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16th sunday in ordinary time

Colossians 1:15-28

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 us?

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:

If God 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 I did."1


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 gratitude.


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, [online:available] http://www.newblehome.co.uk/manton/sermoncol-b.html, 16 July 16, 2004.

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