8 Pentecost: 22 July 2007
(Amos 8:1-12/Psalm 52/Colossians 1:15-28/Luke 10:38-42)
God as you understand him / God as he is
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Alcoholics Anonymous (A. A.) wants you to believe in a Power greater than yourself, to accept that only that Power can restore you to sanity. God, the name they give to this higher Power, is central to the program and to the alcoholic’s recovery. Not that A. A. is very picky about God; any one will do provided you make a decision to turn your will and life over to the care of God as you understand him. No matter that the Twelve Step program actually implies a certain understanding of God – a God who relates to people, who hears confession and removes shortcomings and defects of character, who has a will for each individual, who makes that will known through prayer and meditation, and who empowers the alcoholic to carry out His will – officially A. A. is non-discriminatory: God as you understand him/her/it will do (http://www.aa.org.au/factfile/fact_file_twelve_steps.php?nav=mb, accessed 7/16/07).
Now, don’t get me wrong. A. A. is a highly successful recovery program and the church could take some lessons from them about community and accountability. I applaud their efforts. But this God as you understand him business? Well, that’s just not the church. We have funny ideas about such things. We don’t really care about God as you understand him; in fact we’re a little suspicious that your understanding of God is at least partly responsible for your life spinning out of control. No. We’re going to tell you how to understand God. We’re going to tell you who God is and who God is not, so you can winnow out all the false understandings and false gods you create and society offers. You can’t kneel with us or eat with us and understand God to be Allah or Vishnu or some nameless, faceless, cosmic Principle. The church isn’t really interested in political correctness in that sense. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists may all be wrong in their understandings of God – but only one can possibly be right. The church is that one; so we believe. We respect the adherents of other faiths, or even of no faith. We believe there is much good in what they teach and in how they live. But we believe they are wrong in some fundamental ways when it comes to their understanding of God. And that matters. How you understand God matters. The success and value of A. A. notwithstanding, God as you understand him just won’t do – not for the church. We’re much more concerned – solely concerned – with God as he is. Much of the sacred story we call the Bible is a revelation of this God as he is.
God is a bush, the story tells us – or a flame of fire, or a voice, or all three in a way that Moses didn’t quite understand. The sight of a bush blazing but not consumed caught his attention and he turned aside to see it. And the voice spoke from it: “I am God as you understand me to be, a Power greater than yourself. Go to Egypt.” Well, of course not; that’s not the story the church tells. The voice spoke all right, spoke a word of revelation telling Moses how to understand God. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Ex 3:6, 10, NRSV). And with these words, the Voice connected itself to a story, to a history, to a covenant – to a very particular understanding of God. But even that wasn’t enough for Moses. If he was going to risk his life returning to Egypt, if he was expected to take on single-handedly a major world power, he wanted to understand exactly who this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was – who this God was for him. God as you understand him isn’t good enough for such challenges; only God as he is will do.
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever,
and this is my title for all generations’(Ex 3:13-15, NRSV).
So, armed with this new understanding of God – God’s name – Moses went to Egypt. There, through plague and pestilence and death and deliverance, God continued to reveal his identity to Moses, to deepen Moses’ understanding of God as he is. Standing on the far side of the Red Sea, with Egypt behind and the land of promise before, Moses sang what he had learned of God, what God had revealed himself to be.
I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted;
the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my refuge;
the Lord has become my Savior.
This is my God and I will praise him,
the God of my people and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a might warrior;
Yahweh is is Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea;
the finest of those who bear armor have been
drowned in the Red Sea.
The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them;
they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might;
your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy.
Who can be compared with you, O Lord, among the gods?
who is like you, glorious in holiness,
awesome in renown, and worker of wonders?
You stretched forth your right hand;
the earth swallowed them up.
With your constant love you led the people you redeemed;
with your might you brought them in safety to
your holy dwelling.
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mount of your possession,
The resting-place you have made for yourself, O Lord,
the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hand has established.
The Lord shall reign
for ever and for ever (The Song of Moses, BCP 85).
And there was more to come: a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to lead the Israelites to Sinai and beyond; manna and quail from heaven and water from a rock to sustain them on the way; a mountain covered in thick cloud and smoke, rumbling from the fiery presence of God; the Law. This is God – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob -- I am who I am, not God as Israel had always understood him, but God as he is, as he revealed himself to be.
Even so, Moses was not content. As he prepared to lead Israel away from Sinai,
Moses said [to the Lord], ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “the Lord”; and I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen’ (Ex 33:18-23, NRSV).
First God’s name – YHWH, I am who I am – then the merest glimpse of the back of his glory: that was enough for a while. This self-revelation sustained the Israelites through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. In the generations to follow God revealed much more of himself to his people through the prophets; God seems to want to be understood as he is. But never, never did he reveal himself fully. His full glory remained hidden behind the curtain of the Most Holy Place first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. God was known only in part. God was invisible. Immortal, invisible God only wise / in light inaccessible hid from our eyes: the hymn sings the truth.
Yet, partly known is partly unknown. Partly known leaves ample room for us to worship God as we understand him instead of God as he is. And that won’t do. So God, who relentlessly reveals himself to creation, takes the initiative as always, takes the next step – an unprecedented step of full disclosure.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 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 1:1, 14, 18, NRSV).
God became flesh and pitched his tent right here among us – moved into the neighborhood, as Eugene Peterson translates this passage – so that we might see him face to face, hear his voice, touch him, eat with him – so that we might know God as he is. And God as he is is Jesus. God as you understand him can be…well, anything you want, anything your imagination can conceive. But God as he is…well, God as he is is Jesus. And, of course, this specificity, this concreteness, is irritating to those who would prefer the ambiguity and freedom of God as you understand him. If Jesus is not God as you understand him, then you don’t understand him.
Paul drives this point home to the Colossian Christians. He sings to them – or rather, he quotes from an early hymn of the church extolling the supremacy of Christ. Before Jesus we could only sing, Immortal, invisible God only wise / in light inaccessible hid from our eyes. Now, Paul leads us in a new song.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers –
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of the cross (Col 1:15-20, NRSV).
This song is overwhelming in its revelation of God. God has uncovered the cleft of the rock and we have beheld the fullness of his glory. God has torn the temple’s curtain in two from top to bottom and has unleashed his glory into the world. And that glory is Jesus.
He is the image of the invisible God: hos estin eikon tou Theou aopatou-- Jesus is the icon of God. Icons have a checkered history in the church. Always fearful of idolatry, always aware of the prohibition on graven images, some in the early church opposed the use of icons in worship. They rightly understood that an icon is more than art, more than just another picture. But they were wrong in fearing that. An icon is a window into the reality it represents. An icon is a revelation. An icon – one truly written – reveals its subject not as we understand it to be, but as it is. Jesus – the Word truly written – is the icon of God: the perfect image, the perfect window into reality, the perfect revelation of God. Jesus is God full-out, nothing lacking, nothing held back: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19, NRSV).
What does this mean for us? It means that Jesus – God as he is – is the corrective for all the false God as you understand him notions that we hold so dear, the true north of the God as you understand him compass. It means that we cannot understand God apart from Jesus. What God is Jesus is. What Jesus is God is. Every notion we have of God must be laid alongside Jesus.
It means that we need no longer speak in the abstract – in fact we can no longer speak in the abstract: truth, justice, sin, mercy, judgment – all these abstract concepts that theologians love to debate and we love to quibble about – become concrete in Jesus. It means that we can – we must – say, “Don’t talk to me of God’s will in the abstract. Show it to me in Jesus.” TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation) builds fences around interstate overpasses and places large rocks under viaducts in order to keep the homeless from camping there. Each day the Knoxville police dismantle these homeless camps and move their residents out. All the while our city administration admits that Knoxville does not have adequate facilities to house or care for our poor. What are Christians to make of this? We can argue this in the abstract – law, justice, mercy, and the like – or we can look to Jesus, to Jesus who said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24, NRSV). We can wax philosophical with platitudes like, “God helps those who help themselves,” or we can look to Jesus who fed the hungry, healed the sick, ate with sinners, helped those who could not help themselves – which, of course, includes all of us. Don’t you just hate this? We can’t speculate about God anymore. We can’t worship God as we understand him. We can’t create God in our own image. No. We have Jesus – God as he is. We have Jesus – the image of the invisible God.
Jesus, the image, the icon of God, is more than a bust, more than a face: the head has a body. The church is that body: “He is the head of the body, the church,” Paul writes. Just as Jesus shares the life and nature of God, we share the life and nature of Jesus – “provided [we] continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel” (Col 1:23a, NRSV). As Jesus is to the church the icon of God, the church must be to the world the icon of Jesus. And this is our great challenge – to refuse to be Jesus as the world understands him or Jesus as the world wants him, but to be Jesus as he is: Jesus for whom the world had no room, relegated to the barn, to the manger; Jesus, friend of prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, and sinners and scandal to the self-righteous, the religious, the pure; Jesus rejected, betrayed, crucified; Jesus pouring out his love and his life for the estranged and the hostile and the evil so that they – we – might be reconciled in his fleshly body through death and presented holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. Yes, this is Jesus as he is and the Church as it must be.
The world worships gods that they little understand. They need God as he is as revealed in Jesus Christ and as made flesh and blood in a church created in his image.
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