When Up Comes Down
“God’s up there.” The Sheriff of Nottingham gestured vaguely towards the sky. “I’m down here.” Dirty light flickered off the stained glass window. Other than the Sheriff and the friar (and possibly the lurking Cardinal), the cathedral was empty—not a sacred solitude, but a cinematic accentuation of the vacancy of the deity Friar Tuck claimed to serve. No transcendent deity would descend to rescue the friar from the wrath of the bloodthirsty villain. The church building might remain open, but Heaven is closed.
The 2018 remake of Robin Hood is, to put it bluntly, anything but high or engaging cinematic art; but archetypes embedded in the human psyche bubble to the surface no matter how deep or shallow the waters of the story may be. The immediacy of the darkness is as tangible as the Sheriff’s grip on the friar, the churchman’s hope as weak as the rosary that is cut from his neck later in the film. In a morbid twist of fate, the Sheriff meets his end by hanging aloft in the cathedral. He, it seems, is now “up there,” and it is Robin Hood and his friends who burst from an underground tunnel to liberate Nottingham. The transcendent deity, if he exists at all, is either away on a journey, sleeping, or too disinterested in human affairs to be bothered with the bloodbath of life the film attempts to address. Like the attempt to win back Nottingham, though, this narrative fails to address the heart of the issue, and in so doing completely misses the target.
This is not a new failure. The Chaldeans tell Nebuchadnezzar, a king troubled by a dream, that “no one can show [the dream and its meaning] to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (Dan. 2:11). Solomon, praying at the dedication of the temple, exclaims, “But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” (2 Chron. 6:18). Philip, one of the twelve disciples, says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8).
No, it isn’t a new failure—but it also isn’t an exclusively ancient one. Wars, rumors of wars, poverty, disease, disasters (both natural and interpersonal), and every other kind of trauma are terribly immanent and imminent today. Maybe the apartment of the Man Upstairs is soundproofed. Maybe that’s why our screams return to our own ears. Or maybe he just isn’t able or willing to do anything, a distracted relative at a holiday gathering who isn’t really present even if he’s in the same room with us.
We look for the face of God in our souls or in the skies and are surprised to find our own reflection staring back at us. At the heart of so many human fears is the terror of being alone. Perhaps that is why we search the universe for any signs of outside life and check our social media accounts obsessively, bury ourselves in work and drown ourselves in hobbies. If God’s up there and we’re down here, we have at least two options: one, we can become a Giving Tree and martyr ourselves in the name of reforming the world to whatever standard we think is best; and two, we can eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow—if not sooner—we die. Our new orthodoxy is not “how can we be face to face with God ‘til we have faces” (C.S. Lewis) but “if God is there, he is faceless—therefore ‘I am, and there is no one else’” (Zeph. 2:15).
But God was not content to leave us empty.
In Isaiah 7, The LORD—Yahweh, the God of covenantal love, I AM—spoke to a pagan king, “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” The disbelieving Ahaz refused, covering himself in a cloak of false piety by demurring, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” The LORD sees through His façade, answering, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The Lutheran Study Bible notes these verses contain both Law and Gospel in this promise: “This Name reflects both salvation and judgment… thus ‘Immanuel’ functions as Law or Gospel” (1101).
The God of eternity has a face that has been revealed to us, the face that both Mary and Judas would kiss. The Law we could not fulfill, Immanuel kept—and the One who is with us was utterly forsaken by the Father in order to atone for the sins of the world. The terror of having God With Us—we who reek of sin and death—was removed as Immanuel hung on the tree and ascended from the tomb. For the sake of His life, death, and resurrection, we do not fear the return of the King, who will come again in judgment. Because of Immanuel, we can confidently say that our judgment was accomplished on the Friday we call Good.
Though Christ has ascended into the highest Heaven, He is still Immanuel. We typically think of Immanuel as the “Advent” or “Christmas” Name of Christ, something we may consider a month or two out of the year. Yet His Name didn’t expire after the time He dwelled bodily on the Earth He created. He is and evermore shall be God With Us: though we await His second physical Advent, He is still fully human and fully present in His Word and Sacraments. The LORD, Yahweh, the Great I AM, is with us always. He is the living and active Word Incarnate (Heb. 4:12, John 1:14). The Spirit pours love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) and intercedes for us before the Father (Rom. 8:26-27).
Jesus Christ is God With Us of the past, present, and future. Because He came down to us and rose again, we who are covered by His blood will one day rise and behold Him face to face. O come, O come, Immanuel, Alleluia.