Thursday, May 20, 2010

What Does God Look Like?

What does God look like?  An old man with a beard?  Or perhaps you see God more like a mighty warrior or judge?  An ominous cloud of fire and smoke?  An indescribable and overwhelming light?

It seems Philip is looking for something along those lines in John 14 when he says "Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us."  This seems an honorable request on Philip's part.  It is not unlike Moses' request in Exodus 33.  But Jesus is extremely disappointed in Philip's request because it shows that Philip has not yet understood who Jesus is.  Jesus says "Have I been so long with you and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip?  He who has seen Me has seen the Father."

Earlier in John's Gospel, Jesus is teaching in the temple courts.  The scribes and the Pharisees interrupt Jesus' teaching by dragging in a woman caught in adultery.  They say to Jesus "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman; what then do You say?"  This is a litmus test of Jesus' orthodoxy.  It is a way for the religious leaders to put Jesus in a difficult position to see if he really follows God's law.  The crowd Jesus has been teaching is waiting to see what he will do.  Will Jesus condone the stoning to death of this woman or will he go against the law of Moses?  But Jesus sees that the woman's sins are not the only ones that need to be dealt with here and he says "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."  And one by one all of the woman's accusers walked away, leaving her alone with Jesus who said to her "'Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?'  She said 'No one, Lord.'  And Jesus said 'I do not condemn you either.  Go. From now on sin no more.'"  Philip says "Lord, show us the Father."  Jesus says "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

Later in John's gospel, a close friend of Jesus is sick, very sick.  The friend's sister sends people to find Jesus and they ask him to come heal his friend so that he won't die.  Jesus says that his friend's sickness will not end in death but a couple days later this friend dies.  Upon arriving at his friend's tomb, John tells us that Jesus wept.  While Jesus is weeping for his dead friend, others are standing by saying to themselves "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?"  Jesus instructs those who are present to remove the stone that seals the tomb to which they protest "Lord, by this time there will be a stench for he has been dead for four days".  Nevertheless, they remove the stone and Jesus calls out to his friend Lazarus and Lazarus, who had been dead, walks out of the tomb alive.  Philip says "Lord, show us the Father."  Jesus says "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

Sometime before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus and the disciples were sharing a meal together.  After the meal, Jesus took a towel and a basin of water and began to wash the disciples feet.  This was a regular practice in the ancient world...but it was the regular practice of servants, not of teachers and people of status, not of someone who had disciples.  It was the disciples who should have been washing Jesus' feet.  But Jesus insists upon taking this lowly position upon himself even though he is their teacher and their savior.  Philip says "Lord, show us the Father."  Jesus says "He who has seen me has seen the Father."

You want to know what God looks like?  Look at the compassion and mercy that Jesus shows to an adulterous woman while he also shows those who think of themselves as righteous that they are not as spotless as they might think.  You want to see God?  Look at the one who can not only heal the sick but also raise the dead.  You want to know the heartbeat of the God who created and sustains the entire universe?  Look at the teacher who holds the towel and the basin.  If you want to know God, look at Jesus.

But that is perhaps not the most remarkable truth of this week's sermon text.  Jesus goes on to say "I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also and greater works than these he will do."  Jesus says that his followers will do even greater things than he did during his time on earth.  Want to see God?  Jesus says "Look at my followers."  This isn't because Jesus' followers are perfect.  Like anyone else, we are broken, corrupted, painfully inadequate, sinful people.  Jesus can say this because of what he goes on to say in verses 16 and 17.  Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to his followers.  This Spirit is the one that enables us to do the the things that Jesus did; to forgive with mercy and compassion, to find life where others see only death, to take upon ourselves lowly positions of service and humility, to reveal the heart of our heavenly father in everything that we do.  After all, this is what we say every week in our church; that "we are called to be a community that is faithful image of God's love."  Our task, our calling as the Church is nothing short of revealing our heavenly Father.

We throw around the titles "Christian" and "Church" and "follower of Jesus" pretty loosely sometimes.  But we should not take too lightly what we are saying when we call ourselves those things.  By calling ourselves the Church, we are saying nothing short of this; "If you want to know God, look at us."  Such a statement would be blasphemous, heretical, and down right arrogant if we didn't also believe that the only reason we could say such a thing is because on Pentecost God poured out his Holy Spirit so that anyone who chooses to can be re-shaped by that Spirit into the image of God.  We should not call ourselves "Christian" or "the Church" unless we are willing to allow this Spirit to have full reign in our lives, for to call ourselves "Christian" without allowing the Spirit to work in us is to misrepresent God.  But if we are willing to let the Spirit of God reign in us wholly and completely then we can rejoice that this Spirit can make us into the holy people that God has called us to be.  Pentecost is the promise that we can indeed be a community that is faithful image of God's love.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Click on this sentence and read Revelation 22:12-21.

How do you respond to that passage?  How do the repeated statements concerning Christ's coming make you feel?

"Behold I am coming quickly...."

"The Spirit and the Bride say, 'Come'.  And let the one who hears say, 'Come'.  And let the one who is thirsty come..."

He who testifies to these things says, 'Yes, I am coming quickly.' Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus."

Do your heart and voice echo those statements?  Do you think to yourself "Yes, Lord Jesus, come soon!  What is taking you so long?"  Or is it more like "Whoa!  Wait a minute!  What's the rush?  Jesus doesn't need to come quite yet."  Or maybe it is some mix of the two.

Perhaps it is not wise to make too much of one's emotional reaction to a passage of scripture.  Then again, perhaps John is trying to provoke our emotions to help us see where we really stand.  Either way, I found my own internal reaction to this passage to be interesting as I read it this morning.  There was undoubtedly a sense of hesitancy within me, a sense in which I did not share John's eager anticipation for Jesus to come.  This was rather strange for me since I often preach about this coming kingdom, spend my life encouraging others to conform their lives to this coming kingdom, and have said on more than one occasion how painfully aware I am that our world is in desperate need of God's kingdom to come.  Then why the hesitancy?  If this is really my hope, why would I feel this urge to push Jesus' coming away, to hold it off for a little longer if at all possible?

The answers to that question probably require more searching than will happen in this blog post or even between now and next Sunday's sermon.  Nevertheless, it at least reveals to me how much I still have my own schedule, my own agenda, my own goals that conflict with God's ultimate goal.  Its not that my goals and aims are anti-Jesus or his kingdom.  Of course, who ever thinks that their own goals and aims aren't God's?  Most of my goals are supposed to be goals that I have because I want to serve God and his kingdom.  I have certain tasks I have to get done this week in order to be a good pastor.  I want to see our church grow in certain ways.  I want to see my children grow up to be Christ-like.  And if God's kingdom comes now, well...then what?  Somehow all of that seems...irrelevant?

Still trying to figure out what it means to live in anticipation of this coming kingdom...

Monday, May 3, 2010

Uninhibited Presence

The story of the Bible is the story of God's presence among a particular people.

God calls Abraham to journey with him.  God calls Moses to deliver the people from slavery in Egypt and when Moses protests God's promise is "I will be with you."  As the people wander through the wilderness and enter the promised land, God's presence among them is symbolized by the tabernacle they carry with them.  God's presence with Israel is symbolized even more permanently by the Temple that is built during King Solomon's reign.  Throughout Israel's story, it is God's presence which makes Israel special, which makes them holy.

However, this presence is also a fearful thing, something that had to be respected, revered, and kept separate.  Even though God is present with Israel there is a sense in which God must also always be separate.  His immediate presence with Israel would be too powerful, too overwhelming, and too holy so it must always be mediated and kept separate in some way.  The presence of God with Israel is something like nuclear energy; it is a power unrivaled by any other but it must also be handled with the most extreme caution.  In Leviticus 10, two of Aaron's sons are consumed by fire because they do not follow the priestly rules concerning the tabernacle.  In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah is struck dead by God simply for touching the Ark of the Covenant.  Repeatedly, the Old Testament law is concerned is with keep the unholy separate from the holy.  This concern for separation is especially evident in the construction of the Temple.  While the Temple symbolized God's presence with Israel, the Temple itself was separated into inner and outer courts according to varying degrees of holiness.  The Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple where the Spirit of God resided, was entered only by the appropriately cleansed priest and even then only once a year.  God was present with Israel and that presence made Israel holy and gave them life but it was a presence so holy and powerful that it had to be mediated and kept separate.

It is against this background that we can understand the kind of radical statement that John is making at the end of Revelation where he describes the holy city, the New Jerusalem, the new creation.  Central to this vision of the renewed cosmos are the words of Revelation 21:22; "I saw no Temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty and the Lamb are its Temple."  In other words, in the new creation there is no need for a building or a tent or anything else to mediate God's presence with God's people.  God will simply be present.
The verses just before verse 22 make this same point in a different way.  In verse 16, we hear that the holy city is equal in length, width, and height.  The city is a perfect cube which seems to be a rather strange detail to include until we recognize that the Holy of Holies in the Temple was a perfect cube as well.  It is as if John is saying that whereas before the presence of God was confined to the smallest court of the Temple which could only be entered by one person once a year the presence of God now envelopes this entire holy city.  The pure, unmediated, unobstructed, uninhibited presence of God with God's people is central to John's vision of the new creation.