Two years ago, I taught a Sunday school class to the preschoolers at my church that was meant to walk them through the narrative of the Old Testament over the course of a year. Of course, what that meant was that we spent more time than any preschooler is really interested in discussing wandering in the desert.
Every week, we’d tell some story of God’s great care for his people, how he provided manna in the desert, how he parted the red sea, how he delivered them from enemy after enemy or broke down the walls of Jericho, and every week the little ones would gasp in wonder and then roll their eyes and say, “and then the Israelites forgot again, didn’t they.”
Because that’s how the story goes, again and again and again. God provides for his people in miraculous ways, as he always has and continues to do, and his people forget. We turn to closer gods, gods we can see- just as the Israelites did. They turned to golden calves and asherah poles, I tend to turn to power and money and control (which might be the same thing, really).
The first problem for God’s people was that he was too far away. He was not a god they could see or understand, and that made him forgettable.
But they knew that was no excuse, or at the very least, they were reminded when the consequences for their sin left them wandering and homeless, broken and isolated. Then, as my Sunday schoolers would say, “They say they’re sorry and God forgives them. Just like always.” And it’s true- we see this cycle throughout the Old Testament. God’s people forget their ever-present yet far-away God and worship something closer and smaller. God punishes them for their turning away, and the people remember that they are His people. They remember that they are but dust and beg God’s mercy, yet again, and yet again he provides it.
It was a predictable cycle, and one I am still familiar with today. Because the second problem for God’s people is that we are sinful. Our sin is the source and the driving force behind this cycle of forgetting and brokenness, and we don’t deserve a God who forgives 70×7 times and more.
God saw the world that he had made and the cycle of sin and repentance his people were stuck in- and he sent his son to redeem it.
The first reason we need Jesus is because we need to see and touch God. The Israelites turned to other gods because they were right in front of their face. Jesus came to earth to be right in front of our faces. Jesus came and touched the Israelites and held their babies, healed their sick, ate their food, and showed them who God had been all along.
Jesus came so that we could perceive God in a way that we can almost understand. He was closer and more powerful than Baal, more beautiful and valuable than gold. And for a brief moment in history, God was so near that he couldn’t be ignored by those in relationship with him.
What a beautiful redemption of our forgetfulness- to step into our sensory world and remind us.
The second reason we need Jesus is to show us that God believes humanity is worth saving. Jesus didn’t become a rabbit or tree or even an angel. Jesus took on human form. We are not so terrible that God would not become one of us. Jesus coming as a human told us one more thing about humanity: it is good to be human. Jesus made it good to be human by becoming human. We need to repent, yes, but we are not beyond saving. We are not the scum of the earth, so broken and disgusting that God cannot even look on us. God became one of us. What more perfect redemption of our sinfulness could there be?
The incarnation is as important as the resurrection in God’s redemption story. Jesus came near, so near as to be one of us.
May we remember our tangible and humble Emmanuel, even as we pack up the Christmas tree and prepare our hearts for lent. God was one of us, God is with us, God will never leave us.