Sunday, 8 July 2018

The Accessible Jesus

A sermon given at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
8 July 2018
Exodus 3.1-14  
Hebrews 4.16; 7.19, 25; 6.19-20; 10.19-22

Listen to this sermon here:

As a starting point for my sermon this morning,
            I’d like to offer for our consideration
            a basic premise about the nature of God.

I’m aware that in doing so I am, to coin a phrase,
            merely a midget standing on the shoulders of a giant
                        – the giant in this case being the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition of theology.

I’ve often described the Bible, both Old and New Testaments,
            as being a series of thought experiments concerning the nature of God,
with succeeding generations of the people of God
            trying different perspectives on the divine on for size, so to speak.

And the great theological traditions of the church
            have continued that process down the millennia,
as people have sought to take the insights of the Bible
            and apply them to their own contexts
            in ways that make God accessible in fresh ways for fresh times.

Even the term ‘theology’, if you unpick its ancient Greek origin,
            simply means ‘words about God’.

Which brings me to this morning, as together in our small way,
            we attempt to climb the latest pinnacle of the great mountain of theology,

So what words about God can we share today
            that will make God accessible to us, in our time and place?

Well, the premise about the nature of God
            that I’d like us to consider is very simple, and it is this:
            ‘God is not me’.
                        God is not you. God is not us.
Or, to put it another way,
            the corollary of the negative statement that ‘God is not me’,
            is the positive assertion that ‘God is other’.

And this is a very bold thing to say about God,
            because it flies in the face of so much
            that people might want to assert about God.

Many people these days,
            even many people within the communities of faith that call themselves churches,
            are not really convinced that God is ‘other’.

From the post-enlightenment liberal rationalist,
            who asserts that all our language of God is metaphorical,
to the fundamentalist
            who asserts that God’s word as revealed in scripture is literal;
there is common ground here that God is, in some way,
            contained within human language.

Whether the words we use to speak of God are metaphorical or literal,
            whether our theology is liberal or conservative,
the functional operating premise of Western Christianity
            has been that God is to be found
            in the words we use to speak of God.

And this can have some disastrous consequences,
            because it means that whoever controls the words, controls God.

The words I and my tribe (I mean, church) use to speak about God,
            will not be the same as the words
            used by the different tribe (I mean, church) down the road.

And if we have located God’s essence and presence within our words,
            then when we disagree about our theology,
            we are actually disagreeing not just about words about God,
            but about the very nature and being of God as revealed to humans.

People have fought wars over less,
            and certainly churches and denominations
            have fractured and split over exactly this issue.

So to assert that ‘God is not me’,
            to affirm that ‘God is other’,
is to admit that all our thoughts about God,
            all our ideas and words about God,
all our beliefs and theologies about God,
            no matter how deeply held and carefully conceived,
all of these… are not God.

Because God is not me.
            God is other.

And there is part of me that finds this immensely comforting,
            as well as deeply challenging.

The thing is, each of us has a tendency to place ourselves
            at the centre of our own world.

We can’t help it – it’s probably a function of the fact
            that the only eyes I have
                        through which to view the world are my eyes,
            and the only ears
                        through which I can hear the words of others are my ears,
            and the only brain
                        with which I can process the information from my senses is my brain.

Of course I’m the centre of my own world,
            just as of course you are the centre of yours.

Philosophically speaking,
            there is a genuine question to be asked here
                        about whether there is anything at all
                        beyond the personal, subjective perception of reality.

This is what is known as ontology,
            the question of whether only that which can be perceived exists.

The only evidence I have
            of a world beyond my own thoughts and imaginings
            is the evidence of my own senses,
                        which are both subjective and flawed.

There is a chance that you are merely a figment of my imagination,
            or possibly that I am merely a figment of yours.

Or maybe we are all living inside a computer simulation?
            If that sounds far-fetched, think again.
There is a strong case for arguing that the technology to do this
            is now so close that it makes it almost inevitable,
and if it is inevitable who is to say that it hasn’t already happened
            and we’re it?

And if nothing exists beyond my own perception of reality,
            whether that be biologically or virtually perceived,
then God, once again, becomes nothing more
            than an extension of my own psyche.

And so, once again, I want to say very clearly,
            that ‘God is not me’. God is other.

This is not a new insight, of course,
            because as the teacher of Ecclesiastes famously said,
            ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.

The insight that God is other to us
            is there within the theological tradition;
and the story of Moses and the burning bush
            is the classic, perhaps the definitive, example of this.

When Moses hears and sees God,
            the voice is not heard in his own head,
            this is no still small voice, or gentle whisper barely heard.
Rather, the voice of God is personified as an angel,
            speaking from a bush that burns but does not burn away.

God, in this story, is not Moses. God is other.

And this poses something of a problem for Moses,
            as it does for all of us who have sought
            to encounter God as other to ourselves.

How on earth does one draw near to a God
            whose being is so utterly alien and other
                        to our own experience and perception of reality
            that our words and thoughts cannot contain it?

When Moses realises that he has strayed into the territory of the divine other,
            that he is standing, so to speak, on holy ground,
            he hides his face because he is afraid to look at God.

And I think I’m with Moses here.
            It is a fearful thing to admit to our minds the idea of God as other.
We have no idea how to conceive of a God
            who does not, at some level, look or behave like us.

The language of the burning bush is intentionally othering
            – it is a thing most wonderful, almost to wonderful to be –
and it leaves us, with Moses, confused and afraid.

How can Moses, how can we, draw near
            to a God who is so utterly other to us?

But the God of the burning bush won’t leave Moses alone;
            he speaks to Moses of the suffering of his people,
            of freedom and an end to oppression.

God draws decisively near to Moses,
            even as Moses does not know how to draw near to God.

And again, this is a profound insight.

So much of what passes for Christian spirituality
            is about us finding ways of drawing near to God;
            through prayer, meditation, and the disciplines of spiritual observance.

Now please don’t hear me wrong here, by the way.
            I’m not opposed to the practice of prayer, or meditation,
                        or any of the other spiritual disciplines.
            But we do need to be clear that any encounter we may have
                        with the God who is not us,
                        will never originate from within us.
            To think that by our efforts, however well intentioned,
                        we can access the presence of God,
                        is to create God within our own frame of reference.

And as I’ve been trying to say very clearly,
            any God that we create through our own words and efforts
            is not, actually, God.

The insight of Moses encountering the burning bush
            is that God draws near to us,
                        that God speaks to us from beyond,
            and that God enters into our world of suffering, oppression, and violence
                        to bring freedom, and healing, and peace.

These are not blessings that we can summon up ourselves,
            they always come to us from beyond our own frame of reference.

In fact, it is the very nature of God as other to us
            that is the crucial factor here.

All inter-human attempts at bringing into being a new world
            are doomed to failure,
because for all our ingenuity and brilliance
            there is one thing we cannot change.

We cannot change ourselves.
            We cannot save ourselves from our human nature.
Selfishness will always out,
            because we are fundamentally selfish beings.

It is only a God who speaks to us from beyond ourselves,
            calling us to enter holy ground that is not of our construction,
                        who can save us from ourselves,
                        and from our repeating cycles of selfish ambition.

So who is this God who is other?

That is Moses’ next question;
            as if the activity of God in calling him to a new place of holiness
            had not already revealed enough
                        about the nature of the one who is beyond our imagining.

Moses wants a name.
            He wants syllables to speak and words to utter.
He wants to turn divine encounter into theology.

And so God gives him a name: ‘I AM WHO I AM’.
            God is. God is not Moses.
                        God is not an idol. God is not a man, or a woman.
            God is not an idea or a concept or an ideology.
                        God is not me. And God is not you.
            God just is.
                        God is who God is, as God says to Moses.

It is, I think, the most profound statement of theology in human history,
            that the only words that can adequately capture
                        the essence of the mystery of the divine
            are themselves words of mystery.

Because God, you see, does not exist in words of human construction.
            Rather God is encountered in relationship,
                        in the call that each of us receives
            that takes us beyond ourselves
                        and our finite subjective frame of reference
            and onto the holy ground of the presence of the other,
                        who speaks into the human heart
                        words and ideas of justice, love, peace, and freedom,
            that can never arise purely from within us
                        but must always come to us from beyond.

And this is how God is encountered,
            not through our efforts,
                        but by grace and invitation,
            and by the one who is other
                        making their presence and nature known to us.

Which brings me, at last, to the sermon to the Hebrews,
            and our title for today: ‘The Accessible Jesus’.

You will remember from the sermons we’ve already had
            in our series on Hebrews
that the people in the congregation it was written for had a problem,
            which was that they were struggling to relate to God.
The teachings and actions of Jesus, which had brought God close,
            were rapidly receding into the past,
and the God they worshipped in the name of Jesus
            was now high up in heaven,
            distant and aloof from the triumphs and tribulations,
                        the joys and the sorrows, of their day to day lives.

And so the preacher of Hebrews is offering them a variety of ways
            in which they can experience the presence of Jesus
            with them day by day.

And in this collection of verses we have before us today,
            we see a picture of Jesus as the one who bridges the gap
                        between God and humans.

Whilst none of us can, by our own efforts, enter the presence of God,
            it is the action of God in sending Jesus
            that once-and-for-all opens the doorway between earth and heaven.

The invitation to step onto holy ground,
            offered to Moses by the voice from the burning bush,
is offered to all people by the person of Jesus, God-made-flesh.

The God who is not me, and is not you,
            is made known in Jesus.
The God who is other, draws near to us in Jesus
            and invites us to draw near to him.

The revelation that begins with Moses on a mountain in Sinai
            finds its fulfilment in a stable in Bethlehem,
                        and on a cross outside Jerusalem,
                                    and in an empty tomb in a garden.

But, lest we fall back into the error
            of creating God in our own image,
it is not the stories of Jesus which save us,
            neither is it the words of the gospels
            which are good news for all people.

Jesus cannot be contained in letters and books.
            Jesus is not found in human words, however inspired.
Rather Jesus is God’s word,
            spoken to humanity so definitively
that the new world of love, justice, peace and freedom that he proclaims
            echoes throughout all of human history
            as a clarion call from beyond ourselves
                        to recognise that we are not all that there is to this universe,
            and that there is one who is beyond us
                        who calls us in love to take the step of faith
                        onto the holy ground of love.

All that is required of us are humble hearts,
            open to receive the gift of Christ
                        that saves us from ourselves
            by breaking into our subjective, insular, selfish souls
                        with an invitation to a new way of being human
            where, astonishingly and miraculously,
                        we are no longer at the centre of our own existence.

It is an invitation to a life where we love our neighbour
            as much as we love ourselves,
and where we love God who is not us,
            with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength.

The accessible Jesus is the one who opens the pathway
            between us and the God who is not us,
who invites us into the presence of the divine other
            through no effort on our part.

In Jesus, God reaches out in love to save us from ourselves
            in ways that we can never manage by our own efforts.

And this is not an exclusive gift,
            offered only to the chosen few who in some way deserve it,
            or have earned it through holy living or careful study.

The love of God made manifest in Jesus
            is a universal love that is extended to all people, in all places, in all times.

The word ‘universalism’ gets a bad press amongst Christians,
            as if it were a marker of heresy.
But I’d like to reclaim it,
            and invite you to rejoice with me that God’s love is universal,
            and that Christ died for all, and was raised for all,
                        so that each and every person, and indeed the whole of creation itself,
            can find its true nature and purpose
                        within the love of the God who is beyond us.

And as a thought to close,
            I find myself wondering why Christians spend so much time
                        trying to define God in human words,
            arguing over who’s right and who’s wrong,
                        over issues of orthodoxy or heresy,
            over who’s in and who’s out,
                        over whether there are some people who God loves,
                        and some whom he judges.

It seems pretty clear to me that through Jesus,
            all people are brought within the love of God.

Good news for one must be good news for all,
            or it is not good news.

And if we seek to keep the good news of the love of God from some,
            we in turn withhold it from ourselves.
That is the judgment of God.

But this new kingdom of God is a kingdom with no barriers,
            it is a city with no walls, a nation with no borders.

So each of us are invited onto the holy ground before the burning bush,
            to discover that God who is not us
                        speaks words to us of love, acceptance,
                        forgiveness, freedom, and justice.

And each of us are then invited, with Moses,
            to take the next step of faith,
and start living the kingdom of God into being in our world,
            living as if it were true,
            until it is true.