Archive for Image of God

Beyond the Prison Cell

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2016 by timtrue

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Matthew 11:2-11

Spoiler alert!

Does anyone in this room believe in an actual, literal Santa Claus—you know, the jolly rotund guy in a red suit with fuzzy white fringe who somehow manages to deliver presents to several billion people all over the world in the mere space of twenty-four hours via a magical sleigh and some flying reindeer?  Anyone?

Well, if so, you might not want to be here for the next few minutes.  I mean, I don’t want to be the one who puts an end to this innocent dream of yours.  Far be it from me to point out that people have been lying to you—your brothers and sisters, your parents, maybe even the whole world.

Okay, maybe not the whole world; that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But it might feel that way.

I can remember the day clearly—almost exactly forty-two years ago today.  Mom was out playing tennis.  Dad was tinkering in the garage, probably working on one of the cars.  Point is, both parents were preoccupied.

Technically, I suppose, my brother Andy and I were being supervised.  He was seven; I was six.  But, hey, this was the seventies: technically speaking, supervision meant Dad was home, sure; but in reality his two young boys might escape his watchful eye for an hour or two—or several.

Andy realized this.  He was the firstborn and therefore already quite savvy to Mom and Dad’s ways.  I, however, was the second-born and still the baby of the family, quite content to let everyone else fuss over the details of day-to-day life so that I could focus on what really mattered: not on how things really were but on how things ought to be.

Anyway, Andy, realizing that we boys were out from under Mom and Dad’s watchful eye for a while, stood up and walked across the avocado green shag carpet of the family room and turned off the TV and said, “Tim, I want to show you a secret.”

Secret, did he say?  I’m in!

So I followed him upstairs to the entryway closet.  We entered.  He pulled the string that turned on the single 40-watt bulb that dangled at the end of a cord from the ceiling.  And he shut the door.

Then, inside this secret space, he said, “Follow me,” and he ascended the built-in ladder, pushed open the attic door, and disappeared overhead.

“We’re not supposed to go up there,” I reminded from below.

No response.

Well, what was I to do?  What would you do?

I ascended the ladder and entered the attic.

And to my great surprise there were several beautifully wrapped presents, apparently ready to be set out under the Christmas tree.

Andy had a pocketknife and a roll of scotch tape with him.  How they got there, I didn’t ask.  But by now I was thinking this all was premeditated.

His plan, I learned, was to unwrap the presents carefully enough to find out what our gifts were.  He was savvy, remember.  And his head was rooted in pragmatic reality.

But my head was rooted in the world of ideals.

As such, that morning my world caved in.  For I read a few labels.  One said, “To, Timmy; with love, Santa.”  Another said, “For, Andy; love, Mr. and Mrs. Claus.”  And the gig was up.

“Um, I’m leaving now,” I told my big brother.  And without waiting for his approval I left that attic, exited the entryway closet, and went to my bedroom, where I closed the door, fell despondently onto my bed, and cried forlornly into my pillow.

My brother had lied to me.  My parents also, I realized, had lied to me.  Good grief, the whole world had lied to me!

I remember this story from my childhood about this time every year. What triggered it this year was John the Baptist’s question in today’s Gospel: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Now, John the Baptist was an idealist.  His head usually was not caught up with the way things are.  Rather, his concern was with the way things ought to be.

We know nothing about his early life, except that he leapt in the womb when he met his cousin Jesus, also in utero.  But we can pretty easily surmise that he spent a lot of his early life in study, trying to discern the signs of the times.  For, as an adult he assumed the role of a prophet.  He knew a lot of theology.  He connected his current, pragmatic world to God’s ideal world—the way the world ought to be, when the kingdom of God becomes reality.

All this was fine during his formative years, when he was able to study.  All this was fine as he began his prophetic ministry, as an adult.  All this was fine when the multitudes came to him to be baptized in the Jordan.  All this was fine when Jesus came to him too; and he publicly proclaimed that here is the very Messiah himself.  All this was fine when his message of the way things ought to be was well received.

But then reality interfered and interrupted.  Herod arrested John and threw him in jail.

Wait a minute!  This isn’t how things are supposed to go.  If Jesus truly is the Messiah, then he should be righting wrongs.  He should be increasing while the powers of this world are decreasing.  Yet Herod has thrown John in jail.  The powers of this world are yet triumphing.  Reality is not allowing Jesus to gain a foothold.  All is not fine now!

And John wonders: Maybe my brothers and sisters have lied to me; maybe my parents and teachers have lied to me; maybe the whole world has lied to me.  Maybe Jesus is not really who I think he is—who I’ve been told he is.

So: John the Baptist, the top kid in the class, the one person about whom the scriptures say no one born of a woman is greater, this John the Baptist asks a question that pesters all of us.

Maybe it only comes around only once or twice in your lifetime.  Maybe it comes around annually with Santa Claus.  Or maybe it pesters continuously.  But here it is: Jesus, are you really the Messiah?  Or are you nothing more than a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

Has my family been lying to me?  Have my teachers been lying to me?  Has the church been lying to me?  Has the whole world been lying to me?

And I’m glad John asks it.  Because, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kid to raise my hand and ask a stupid question.

I don’t want everyone else to know that my faith is a struggle; that my faith is weak; that maybe at times my doubt is in fact stronger than my belief, maybe even for long stretches of time; that I often wonder if I even believe at all anymore.

I don’t want to be the one to admit I’ve lost my faith, especially when I’m sitting here in church!

But what about when I’m sitting in my own prison cell, and it sure seems like Jesus isn’t doing anything about it?

We all have them, you know: our own prison cells.

You might feel imprisoned by large events in the world: terrorist acts; supernatural disasters; large-scale events that produce chaos.  You sit there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless to do anything about them.

Or your prison cell might be a past relationship gone bad, and now it’s impossible to seek any kind of reconciliation.  You’re there in your cell, imprisoned and powerless, a cell made for you by another person.

Or your cell might be past mistakes you’ve made as an individual; and now you must face the consequences of your past choices, consequences you’re powerless to change.  Your cell has been made by your own hands.

Whatever your prison cell of brokenness, you are left with no other alternative but to cry out to a savior.

But what if your savior doesn’t deliver?  What if Jesus does not do the things you always thought he would?  What if Jesus does not do the things everyone always told you he would?  What then?

Has your family lied to you?  Has the church?  Has the whole world been lying to you?

I’m glad John the Baptist asks this question from his prison cell today.  Aren’t you?  For he’s the top kid in the class.  And if the top kid in the class struggles with this question, somehow that makes it okay for me and for you—for us—to struggle with this question too.

Jesus, are you the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of this sin-infected world?

Or are you merely a sophisticated Santa Claus story?

So, guess what: Jesus does not answer John’s question directly; which compels me to think, by extension, that neither will Jesus answer our doubts directly. We’re talking about faith, after all; not proof.

Nevertheless, Jesus does give John a kind of answer.  And it is this: look outside your prison cell.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus says: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

And I imagine John’s response: “Fine and well, Jesus—for the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, the half-dead, and the poor.  But what about me?”

I know it doesn’t feel like Jesus is saving the world as you sit there in your prison cell with John the Baptist.  But Jesus says to look outside your own prison cell.  And, when you do, if you are able, what do you see?

Despite all the bad news, great strides are being made in the world towards liberation—from oppressive governments, from poverty, from illiteracy, from terrorism, from disease.

And it’s not just global society I’m talking about: great strides are being made right here in Yuma County.  And it’s not just the corporate: we hear an awful lot these days about individual mental health and personal wellness.

All around us, people are being liberated.  Take a look beyond yourself and see and hear it.  Any time we see or hear about liberation for a person, a family, a community, or the globe, this is Jesus at work.  And this gives up hope.

But what about those people who just can’t do it?  What about those who just cannot seem to see beyond their own prison cells, no matter how hard they try?

If this is you, please, I ask, let someone know, someone you trust, someone who might be able to help you in your prison cell.

But know this.  Even there, imprisoned and unable to see beyond the very walls of your cell, Jesus is with you.  You have been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.  Whatever dignity you can find within yourself, whatever self-respect, there is comfort: Jesus in you.

Comfort, comfort, ye my people, says the Lord.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

2015 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by timtrue

drought

Jeremiah 14:1-9, 17-22

Well, I don’t know if it was calling them tighty-whities or what, but today, finally, the people of Israel begin to turn back to God.

Actually, according to this chapter, it was a drought; parched, dry, cracked land was the catalyst.  And this wasn’t just any drought.  This one was so severe that does (a deer, a female deer) were abandoning their own fawns; donkeys were sniffing the wind in an effort to draw some kind of moisture from the air, like jackals do, it says.

(And I think, do jackals do this?)

Point is, disaster came on the people of Israel and they turned to God in prayer.

That was Jeremiah’s point anyway.  But it brings up other questions.

Like: when bad things happen to us–things beyond our control–does this mean that God is judging us for our immorality?

Job maintained an upright heart throughout his time of trial, even when his wife told him, “Curse God and die!”  Bad things happened to Job.  He lost his property–including his home and numerous animals–to bandits; and all his children to some kind of natural disaster–they all died–every one of them!–all in the same day.

So he wept, fasted, and prayed.  Then his wife said what she did.  And some of his best friends came for a visit, assessed, and judged him.  And they said, “You, Job, obviously, have done some great wrong.  This is why you’re suffering, of course!  Just repent already and God will lighten up.”

But he hadn’t done anything wrong.  We readers learn this at the end of the book–like some macabre punch line.  Forces beyond human vision and understanding had been at work.  Evil was present in the world.  And there was nothing Job could do to prevent it.

So, no, bad things happening to us does not mean God is judging us.

And questions like: so why is there evil in the world at all?  If God created the world–which we Christians believe–and if God is good–which we also believe–and if God is sovereign over all–which some Christians believe (including this author)–then why isn’t the world entirely good?

Theologians call this conundrum theodicy.  I like to call it dicey theology.

But there are answers to this question.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, offers one answer.

The world was created upright, including Adam and Eve who were created in God’s own image, perfect and upright.  But evil entered the world.  Adam and Eve ate this evil, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, that forbidden fruit, about which they were told not to.  And then Adam and Eve, who had been created in God’s own image but were now marred, had a son named Seth.  Curiously, the writer of Genesis addresses this: Seth is said to be born in Adam’s image, not God’s (cf. Genesis 5:3); Seth, and all humanity after him (without going into Cain’s line), no longer bears God’s perfect image but Adam’s imperfect one.

To carry this string of logic a little farther, Christ is called the perfect image of God in the New Testament.  We Christians are said to be becoming more and more like Christ throughout our lives.  With this understanding of creation and fall, we could say that we are becoming less like Adam’s imperfect image and more like Christ’s perfect one.  Neat picture, eh?  (Although I must admit I know many people, including many Christians, who fall a lot closer to the imperfect side of the spectrum than to the perfect–or even than to the middle!)

But it still doesn’t answer all the questions.  Why did a perfect God allow evil into the good world in the first place?  Adam and Eve sinned.  But where did the conniving serpent come in?  And why would God have placed a tree with a forbidden fruit in the world in the first place?  Was God just trying to tantalize and tempt his creation to fall?  Was evil inevitable?  And, if so, is this something a truly good God would do?  And, if God is indeed sovereign, did Adam and Eve really have a choice at all?  (The same question has been asked about Judas Iscariot too, by the way: did Judas even have a choice, in the big, cosmic scheme of things, when he betrayed Jesus?)

There are answers to these questions too, if you’re interested.  But, predictably, these answers lead to yet more questions.  A whole lot more!

But enough already!  Now we’re confused, anxious, and maybe even a little stressed over our faith.  Now there’s tension.  (And, like Runt from Chicken Little, tension makes me bloat!)

And we’ve strayed from the point.

The book of Jeremiah is simply pointing out that the people turn to God in prayer during times of hardship.

Isn’t this a natural response?  Perhaps even an innate response, something we’re all born with?

We face challenges beyond our comfort zone.  We need to focus, to face these challenges courageously.  So what do we do?

We pray.  Oh, some may call it focusing, centering, meditating, whatever.  But it’s all just different forms of prayer.  It might not be addressed to the God of the Christians.  And it’s certainly not concerned–in the heat of the moment–with questions about why evil exists, is God sovereign, is God even real, or some other challenge to the Christian faith.  But it’s prayer nonetheless.

And for me it’s a compelling proof of divinity.

In Adam’s Image

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on July 21, 2013 by timtrue

Colossians 1:15-28

I want to focus today on this idea of image.  Christ Jesus is the image, Scripture says; the image of the invisible God.  Does this phrase, the image of the invisible God, bring anything to mind?  What if I shorten it to the image of God?  Does this phrase remind you of something else?

Yes!  It’s the same term we read in the creation account.  On the first day God said, “Let there be light.”  And there was light.  And it was good.  So the story goes through days two, three, four, five, and six: God spoke and thereby created the sky; the sun, moon, and stars; the land, fauna, and flora; and the many creatures of the waters, land, and air.  It’s all good, the Bible says.  But it is only after God creates humanity, male and female, that the Scriptures say “very good.”  Of all creation, of all the cosmos, only humanity is said to be created in God’s likeness, in God’s own image: imago Dei as the Latin Bible renders it, the same rendering in fact as is here said of Christ Jesus.

So Adam and Eve were created in the image of God.  Christ Jesus—begotten, not created, as we confess—is nevertheless declared to be the image of God too.

There’s a certain tension that comes into play here.  Do you feel it?

Christ Jesus is called “the firstborn of all creation”; “the head of the body, the church”; and “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.”  In him “all things in heaven and on earth were created,” “all things hold together,” and “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  Through him, “God was pleased to reconcile all things.”

Christ Jesus is the image of God.  Yet Adam and Eve—and by extension all humanity—are created in the image of God.

But Adam, Eve, and all humanity most certainly are not the firstborn of all creation.  All things were most certainly not created in us.  God most certainly has not reconciled all of creation through us.

How then is this term, the image of God, attached both to Christ Jesus and the rest of humanity?

This tension gets worse.  Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, no dispute there.  But this image-bearer status is given to them at the beginning, at their creation, before their fall into sin.  Then they were upright.  But they didn’t stay that way, did they?

We all know the story.  Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempted upright Eve to eat a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  “God doesn’t want you to eat of this Tree,” the snake said, “because he knows that you will become like him.”

And we want to yell at the book—or at least I do—“Don’t do it, Eve!”  I want to shout out, “Don’t you get it?  You’re already like God.  You’ve been created in his image!  The Omniscient Narrator says so.”

Well, no matter how much I rant and rave, she doesn’t get it.  She eats the fruit.  Every time!  Then she always tempts Adam; and we read the saddest three words of the entire Bible as far as I’m concerned, “And he ate.”

Thus have the mighty fallen.  Sin has entered the scene.  Adam must now toil.  Eve must now labor.  Humanity is forever banished from Eden.

But it gets even worse.  Adam and Eve have a few sons worth knowing about, or so the Omniscient Narrator thinks.  The first two perform a tragic play, don’t they?  Cain and Abel.  In a fit of jealousy the one kills the other then must go away into exile.  And again I want to shout at the text: “Is there no hope for humanity?”  But then, ah, yes, another son is born, a son of hope, through whom, maybe, somehow, humanity will be redeemed: Seth.  His name even means appointed of God.

Yet the description of Seth’s entrance into the world is perplexing, even disheartening (cf. Gen. 5:1-3).  Adam was created in God’s image.  But Adam had fallen.  Now we read, “When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth” (emphasis mine).

Do you see what’s happened here?  What is not said is that Seth was born in God’s image.  Rather, he was born in Adam’s image.  But Adam had fallen.  But Adam must now toil.  Daily walks with God in the Garden couldn’t be anything now but a distant memory.  And now it would be the same for Seth; and, by extension, all humanity.

So where does this leave us?

Certainly, we are not the image of the invisible God that Christ Jesus is, as we’ve been over already: we are not “the firstborn of all creation” and all that.

But neither is God’s image absent from us.  Adam and Eve fell from God’s grace into sin.  Their fall affected us drastically, as we have been reminded.  But nowhere does their story suggest that God somehow took back or erased his image from humanity.  No!  God’s image is still there.  It’s been changed somehow, hidden perhaps, or otherwise disguised, by sin.  But it’s there!  In you!  In me!  In that neighbor who helped you out last week!  In that jerk who cut you off on the interstate last night!

But it’s even better than that.

Christ Jesus is the perfect image of God.  And we have been created in that image.  Therefore Christ is in us.

Let that truth settle in for a moment: Christ is in us.

We are not the firstborn of creation or the head of the church; we did not create all things and now hold them together; we have not reconciled all creation to God.  But Christ is.  Christ did.  And Christ has.

And Christ is in us!  This means that although we are not Christ we nevertheless play a part in these cosmic matters.  We play a part in the church.  We play a part in creation.  And we play a part in the reconciliation of all things—whether in heaven or on earth—to God!

That’s the church’s business, by the way: the reconciliation of all things.  That’s what St. Luke’s has been called to do.

You see—to return briefly to the creation story—things got inverted.  God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them.  Then God made man and woman and set them above it all, at the pinnacle.  Of course God remained above them, an authority who commanded and required obedience.  And it was all very good.  Yet they listened to the serpent, a creature, and thereby turned creation on its head.  They put the serpent in God’s place; and vice-versa.

Since then God has been reconciling this Great Inversion.  The church, through Christ, like it or not, is in the reconciliation business.  We must therefore strive as an image-bearing body to make things right—with individuals, with society, with all creation.  We must think long and hard about this reconciliation business.  What are we doing about it already?  What more should we do?  And then we must go out and do it!

But that is another sermon for another day.