One of the difficulties I sometimes encounter in my work is dealing with people who have rather funny ideas in their heads about what God is like. They may, indeed, be quite clever in other areas of their lives, but when it comes to God, they are unsophisticated: they often completely stopped thinking about God in their teens, when they discovered girls or boys.
So, if you were to push them, and ask them what they think God is like, they would dress it up a bit – but, what they’d come out with is a sort of ‘Spitting Image’ version of God: an old man, with a long white beard, sitting high on a cloud. The old man is quite grumpy and bad-tempered – indeed, vengeful – and perhaps it is best not to catch his eye – for he is perfectly capable of sending a thunderbolt – zap! – to fry up anyone who has displeased him.
The trouble with this nasty-old-man-on-a-cloud picture of God is that it couldn’t be more wrong. Such a warped idea of God won’t raise up our minds and inspire us to do great, creative or loving things. Nor will it comfort and reassure us when we are perplexed, or the bottom has fallen out of our world.
So, what is God actually like? How should we picture Him in our mind’s eye? For a minute, let me take you on a journey. Let’s imagine this church is like a sort of flying carpet. It takes off, carries us through the air, and deposits us in Manger Square, Bethlehem. Straight ahead of us is a big and somewhat neglected old church, originally built by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor.
We duck down – the church door is quite low – inside, there are rows of pillars in front of us. At the far end is the altar. We walk along, and to the right, just behind the altar, we find some steps going down. Now, we have to concentrate, for the stone steps have been worn uneven by the feet of many pilgrims over seventeen centuries. At the bottom, we find ourselves in a room, slightly bigger than my study. This is the grotto of the Nativity. It is a sort of cave. Before the church was built, the famous inn, where Mary and Joseph took shelter, was above it. There is a stone altar to one side, and beneath it is a silver gilt star saying that this is where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born.
Jesus’ skin was probably a sort of olive colour. He would have had black hair and probably brown eyes. Like any other baby, he was sick, needed changing, winding, and his nose had to be wiped. And sometimes he cried, and sometimes he smiled. He was in every respect just like you and me, except that he was without sin. If we want to picture God in our mind’s eye, we should forget the grumpy old man on a cloud, and start to think carefully and seriously for a minute about the baby born of Mary in Bethlehem.
Our life as men and women here on planet earth is a great mixture: there are good, wonderful and happy bits; sometimes life can be a bit dull or boring; we all suffer at times from pain, evil, and sin – our own sins, and other people’s sins. Jesus, the Son of God, was born of Mary – perfect God and perfect man – so that he could share this great mixture of life on earth with us. At the end of his life, on the Cross and in the Resurrection, Jesus dealt with the pain, and sin, and evil for all eternity, and opened the way to Heaven for all of us.
I was thinking the other day about the coming of Jesus Christ, and a most unexpected word popped into my head: respect. Think how God must respect us human beings. We usually think of respect the other way round – that we ought to show respect towards God. But for a moment, try reversing the idea. God respects us men and women – His children. He doesn’t squash us, or force us, or try to twist our arms. God sent His only Son to live alongside us. You couldn’t get a bigger sign of love and respect than God sending His only son as a vulnerable baby.
So, when it comes to images of God, let us forget the grumpy, bearded old man on a cloud, and think instead of the baby born in Bethlehem. For our part, Jesus wants us to love him and trust him; to use poetic language, Jesus wants us to open our hearts and bid him step in.
As the great St Augustine once put it: Jesus came down to earth, so that he might raise man up to Heaven.