the rev dr john h pavelko
16th sunday in ordinary
What if God Were One of Us?
THE ENCHANTMENT OF DOUBT
Over the years, Hollywood has attempted to present its
depiction of God in human form. If memory serves me, the cigar smoking
George Burns was the first to humanize the Invisible in the movie O
God. Having decided that humanity is drastically off course, God
approaches a non-religious man, Jerry Landers, played by John Denver,
and sends him on a mission. God wants Landers to tell people that He's
still alive, still cares, but that it is up to humanity to change its
course. God, you see, doesn't get involved in details. More recently,
Morgan Freeman assumed the mantel of Divinity and appears to Bruce
Nolan, played by Jim Carrey. God is tried of listening to Nolan's
complaints about his misfortunes in life so he bestows on this out of
work reporter all of his supernatural powers for one week.
Through humorous make believe, the writers, directors and actors
attempted to present some very difficult theological questions. Our
simple curiosity prompts us to wander what form God would choose to
reveal himself. In a world that seems out of control, we wonder where
is God? What if God chose to communicate with his creation in a more
direct way? In 1996, Joan Osborne captured the essence of these
ponderings when she asked in her haunting song: What if God were one of
If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to his face
If you were faced with him and all his glory?
What would you ask if you had just one question?
What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home?
Osborne's song won 5 Grammy nominations including best record of the
year and best young artist. The songs lyrics are powerful. The
questions they ask strike at the heart of the human soul. People are
looking for answers. They are wondering why God remains so distant,
detached. Why isn't God more actively involved in human existence? Both
religious and non-religious people are asking these questions.
Conservatives were appalled by the lyrics. They were afraid that young
people would be led down the path of doubt and unbelief. I think that
those fears are over exaggerated.
First young people do not need a song to introduce them to those
questions. They have newspapers, TV, radio, and the movies. What do you
think they are asking when they see dead bodies lying beside the road
or the bloated bellies of starving children or the sobbing of a mother
dying of AIDS who pleads with relief workers to take care of her
children. In a world filled with sorrow and woe, we cannot help but
wonder where is God? The second reason that I am not worried about
songs leading young people into cynicism is because I would rather have
a young person spend time thinking about such questions than sedating
their brain on Nintendo. Computer generated games pose a much greater
problem than honest doubt. The third reason that the song does not
trouble me is that the song is honest about the real crux of the
matter. In one verse Osborne writes:
had a face, what would it look like?
And would you want to see,
If seeing meant that you had to believe
In things like heaven and in Jesus
And the saints and all the prophets?
Herein lies the real question, not of doubt but of will? Would you want
to see God if seeing meant believing? I do not know anything about Joan
Osborne's religious perspective. I do not know if she asked that
question as a believer or unbeliever, but it is a tremendously
insightful question. If God should himself appear before humanity,
would the skeptic believe?
The author of Lord of the Rings J. R. R. Tolkein once had a good friend
who was a committed atheist. Both men were professors and extremely
well read. They would spend hours together discussing the twists and
turns of ancient Norse legends and stories from the Middle Ages. Being
a good Catholic, Tolkein would often try to persuade his friend Jack to
consider the claims of Christianity but his fellow scholar always had a
reason to reject them. The man could dissect a philosopher's
speculation without even breaking a sweat. For every point suggested by
Tolkein, Jack had a counterpoint.
One evening Tolkein once again challenged his friend with the claims of
the gospel. He pointed out that when his colleague would read myths of
gods dying and then coming back to life, he was deeply moved but he
stopped short of accepting the claims a Christianity because the story
is simply a true myth, it really did happen. Tolkein's arguments were
very unsettling for Jack and nine days later while on walking with his
friends through a zoo C.S. Lewis, who was known to his friends as Jack
became a believer. He would later write, "when we set out I did not
believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and when we reached the zoo
It was a long and difficult struggle for the intellectual Lewis to
release all of his objections and accept the truth that Paul captures
in a simple phrase-he is the image of the invisible God. To answer Joan
Osborne's question, God did become one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. But
the modern mind has trouble accept that message. Readers of poetry know
that the most admired poems are the ones that ask but never answer the
ultimate questions of life. Paul Simon expressed the modern minds
infatuation with doubt in his song "Flowers Never Bend with The
Rainfall" when he wrote
The mirror on my wall
Casts an image dark and small
But I'm not sure at all it's my reflection.
I am blinded by the light
Of God and truth and right
And I wander in the night without direction.
Truth and certainty were never a issue for the apostle Paul after his
Damascus road experience. After Jesus appeared to him in a vision
asking him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul the Pharisee
become, Paul the apostle and believed without doubt, without
hesitation, without reservation.
When Paul picked up his pen to write a letter to the church in Colosse
he did not i stumble around in the darkness of doubt but bathed in the
light of truth. He did not search for the historical Jesus but
expounded upon the glory of the cosmic Christ. His words are not
sentimental poetry but contain the thoughts of spiritual insight and
hours of intellectual thought. They move us beyond a simple-minded,
me-and-Jesus mentality that is so often expressed in our prayers and
songs. Paul's message pushes us to contemplate the incomprehensible.
WHEN HE WAS NOT ONE OF US
Paul tells us that Christ is the firstborn of all creation. His
statement does not refer to an idea or thought but to a man who lived
and died in Palestine.2 He is not the only author who writes on the
subject. The apostle John writes "In the beginning was the Word and the
Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the
beginning." And even Jesus Himself understood his pre-existence when he
told the Pharisees, "Before Abraham, I am."
In our obsession with a personal God, we seldom contemplate the
incomprehensibility of the Christ's pre-existence. Before the first
rocks were created, when all of creation consisted of a swirling mass
of indefinable cosmic gas, Christ was with the Father. We must be
careful not to allow our thinking to become too anthropomorphic. Some
splinter groups would have us believe that Christ enjoyed a physical
existence. However, Paul's reference does not include a bodily
subsistence. God dwells in the invisible world beyond the focus of the
human eye, beyond the limitations of space and time, as we know it,
beyond the confines of flesh and blood. When the earth was void and
without form; when all cosmic definitions of a physical reality did not
apply, Christ dwelt in the presence of God.
In that primeval soup, God the Father in communion with God the Son and
God the Holy Spirit laid out his plan for all of Creation. In he chaos
of non-existence, before anything was brought into being, God set the
foundations for all of human history and the invisible Divinity brought
into existence a visible reality. Beginning with the nebulous God
created a cosmos, then a universe then planet, then a human being, then
a family, then a particular nation, then king, and then, the climatic
act of creation God brings into being the person who has been with him
since the beginning-his one and only Son.
WHY HE BECAME ONE OF US?
The 17th Century Puritan pastor, Thomas Manton, asked in his sermon on
this text, "Why this excellency of our Redeemer should be so deeply
impressed upon our minds and hearts?"3 He states that the first reason
is so that we will understand his sufficiency to redeem the world. Our
salvation is not obtained by just any man. The cost was not paid by an
angel or other heavenly entity but by the very person who existed with
the Father throughout all eternity. Manton writes, "His sufferings were
temporary and finite; but it is the blood of God, - he hath offered up
himself through the eternal Spirit."
The second reason that Paul impresses upon our minds the excellency of
Christ is to work upon our love for God. This is a reciprocal love. We
love him because of who he is-the very God of all Creation. We also
love him for what he did. Knowing that he is the God of all creation,
knowing that he lived in holy communion with the other members of the
Godhead we begin to fathom the depth of his power and love. Once again
Manton writes, "There was power discovered in the creation, when God
made us like himself out of the dust of the ground; but love in our
redemption, when he made himself like us." When we consider who it was
who became human and died we should be overwhelmed with love and
I believe a third reason that Paul wants to impress upon our hearts the
preexistence of Christ is to convince us that the pain and suffering of
this life was taken into consideration even before the world began. In
the turbulence and turmoil of pre-eternity, God could see into the
future and know your suffering and pain. Before a mountain was formed,
before the waters were parted, before the Spirit hovered over that
prehistoric brew, even before the first rays of light had exploded with
a deafening bang, the one who would come to save you knew the plight of
your human existence. Your life is not without meaning. Your life is
not without purpose. Before all forms of life began, God commissioned
his Son to sacrifice his life for you.
This is the mystery God chose to make known to us. This is the glorious
riches that we enjoy. This is the hope of our glory.
SO WHAT IF?
So, what if God were one of us? The question should not
be asked in skeptical doubt. The answer is will not be discovered
through philosophical speculation. The question has been answered by
the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The man in whom dwelt the fullness of
God. The person who existed before the world began. The person who is
before all things, by whom all things were created, and now who holds
all things together.
1 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early
Life, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1955), 237.
2 E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the
Ephesians and Colossians, NICNT, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 1957; 1957), 196
3 Thomas Manton, Christ's eternal existence and the
Dignity of his person asserted and proved: Sermon II,
16 July 16, 2004.