4.2.18 – SERMON FOR THE SECOND SUNDAY BEFORE LENT – our great, big God
X May I speak in the name of God who puts a new song in our mouth – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When I first looked at today’s readings my heart leapt, and then sank. Such richness – but where could I start? Each verse of the beginning of John could provide a sermon in itself. Then I woke up early one morning with a song in my mouth – you’ll soon see which – and knew what to do. I often find God takes care of things for me while I sleep.
On arrival as headteacher at my last school, I realised the children had been taught some songs for assembly which – at first – set my hair on end. The one which helped me get started for this sermon was: “Our God is a great, big God. Our God is a great, big God. Our God is a great, big God, and He holds us in his hands.” There were actions to go with it which I had forgotten – you’ll be glad to know that Youtube will provide you with the full experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-424MpB_pd0– though it comes with a health warning. It will stay in your head for days!
I hold my hands up – I was such a religious snob at the time that this song turned me right off. But if I learned only one thing at my last school it was that religious snobbery just won’t do. There is something to be gained from every tradition – and simplicity of language isn’t a bad place to start when we face God in prayer. To that end, I have another poem to take away today:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
[from Thirst: Poems by Mary Oliver]
All our readings today are trying to describe our great, big God. Over the centuries, this impossible task has led both to our using the most positive language we can – Almighty, All-seeing – and then trying to get at the mystery by saying what God is not – Immortal, invisible. The important thing to hold on to as we go on is this attempt to describe something so much more than our senses and intelligence can fathom. That we are unable to describe God has never stopped people trying – and I think it’s a vital part of faith that we do.
I love the Proverbs reading. A few weeks ago, I talked about the Hebrew word ruach, which is used for both spirit and breath. The spirit of God breathes life into us. As time went on, Jewish thought developed the idea of the shekinah. As you can see from Proverbs, this spirit – wisdom – is a person, then assumed to be female, who was integral to the action of God from the very beginning. A folk extension described wisdom wandering the paths of the world as an old crone, seeking those who could understand her. Out of this, and the vision described by Paul, we begin to move towards our understanding of persons in God, and our understanding of the Trinity.
Let us then turn to Colossians. Perhaps the greatest work Paul did theologically was to share his vision of what Jesus was. Paul worries away at this in his letters, starting from the premise that through Jesus’ humanity he gave us access to what he is in God. The visible, human person gave us an ability to gain a glimpse of the invisible. And building on John’s mystical vision, Paul is the first to set down a fully rounded glimpse of this dual reality. For him, Christ – Jesus’ eternal divinity, which is nonetheless indivisible from his humanity – is a far greater thing than can be encompassed in phrases like “God become man” or “the second person of the Trinity”.
The next premise is that Christ is literally everything. Like the shekinah, he is integral to creation – with the Father before all worlds. Today, we might call this the cosmic Christ. It is because all of this enormity became a human that we have access not just to a partial vision of the invisible, but to the reality of what we are. Christ’s life and death expand our understanding of our own: we are part of the ongoing creative outpouring that is God and everything we do has meaning within that larger meaning. As they say, this changes everything.
Richard Rohr puts it roughly like this: Christ became Jesus not to die on the cross and change God’s mind about punishing our sins, but to change our minds about God. Through this astonishing act, God does not reboot creation but jolt us into seeing him – really seeing him. John puts the pieces together in the only way something so huge can be done – mystically. The Word (or God’s meaning)
comes to us as light – the light of life and understanding. He comes as life, as creation, and when we feel life, we feel also hope. And in tumbling into this wider vision of how we stand in a vaster picture, we finally understand that we are children of God. Putting on the mind of Christ involves a constant attempt to get our heads and hearts around this vast conception and what it means. Jesus shows us how it can be done both in life and death.
Unless we remember the bigger picture, we could think that faith is all about my little life and my dreary sins and whether I can remember the creed. That is religion, not faith. Whatever lifts us out of that, gives us hope and understanding beyond our self-obsessed selves, whatever gives us glimpses of light and life – let us think on those things. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, or Mozart, Jesus was a carpenter’s son. In some ways, it’s very simple: breath; sight, light; life; truth; hope. We all, simply, need to remember our great, big God.