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God - a Loving Person
Not an Abstraction
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Advent III - 10/12/12 Amos 7; Ps. 23; I Cor. 4:1-5; Mt. 11:2-10
Advent focuses primarily on the coming of Jesus which we call the Incarnation, the coming of the spiritual Son of God into the flesh, into our world of time and space, with a human body. Many religions have imagined their gods and goddesses having a body of flesh. Almost all early paganism routinely imagined such things. And the pagan world would have been quite happy to have welcomed Jesus as another one of those kinds of divinities. The Roman pantheon, for example, always had room for one more.
But the Christians were, like the Jews, monotheists, and could not acknowledge the Lordship of any other than Jesus. They could acknowledge Caesar as emperor of Rome, but not as Lord of all life, moral decider of the right and the wrong, the decider of the reason for existence of all things at all times. Only the triune God could be and do that.
For Biblical religion, Jewish or Christian, the Lord of life was the Creator of all life. No other would be acknowledged. Being Creator meant that you owned what you created, lock, stock, and barrel.
So He who came into the world on that long-ago first Christmas Day was the living Word of God, the eternally generated Son of God, who could say, "If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father." And, "The Father and I are one." If He was not in fact the Son of God, then Jesus was not the Great Teacher many want to make of Him, He was either blaspheming or insane.
No other religion on the face of the earth says anything remotely like Christians see Jesus. And most religions find claims about such an incarnation to be nonsense. So, with these fundamental differences, we can expect to find, in relation to this new born Child, a religion very different from other religions of the world.
Beginning early in the Old Testament, we hear of a God who has great love for His creation, especially for those personal beings, we humans, who, we are told, are made in the Image of that God who created us. That too is unique to the Bible.
We being made in the Image of God meant that God did not have to twist Himself all out of shape to become one of us. He had only, as St. Paul relates in Philippians 2, to "empty" Himself, diminish Himself, scale Himself down to our size. But Jesus was no less of a personal being for doing so, no less God for doing so. He still carried in Himself sovereignty over all creation -- including over Caesar, that is, over civil government.
Again, no other religion in the world says such things. Comparisons with Eastern religions which assert that all religions are worshipping the same God, and are thus saying essentially the same thing -- are wide of the mark and suggest an inexcusable lapse of intellectual accuracy. Christians are not saying the same thing at all, we are saying things in almost all cases quite contradictory about the nature of God, about our relation to Him, and about our future in Heaven.
The whole of the uniquely Christian message hangs on these two Comings, the Incarnation -- and then the 2nd coming in which the sovereignty of God will be administered in the final Judgement, the separating of the sheep from the goats, those who love God and their neighbors from the evil-minded ones, those who are not interested in loving either God or their neighbors. The separation is between those who want what God is offering from those who cannot stand the thought of living with such a God or with such a people. C. S. Lewis's book, The Great Divorce, is a superb picture of that separation, that divorce.
The two Comings tell us something unique in all of religious history -- that God is creating a community based on love. Anyone familiar with human history will know that such an idea, that the cosmos is about loving one another, never surfaces in all of pagan or secular literature. Pagans might admire a person who loved other people at great cost to himself, a person who might die for another. They admired deep loyalty, and people who died well. But that was almost always in a military sense -- for oneís king, commander, or comrade in arms, not notably for oneís family, neighbor, or religion. To suggest that they should form their communities on the basis of loving one another would have been, and was, treated with contempt. It was a notion with it head in the clouds, totally unrealistic and impractical.
The world for pagans, and equally for secular folks, is a world of power politics. As Mao Tse Tung is said to have remarked, morality comes out the other end of a gun barrel. Might makes right. The world is eat or be eaten. He who bases his life on love is a fool.
Love, in the pagan world, was not an obligation. There was no Second Great Commandment saying so. Love was just a bit of good luck, a good idea if you can get it. But when push came to shove, force, the other end of the gun barrel, won out over love.
Even within your family, you must be very guarded -- as Able found out with Cain. The world went downhill from there, and has never recovered. Except.... when God intruded.
It began, of course, in the Mesopotamian Valley with Abraham, who was plucked out of Babylon, the reigning pagan power of the time, and told to go to Canaan -- which was Podunk, NowheresVille, a desert crossroads area between the two great powers, Egypt and Babylon.
And with painful slowness, the vision began to form in the lives of the Hebrews, that there was a Creator God who cared for them, who had chosen them out of all the peoples of the earth, not for themselves alone, but for sake of the whole world. What an absurd idea!
The Hebrews were told early on that they were to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. And they learned also that they were to love their neighbors, and even the foreigners, the sojourners among them, just like they loved themselves. They were already unique in all the world.
Then one day, many centuries later, someone (Mt. 22) asked Jesus the meaning of the Law, to which Jesus replied with the two Great Commandments -- to love God and oneís neighbor. For the people of God, love was not a happenstance thing, a matter of good luck, onto which you might stumble... Love was now commanded. It was an obligation. Moreover, Jesus was saying that love was the very meaning of the cosmos, the very reason for it's being created in the first place. If we want to fulfill our own reason for existence, we must love God and our neighbors.
Something new was happening on the face of our fallen earth. Never before had love been made an obligation -- let alone an absolute and universal obligation on all persons at all times. That which was absurd and wholly impractical in the pagan world was now a universal obligation in the Biblical world.
But, sadly, we Christians are not known for our love today. It is not said today, "See how those Christians love one another!" We are too "practical".
It was said at one time. During the Roman period, when a plague came to town, if you had a country villa to which to flee, and had any common sense, you got out of the city. But the Christians, by and large, did not. At high cost to themselves, they stayed and helped one another through the plague, and reached out even to the pagans, visiting them with food and water, and cleaning them up. Some of them died for their neighbors.
Pagans began to notice that. Their admiration for those who knew how to die well told them that something special was happening. One emperor commanded the priests at the emperor-and-government-supported pagan shrines to teach their people the same kind of behavior, to love their neighbors. (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity).
It never happened -- because pagan religion has no concept of love as a viable universal activity, and still less as a commandment from the gods or goddesses.
But many of the pagans said, "If having Jesus in your heart does that for you, then I want Jesus in my heart!" So converts were made by the willingness of Christians to risk their lives for those they loved -- even for pagans.
The law of God has turned loving oneís neighbor from the height of foolishness and impracticality to the height of wisdom and practicality. Love, Godís kind of love, is the only possible way of building strong relationships, strong families, strong societies. Love is the royal road to that only stable and enduring of all societies, the Kingdom of God. Only people who love their neighbors are capable of building such a stabile community.
But to successfully love oneís neighbor, one must first be loved by God, and be loving God in return. The two great commandments work together or they do not work at all.
So, how are the people of God going ever to experience that kind of love which they must have in order to love their neighbors like they love themselves?
Enter the Son of God.... Incarnation....
The Incarnation tells us something: that the Kingdom of God is a community, and that it is formed by being in communion with God and our neighbors. So, God comes personally to make Himself known. Only in that communion with God can we find the inner strength and stability to love when we are not being loved. Only because God is willing to die for us can we commit ourselves, even to die, for our neighbors. The world, and all of its fallen religions, cannot do that. None of this could make sense in a pagan religion.
The world treats heaven as a place into which you can buy a ticket, purchased with your good deeds. You buy your way in. Or in the mystical religions of the East, it is a state of being, transcending, floating upward into the heavenly state of existence where you merge with the cosmos, become one with the cosmos.
But in the Bible, heaven is a personal relationship, a community, neither a place nor a mystical state of being.
In the mystical heaven, there is no communion because we all lose our personhood and individuality as we merge with the cosmos. We all become one with each other, not by fulfilling our individual personhood, but by evacuating it. All of our separate individualities merge into the one Cosmic Consciousness. There is no longer an "I" as distinct from a "you". There is only the Infinite Self, the Great Ineffable One. But there is no time, no willing, no thinking, and no feelings for relationship because there is no relationship. Such a condition is indistinguishable from just plain death.
The Son of God comes to us the first time to prepare us for that Godly kind of love, and thus for that kind of Kingdom.
And then He comes again, as we anticipate, looking forward to the End of all things. But "End" does not mean stopping. It means reaching the fullness of our reason for existence, it means reaching our goal of - life going well. It means reaching that state of relationship described by St. Paul in I Corinthians 13:13, where we are all -- always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful.
The Kingdom will not be a static abstraction, it will be a dynamic, moving, changing community, with things happening. What else can the world "hope" and "hopeful" mean? There continues in the Kingdom to be a future as well as a past and a present. Time is a fundamental part of all relationship and therefore of the Kingdom.
The Bible never hints toward a non-personal and non-active Kingdom. It is always pictured as the fulfillment of the time and space creation which we inhabit. There will be drastic changes, to be sure, but as the fulfillment of truth and righteousness, not the evacuation of all possibility of them.
We read in Amos this morning of the plumbline which God holds up, by which we are judged as either upright or tilting in sin and degradation. God says that He will judge by that plumbline and will not pass by again relenting from the punishment. But that same plumbline of severe judgement, which turns out to be the law of love, is that by which we are also brought into the Kingdom, that by which we are saved.
In Psalm 23, the same shepherd who brings judgement bring peace and fulfillment to those who repent and obey: "The Lord is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing.... He shall convert my soul, and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.... Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." These are all relationship terms, not mystical unknowns.
In the Gospel, the disciples of John the Baptist come to ask Jesus whether He might be the Messiah. Jesus responds indirectly: "Go and show John again those thing which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them..." These are words pointing to empirical evidence, not words of mysticism, these are words about life as we live it. This is what Jesus meant when He said to His disciples that, "The Kingdom of God is among you!" Right here in the hurly burly of life. The Kingdom of God is the power of relationship with the King right in the middle of the life we live here and now.
When Jesus comes back the second time, it is permanent.
Things will be different after the second coming, but the biggest difference will be a result of the righteous judgement with the separation of the sheep from the goats. The forces of evil will no longer be free to pollute the creation. And the righteous and loving commands of God will circulate freely among all the inhabitants of the earth -- so that even the physical world will run well. As Paul says in Romans 8:21, "...because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay (entropy) and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God."
The two Comings of Christ show us that God is a personal God, a Someone, not a something; a particular Individual, not an abstraction, not a principle. And that means that we must find God through the particular man Jesus, not just any way we think we can. If heaven is a relationship with a particular and individual Someone, then the only possible way to have that relationship is through the Self-revelation of that Person, and not in any other way.
The Self-revelation of God comes through Jesus -- who comes to us, as at this season, as God and Man, making Himself known and available.
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