Preaching the Absurdity of a Human God

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS/EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

When I was still in active full time parish ministry, I always celebrated Epiphany on the closest Sunday to January 6th. I was advised once (in a very disapproving tone) by one of my colleagues in ministry that this is not proper liturgical practice. Epiphany, he told me, is not a “movable” feast. Consequently, it ought to be celebrated with a separate mass on whichever day January 6th falls. That’s fine in theory. If I thought for one moment that my working members would take the day off, my teens would skip a day of school or that my elderly members would drive through the dark to a weekday service, I would gladly have done an additional Eucharist. But that was not about to happen and I was not about to exile Epiphany, a feast I consider critical to the church calendar, to a worship service no one would attend. So, I advised my learned colleague that Epiphany would be celebrated in my parish the coming Sunday and that he could sue me. (OK. I really said something more gracious and respectful, but to the same effect.) If you are of the same mind, I invite you to re-visit my post of January 3, 2015.

Of course, this need not be a binary choice between sticking to the lectionary or observing Epiphany. Sunday’s gospel from St. John presents a perfect opportunity for talking about the revealing of God’s glory in the person of Jesus Christ. I think that perhaps the best way to describe how John writes his gospel is aptly reflected in the words of John Steinbeck:

“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” John Steinbeck from his novel, Cannery Row.

Rather than relating the story of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a poem about the miracle of the Incarnation filled with many opposite, contrasting and complementary images that will be developed and brought into sharper focus throughout the following narrative. Light and darkness; being and nothingness; knowledge and ignorance; belief and unbelief; birth from flesh and birth from God. All of these images and terms will find further expression and deeper meaning as the story of Jesus unfolds. For now, though, they swim about together in the rich primordial soil of John’s imaginative lyrics. We must wait for them to ooze out and show themselves for what they truly are.

John begins with the declaration that the Word was both with God in the beginning and was God. This is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of God’s Word as “coming” and “accomplishing.” See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:2Isaiah 55:11. God is not merely as good as God’s Word. God is God’s Word. Yet even though the same as God, the Word is somehow distinguishable from God.

But then John goes on to tell us something really remarkable. “The Word became flesh.” The Word became a human person such that the invisible God is now visible. John goes on to speak of the enfleshed Word as God’s Son. It would seem that if we are going to say that God has a Son, it follows inevitably that there must be at least two gods. Yet John (along with the rest of the New Testament writers) maintains that God is one. The church struggled with this enormously counterintuitive confession from the onset as it forged its Trinitarian confession, rejecting numerous simplistic and more plausible alternative understandings along the way. At the heart of the Incarnation stands this one scandalous truth: God is visible and God is human. The Incarnation was not a temporary state into which God entered for a single lifetime. It was not merely a clever disguise. In Jesus, God became irrevocably human and remains so. That is why John can say in his First Letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20.

The inescapable conclusion is that to rend the flesh of another human being is to rend the flesh of God. To ridicule, excoriate or insult another human being is to blaspheme God. God cannot be harmed or insulted by the removal of a crèche or a cross from public lands, by disrespect for the Bible or by desecration of a sanctuary. Only by harming the persons created to bear God’s image and for whom the Son of God died can God’s self be injured. When that becomes clear, it is equally clear by how far much of what passes for Christianity these days misses the mark. Something is seriously out of whack when we grieve more over the removal of humanly designed plastic figures of Jesus from the park than we do for the homeless people created by God in God’s image who are still sleeping there.

One of the most significant words in this section is that word “dwelt” or “lived” as the New Revised Standard Version has it. Vs. 14. Both translations fall short of the actual Greek word “skaiano” which means literally to “tent with” or “tabernacle with.” The word conjures up images of the tent of presence in which God dwelt among the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. This powerful image of Jesus as God’s presence gets lost in the English translation!

There is far more that could be said about this section of John. Nearly every word in John’s gospel is freighted with meaning that accumulates like the mass of a snowball rolling downhill. For those of us who will be observing the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful. One might consider weaving the themes of Epiphany into the miracle of the Incarnation and the divine humanity of Jesus-as does the following hymn by Mechthild of Magdeburg.

We praise You, O Lord.
For you have sought us in your humility,
Saved us by your compassion,
Honored us by your humanity,
Led us by your gentleness,
Ordered us by your wisdom,
Protected us by your power,
Sanctified us by your holiness,
Illumined us by your intimacy,
Raised us by your love.

Source: The Flowing Light of the Godhead,  published in Mystics, Visionaries and Prophets: A Historical Anthology of Women’s Spiritual Writings, Madigan, Shawn ed., (c. Fortress Press, 1998). Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207-1282) was monastic and mystic born to a noble Saxon family. At age 12 she had the first of several visions. In 1230 she left her home renouncing all claim to wealth and privilege to join a Beguine order at Magdeburg. There she seems to have risen to a position of authority in the community. She became acquainted with the Dominicans and became a Dominican tertiary, studying many of the Dominican writers. It was her Dominican confessor, Henry of Halle, who encouraged and helped Mechthild to compose The Flowing Light. Mechthird’s criticism of church dignitaries and their religious laxity along with her claims to theological insight by reason of her visions aroused ecclesiastical opposition. Some clerics called for the burning of her writings. In old age Mechthird lost her sight and found herself alone and the object of much criticism. Around 1272, she joined the Cistercian nunnery at Helfta, where she was given protection and support in the last years of her life. You can read more about Mechthild of Magdeburg and sample more of her writings at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

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