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Was Jesus Really God?1

John 16:12-15

 THE MATRIX
The year is 2199. Planet earth has been taken over by The Matrix-an artificial intelligence. Human beings live suspended in pods and connected with one another via a massive computer. They do not live in a physical world but in a computer-generated reality. A series of electronic impulses produce image of trees, rocks, grass, and animals. It is a wonderful world. There is no pollution, no hunger, no wars, and very little crime. Criminals and non-conformist are quietly reprogrammed or unplugged. However, "humans live their lives ...[as] slaves of an evil system that has a false claim on [them]."2

The story begins with a group of rebels recruiting a renegade, computer programmer Thomas Anderson. The rebels are convinced that Anderson is the man who will fulfill ancient prophecy. They call him Neo, which means new man. He is the Messiah. The leader of the rebel force is Morphous, the father figure. He is determined to set his people free. He is also convinced that Anderson is the chosen one. The theological connection is intensified when Neo asks Morphous about his name. Morphous responds, "I will be who I will be." Those of you who are familiar with the book of Exodus or the movie The Prince of Egypt will remember Moses asking God about his name and God says, "I am." Trinity, a woman capable of supernatural flight and fight completes the Godhead by serving as the embodiment of the Spirit. 

The filmed borrows on the old sci-fi and western movie motifs and is laced with Biblical images and concepts. It even has a resurrection event that masterfully portrays a theological truth through the skillfully use of modern visual effects. However, the film demonstrates the difficulty of presenting certain theological concepts. Morphous, Neo, and Trinity represent one person of the Godhead. While maintaining their distinct personalities, they learn to function as one and become inseparable in their fight against the evil Matrix. Herein lies the perplexing mystery of the Trinity. How does the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit function as three distinct personalities, minister as three distinct entities yet still exist, in essence, as one God?

The subject is one of the most perplexing and mind numbing in theology. The famous theologian St Augustine was walking along the beach one day and meditating on the complex truth. He observed a young boy running back and forth with a bucket in his hand. The boy would run to the ocean, fill his bucket with water, then run up the beach and pour the water into a little hole. Augustine asked the little boy, "What are you doing?" The boy replied, "I'm trying to put the ocean into this hole." Augustine then realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.3

One seminary professor jokingly advised his student to arrange their vacation schedule to coincide with Trinity Sunday. I suppose I should be careful how I refer to the God. The more politically correct way of referring to the Trinity is now-Parent, Child and Special Effects. This is more preferred than the older politically incorrect reference of "two men and a bird." And the even older and more "incorrect" way of referring to the Trinity as "Daddy," "Laddie" and "Spook."

Language and bad jokes aside, the doctrine is simple to state-God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet, it is difficult to understand how three persons can exist as one God. Two thirds of the concept is easy to understand. Most people do not have any trouble affirming that God, as father, is the creator of the world. Most people do not have any problem affirming that God is Spirit, that mysterious power which infuses our lives, that intangible presence that gives life to all of creation. But the difficult part concerns a certain Jew from Nazareth, who was born of a woman, who walked on earth, who ate, with sinners, who felt sorrow and cried real tears, who even bleed and who died. How can this man be God?

Mary Magalene sang in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar

I don't know how to love him?
What to do and how to move him?
He's just a man?
And I have had so many men before,
In oh, so many ways,
He just one more.
This is the crux of the matter. We just cannot fathom how a man, who was born with flesh and blood could be the incarnation of the Divine who is spirit.

 BEGINNING WITH THE WRONG IMAGE OF GOD
The source of the problem contends William Willimon, Chaplain at Duke University, really begins with our image of God. He argues that before we can truly understand who Jesus is, we must first understand who God is. He states that if we begin with the wrong image of God, Jesus will never measure up. For example, suppose your image of "God" is the Hindu Shiva? God is the eternally active cosmic birther and destroyer, the great god of the dance. Does Jesus look like that God?
Or what if your image of God is the Muslim god who demands total, complete obedience to his complex and explicit demands? Does the freedom of Jesus lifestyle match? Not at all. 

Willimon insists that one reason people cannot accept the idea that Jesus was God Incarnate, is because they are measuring the personal Jesus against an impersonal other. They begin with some hypothetical being that exists somewhere out there. Some divine presence who appears detached and aloof from the affairs of our lives but who takes more than a passing interest in them. Bette Milder popularized this view in her song "From a Distance" She sang about a God who cared, who listened, who was concerned but who is basically removed from the day to day struggles of humanity. This God never gets too involved in this world except when an insurance company wants to avoid paying a claim. 

By beginning with a concept of God that is eternal, but distant and detached Jesus does not measure up. Jesus was a man. He was born, he suffered, and he died. More than that when he lived, he lived not floating three feet above mundane reality. He attended parties. He enjoyed good wine and invited himself to dinner. How can such an earthly man also exist as a divine being? How can a man who was born of a woman, be "True God of True God."4

 GOD "INCARNATE" IN THE OT
To understand this we must reshape are understanding of the God of Israel. Throughout the Old Testament, God does not remain remote but intimate, caring, in his dealings with his people. There is a splendid story that illustrates this in Numbers 14. The people of Israel were standing on the bank of the Jordan River waiting to go into the Promised Land. Moses sends spies to scout out the land. They return with both good news and bad news. The people ignore the good news. They forget the numerous times God delivered them from the oppression of the Egyptians and miraculously rescued them from the army of Egypt. They ignore the times God provided both food and water for them while they traveled in the dessert. They allowed their fears and doubts. They unleashed a torrent of complaints to Moses, "We should have never left Egypt. We liked it better in slavery!"(14:11)

At this point God gets mad. God takes Moses aside and announces that he has had enough. He tells Moses to move out of his way. He is going to destroy the nation. The ongoing argument between the Sovereign and Servant, between the Deity and Prophet, is a wonderful portrayal of the "humanness" of God. Moses positions himself between God and the people and offers his first salvo in the debate.
 

Look you don't want to do that

And why not I'm God and can do what I please with the people I created

Well for one thing, it will make you look like a fool to all the Egyptians. They will hear about it and they will tip off all of these Canaanite pagans in the promised land and you will look like a fool having gone to all this trouble to free Israel only to kill them. Aren't you the God who said your name was mercy and long suffering. Now's your chance

All right, all right I won't kill everybody... but somebody is going to pay for this. I am going to kill those men who brought back the bad report. They can rot in the desert for all I care.

You gotta love a God like that-emotional, appearing alittle unbalanced, anthropomorphic, large, prickly, loving an argument, hoping to be persuaded and able to "change his mind." That is a "human," incarnate God.

 THE DIVINE REACH
One theology professor asks, "What if there were someone walking this earth in the form of this God?" If this God become human, there would not be any talk about a distance, uninvolved, dispassionate, disengaged God. If this personal, emotional, human God became human, couldn't he look like Jesus? That is exactly what the Church has claimed for two thousand years. Not simply that Jesus was God, but that God was Jesus. From the beginning, that is what all the fuss was about. This Galilean who drank wine, partied with his friends, touched the untouchables agonized over the plight of his people, told strange stories, mouthed off to the authorities and was finally executed in a most horrible way-this Jesus was God.

When most of us think of Jesus as God incarnate, in the flesh, we tend to think that somehow a human being was elevated, either in his mind or the minds of his followers, to divine status. It is difficult to imagine that a baby could be in essence of the same substance with the one who brought forth creation.

But the faith of Israel was always in a God who was to some degree, incarnate, that is intimately, caringly mercifully involved with his people. In a few minutes, I will offer the Eucharistic Prayer. The prayer always contains a summation of God's involvement in history. I will remind us of how God brooded over the waters of creation, bringing forth life, how God worked through the lives of the patriarchs to the time when God spoke through the prophets. God was doing in Jesus what God has been doing throughout all of redemptive history-reaching out to us, loving us, embodying love in specific, historical, tangible, accessible ways.

When you review the history of God's people, Israel. You could retell their story with either a positive or negative slant. You could focus on the repeated failures, the repeated sin and their refusal to listen; or you could retell the story of a God's repeated never-ending determination to save a people by coming again and again to them.

The NT writers proclaim that this divine reaching out is embodied in the man from Nazareth. They are essentially announcing "Now it has been revealed to us that God is with us in the person of Jesus."

In a few moments, we will together affirm our faith by reading the Nicene Creed. The Church composed this Creed in 383 AD in order to bring clarity and unity to its theological beliefs. It presents, a profound statement on the person of Jesus Christ and the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This doctrine is not an invention of the church to baffle and confuse people. It is a series of statements using the language of the philosophy, to describe the god that the authors had met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Today it is our claim that when we look at Jesus we see as much of God as we ever hope to see. This is not something that can be argued about or debated; it is life to be lived, a relationship that is difficult to explain, but a wonder to enjoy. 

That may sound rather silly but so do many other things in our world, for example, consider the marriage relationship. I cannot really explain why my marriage means so much to me. Oh, I suppose I could tell you about all the sacrificial things Carol does especially to support my ministry, but that would only scratch the service of what my marriage really means to me. The difficulty is not that the relationship is unreal, but rather the reality is so deep, so engaging that words fail to adequately describe it. For me the Trinity of the godhead, God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, expresses another wonderful truth. I do not worship three gods but One God who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus.


1 I have quoted freely and without notation from William H. Willimon,  "Was Jesus Really God?", Pulpit Resource, Vol. 26 No. 2, June 7, 1997, p. 46.
2 David Bruce, Online: http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/matrix.htm.
3 Michael Green, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, Baker Book House, 1993, 389 quoted by Bret Blair, Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.
4 The Nicene Creed.

 


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