The God Who Comes

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on    November 21, 2010, by Christopher L. Webber.

A long time ago there was a young man who lived In Israel who worked many years as a carpenter and then began to preach. For maybe three years he wandered around the countryside teaching people and drawing quite a following, but then he made the mistake of going to Jerusalem and upsetting the authorities. So he was arrested and tortured and killed.

It’s not, by and large, a very unusual story. Similar stories might be told of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, or maybe of Mohammed. But while the Gospel today tells us something about events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the epistle we read this morning, written only twenty years later at the most, makes the most extraordinary claims about him. It says:

“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 fullnes of God was pleased to dwell.”

Now that’s the most amazing claim that ever was made for a human being. No such claims were ever made for Joseph Smith or George Fox or even Mohammed. But stranger still, it comes from a Jew, Paul of Tarsus, educated in the best Jewish schools in a faith that had for at least fifteen hundred years been drawing a wider and wider line of separation between human beings and God.

Early in the Book of Genesis you find God walking in the garden and looking for Adam, and a little later on you find God stopping in to have dinner with Abraham, but then you have God appearing in a cloud to give the Commandments to Moses while the people stand at a distance. Isaiah, centuries later, pictures God as being so high above the earth that the people appear like grasshoppers. and after that, still later, Ezekiel has a vision in which he can only speak of the “appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.”

Judaism became the religion in which no image or likeness of God could ever be made and in which the Name of God could not be spoken and the distance between the Creator and the created was so great it seemed impassable.

It seems to me there’s a lot in common between that understanding of God and the vision of contemporary science which also pictures a universe so immense that a God who created it and stayed outside it would be so remote as to be beyond all knowing. When Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem he prayed, saying, “Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built.” But almost two thousand years ago one small group of Jews began to claim that indeed one human life had contained “all the fullness of God.”

Now, if that were a claim made by people who hadn’t known him, or if that were a claim developed by theologians centuries later, I would reject it out of hand.  But it wasn’t. It was said by people who knew him, who were there when he was arrested and crucified and buried, and who went out saying, “We were eye witnesses.”  “What our eyes have witnessed and our hands have handled,” wrote St. John,”we declare to you.”

Is that at all reasonable? That’s the quintessential Anglican question, the kind of question Episcopalians ask: Is it reasonable to think that the Creator of quarks and spiral nebulae and black holes and infinite distance would be present in one brief human life? Is it reasonable to believe that? Yes. Yes, it is. For why would a Creator indulge himself or herself with the creation of infinite space if it were all one vast impersonal swirl of power but empty of love, or response, or an intelligence able to understand at least in part and respond in “wonder, love, and praise?”

In fact, it seems to me, it’s less unlikely that the Creator should be present in one human life than that the Creator should be present in all human life and that that one human life, the life of Jesus, should be not totally different from any other but rather a summing up, a clarification, a simultaneous showing of all that God is and all that we – everyone of us – might be. To say that all the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus is to say something about ourselves also: that human life has that capacity for God-ness, for relationship, for wholeness and holiness. And that’s wonderful.  And it’s frightening.

It would be much more comfortable to settle for something less, a remote, unknowable God basically indifferent to us and uninvolved in our lives. But that’s not what the gospel offers.  It offers instead a God beyond all knowing indeed, but somehow nevertheless truly known in human life, especially in Jesus, but also in Peter and Paul and John and Francis of Assisi and Thomas Cranmer and Samuel Seabury and Ian Douglas and you and me. This is a God who could not possibly be contained in any human building, yet can be present in this building and in the small piece of bread we receive at the altar rail and even in you and in me. And that potential relationship gives a purpose to the whole of creation.

The Creator is a God who loves, who seeks a response, and who made us for that purpose.  And that brings us around by a rather long route to the subject of Harvest Festival and Thanksgiving Day. There’s a potential danger in any harvest festival because it’s a part of a natural rhythm of seedtime and harvest, part of an annual circular pattern that goes around and comes around, unchanging year after year after year. And there’s nothing more deadly than a circle; nothing more deadening than the same thing over and over again.

When the Hebrew people came into the land of Canaan they found people there who were fixated on harvests. They worshiped gods who could bring them a good harvest and nothing more, gods without any purpose greater than a good crop this autumn. And a great deal of the Old Testament is the story of the conflict between the God of the Bible and the gods of Canaan: the God who works in history versus the gods who work in nature. And the people were constantly tempted to settle for a good harvest, and the prophets were constantly threatening, urging, warning, that these gods were too small and basically not worth the trouble.  But out of the process the Jews acquired some harvest festivals, and connected them to events in their history, and we inherited those festivals from them. Passover, the Exodus from Egypt,  itself was closely connected to the first spring harvest and Pentecost, celebrating the giving of the law, was also connected to a harvest festival. But Passover remained rooted in history, an event in which God had been clearly at work, and the prophets continued to point toward a future, a future fulfillment of God’s purpose in history, a Messiah and a Messianic age, and a harvest of a very different sort: a harvest of human lives brought into an eternal kingdom.

That’s the beauty of Harvest Festival, Thanksgiving, coming at the end of the Christian Year. Yes, Christmas is coming and all that, one more time, but the tragedy of the department stores and all those who skip Advent and move right on from Thanksgiving to Christmas is that they leave out the weeks that put it in perspective, that remind us that Christ not only came once but will come again, at the end of time, and bring in a final harvest and sort out the good grain from the bad.

Yes, the world goes around and around, winter and summer and planting and harvest, but the Judaeo-Christian insight is that far more importantly it is going somewhere also – going forward in a straight line with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Creator beyond all knowing has come here to be known and to call us to a life as far beyond this as the Creator is beyond the creation. The Epistle and Gospel today go together and tell us about that God, the one who died for us on a cross and in whom all the fullness of God was present and in whom we also find the meaning and purpose of life.

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