Sunday, June 7, 2009

How Do You See God?

Sheepscott Community Church June 7, 2009

Isaiah 6: 1-8
John 3: 1-17

How Do You See God?

Most of us have to visualize God in some way in order to feel a relationship with the Creator. If we asked the prophet Isaiah how he saw God, he would probably get that faraway look in his eyes and tell us the story of his calling to the role of prophet in the year King Uzziah died. He would tell how he, a man of “unclean lips,” as he termed himself as a sinner, saw the Lord in his glory. It really is a magnificent scene that we heard Ted read this morning. Isaiah described it––the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filling the temple, with seraphs above him, who were calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

“At the sound of their voices,” the vision narrative continued, “the door posts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

That’s when Isaiah exclaims about being a man of unclean lips being in the presence of the King, the Lord Almighty, figuring he was ruined because he was so out of place, so not where he deserved to be. But a seraph saves the day, touching his mouth with a hot coal from the altar, saying, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” It is God who has called, and so it is God who makes provision by way of the live coal for his sinfulness. It is God who cleanses for his purposes.

Isaiah saw God as a a royal figure on a throne, with the train of his robe filling the temple. That sounds very kingly, does it not? If Isaiah was not in fact a priest at the temple––and he may have been––scholars at least agree that he was a member of the privileged class of noble families, who seem to have had direct access to King Uzziah at the time preceding Isaiah’s call to the prophetic life. He was a man of the city, which accounts for his urban metaphors, and the city of his heart was Jerusalem, the seat of the Temple and of David’s throne. In fact the Temple was sometimes called the King’s chapel because it was right next door to the palace.

We can begin to see why Isaiah beheld God in vision in that context because it was his context, and one he would understand. And God knew that. The aspect of the majesty of God was very accessible to him because of the parallel earth-bound majesty of the King and his court, and the Temple and its priests, which may be said to mirror the divine court, and which parallels he had probably frequently beheld.

By contrast the prophet Micah was nurtured not in the court theology but in the Exodus tradition, which was kept alive in the rural areas of Judah. He is like the prophet Amos, in that sense, who describes himself as “... not a prophet/ Nor one of the sons of prophets; rather, I am a herdsman,/ and a dresser of sycamore trees./ However, Yahweh took me from behind the flock,/ and Yahweh said to me: Go! Prophesy to my people Israel. ”[7: 14, 15].

Amos’s agricultural references in his writings are unmistakable: “I will crush you as a cart crushes when loaded with grain” [2:13]; “the farmers will be summoned to weep and the mourners to wail./ There will be wailing in all the vineyards,/ for I will pass through your midst,’ says the Lord.” [5: 16b, 17]; ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman/ and the planter by the one treading grapes... ‘I will plant Israel in their own land/ never again to be uprooted/ from the land I have given them,’ says the Lord God.” [9: 13, 15]

The contrast between the contexts of the oracles of the three prophets is notable: Amos the shepherd, taken from tending his flocks, grounds his messages in agricultural metaphors. He understands the God of the countryside. Likewise Micah, the country prophet, who spoke for the poor farmers suffering at the hands of the powerful landlords. Isaiah by contrast, our prophet of today’s reading, understands the God of the city of Jerusalem, the God of the privileged ones, and it is from that base of understanding about the majestic God that he delivers his prophecies between the years from 740 until at least 700 BCE.

One way that Isaiah’s prophetic imagination can be expressed is in terms of concentric circles of institutional structure that had unified the diverse spheres of the royal court, the priesthood and commerce, all of which were ruptured by the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, the first wave of captivity of the Israelite people in Babylon.

What happened when that structure of kingship and Temple, and consequently commerce, fell apart, as it did? What Second Isaiah promised, prophesied to the people in captivity in Babylon answers that question, not only for the Israelite people then but for us now, who are looking at the collapse of General Motors; of Chrysler already gone through bankruptcy; at a still-polarized electorate, evidenced in the recent murder of Dr. Tiller, an abortion provider; of an emotionally charged debate only just beginning about the suitability of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

What did Isaiah say about what happens when the established structure falls apart? The answer can be discovered only in relation to the Center, that is, the God who was present with the people before the introduction of either Temple or kingship, before the introduction of the presidency of any country, of any founding document, of any religious institution with its creeds or doctrines. Isaiah presents God as a dynamic, destiny-shaping presence in the midst of human history. All that exists in heaven and on earth, planets and humans, finds its being and purpose in relation to that Center.

In Paul Hanson’s words from his book Interpretation, Isaiah 40-66, “Once faith is sure of its grounding in the one true God, it is able to address every aspect of life boldly, freshly and courageously.” The exiles in Babylon learned that they could continue without a central sanctuary. They gathered together, which is the meaning of the word “synagogue,” remembered their tradition and their homeland, and they prayed.

We too, who have come to this other of our churches for the summer season, the other border of our homeland, and who are grounded in the one true God, we, like the exiles, know that although we are fond of and care for our sanctuaries, we could survive without them. We are the worshipping community, wherever we gather, and our annual migration, reminiscent of exile, is a useful reminder of that. We are the synagogue, the people gathered. This is really part of our epic as a community, this migration, isn’t it? It’s like an annual pilgrimage, that breaks us away from any complacency and heightens our awareness of God’s presence in our present situation, guided and enriched by our recognition of what our living Center is, of who our living Center is: No less than God himself, the God whom Isaiah beheld in vision in the Temple, and yet the God of Micah and Amos out in the countryside, among the farmers, plowing and harrowing, harvesting and gathering into barns.

I am reminded of the late Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest from India, who was a spiritual guide for many. He believed that Christian doctrines per se were simply a finger pointing to the moon; they were misunderstood if they became the final object of our attention. The Gospel, for de Mello, points us to the truth that lies behind words, concepts and images, to the God beyond the constructed god. He believed that Christ was not so much concerned with imparting doctrines to his listeners as in awakening them to new life and the offer of salvation that was in their midst.

All of these are different visions of God from different prophets of God. I started off with the question, How do you see God? However that is, you can be sure that it is in that way that God will probably speak to you, in you and through you to your family, to your worshipping community and to the world. As I noted, God speaks to us in our individual contexts, and can accommodate endless expressions of who that One is, myriad, and diverse, and yet absolutely One as God is.

My favorite attribute of this church is the glass windows. The message that God is more than what happens with us here in the sanctuary, and that the sanctuary is more than the building where we worship is abundantly clear in this space because of those windows. They will keep out the rain, but they do not keep out the light or prevent the view of trees, whichever way we look. We see that God is in Nature, perhaps is Nature. This being our communion Sunday, we will know once again the homely and sweetly available presence of God in this communion we share, in this nourishing form of matter Jesus chose to remind us of his ongoing presence in his church. Which presence was revitalized by the coming of the holy Spirit, whom we celebrated last Sunday on Pentecost.

Aren’t we lucky? Aren’t we blessed to have all of these avenues available to us to know God? Thank you God for being the dynamic, destiny-shaping presence you are in our midst.

Perhaps the most obvious way we know the presence of God is in each other. We can
also recognize the activity of God in the spawning of the alewives I spoke about last week, in all babies––who can forget William Skiff in the manger last Christmas––in Donna’s dog Spirit and in what he has done for her, and in all our animals whom we love. It’s not difficult to see God in all these manifestations. What may be more difficult for us as individuals is seeing God in our selves, believing that possible. May we love each other to life in that way, truly functioning thereby as a community, recognizing the Christ in each other when we share the bread and the cup in the communion this morning and calling each other forth into our fullest selves.

Why does God go to all this trouble with us? Why doesn’t God just sit back on that throne or in a tractor with a cab and a view out on the hillside and leave us to our own devices? The answer is in Isaiah 43, v.3: “Because you are precious in my sight,/ and honored, and I love you.” Amen.

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