That God

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on November 20, 2016, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.

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 about the Greek philosopher Socrates or Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. 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 this crucified Jewish carpenter. It says:

“He is (not “He was” but “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.”

Now that’s the most amazing claim that ever was made for any human being. No such claims were ever made for Joseph Smith or George Fox or Plato or Socrates or even Mohammad or Buddha. But stranger still, it comes from a Jew, Paul of Tarsus, who was 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.

In the early chapters of Genesis God is a kind of friendly neighbor who drops by occasionally to see how things are going. 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 God gets more and more remote as the story goes on. God appears in a burning bush to Moses and then in a cloud to give the him the Ten Commandments while the people stand terrified at a distance. That early sense of closeness gradually disappears. Isaiah, centuries later, pictures God as being so high above the earth that the people appear like grasshoppers – but that’s the kind of view we ourselves might have these days as we come into any airport and look down at nearby suburban streets But glorythe sense of distance continued to grow and not long after Isaiah, Ezekiel had a vision in which he could only speak of “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God.” In his vision, he couldn’t see God, of course, or even the glory of God or the likeness of the glory of God but only the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God: a third-hand relationship.

Finally, Judaism became the religion in which there could be no image or likeness of God at all and in which the Name of God could not even be spoken. When they came to the four letters that represented the name of God it was never pronounced, instead the reader would say “Adonai” – “the Lord.” You know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if people today would regain that respect for the name of God, for the Third Commandment and not use God’s name so freely. Sometimes people do use the modern equivalent of the four sacred letters – except it’s now three – OMG. But more often not – and lightening doesn’t strike but the sense of reverence and holiness in the world is cheapened, diminished, lost. I’ve occasionally suggested that we could get just as much satisfaction by substituting the name of a department store for OMG. How about “Gimbels” or “Abercrombie and Fitch?”

Judaism took the 3rd commandment seriously and the distance between the creator and the created became so great it seemed impassable and that’s not necessarily good either. 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.”

I wonder whether some of you have been to Japan and have seen those red painted gates – torii – a simple frame opening maybe into a shrine compound in the cities but out in the countryside more often framing a view of a lake or a mountain or just a scene whose beauty seemed to contain some evidence of “kami” of the holiness in creation that can’t be contained in any very specific thing but can only be hinted at, pointed toward. And yet, you know, 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, It was said by people who were there. They were there when he was arrested and crucified and buried, and they went out saying, “This is what we ourselves saw.” “What our eyes have witnessed and our hands have handled” wrote St. John, “we declare to you.” Now, is that at all reasonable? Is it reasonable to believe that: that one human life could contain the fullness of God?

You know, that’s the quintessentiaI Anglican question, the kind of question mostly only Episcopalians ask: Is it reasonable? You can go to some churches your whole life and never hear anyone talk about reason. But we do. 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? I’m talking about the God of the scientists who tell us that there are 400 billion stars in our galaxy. But then, that’s just our galaxy and there are said to be 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe; (I didn’t do the math to figure out 170 billion times 400 billion but it’s a lot. I remember reading about an Eskimo language whose counting system goes: “One, two, many.”) That’s the number of stars and galaxies: many. 170 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, each with hundreds of billions of stars stretching out into space 13.8 billion light-years in all directions. That’s definitely “many” and probably that says it better than million and billion and trillion – which all sound alike to me. The only other time we need numbers like that is to talk about the national debt or Wall Street salaries.

So if you travel at the speed of light for 13.8 billion years you might – might, but who knows because no one has been there – you might come to the edge of the universe and then what? Then what? What would you see beyond that? But it’s that God, that Creator of that universe, we are talking about, that God who was present in Jesus. ls 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 Dalione vast impersonal swirl of power but empty of love, empty of response, empty of any 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 that Creator should be present in one specific human life than that that Creator should be vaguely present in all human life and it seems reasonable to me 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: it’s a way of saying that all human life has that capacity for God-ness, for relationship, for wholeness and holiness, and therefore for that God to dwell in us. And that’s wonderful, isn’t it? That’s wonderful. And it’s also 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: “The Force,” as they said in Star Wars. I’ve had young couples planning marriage tell me that they didn’t really know about God but they thought there was a sort of Force out there.

But that’s not what the gospel offers. What the gospel offers is a God beyond all knowing indeed, but somehow nevertheless “personal” truly known in human life, especially, uniquely, in Jesus, but also to some degree in Peter and Paul and John and Francis of Assisi and Thomas Cranmer and Samuel Seabury and Darren Minor and you and you and you. This is a God who could not possibly be contained in any human building, yet who can be present in this building yes, and in the very small piece of bread you receive this morning at the altar – think of that when the wafer is placed in your hand – the infinite God, present there, and, yes, even in you, even in me.

And then, you see, that 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 all of this brings us around by a rather long route to the subject of Harvest and Thanksgiving coming to a table near you this Thursday. I told someone I was thinking of dealing with themes like that this mornwheating and they said, “You need to remember that this is a city parish and pretty far removed from any ideas about Harvest.” Really? Does Thanksgiving bring to mind only the shelves full of canned and frozen food at Safeway? Do we never get far enough south to see the endless fields of Brussel Sprouts? Or appreciate how much the economy of this state and this nation depends on the harvest of fruits and vegetables in fields up and down the state?

But, you know, there’s a potential danger in any harvest festival because it’s a part of a natural rhythm of seed time and harvest, part of an annual circular pattern that goes around and comes around, unchanging year after year after year – well, except that we’re all a little older each time it comes around and around and around. And there’s nothing more deadly than a circle nothing more deadening than the same thing over and over again. Seen one turkey, you’ve seen ’em all.

You know, 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 something that small: just a good harvest, food enough for another year. 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 did nevertheless acquire some harvest festivals which they still celebrate and which we inherited from them. Passover and therefore Easter itself was closely connected to the first spring harvest and Pentecost too was a harvest festival. But Passover remained rooted in history: an event – an historic 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 once and for ever harvest of human lives brought into an eternal kingdom. That’s the beauty of harvest festival, of 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 this Jesus I’ve been talking about, this incarnation of the eternal Creator. not only came once but will come again, just once more at the end of time, and bring in a final harvest and sort out the good grain from the bad.

So, 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. One eternal beginning and one eternal everlasting 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, that Creator God beyond all imagining that God who was fully present in Jesus of Nazareth that God who died for us on a cross and that God in whom we also find the meaning and purpose of life.

1 Comment

Ed EastmanMarch 23rd, 2017 at 4:34 pm

Wow! I was taken by this sermon and have shared the link with my seminary students. I am doing some online teaching/mentoring in retirement. Lynn and I are now living in the Tampa area and enjoying milder weather. Have missed the luncheons we used to enjoy in Canaan-Salisbury-Sharon. Glad you are remaining active in ministry and pray God’s provision for your health. The Church is richer for you. Never forget your graciousness in welcoming me to the community 19 years ago!

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