Sermon Delivered by Rev. Susan Skillen
All Saints Anglican Church, Amesbury
Advent 4, Dec. 22, 2013
Emmanuel. God is with us. What joyful news! God is not distant from us, but he is with us. St. Augustine who lived in the400’s said that God is closer to us than we are to our own selves. Imagine that. What does it really mean? What do you imagine when you say, Emmanuel, God is with us? Do you think of God being within you, or beside you, or out there somewhere? When I was a young I imagined that God was up in the sky somewhere. I imagined that when I prayed it was like sending a telepathic message up into heaven, into the sky. If I prayed for someone else it meant that I sent a telepathic message up to the sky and then God sent another telepathic message to whomever I was praying for, like a relay signal. God was definitely “out there somewhere.” To be honest, I think that’s still a little bit what prayer feels like sometimes. Sending a telepathic message to God “out there.” Is it hard to imagine that God is within you and within me?
After his conversion St. Augustine wrote his autobiography called Confessions. It’s very beautifully written, very interesting. As he tells his story, he also ruminates about God. Very early in the book he writes,
“And how shall I call upon my God, my God and Lord? For, when I call on Him, I ask him to come into me. And what place is there in me, into which my God can come? How could God, the God who made both heaven and earth, come into me? Is there anything in me, O Lord my God, that can contain You? Do even heaven and earth, which You have made, and where You have made me, contain You? Is it possible that, since without you nothing would be which does exist, you made it so that whatever exists has some capacity to receive You? Why, then, do I ask You to come, since I also am and would not be, if You were not in me? ….Therefore, I would not exist—I would simply not be at all—unless I exist in You, from whom and by whom and in whom all things are. Even so, Lord; even so. Where do I call You to, when I am already in You? Or from where would You come into me? Where beyond heaven and earth, could I go, that there my God might come to me—he who has said, I fill the heaven and the earth? [Jer. 23:24]” (Confessions Book 1, ch. 2)
St. Augustine starts off wondering how he could ask God to come into him, when he is finite and God is infinite. But he also knows that God fills everything, including us. I love that even St. Augustine wondered at these things and didn’t really have answers to explain it. He marveled at the mystery of God being in us, and everywhere. At the same time, we pray to God, asking him to come to us, to fill us, even though he already does. As the psalmist says “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (139:6). We are inseparable from God. St. Paul says “In him we live and move and have our being.” That’s every one of us. That even includes your neighbors and co-workers and people who drive you crazy. God indwells all of his creation and without him we could not exist. When we look for God in his creation, we do see him. It’s easy to see God in the beauty of his world, in the beauty of a flower, or in the song of a bird. Or when you look into the eyes of an animal, or of an innocent child, you may have a sense, an intuition of the creator in his creation. Sometimes we have to look a little harder at other people, looking with the eyes of love.
This understanding of “God with us” is really a quite common understanding among people who are not even Christians. In our culture it is very popular to talk about the “divine spark” within, an idea that can be traced to the gnostic religions in the early centuries of the church. Eastern religious ideas have brought into our culture through yoga and other Eastern practices the idea of the “life force” and “divine energies.” These are ways to try to describe something that many people sense, that God is in some sense “with us” and with all creation. And there is truth in that idea. It is a starting point that we can have with others in talking about God. It is exactly what St. Paul did at the Areopagus in Athens when he quoted the Athenians own poet who said “In him we live and move and have our being.” It is an understanding, a mystery even, where we can begin in conversation with those who do not yet know Jesus. The Christmas season might be an opportunity to have conversations with co-workers, friends and family who don’t know Jesus. We can affirm with them that God dwells in them and in every person.
But then what does it mean that Jesus is Emmanuel, that Jesus is “God with us”? Is there another kind of union with God that comes to us in Christ? Do we have more to say about “God with us” than what so many people believe? Yes, of course we do. There is another kind of union with God based not just on our being creatures of God, but on our becoming like God through love. St. Paul say, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” We are being perfected in God, and as we are perfected we become more and more like Jesus, more and more like God in fact.
St. Athanasius in the 4th century said, “For [Jesus] was made man that we might be made God.” The church has called this divinization, or what we usually call sanctification.A little closer to home, C. S. Lewis puts it this way in Mere Christianity, “The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. [God] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible [Ps. 82:6]) that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly …. his own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. [God] meant what He said.”
In Jesus we see God perfectly revealed in our own human flesh. We see what we will look like when we are perfected in God. In Jesus, Immanuel, we have a model, a mentor and a mediator in this process of becoming like God, of becoming who God created us to be when he made us in his image. When God sent Jesus as a baby, to live and die and one of us, he gave us a picture, a model, of what we are becoming if we allow God to do that work in us. When Hollywood makes a movie about a famous person, the actor who is going to portray that person takes the time to study him or her. When Daniel Day-Lewis was asked to play Abraham Lincoln in the movie “Lincoln,” before filming began he spent a year reading biographies of Lincoln and studying many photographs. Though a British actor, he even developed a high-pitched American folksy voice that Lincoln was described as having. During the filming of the movie Daniel Day-Lewis stayed in character all the time and used that voice continuously, on or off the set. He became Abraham Lincoln. He got into Lincoln’s skin so he could think and feel and act like Abraham Lincoln and convince us, for the sake of the movie, that he was Abraham Lincoln. And he was very convincing. As Christians, we’re trying to become convincing impersonations of Jesus. We study him and try to get into his skin—to put on Christ. We try to think and feel like Jesus, having the mind of Christ. We model ourselves after him.
Jesus, Emmanuel, is not only our model. He is also our mentor. As we study and practice becoming convincing impersonations of Jesus, because of our sinful nature, we need Jesus himself to teach us how to do it through his Holy Spirit. We study his teaching in the scriptures, we spend time pondering and meditating on his words. Some of them are hard to understand, so we pray with them, live with them over time. We allow his teachings to penetrate into the deepest parts of our hearts and minds, where true transformation happens.. What does Jesus mean when he says, “the first shall be last and the last first”? What does he mean when he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”? What does he mean when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”? What do his words mean for me and my life? Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, mentors us as we study and pray to become like him.
Finally and of great importance to us, Jesus, Immanuel, is our mediator. Without his work of grace, we cannot become like him, try as we might. Through Jesus’ Incarnation God becomes one of us, so that by his sacrifice on the cross we have reconciliation with God, and the power of sin is broken in our lives. We are set free to become like Jesus. Jesus our mediator, makes it possible to become, as C. S. Lewis said, a “god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine.”
This is great news that we have to tell to our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family. Yes, God the Creator fills his whole creation. And he is within us, or we would not even exist. But Jesus is Immanuel, God with us in a new way. God sent Jesus to model for us who we truly are meant to be. Jesus is also our mentor to show us how to become our true selves, created in the likeness and image of God.. And Jesus is our mediator, the one who brings heaven to earth and lifts earth to heaven, through cleansing us from sin and setting us free so that we can be transformed into his likeness. Emmanuel. God is with us. What joyful news! Let’s share this good news with those around us.