Sermon for Sunday November29

Matthew 25:31-46

The Delight of God

    Perhaps it is the loftiest of topics that we are venturing into with this morning’s sermon.  The title: “The Nature of God.”  Lofty because who of us can imagine or fathom the nature of the One who created the heavens by strewing the galaxies across the midnight sky?  Or the One who created every living micro-organism on this planet.  Yet, human nature seems to beg that we attempt to define the divine.  So, this morning we take a stab at defining God as a means to furthering our relationship with God.

    At the outset, we need to state that there are many different concepts of God or, as one of the participants of our Faith Study group last Tuesday put it, God presents a unique facet of God to each one of us and that the coming of God to us is in many different ways, each related to our specific needs at the moment.

    Here we are at the Reign of Christ Sunday.  In the Church calendar, it is a relatively new feast day, having been instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925.  When I think of this year, I think of the roaring twenties.  The pope realized that there was a growing secularism in the Church, particularly in North America.  He decreed a day when people would especially focus their thoughts on Jesus Christ and God.

    In this morning’s Scripture lesson, Jesus presents us a picture of God through himself.  I think one of the best ways to understand Jesus and Jesus’ relationship to God is to use that of an Orthodox icon.  You have all seen the icons, religious pictures, quite often on a wooden plaque.  The Orthodox believe that when you look at an icon, you are looking through the icon to God.  One might say that it is not just a piece of wood with a biblical picture, but you are actually getting a glimpse of heaven or the Kingdom of God.

    We all have come across people in life who feel special to us because their nature has many divine attributes.  Think of Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela.  When people came into contact with them, they felt a glimpse of God’s present.  Jesus portrayed the divine more than any other individual ever has.  When people looked at Jesus, it felt as if they were looking through a window to God.

    As he is talking to his disciples, Jesus is presenting his followers with a picture of himself leading us to get a glimpse of God.  When Jesus teaches, Jesus is conveying what God thinks.  To me the story revolves around the disciples’ question, “Lord, when was it that we saw you?”  Jesus tells them that it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick and the imprisoned that he is to be seen.  Jesus here expresses that sadness of God when his people are blinded to these needs which are all around them.  God feels the pain of the vulnerable and rejoices when they are taken care of and restored to wholeness.  If we love God, we love the world.

    Think of it for a moment.  In Jesus’ teachings we get this glimpse of God.  We get a glimpse of what God thinks about our world.  Of how God thinks we should be relating to one another.

    Turn with me for a moment back to the Old Testament.  Over the next few weeks, as we journey though Advent, we will be reading words from the Prophet Isaiah.  The most famous of these words are in Handles’ Messiah:  “Comfort Ye.  Comfort Ye my people”, says your God.  “Speak Kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare has ended.”   The prophets speak the mind of God.  One could say that both John the Baptist, the forerunner to Jesus, and Jesus himself are prophetic in the way in which they speak the mind of God.

    When we look at the teachings of all of the prophets, we see that God does not reveal God in some sort of abstract absoluteness.  God is not seen as being one who created the heavens and the earth and then remains aloof from creation.  God is not like an absent watchmaker who made the universe, wound it up and then left it to its own devices.  No, through the prophets, we see a God who is speaking to human beings in a personal and intimate way.  God does not command and then expect obedience.  We get a picture of a God who is moved and affected by what happens in the world and acts accordingly.  Events and human actions arouse in God joy or sorry, pleasure or wrath.

    God is not one who sits back and just judges the facts, detached from what is happening.  God reacts in an intimate and subjective manner, weighing in on human events.  If you look through the pages of the Bible you see that human deeds can move God, affect God, grieve God or, on the other hand, gladden and please God.  God not only has intelligence, but God also has feelings in the prophetic view of God.

    To the prophet’s mind, God feels sadness and pain.  At first glance, this is a bit of a paradox.  Why should the One who created everything be affected by what a tiny bit of creation does?  However, does not sadness show concern?  When a loved one is going through a difficult patch in life, such as addiction to alcohol or drugs, we feel sadness and pain, which is an expression of our concern for them.  Is it because we conceive of a God who is up there, out there, that quite often we find it inconceivable that the Supreme Being should be involved in the affairs of human existence?

    The prophets tell us that God is involved in human life.  There is a personal relationship that binds God to the people of Israel in the Old Testament which presents us with an interweaving of the divine with the affairs of the nation.  God does not just give the Ten Commandments, for example, as a list of recommendations, but God expresses concern that they be followed, joy when they are adhered to and lament when they are abandoned.   God takes it personally when people turn away.

    The rationale that the prophets give to the people for following the ways of God is not that it is good for you and for society but rather that this is what God wants.  Whether or not the teachings are followed is of great importance to God.  Time and time again, the people are called to repent so that they might appease God’s anger.

    God acts as a response to human history.  It makes God happy when we live good lives, attempting to keep those two basic commandments of loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.  The prophetic call for us all to strive for justice in our world is not because it is an abstract principle but because we as human beings know that God wants us to act with justice, kindness and compassion towards all people.  Justice is something that we do.  An act of injustice is condemned, not because a rule has been broken, but because a person has been hurt.  A prophet hears God’s voice and feels God’s heart.

    One of the things that the prophets recognize is that when it comes to doing justice, few are guilty, but all are responsible.  I think of pineapples from the Philippines.  I like pineapples a lot.  I know that quite often the pineapples and other tropical fruits that I enjoy come from large plantations in the tropics.  I also know that in many cases poor tenant farmers were kicked off their land so that large companies could come in and plant groves of fruit trees.  I didn’t kick the farmers off the land, so I am not guilty, but I do purchase the fruit, thereby contributing to an unjust system.  A trite example of how many things in this world work.  There are the words to well known prayers of confession: “God forgive us the sins of omission as well as the sins of commission” and “God forgive us for the sins we know we are committing as well as the sins we don’t know we are committing.”

    A lot of theology this morning.  What does this mean for those of us today?  I think that the Biblical Witness reminds us that we worship a God who desires to have a personal relationship with each and every one of us.  God might be the Master of the Universe as we sing, but God is also caring and concerned about the human situation.  I am reminded of this in the words of the funeral service that I like to us, perhaps because they give me such comfort at a time of Grief:  God feels our pain as we do and God cries as we do.

    To me, in the midst of human suffering, in the midst of my own times of personal suffering, there is great comfort in this thought.  I am not alone as I go through this.  God is there with me, taking each step with me.

    I am also reminded that while there is this wonderful vertical connection between me and God, there is also a horizontal connection that I have with those around me.   While we might seek justice for those around us, as Jesus mentions in this passage, because this is right action, we too seek justice for all because this is what makes God happy; this is what God wants.  This is the delight of God.

    I want to leave you with a few words of poetry from a Shaker poem from over 150 years ago:

‘Tis the gift to be simple
‘Tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning, we come ‘round right

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