December 30, 2007 – First Sunday After Christmas
St. John\’s Episcopal Church, Indio, CA
RCL Propers: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; John 1:1-18
+ In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. AMEN.
When I was growing up, I found the space program fascinating. As a nine-year old in 1961, which incidentally was the year I was confirmed, I thought that the cosmonauts would find God when they rocketed into space. After all, as a kid I was told “God is up in heaven.” So when the first person in space, Russian Yuri Gargarin, said at a post-flight press conference that he had been into space and said there was no God up there, I was more than a little bit disappointed. As a young boy, I loved going to Church, serving at the altar, singing in the choir and all that fun stuff. What a shame it would be that all that fun stuff was all perhaps a waste of time.
In preparing for today, the first person I consulted was my wife. By the way, though I commonly refer to her as \”Beeper,\” her actual name is Sharon. I consult her about everything, I assure you. I asked her what she would say to someone who doubted the existence of God. Sharon’s response, being the visual person that she is, was, “Look around you.” What Sharon was trying to communicate was that the very existence of all that surrounds us proves that God exists. After all, how did it all get there? Sharon’s thinking was similar to what St. Thomas Aquinas had to say about the existence of God. In the Shorter Summa, he said we know God exists because God is the only thing that’s immovable. God set everything in motion, everything moves, therefore, God exists. So perhaps Yuri Gargarin didn’t look hard enough—surely he saw the stars and the planets—but how did they come into existence? The atheistic Soviet society in which he was raised no doubt influenced his thinking, but perhaps he wasn’t a visual person like Sharon.
The United States is nominally, and I emphasize nominally, a Christian country. Saint John tells us today, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is ever close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Today’s gospel tells us that it is Jesus that made God known to humankind, but you wouldn’t guess it looking around outside of this building or reading most newspapers or watching the four major television networks. After all, the United States is the society that separates Church and State. Thus, public policy, foreign affairs, the Courts, the economy, the public educational system, and even our recreation, proceed as if God didn’t exist, even if in fact Jesus makes God known to Christians who are the supposed majority religion out there. Not only is God not mentioned, but we experience a value system that pays little heed to God’s Kingdom as we know it. In public policy and foreign affairs, might makes right. Money talks and everything else walks. As active Christians we assume the existence of God when we’re here, and probably in our prayer lives, but do we remember God exists when we’re in the mall, on the freeway, or at work? More likely than not, we tone down, or even abrogate our faith, to get along with the atheists and agnostics that so heavily populate our world. We’re more intent on surviving, which requires compromise to get along with other people, and less intent on God.
The existence of God is a basic question for everyone, not just Christians. As stated by Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich in his three-volume treatise Systematic Theology, “The basic theological question is the question of God.” It is the first hurdle we jump in carrying out the Great Commission in a society like ours which in handling its everyday affairs doesn’t recognize God exists. If we are to preach the Gospel and baptize people as Jesus commanded us, it is the first question we have to be prepared to answer when we try to convince our skeptical neighbors that yes, indeed, the person of Jesus has something to offer to improve their lives and perhaps they should come to Church to receive him and learn about him.
A Jewish person living in Jesus’ time who had doubts about the existence of God might consult a Rabbi. That’s what I did. In his book, Between God and Man, Rabbi Abraham Herschel tells us that there are three pathways to God: sensing God’s presence in the world, sensing God’s presence through scripture, and sensing God’s presence in what God does. In Isaiah, Chapter 40, Verse 25, God says, “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? Lift up your eyes on high and see who created these, says the Holy One. He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them by name.” In Exodus, Chapter 20, beginning the Te Commandments, God says, “I am the Lord thy God.” In Exodus Chapter 24, Verse 7, Moses read from the book of the covenant, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Of course, all of these statements assume the hearer accepts that what scripture says is true. These statements point to the existence of God, but do not prove God exists.
A twenty-first century Florida Rabbi, Terry Bookman, in his book, God 101, says that the existence of God is ultimately a question of faith whether you believe in God or not. For Bookman, a statement that God exists is a statement of faith. But Bookman also points out that a statement that God does not exist is also a statement of faith. His point is, there is no proof of God. He appears to be right.
In my former years I made my living as a private investigator, and one of my talents was finding people, particularly, those who didn’t want to be found. But one can’t go do an investigation of God’s existence or whereabouts as if you were looking for a person. So we are forced to determine whether God exists in only two ways: what God does and what God says. As Yuri Gargarin proved to us, you can’t get on top of a rocket and be transported to heaven and find God. God, without the incarnation of Jesus, is not a flesh and blood person like you and I that we can go and visit and hug.
So what is God? What God is drives the question of how we know God exists. This morning’s psalm tells us plenty about God’s nature. It talks about God as creator, as one who numbers the stars, makes the weather, and takes care of animals. Hence, on a primary level, we can say that we know God because God created everything, perhaps starting in the way outlined in Genesis and continuing in an ever changing path we continue to discover and have yet to discover. This accounts for some of the arguments commonly made for God’s existence: the “argument from change,” that the world is ever changing and that nothing changes itself; the “argument from efficient causality, that there is no uncaused reality and that ultimately there is something that is one thing that is uncaused and that thing is God; the so-called “design argument,” that because the universe displays a staggering amount of intelligibility, there is indeed, a designer; and the so-called “argument from contingency,” meaning that if something exists, there must exist what it takes for that thing to exist.
On another level, we experience God as spirit. Perhaps God is in the wind. Ancient Israel was, climatogically, somewhat like Southern California. It bordered on Sea to the West and had a desert to the East. When the wind blew from the East, it was a mist of fine sand which scorched the vegetation and parched the land. Kind of like our Santa Ana winds, when we get when a high pressure system parks itself over the Southwest. To quote Isaiah Chapter 40, verse 7, “the grass withers and the flowers fall, when the breath of the Lord blows on them.” I know, I’ve seen that happen because I live in the Desert. The Western winds, in our case the winds that blow across the Los Angeles Basis from the Pacific Ocean, however, were totally different. In winter, west and southwest winds blow moisture on to our dry land (think of our Pacific Storms), and in the summer, the winds off the Pacific do not bring rain, but relief from the heat—that’s the cooling trends we occasionally get in our summers. As pointed out in the prophet Hosea, Chapter 6, Verse 3, the rain brought by the Western winds refresh the land, as we saw over the past few weeks.
Another way we experience God as Spirit is through our very breath. When God made Adam, God breathed into him the breath of life and he became alive. After all, the basic difference between a live person and a dead one is the former breathes and the latter doesn’t.
And finally, the Spirit of God can be found in the human ability to think. Pharaoh recognized that the Spirit of God was in Joseph when he said in Genesis, Chapter 41, verses 37 to , “Can we find anyone else like Joseph, one in whom is the Spirit of God. And he said to Joseph, since God has shown you all this, there is no one discerning and wise as you. You shall be over my house and all my people shall order themselves as you command.” As evil as Pharaoh was, he was at least perceptive enough to see some connection between wisdom and God’s spirit, perhaps recognizing that God exists without actually saying so. Pharaoh later got a pretty good dose of God’s existence when the waters of the Red Sea drowned his chariots and chariot drivers as Moses led God’s people out of the slavery of Egypt into freedom in the promised land.
To accept St. John’s position, that Jesus is living proof of God’s existence, of course requires us to believe that Jesus is God’s Son. The divinity of Jesus is the belief that most distinguishes Christians from other religious people. The divinity of Jesus is where the rubber meets the road. Certainly, St. John did not have an easy time convincing his contemporaries that Jesus was God. The world in which he lived featured the polytheism of the Graeco-Roman world somewhat immersed in emperor worship into which was inserted the Jewish community that considered any claim that Jesus was God’s son to be blasphemy. For a modern atheist or agnostic, the idea of Jesus as God’s son is an even bigger leap since such people typically limit their perception of reality to their five senses. Neither they, nor the ordinary non-Jewish people in Palestine, would suspend their so-called rational judgment and accept, as proof of the divinity of Jesus, the miracles that He performed, His resurrection from the dead, or his ascension into heaven. Modern non-God believers would point out that the founders of other religions, such as Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad did no such things. We can’t just refer them to scripture; although we Christians believe the Bible to be the word of God, they don’t; for them it’s just another book. So let’s look at some ways we can talk to the people around us who don’t go to Church when they challenge us to prove Jesus is God.
First, if the Gospels lie, who invented the lie and why? What did they get out of it? After all, in the first three centuries of the Christian Church, being a Christian was a very dangerous thing to be. The chances are you’d be tortured or killed. Who would lie to subject themselves to something like that? Most people act out of self-interest, to benefit themselves, not self-sacrifice. Second, if the divine nature of Jesus was all a myth, why didn’t the people who knew him say so? Unlike Buddha or Mohammed, whose followers considered them divine several generations later, Jesus was recognized as divine by the people who immediately knew him. So when Jesus told those around him he was God’s son, he was not lying. He had the wrong psychological profile. He was unselfish, caring, and passionate about teaching truth and helping others find truth. Liars, however, lie for selfish reasons, like money, fame, pleasure, or power. Jesus, however, had few, if any, worldly goods, and gave up his own life. Some may think Jesus is a lunatic, but consider: lunatics don’t have the personal qualities of Jesus, like practical wisdom, all-cards-on-the-table honesty, and unpredictable creativity. The idea is that Jesus is trustworthy because he wasn’t a liar and he wasn’t a lunatic; he is therefore believable.
Second, in addressing the question of the divinity of Jesus, we must also pay attention to the verb tense: do we say that Jesus was divine or is divine? If we say he was divine, then the notions of His Resurrection and Parousia (a fancy word for “second coming”) don’t wash…if he was, then He died without expecting to rise again, ascend to heaven, and come again. If he is divine, then he is in fact the risen Lord among us.
It is Jesus presence still among us that proves he is God incarnate. Not only is Jesus sacramentally present among us in the form of bread and wine, Jesus continues to be part not only of our lives, but many lives. Jesus’ agenda is God’s agenda, and when we carry out that agenda, we show the world that God is present. That agenda is one that doesn’t go along with the program of the world around us, but is one that upsets the established order, where God’s notions of peace and justice win out over what we see around us. Think back to the second Sunday of Advent, where the prophet Isaiah talks about the predators of the animal kingdom lie down with those who are usually their prey and where in the Gospel John the Baptist tells the established religious authorities their days in charge are numbered and a kingdom favoring the unprivileged will soon take over. The extent to which we carry out that agenda is a tangible manifestation of God’s presence.
The proof of God that exists is God that God is alive among us in the form of God’s Church. The Church is a sacrament itself, an outward and visible sign of God’s grace at work within it. By “Church” I don’t mean the institutional church. By “Church” I mean you out there, the people of God, who exist as God’s children independently of any ecclesial body. God Incarnate today is a Church that actualizes in its existence the values of God’s kingdom and carries out God’s agenda as an agent of change and not as an affirmation of the status quo. The Church is not a building. It is a community that meets in a building. That community is you and I, our fleshly bodies, which in our everyday lives are making peace among enemies, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and in the way we live, making life choices that place a higher priority to our spiritual existence than to material goods and transitory pleasures. And in doing this, to keep the Spirit of God alive, we must be relentless. Those of you who are schoolteachers know that repetition helps people learn—it’s the way God made us. So as we heard in this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch,” our task as Christians is to relentlessly continue our mission to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.
Yes, in St. John’s gospel and Genesis, in the beginning was the Word, God’s Word, and God spoke and things happened beginning with creation itself. But making God’s kingdom a reality entails more than talk. Doing God’s work is the ongoing manifestation of God incarnate. We, the Church, put flesh on the Word by doing what Jesus teaches, and by doing God’s word, we make God incarnate among us now, and always, and we prove that God does, in fact, exist. AMEN.