"He Made God Visible"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - November 25, 2001
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20
Up until the time of Jesus, humanity had been creating God in its image. Many activities in which the people of faith engaged were bent around what they wanted God to be. It was a most confusing time for sincere believers who trusted what others said about God.
When we look back in time, we can readily understand how various images of God clouded the understanding of humanity for thousands of years. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, there are vivid descriptions of the cruelty that Canaanites suffered by the armies of Israel. In the Book of Joshua, listen to how such behavior was justified:
In the Book of Judges there are several examples where it was recorded that God participated in intertribal wars. In one such conflict 22,000 Israelites lost their lives. Listen to verse 22 in Judges 20, "Then the Israelites went to the place of worship and mourned their losses in the presence of the Lord until evening. They asked the Lord, ' Should we go again into battle against our brothers, the Benjaminites?' The Lord answered, 'Yes.'"
After receiving God's approval, the Israelites killed 25,100 Benjaminites in one day. And in a second battle that ensued, another 18,000 Benjaminites were killed along with their wives and children. Numerous Benjaminite towns were then burned. (Judges 20:18f)
There is no question that the image and reputation of the Creator had been badly tarnished by those who professed to be in direct contact with the mind of God. They were convinced that God had spoken to them. This same process continues today. We still find that God is given credit or becomes the scapegoat for every activity imaginable.
It is a wonderful literary device to spice up one's writings or sermons by claiming that "God told me to tell you thus and so." Preachers and writers have used this technique throughout history to place greater "authority" for the words they use. And when their words are judgmental and exclusive, segmenting humanity into the infamous categories of "the lost" and "found," they generate untold misery, bewilderment, and confusion. What did Jesus show us?
Jesus' love was so focused and universal that once he wanted to gather everyone around him as a mother hen would her chicks. Having a particular belief was not part of the equation before Jesus would love someone. He loved tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and countless others. Again, no specific beliefs or behaviors were first required before his love was given. This is what God is like.
Through the years, people have authentically believed that God personally inspired the building of gigantic churches, temples, and cathedrals. Many of these structures were inspired; there is no doubt about that. As people thought about God, they created buildings, art pieces, and music for hundreds of years. With this said, we must remember that the one who revealed what God is like frequently had no place to lay his head. God is everywhere, not in buildings. Again, Jesus revealed what God is like.
There are those who believe that the God who gives life also takes it away. Thus when people experience loved ones leaving their bodies, they frequently say, "God must have needed my seven-year-old son in Heaven more than we needed him here." Maybe that thought gives them comfort.
People have a difficult time equating a loving God with loved ones who experience physical death. They figure that God must have a good reason. Would a loving God allow the death of children? Obviously God does because it happens all the time. However, Jesus revealed that for God there is no death; our spirits only transition from one form to another. Not only did Jesus teach such an understanding but he also revealed it through his resurrection.
Clearly humanity needed a clearer vision of God, in spite of the "divine inspiration" many people have claimed as the source of their creativity. Either God matured or the people writing about God began to understand our Creator with a much greater clarity. It was Jesus who revealed a more accurate portrait of God's spirit.
The Apostle Paul recorded this thought in his letter to the Colossians. He wrote, "Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God." (Colossians 1:15) Paul wrote these words many years before the Gospel of John proclaimed, "The Word of God became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us." (John 1:14) "No one has ever seen God but Jesus has made him known." (John 1:18)
This one insight has continued to expand our understanding of God in ways that even the most faithful could not have anticipated. No longer is God an irritable, demanding being who enjoys waging war on those who stand in opposition to someone's version of the truth. As the old god of mythology, superstition, and fear shed its cocoon, what emerged was the source of all loving energy that has changed the spiritual landscape of humanity forever. This is the Spirit Jesus revealed.
For example, we have discovered that God does not need to judge us. Jesus taught us that we will not be punished for our anger, but by it. Jesus taught us that when we cannot love our neighbors and our enemies, we have not yet learned what it means to love. Jesus taught us that it is good to forgive, but it is better not to be offended. By teaching through words and example, Jesus made God's spirit known.
Today, where is this spirit of love that Jesus brought? Is it only visible in our churches? We hear our nation's leaders talk openly about killing the Taliban. Members of Congress have publicly stated that Osama bin Laden and the members of his terrorist network must be killed. We have offered a bounty of 25 million dollars for his death or capture.
Critics have said, "Currently we cannot find what Jesus brought in many of our nation's leaders, including our President who is a United Methodist." In keeping with the spirit of the critics, a number of commentators from various denominations have said, "This nation of ours is not a nation 'under God.' We are no more directed by God than is our enemy! We want the death and destruction of our enemies every bit as badly as they want ours! We say, 'Love your enemies,' but communicate 'An eye for an eye' through what we do. We are a nation of hypocrites." I suppose there is a lot of accuracy in those statements.
But the spirit of love moves ever so slowly, gradually changing how people respond when challenged. Think about this. Why is it that America does what it does? Why have we invested billions of dollars in perfecting weapons called, "smart bombs"? Why are we training military personnel who are highly protected with light weight body armor? Why is it that we engage in international struggles where our military intentionally tries to protect people on both sides of the conflict?
Just the other day, a team of our near "invisible commandos" surprised a caravan of fuel trucks. Under the cover of darkness the drivers were sleeping. The personnel along with their armed guards were captured and handcuffed. The commandos called in allied helicopters which destroyed the fuel trucks. Then the prisoners were released. Fighting a war on this level of sensitivity is unknown historically.
Our critics say that we are just as savage as we have always been. Is this true? Do we honestly believe this? During World War II, Hitler's rockets would run out of fuel and drop, blowing up entire city blocks in England. The U.S. bombed Germany even when it was cloudy. No one knew with any precision what was happening to the population below. America no longer does this. Yes, there are mistakes, but indiscriminate bombing is no longer the will of our military.
America is airlifting millions of tons of food because we do not want the civilian population to starve as winter arrives. As warped and limited as the loving spirit appears to be during this war effort, its presence is unmistakable. Even when we must engage in a struggle to protect freedom and democracy, we appear to do so without wanting to hurt the innocent. Our nation wants only to pursue those who use fear to destroy and disrupt everyone else's ability to live in peace.
Why are we doing this? They were the ones who used our aircraft to bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. They were the ones who tried to destroy the Pentagon. Could it be that the last super power on the face of the earth has had its consciousness inoculated with what Christ brought?
Of course, the Kingdom of God is not being experienced by all people, but there is movement. For those of us who can see what Christ has brought, we can see vestiges of it everywhere. For example, products for children are being made safer, and those which are unsafe are pulled from department store shelves. Pick up any children's book and look at the values being presented. Corporations are not allowed to squeeze out smaller competitors. Even though such corporate entities have billions of dollars in cash, like children, they are being taught that they have to share in the market place.
The Church does not have ownership of what Christ brought even though it believes that such a role is its exclusive right. What Christ brought is everywhere and continues to influence every phase of life in America and around the world. As more people learn that we can disagree without hurting each other, that is a gigantic step in the direction of the Kingdom Jesus' said was here.
What Christ brought in many cases has lost its label of being "Christian" and "sacred." Good! Who would mind this? People can label such behavior as "secular" if they want to, but when we see authentic caring happening between people, the spirit of God is being made visible. Many in the Church forget that Jesus taught, "Love your neighbor." How should we label what non-Christians are doing when they are loving each other?
The understanding of "we" and "they" is slowly giving way to the "we" of a global community, something everyone from Isaiah to the Apostle Paul knew would happen one day. Just because some people protest because it is not happening according to their particular "Christian formula," does not mean that it is not happening. It was the Apostle Paul who wrote, "Through Jesus, God demonstrated the plan to bring the entire universe back to himself." (Colossians 1:20)
Think of how long humanity has been struggling to understand God. All the way from when it was believed that our Creator was taking sides with "favorites" in order to kill some common enemy, to Jesus telling people to go into all the world and teach others how to love without counting the cost.
Jesus had something rather precise to say to those who preach bigotry, intolerance, and exclusivity all in the name of Christ. He said, "Not everyone who calls me Lord, is living in the Kingdom of Heaven. A day will come when many will say to me, 'In your name we spoke God's message, by your name we drove out many demons and performed many miracles.' Then I will say, 'I did not know you.'" (Matthew 9:21-23)
Those who know not love, know not God. It was not God who grew up; we were the ones who grew up once we experienced the portrait of God that Jesus brought. God's spirit was made visible in Jesus Christ. Now God must remain visible through what we do.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful and always present God, each morning our lives awaken to the freshness of many new beginnings. Yet we confess that our routines limit us. Our days look alike. Our distractions often blank our faces, so that our smiles and eye contact are not what we would like them to be. How often we ignore the praise we might give while dwelling on the mistakes others have made. How often we see the clouds and not the sunshine. Lead us, O God, to remember that we are creators, not critics. We are products of our faith and not consumers of religion. May the identity from which we draw our strength serve to make you visible in all that we seek to accomplish. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you God that amidst all the issues that we face everyday, we have this congregation of ours which really helps us to stay in touch with what is vital and authentic. How easily we forget who we have been called to be when our sensitivities have been violated. In the name of justice and fairness, we forget that for light to make any difference at all, it must be standing in the midst of darkness. Generally, that is a place where none of us wants to be.
As we think about the many issues facing our world, help us to focus on each day as a mission field. Enable us to understand our calling with clarity. We have enjoyed a period of Thanksgiving because most of us do our part right where we are to help make America beautiful. Most of us are glad to be alive. We are glad that we have a venue where we can express ourselves through our work. We are grateful that we have opportunities to nurture others who are experiencing fragile moments of loss and transition. This is our mission field. These are our moments to make this world a better place to live.
As we face the coming of Advent next week, inspire us to make this walk once again to Bethlehem where we are reminded that you are with us, that you come to us, that you inspire us, and that you
live in us. May what we do hasten the coming of an age where "love thy neighbor" is made visible everywhere. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .