When I lived for a year in Asia as a graduate student, I adopted a few personal disciplines. One was to read the Bible cover to cover. As I read, I began looking for obscure phrases, hidden scriptural nuggets.
Whenever one captured my imagination, I jotted it in the back of my Bible. In preparation for this holy season, I revisited that list a few weeks ago, ignored over the decades. That day, I discovered a forgotten line from Hosea 11. Its four penciled words: “They did not realize.”
I wondered. Who did not realize? And what did they not realize?
As I looked at the sentences surrounding that line, I discovered the who was the people of God. So obsessed with cultural concessions and national distractions, these Israelites became confused, angry, rebellious, divided and depressed, devoid of joy. Hosea wrote to these people when life was hard for them.
But what did they not realize? The what was the Lord himself. Following those words, “they did not realize,” are God’s words, “it was I.” In all of their wanderings and confusion, fear and anxiety and joylessness, God was saying he’s been there all along.
Even though they didn’t realize it. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself in a similar place today. In the modern trials and tribulations of our world, my ability to find joy is murky at times.
There’s no better time than Christmas to get reacquainted with the nearness of God, the Prince of Peace, and the Savior of the world.
When our kids were young, we’d read to them “The Chronicles of Narnia,” C.S. Lewis’ wonderful books about the lion Aslan, representing an image of Jesus Christ. “The Horse and His Boy” is my favorite of the stories.
A scene in that book reminds me of Hosea 11. A boy named Shasta is alone with his horse in the dark woods feeling sorry for himself because so many things have not gone his way. Lost and wandering, feeling empty and tired, he’s not sure which direction to go, tears brimming. Feeling a bit like the rest of us, sometimes.
Walking in his lostness and self-pity, he hears a noise nearby. It’s night, pitch dark and cold. You can imagine the fright of this young boy hearing a sound near him, footsteps and panting … like a Stephen King novel.
Someone or something was near him, but Shasta couldn’t see and grew more terrified by the moment. From the heaviness of the breathing, he knew it was a large fearful creature. He remembered something he once heard, that in this strange country giants roamed, terrifying the boy even more. At that point he felt the creature even closer, its hot breath, its cold hand. He could bear it no longer.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
The voice that replied was that of Aslan, “I was the lion.”
“I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept … I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death.”
Aslan had been with Shasta all along. He had been saving him from calamity. He had been watching over him when vulnerable. Though he did not realize it, Aslan protected him and provided for him and had compassion on him.
So it is at Christmas. We are reminded that Emmanuel, Christ the newborn King, God is always with us. Even when we don’t realize it.
Like a relentless hound of heaven — as one poet writes — Christ pursues us with an everlasting love longing to see us rescued from bleakness and despair. All along — even in our own heartaches — God in Christ is there with us, even when we did not realize it. This is the good news of Christmas. It is the good news of every day for all who would hear. Joy is coming.
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means God with us.” (Matthew 1:23).