Tuesday, October 06, 2009

We See Jesus
Ps. 8; Heb. 1:1; 2:5-12; Mk. 10:13-16[1]
One of the fundamental teachings of Scripture is that God is exalted far beyond our ability to grasp or conceive. Our Psalm for today puts it this way: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1). The language of the Hebrew Scriptures about this can be surprisingly concrete: one of the fundamental affirmations about God is that no one can “see God’s face” and live (Exodus 33:20). The language of John’s Gospel is even more blunt: “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18).
The reason Scripture speaks this way is because the God of the Bible is far beyond our ability to grasp or conceive. Theologians speak of God’s transcendence, or God’s inscrutability.[2] Job puts the problem more pragmatically: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10). What all these ways of speaking about God are referring to is God’s hiddenness.[3] I think most of us aren’t entirely comfortable with a God who remains hidden. We long for a sign, something tangible that we can hang our faith on. We all would like to be able to pull back the veil and take a peek. Writer of the letter to the Hebrews put it this way—“we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8)—meaning Jesus, as the Son of Man from Psalm 8. It is a reference to God’s hiddenness. We do not yet see God’s reign completed. We do not yet see all tears wiped away, all suffering and sickness and pain and injustice banished from humankind. We do not yet see all things made new.
But while God’s kingdom and God’s salvation remain inscrutable to us, we are not left completely in the dark. There is much we do not at present see that we might like to see, but the writer of Hebrews insists that “We see Jesus.” This is significant, because the basis for much of what Hebrews is about is the idea that Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3). He’s talking about the idea of the incarnation. Now, I realize that we may believe ourselves to be too sophisticated to think much of antiquated concepts like God being incarnate in a human being. But the concept of incarnation is not about the biology of where children come from. It is an affirmation that Jesus really and truly does show us what God is like. [4] We can look at Jesus, his life, his teaching, his mercy, his justice, and we can be confident that we are seeing a true image of God. Or as Hebrews puts it: Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.”[5]
And when we look at Jesus, what is it that we see? We see him embracing the ones nobody else would embrace. We see him confronting the religious people with the falseness of their self-righteousness. We see him forgiving sinners and restoring people to their right mind. We see him teaching people to follow the commandments by loving God whole-heartedly and loving others sincerely. And in today’s Gospel lesson we see Jesus telling people to be faithful to their spouses, and we see him welcoming little children.
Children are amazing. They are energy personified. They have the capacity to laugh, cry, dance, and shout—all without any inhibitions! As much as we love our children, however, we still have trouble really seeing them as human beings. After all, what do children do? When they’re not sleeping or eating, they play. Most of us adults know that we’re too busy to waste our precious time playing with children. But children won't take no for an answer when it comes to play. Our four-year-old niece Tyler is serious about playing. When she's not sleeping or eating, she's playing. We had breakfast with her and her parents yesterday, and we all had to take turns feeding her baby horse!
I wonder what we think Jesus did with those children when they came to him. The typical “Sunday School” image is of calm, smiling, obedient children simply gathered around him, admiring his presence. But we know that most children aren’t like that. They’re fidgety, they’re impulsive; they can actually speak out of turn and interrupt what’s going on! So I think we should conceive of Jesus interacting with real group of children—active, exuberant, noisy! And the more children, the more they are active, exuberant, and noisy! What do you do with a group of children like that? You don’t try to make them “be still” so you can teach them an important lesson. You jump right into the middle of the fray and play with them.
Is something so seemingly mundane really an aspect of what it means that Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being”? Surely it must be incidental, simply a part of the narrative “coloring” that keeps us interested in the really important stuff. But Jesus says that children define the character of what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom, God’s saving reign, God’s new creation.
What does that have to say about the character of the "hidden" God? Well, I think if God were to suddenly appear before us, what we would see is a kind and gentle person playing with little children! The other side of God’s transcendence is God’s immanence—the idea that God is always near, like the very air we breathe.[6] We need both.[7] That’s why we look to Jesus. Jesus reminds us that God’s love is so vast that we cannot possibly begin to conceive it. But he also reminds us that God’s love is as accessible to us all as the kindness of someone who freely and joyfully plays with children.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/4/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] The traditional way of affirming this is creatio ex nihilo, the idea that God created all things out of nothing. Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 74-75.
[3] Cf. especially Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:179-204. See also Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 60-63.
[4]Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 114-118, says that the incarnation is part of the “eternally self-communicating love of God” that constitutes not simply an “emergency measure” to deal with sin, but rather the “foundation of the new creation,” or the “perfecting of creation.”
[5] Cf. Moltmann, God in Creation, 94-95; cf. John 14:9, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
[6] See Moltmann Trinity, 39, 104-5; Moltmann, God in Creation, 9, 13-14, 15-17, 258; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 161; Paul Tillich, “Spiritual Presence,” in The Eternal Now, 86-87. Lest we jettison transcendence entirely in favor of immanence, Moltmann reminds us that “A world without transcendence is a world in which nothing new can happen. It is the world of the eternal return of the same thing” (God in Creation, 163).
[7] Isa. 57:15 remains the classic statement: “For thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Richard Elliott Friedman, The Hidden Face of God, 105, captures this well when he says, “The Hebrew Bible pictures a God who is the most hidden of deities and yet the most personal.” Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God, 25-48, articulates the balance between transcendence and immanence in dialogue with Karl Rahner in terms of “the infinitely incomprehensible holy mystery of God” that grows “ever greater” in our understanding and at the same time draws “ever nearer.” cf. also Berkhof, Christian Faith, 115;


Unknown said...

I found your treatment of this weeks texts to be very helpful and thought provoking and thank you for the good work you do, Moltmann & Barth are on my list of those who have influenced my development as well, keep up the good thoughtful thinking and preaching, thanks, Pastor Ron Gregg ELCA

Alan Brehm said...

Thanks, Ron!