Luke 4: 1 – 13; Luke 4: 16 – 21
Sun 26 Jun
Last time I preached I began a series of sermons asking what it means to speak of God and to live in God in a time when the very idea of God is increasingly set aside. We entered into the story of Moses and the burning bush and heard again, as though for the first time, the enigmatic way God is imaged there, pondering what it might mean to live today within the activity of God imaged as ‘I am’ and ’I will be what I will be.’ Today we enter into two gospel stories that suggest how Jesus imaged and lived within God. I say ‘imaged’ rather than ‘described’ for God is mystery beyond the reach of human words. We speak of God in images that over time we find to be more or less adequate as pointers toward a pestering presence and an empowering grace.
The Gospel of Luke begins with two stories that portray Jesus in the act of choosing between two ways of imaging and responding to God. They are options that are still with us. The first possibility of ‘God- life’ is the implied backdrop to the story of the Temptations and the second in the account of Jesus’ sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. Taken together they give us important clues as to how Jesus imaged and lived in God and as a result how he understood his role as servant of the Divine purposes. I will focus on a single question: how is God, the mysterious ‘I am’ of the burning bush, imaged in these stories and what implications for life follow from these imaginative snapshots of the ever present yet elusive reality or energy we describe as ‘God’.
The unexamined assumption behind the words of the story of the Temptations is that the idea and presence of ‘God’ refers to a heavenly power, dwelling beyond the messiness of human existence but able without any meaningful cooperation from the human family to feed the hungry, to control political life and to work miracles that benefit those who believe. It’s an image of what we might call ‘Power-God’. Significantly Jesus set aside this view of God and the way of life it encourages. There are great problems with this still popular image of God. If God does everything, knows everything, is control of every detail, rewards and punishes according to divine moods, then humans have no role to play in the ongoing work of creation –we become puppets in the hands of a puppet master.
Human history demonstrates that those who image God as all-powerful soon seek to build their own power and control over others, acting as thought they are agents of an all powerful deity. Success in life comes to be defined by how much authority and power one has over others. Jesus rejects this image of God and its consequences for human living. Luke portrays it as a ‘demonic’ suggestion.
In his sermon at Nazareth Jesus makes it quite clear he images God quite differently. His awareness of God is built on that part of the Hebrew tradition that pictures God as love flowing through all of life bringing healing, renewal and transformation wherever it flows. In Nazareth Jesus drew attention to the words of Isaiah 61 and the Jubilee tradition of which this text is part. The Year of the Jubilee (described in Leviticus 25) was an invitation to live within ‘God-love’ and in this spirit to contribute to the care of the needy, the oppressed, the blind, the marginalised and the left behind. The imagined but never fully enacted Jubilee legislation suggested that every 50 years societies should conduct a social audit and redress social and economic imbalances that inevitably would have developed over the previous 5 decades. Jesus declared he would live within’ God- love’, rather than from ‘Power-God’ and would live his life in the spirit of Jubilee possibility. He would live within the uncertainties and vulnerability of ‘God-love’. He would be a servant rather than a power broker. He would explore the risky possibilities of life lived within ‘God-love’ rather than living within the certainties and privileges associated with ‘Power-God’.
By ‘God-love’ I mean a stream of creative grace flowing within the heart of life, surrounding every person, holding life together, offering possibilities for the next steps in the human adventure, beckoning each person to offer compassionate service to the needy, the lost and the marginalised. ‘God-love’ is present in every act of human love but is not exhausted by our struggling attempts to care for others. God is not imaged as an overarching governor of the universe but rather as universal creative love seeking expression and visibility in human activity. The call to live in ‘God-love’ is like a persistent invitation that cannot be permanently silenced. Held within ‘God-love’ we are drawn toward our neighbour’s need and invited to make the passion of ‘God-love’ evident and real within the human family as we stand beside, care for, gather in, welcome, understand, work for the well being of neighbours and strangers. Seen against the big screen of world history those captured by military, economic and political power seem to get things done. They contribute to apparent social and political stability, using their power to silence those who threaten their place at the top of the social pyramid. Compared to the outward strength of those who serve ‘Power-God’, servants of ‘God-love’ seem fragile and vulnerable easily crushed or ignored. Jesus’ whole life became a lived response to an inner and persistent invitation to give specific human shape to the hidden yet universal presence of ‘God-love.’ I refer today to ‘God-love’ rather than ‘God’ because the word God tends to conjure up images of a person-like being whose existence can be demonstrated or disproved. ‘God-love’ is dynamic and flowing, holding creation together and drawing humanity toward a future shaped by love shaped possibilities. It’s more like a sea that surrounds us than a person who comes and goes. It’s the dynamic and creative presence of ‘I am.’
Life within ‘God-love’ is not simple: we are not always certain what it means to stand with or to support those for whom life is tough, there are risks and uncertainties to be faced, we are not always sure that we have the capacity or the energy to make a difference. Jesus gave himself to this risky, vulnerable and uncertain style of life. Doubtless he too had times when he was uncertain what shape love should take in the presence of human need or when faced by oppressive structures that damage ordinary people. He persisted in his commitment to ‘God-love’ and finally those who served and embodied ‘Power-God’ got rid of him as a threat to public order. Over the long haul the people who have contributed most to human peace, justice and happiness are those who have lived for and within the vulnerability and apparent weakness of ‘God-love’. They simply embody love as best they can without any guarantee of success, however that be defined, living within the gentle and consistent conviction that persuasion rather than coercion, love rather than power best reflect the deep down truth we describe as the Divine purposes for humanity. As ‘servants of ‘God-love’ we may sometimes feel like we are tortoises following after the speedy hare of ‘Power-God’ but we know how that fable finished.
John Caputo, a contemporary philosopher-theologian has written a number of important explorations of what he calls “The Weakness of God.” He suggests that the Christian movement will have true integrity and be able to contribute positively to the transformation of human living only when we have shed our ongoing flirtation with ‘Power-God’ and are learning how to live within ‘God-love’. Caputo’s favourite New Testament passage is Philippians 2:5-11 where Paul speaks of Jesus giving up power, humbling himself and living as a servant of humanity. Jesus’ crucifixion is a prime illustration of the weakness of God as is the ministry of Jesus among the so-called nobodies of Galilean society. Humanity could do without religions shaped by Power-God but humanity desperately needs those who as servants of ‘God-love’ patiently weave hospitality, compassion, generosity, forgiveness and new beginnings into the fabric of life. Many of us will have experience of what it means to share in the weakness and fragility of ‘God-love’ when we have sat with a troubled or bereaved person or with family members at the bedside of a dying person. We would like to be helpful – but all we have to offer is our near silent presence. We care deeply but we have no magic bullet, no access to a miracle working ‘power-God’. But in these moments of shared weakness we may sense the presence of ‘God-love’. Whether we feel it or not we are an expression of ‘God-love’- impelled to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish. We have no infallible prayers to offer. We have no privileges granted by an almighty god. We simply represent vulnerable, seemingly weak ‘God-love’ trusting that within the mystery of divine grace ‘nothing is lost on the breath of God.’ It is enough. The apostle Paul put it like this ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1Cor 1: 25).
Caputo refers in his discussion of what he calls ‘the weak force of God’, what I have called ‘God-love’, to the life of the church. His point is that we have too often allowed ourselves, in spite of our talk of love, to give our energies to a church shaped by ‘Power–God’: more anxious about profile, public acceptance, numerical strength, healthy bank balance and power among the powerful than identification with human need in all its forms. The church becomes a reflection of human power rather than an embodiment of persuasive love flowing through life and seeking enactment by fragile humans like us. He looks forward to the church becoming “marginal Christian communities, out of power and out of the limelight, where the task of inscribing the mark of Jesus on the world is carried out quietly and without a lot of fanfare.” He asks, “Where is the Kingdom of God to be found? It is found every time an offence is forgiven, every time a stranger is made welcome, every time an enemy is embraced, every time the least among us is lifted up, every time the law is made to serve justice, every time the law and prophets are made to serve love.” In such a church clergy will heed the important instructions of John Wesley to his preachers: ”go not to those who need you but to those who need you most.” While fulfilling pastoral and other tasks within the congregation they will also spend time in the wider community, fossicking around the edges of society, meeting the needy at the places of their lostness, helping them edge their way toward wellness and inclusion and sharing with others in shaping a society fit for human living.
How do we speak of God who cannot be captured by our words? Simply, yet profoundly, our deeds become our creed. We follow the steps of Jesus toward the lost, the lonely, the ignored, and the damaged and with them we provide a space where God can ‘happen’. Why not image God as a happening – an event, rather than a thing. Over recent weeks we have heard of how members of CSL are creating occasions where ‘God’ can happen: in the work of the East Tamaki reading group, the work of Dingwall trust, the Wednesday group, support of refugee families, meeting with people of other faiths, micro finance through Aotearoa Development Cooperative, the Music and Fun play group for children with learning disabilities, Restorative Justice, morning worship and of course our daily dealings with neighbours, work colleagues and family. Occasions are created when, acknowledged or unacknowledged, God ‘happens.’ ‘God- love’ takes on human form. Abba God is present – the way of Jesus is enacted afresh in our midst.
Some things to reflect on:
- How do you respond to the suggestion that ‘God’ might be imaged as a happening rather than an entity that can be described- more a verb than a noun? Perhaps human compassion, human love, are the smile of God in a wounded world.
- Read and ponder words from 1 John 4: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” So “let us love one another because love is from God and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another God lives in us.”
- How do we explain the continuing attraction of ‘Power-God’ in many parts of the church?
- How do you respond to Caputo’s ideal church? What ‘marks of Jesus’ need to be inscribed on our world?
Among many books by and about John Caputo the following are recommended:
‘What would Jesus Deconstruct?’, Baker Academic 2007.
“The Folly of God, A theology of the unconditional”, Polebridge Press 2016.