, to Baptism, and to the Lord’s Supper; none of which are outwardly impressive. What’s special about an archaic collection of books written by people who were mostly peasants and men despised by the world? What’s special about water, or bread and wine? Nevertheless, this is where God has promised to be.

      And that’s the essential part: God’s promise. We can only find God where He has promised to be. This is why we walk by faith, and NOT by sight. We cannot, in this life, know God in His glory, in His eternal counsel, in His secret plans. We can only know God Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, bound to His Word and Sacraments. It’s there that we encounter and have a relationship with the Triune God.

      • Another one here confused by the “personal relationship” business. If God does not want to be found by us, why then does he say in Matthew, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

        • God reveals himself in Christ. When we ask, seek, and knock, we find Christ, in the Word and in the Sacrament. Our personal relationship is with Christ alone. The whole point is you can’t get to God without going through Christ.

      • +1

        • My +1 was for Aidan:

          God hides Himself from us only so that He can be found where *He* wants to be found, and not where our pride wants Him to be. If He revealed Himself visibly, or through our feelings, or through our personal experiences, then we would be tempted to think that we were hot stuff because we’d found God. Instead, God comes in such a way that no one can recognize Him unless He gives them faith to do so, in order that everything would depend on *Him* and not on *us*. God hides so that we cannot find Him – instead, He finds us.

          • “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” All of these actions require you to open yourself to God. When you’ve done this, you will find Him where he is hidden.

            That, at lease, is what I take away from this.

      • Thank you for this explanation, Aidan, and for this post, Chaplain Mike. It was exactly what I needed to read as I celebrate my first Epiphany in a liturgical, confessional church. How far a year has brought me…by His grace.

    • One of my favorite parts of Highlights magazine when I was a child, and always the first thing I would turn to were the “Hidden Pictures.” There was a marvel and a joy at finding unexpected objects in unusual and unanticipated places. To this day, I still delight in finding the hidden, not just in pictures, but in music, art, literature, movies, and nature.

      By contrast, pornography is the revelation of all, the complete uncovering and revealing of that which is best appreciated as mystery and covered up until the right and proper moment, and only to the one to whom the mystery belongs.

      Hope that helps with the confusion.

    • This was similar to my reaction – how do we position this idea of God’s hiddenness next to the God who ran to meet his prodigal son who was still far off? The God who searched earnestly for a lost coin or sheep? The God who sought out Adam and Eve while THEY were hiding?

      • Your comment shows that we have lost the sense of shock that aparable like that of the prodigal son would have given to those who first heard it. We would expect that the elder brother would have been the father’s choice. His actions revealed God’s love in a way that would have been hidden to the original listeners.

        • Why can’t it be both? Both shock at how Graceful and Merciful, yet take God at His Word in revealing His Character to us?

    • “What’s all this nonsense the churches tell us about how God wants a “personal relationship” with us?

      Would you continue to pursue a relationship with someone who never returned your phone calls, ignored your emails, and refused to open the door when you pleaded?

      After years of attending a church that high-lighted a personal relationship with Christ and the promises, the goodies. I took it terribly hard when it seemed that God had hidden himself. Life just kept bringing sorrow to our home. It was mentioned more than once that perhaps my husband & I needed to examine ourselves for hidden sin. When the fact of the matter was my husband carried the genetic marker that caused his physical sufferings.
      If only we might have learned that what you are teaching here, I could have saved myself a lot of angst. I have been out of that community for years… And yet every once and awhile the thought clobbers me that the reason God is hidden is because I (we) have out sinned His mercy… I know better, but the damage done from health wealth & prosperity teaching has residual effects. I can once again rest in the knowledge or reminder that His ways are not mine and He is hidden in me as I am engraved on the palms of His hands even in the dark…

    • > What’s all this nonsense the churches tell us about how God wants a “personal relationship” with us?

      IMO, it is just that “nonsense”. Total bugger nonsense. Garbage and trash nonsense. The term makes my skin crawl.

      I have a personal relationship with my wife, my friends, and my dog.

      Describing my relationship with The Creator with the same terms is catastrophically absurd. It is a murderous use of the language and terrible wretched theology that can only lead to foolishness and absurdity [witness the carnival of evangelicalism].

  2. I had an experience earlier today that has me grateful for something God has given me: The ability to see Jesus in “the least of these”. First off let me say this is coming from my heart, not from a pious place. I am not who I once was and things like this prove it to me. I’m walking in a store and turn into an aisle. Walking towards me is a young woman, maybe teens/early twenties. Her face is horribly deformed and the first thing I do is give her eye contact and say hello, though I cannot tell if she’s looking at me or not. She extends her hand as if she wants to shake mine, I grab it. Though we keep walking past each other, my arm behind me grasping her hand; her arm behind her grasping my hand. I feel a soul connection – a not wanting to let go. But then we do. And I’m swept up in the emotions of it. This post confirms what I already knew in and through this experience. God hides in the most spectacular of ways. Sometimes it really makes me mad. But mostly it changes me. I have to wonder if that’s the point. Thanks for always letting me share. I really do love this community. In His grace, Rebekah

  3. Chaplain Mike…that is quite a list you included at the end after “Jesus’ glory was revealed, If the nativity story is JUST a story, it is odd that the story-writers would include the wise men/astrologers from the East. I believe the story to be true and fascinating. I know my family members believe that I am thinking like a child to believe such a thing, so I don’t really discuss it with them. I and my five siblings were all brought up the same way (though the older three had more years of Catholic school than I did…I only had one year), so I don’t know why I still believe as I do.

  4. “If there is one teaching that American Christians like me need to learn it is that of God’s hiddenness.” Amen to this Chaplain Mike. As an evangelical AMERICAN Christian I thought God was obligated to reveal Himself. And that He had revealed Himself in the Scriptures which, of course, I understood completely! Think again.

    Then I went through the Valley in my life and somewhat like Job God had to say to me, “Where were you when…?” It was the scariest, darkest time of my Christian life. The God I thought I knew seem to no longer be there. I was lost. Now on the other side I am humbled, at peace and grateful. The God I cannot fully comprehend, who I cannot fully understand or explain is sustaining me and loves me. And now that I KNOW He is incomprehensible, and yes, that He hides Himself, I am in awe.

  5. If God were in plain sight, what need would we have for faith?

  6. How amazing that God would reveal Himself to us at all; that the visible creation would proclaim His invisible qualities and divine nature; that He would appear and live with us as one of us.

    I do wonder at the conclusion that God doesn’t show himself because it may invoke pride in us. It has always seemed to me the opposite is true. Moses and Abraham who spoke to God “face to face” and whom God called friend, seem so amazingly humble. The people among my acquaintance who know God best are the most humble, meek men I have known. Their confidence is in God and not self.

    If we would die if we saw God face to face, would that not be reason enough for God to hide himself?

  7. There is sort of a paradox at play. God is, as it were, hidden in plain sight. He’s right under our noses, but yet we refuse to or are simply unable to see Him. Perhaps it’s what Jesus was getting at when he said we have to be like little children to enter the Kingdom. Children will trust what they are told even if they aren’t given proof right away. The other paradoxical thing is that it does seem that God does reveal Himself enough to people to hold them accountable for there actions, as Paul states in Romans 1.

  8. This reminds me of how God works in ways that people, in our finite, sinful minds, would never expect. Yet when we seek God in His Word and prayer we begin to discover the “unexpectedness” of God is how we begin to recognize Him in our lives.

  9. In Isaiah 59:2, the prophet Isaiah stated, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (NIV).

    In Colosians 1:15 the Apostle Paul states, “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation” (NLT).

    In John 1:18, the Apsostle John states, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

    This does introduce a deep subject, but it does not introduce anything new. I agree with Aiden that the focus should be on God who reveals himself to us, rather than we reaching up to find God. Because of our fallen, sinful nature, it is impossible for us to find God. That again is the humilty of grace: we have to admit that we need God to find and save us, because we can’t find our way back to Him.

    But I also agree that the sore point is that God chooses how he reveals himself. Can you imagine the Magi arriving in Bethlehem and complaining, “This is it? a BABY? This is going to save the world???” Instead, as this paint captures, the Magi were in awe and fell down to worship. Utimately, God reveals himself through Jesus upon the cross. This, too, has been a stumbling block for ages, because our sinful nature craves glory.

    John also wrote, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). God’s self-revelation may (probably) not answer all our questions or meet all our “needs”, but it meets our most critical need as God sees it. The task of putting our wants and needs in that perspective is no easy task. But doing so opens the door to a life which survives both the highs and lows. I don’t say this lightly – writing from the perspective where God has seemed absent for a long time. But I know God is there, but that presence does not change circumstance. It does make life livable in spite of circumstance.

  10. The incarnation also runs afoul of the pragamatic, “magic book’ approach to scripture. The Bible is not an answer book, a how-to or fix-it manual for any problem or want we have. The Bible reveals Jesus. It again reminds me of the aftermath following the feeding of the 5,000. The people search for Jesus for more bread, to which he replies, “I am the Bread of Life.” To paraphrase, the people’s response was, “Huh?”. The outcome of that confrontation is that many of his followers walked away. Jesus didn’t chase after them screaming, “No! Wait! How about a nice bagel?”. When he asked his disciples if they would leave, too, Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John6:68). The incarnation puts horizontal and temporal in the perspective of the vertical and eternal.

  11. > 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.

    Serious question: Why does this really bewilder anyone? If I read the Old Testament all these things are VERY true. They were true then – even while God led his people visibly across the desert. Many of those stories are rife with brutality / barbarism / violence / rape / vendetta / ego-mania. And parts of the new testament certainly read like “expect that, that is how it will be”. There are lots of reasons for doubt, or despair, but a vicious and cruel world doesn’t discredit the bible – that is what the bible describes and teaches us to expect.

    I despair and I rage – and I do not understand – all these evils. But these evils aren’t the cause of my doubts, they seem to affirm the world the bible describes [doubts have other causes].

  12. Perhaps it’s just semantics but I prefer silent to hidden. There are times when God is silent and there are times when God speaks (and reveals Himself).

    1. Verses in the Bible point to God both hiding Himself and revealing Himself

    If we look at the Bible you will be able to find instances where He is silent (hidden) and where He speaks (reveals Himself). You talk about verses where it says God hides Himself, one could easily point to verses where Wisdom is crying out in the streets for people to listen to her.

    2. Our relationship with God is personal, at the same time God is our Creator and King

    Adam thinks it’s absurd to describe our relationship with God as a personal one. Yes it is absurb. But it is also true. We (whose righteousness are like filthy rags in the sight of God) are also co-heirs with Christ. We are sons and daughers of God, are we not?

    Previously only the High Priest could enter the holies of holies, yet we can (yes, only through Christ) now enter the holies of holies. The curtain has been torn.

    Yet at the same time God is our Creator and King. We should still fear (holy respect) Him.

    There is a tension between the two truths but we should embrace the tension instead of dismissing one or the other.

    There is only One God. Yet Christ is God, the Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Truths that appear contradictory yet are true. Our finite minds cannot fully comprehend but must try to take hold of these truths.

    3. The bigger picture

    God had (personal) fellowship with us in the garden of Eden. Please note that this was NOT 24-7. But it appears to be daily.

    Because of the Fall, we no longer are able to see God face to face without dying.

    But thanks be to God that thanks to Christ, we will one day have heavenly bodies and dwell with our God and King in the new heavens and new earth!

    Finally God is God, between now and the Second Coming, He can still choose to reveal Himself selectively. As He did to Paul. As He did to the very disciples who you said could not recognise Him (in the end He DID reveal Himself). For I believe that whosoever sees Christ has seen God.

  13. Is God hidden or are we blind? Doesn’t God let us know in His word where He is? The poor, the outcasts, the stranger, the widow . . . I agree theologically with the concept of a hidden God (see Barth), I just don’t know if we let our theology get in the way.

    • Yes Jim. My point is that all those places where God reveals himself are strange and unnatural compared with what any of us might expect. He comes to us in disguise, seen only by the eyes of faith.