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Posts Tagged ‘Immanuel’

Let Us Make God In Our Image

The Bible uniquely positions God before and above all his created order.  This goes against the rest of the world’s religions who make God a part of the created order.  After God speaks his creation into existence, he declares that he will make one more unique being to set among his created order – humankind.  Genesis tells us that God said, “Let us make humankind (‘adam – “beings of/from the earth”) in our image.”

Humanity is then set into the middle of God’s creation to tend to it, watch over it and protect it.  We are not given a time-frame, but sometime after creation this idyllic life God established is marred and destroyed by the work of God’s enemy – the devil or Satan.  The first man and first woman are deceived by this wily, rebellious creature and choose to believe the words of God’s enemy over the word of God.  And, thus, begins humankind’s descent into bondage to sinful rebellion, the resulting separation from life with God and the continual struggle to return to and reclaim what was once theirs by privilege of God’s personal, God-breathed creation.

It this particularly human struggle to return to God that sets us apart from the rest of creation.  No other creatures on earth seem concerned about their Creator.  There is no creature that intentionally searches out, speaks to and communes with their Creator – at least to the level that our 21st century sciences have been able to detect.  To be sure, every creature and all creation speaks for God and reflects his image and glory; even “fallen” humanity.  Yet, it is only humankind out of all of creation that seems to agonize over knowing and understanding their Creator and returning to some fashion of intimate knowing.  It is a primal instinct and desire to return to the Garden of Eden.  It forever marks us as spiritual beings, not just material beings made up of evolving unintelligent matter.

This search and longing often brings humankind to two attempts:  a determinate attempt to return to communion with the Creator by ascending to where we believe God rests and resides or a creative attempt to recapture the communion that was lost with the Creator by imagining what God must really be like and want from his creation.

The Bible is a long history of the futile attempts of both approaches to God.  Humankind can neither ascend to where God is to meet him on his terms.  Nor can humankind correctly and accurately portray God in any image.  Both fail.  The reason is simple.  God is transcendent.  He is other than us and his creation.  While his creation reflects him, it does so like a landscape on a foggy morning.

Interestingly, millennia of human existence seems to have taught us nothing.  We continue to attempt to reach God and meet him on equal terms through our own efforts in knowledge, work ethic, spirituality and human “advancements.”  Such arrogance itself speak against any such work.  After all, if God can be approached by any human effort, then he ceases to be God – or a God big enough to be worshipped, let alone the effort to be known!

What makes God God is that he is completely transcendent.  The Bible continually portrays God in this light: “My ways are not your ways.  My ways are higher than your ways.”  In biblical history, God frequently refuses to explain himself.  When questioned by the righteous-ab0ve-all-men Job for a reason for his suffering, God puts Job in his place by reminding him that he never once sought counsel for Job and was not about to begin to do so now.  Job was smart enough to shut up.  God is transcendent and reveals himself when and how he pleases.  His is not like us.

Any futile search for God on our own terms should alert us to our own folly and foolishness.  However, that does not seem to be the case; even in the 21st century.  With so many millennium of trial and errors behind us, one would think that we would have evolved to a higher understanding of God’s existence.  But, alas, no.  Still, today, if we are not attempting to reach God on our own, then we are attempting to fashion him in our own image.

The renewal and revival of pagan religions in Western society is evidence of this continued human folly.  The neo-pagans and wiccans have cleaned up the old world religions and reduced them to user-friendly creation worship and moral codes.  Without animal or human sacrifices, though some admittedly still do practice these, they preach the morality of paganism and wiccans.  Not a few even like to link their neo-pagan morality to the teachings of Jesus to give them some credence, as if to say, “Look!  We believe and attempt to practice the same things Jesus taught and practiced.”

If spirituality is only about morality, then anything and everything is permissible in our society’s moral relativism.  After all, who is to be the final authority about what is right and what is wrong?  Without a transcendent being outside of humanity to clarify this, we are left to our own individual choices and moral devices.  One culture’s values and practices – headhunting and cannibalism – is no more morally wrong than the next – child-brides and widow burning.  So, it turns out that perhaps the ol’ serpent in the garden was correct!  We can be like God and make up truth and the rules for righteousness.  After all, God, as we imagine him, is just like us.

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The Bible addresses humankind’s propensity to imagine God in our own image.  Isaiah humorously points out the useless of making images of God:  Take one log.  Cut it in half.  Use one half to split into fire wood.  Cook dinner.  While dinner is cooking, take other half of log.  Shape log and decorate it.  When meal is ready to serve, bow down to decorated log and declare, “You are my god!  You are my god!  Thank you for this delicious meal.  Amen.”  (Rev. Ron’s Paraphrase)  Sounds ridiculous?  We have not come too far since Isaiah’s day.

The Creator realized the result humanity’s rebellion would have upon its spirituality.  So, he warned, “Do not make an image of me to worship.”  This was so important, that he included it in his “Top Ten Things to Remember” as he launched the Israelites toward the land he promised them.  Moses called them, “The Ten Commandments.”  And we continue to violate this to our own detriment, forgetting that God is not like us.  He is completely transcendent – apart from this world.  He is beyond what we can imagine or think.

The temptation to make God in our image is not left to just pagans, neo-pagans, wiccans or those who use religious icons.  Christians have fallen into the same temptation; the ones who should know better, supposedly.  Throughout Church history, the followers of God through the Messiah Jesus have slipped into the same sin.

Icons that were meant to draw the worshipper’s attention to heavenly things and “the great cloud of witnesses” in the portraits of the saints, soon worshipped the created things instead of the Creator.  In reaction against such abuses, some attempted to rid the Church altogether of icons (iconoclasts); while others attempted to restore them to their proper place.  All such Church reforms and renewals have attempted to draw worshippers back to God, but it continues to be a problem.

The Bible, meant to be God’s written revelation to his people through various people in various times and various places, became worshipped in “bibliology”.  Reverence for the book took on greater importance than the Author.  Magic qualities were ascribed to not only its words but its paper and bindings as well.  Reverence for God’s Word became twisted into revering and worshipping a book; the content of the book not as important as its condition.

Music, meant to draw the hearts of God’s worshippers toward him, became more about style than content.  The chant, organ, piano, guitar, drum and musical style all vie for affections above that for the Creator.  We think that because we like it, the Creator must like it; that because it moves our hearts, it must move his also.  Of course, this is a fallacy.  He is transcendent above it all.

It is not the sounds he wants but the music of the souls in worshipful adoration.  Whatever harmony, whatever tonal equation, whatever vibrating sound, it is all music to his ears when the content of the heart is in tune.  Otherwise, it is only annoying noise amongst the more beautiful sounds of all his other creation.  He would rather listen to the whale song or songbird music, or other such creative sounds, as listen to the drones of humankind worshipping their music rather than the One who gave them music.

Biblical and historical examples are replete with examples of humankind worshipping the furniture and the house dedicated to the Lord rather than the One who  transcends it all.  In similar fashion, we shape our image of God by our doctrines and theologies, leaving no room for further exploration or understanding of God and his character and nature.  We deem anyone outside our theological group-think as deviant or heretical.  So, we use our systematic theologies to scientifically break down humankind’s understanding of God into phylum, genus and species like some biological specimen.  Still, we are no closer to intimately knowing or understanding God because he transcends such confines, boxes and buildings.

Jesus came as the image of God.  What God wanted to convey through his written word, he revealed fully in his son, Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus brought into closer proximity to humankind the very real nature and character of God.  Suddenly, the transcendent being became eminent in “Immanuel” – “God with us.”  The Transcendent One lived among us for awhile – in a house, in a family, among friends and all in real time and space.

Unfortunately, he did not meet humankind’s idea of what God would look and act like if he came to earth to reveal himself.  So, in our continued ignorance and rebellion we killed him.  However, defying death, he resurrected and continues to call humankind to himself through his followers.  Yes, some did believe.  Some still believe.  Meanwhile, others are still searching for the Creator.  Some are attempting to ascend to where the Most High resides.  Others have decided a more do-it-yourself approach.  “Hey,” they invite us.  “Let’s make God in our image.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Truck Stop Jesus

One would have expected a different plan to introduce an important person; even if that person was a baby.  Historically, after all, royal births were always accompanied by fanfare and celebration.  Every important dignitary in the world is notified and invited to the event.  When the savior of the world arrived little more than 2,000 years ago, maybe someone made a mistake and got the address wrong.  Not only that, but they forgot to get reservations.  The young couple was left out in the cold to give birth to their child among animals and all that accompanies animals posted in a barn.  These would not be the first sights and sounds that I would have wanted any of my children to have as their first experience in this world.  Jesus’ birth was so radically different than the antiseptic world we live in today.  It leaves the modern individual amazed he survived his first year.

The irony and mystery of Jesus’ birth is that it was planned ahead of time to take place just the way it unfolded.  Prophets hundreds of years before had already laid out how this baby boy was going to come into the world.  The details they left for others to figure out, who were some of the wisest people on earth by the way, did not include royal privilege, birth in a capital city or any of the other things that would normally accompany the birth of someone important.  There was no golden spoon privilege for this messianic figure.

Imagine a modern day set of new parents caught far away from any hospital, family or friends when the expectant baby decides to come into the world.  Not only that, but now the birthing plan, carefully prepared hospital bag for mother and baby and new born baby clothes are all forgotten.  The fact of the matter is that even for 1st century Joseph and Mary the conditions of the birth of their child were far less than desirable.  Any parent of any socio-economic class at any time in history would have hoped for better.

Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.  Bethlehem, the city of ancient king David’s origin, was not an important city on the world map 2,000 years ago.  It still is not in today’s political or economic world.  It was more like a modern day truck stop on the way to a major city – Jerusalem.  Today it is a walled-up small city that survives on the arrival of tourists who come to ogle the supposed site of Jesus’ birth.  It is a battle-scarred town divided by deep religious factions that only seems to know peace once a year.  In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was not prominent.  Its history was more storied than its present.

Bethlehem was a place that served the more impressive city of Jerusalem to the north.  Its trade in sheep, wool and grains provided for the needs of the much bigger and more important metropolis.  Bethlehem was a place one passed through on the way to Jerusalem.  It was rarely, if ever, a destination city.  On the trade route from Egypt, it served as a resting place for the traders.  The surrounding hills provided pasture for the sheep that were used in the temple sacrifices or kitchens of Jerusalem.  Bethlehem, “the house of bread”, also had rich fields surrounding it that provided the wheat and barley for Jerusalem’s bakeries and kitchens.

Like a modern day truck stop, then, traffic was always flowing in and out and through with goods on the way to the more important city of Jerusalem.  At the time of the census, when Joseph had to report to his ancestor’s hometown, Bethlehem, the already bustling city was packed.  The only space available was the equivalent of a small garage where some vehicles of transportation were parked.  Unfortunately, these eco-friendly vehicles would also leave their exhaust all over the floor of the place.

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Truck stops are never pretty places.  As much as I appreciate the Flying-J Travel Plazas, Pilot Travel Centers and TravelCenters of America, they are not places I ever intend to stay very long.   I am always just passing through.  On top of it, I would definitely not ever have dreamed of having a child at one of those places.  Perhaps it is for the purpose of avoiding having children at truck stops that doctors now discourage women from traveling during their final couple weeks of pregnancy.

Jerusalem was the capital city; the city of commerce and politics; the center of religion and learning.  Everything and anything important that happened took place in Jerusalem.  In the United States, it would be the equivalent of New York or Los Angeles.  In Europe, it would be the Paris or London.  In Asia, it would be the Tokyo or Beijing.  Anyone who wanted to be anybody made their way to Jerusalem, bought property, and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful.  Perhaps God did not get updated about conditions in Palestine during 1st century B.C./A.D.  I suspect, however, that he had a different plan and procedure than the one derived and practiced by humans since their arrival.

The birth of a messiah and savior would have been much more pronounced if I had been calling the shots.  Everyone on earth would have known that “God-in-the-flesh” had shown up on the scene to straighten out the crookedness of humankind’s ways.  It surely would not have been left up to a few foreign wisemen and local low-class shepherds to welcome the arrival of the most important figure in human history.  But then, I am not God.  This is not my creation.  It is not my story.  Plus, I suspect that God’s ways are directly counter intuitive to most of our human ways.

As it is, God might as well come in disguise. I mean, who among us would be apt to recognize his arrival today anymore than his contemporaries did then?  His economic class, education and means of arrival did not shout “God’s here!” in neon letters that is for sure.  Besides the angelic proclamation to lowly shepherds, no birth announcement cards were sent out.  Likewise, most scholars and religious leaders did not get the cryptic prophetic message left hundreds of years before by various writers of the Old Testament.  So, in a sense, when God sent a savior, he did it on the sly.

So, the most important birth of the most important human was scripted ahead of time to take place in obscurity – a couple of low socio-economic status and a shed on the back side of a truck stop served as the main characters and the setting.  As the story continues, things do not get any better.  Soon the couple was on the run from the law, spent a few years as illegal immigrants in a foreign country and only returned to their own home town years later.  The messiah grew up in obscurity and learned the family business.

This amazing story of truck stop Jesus violates our highest sensibilities of what we believe God is like.  We like to picture him in a Cathedral with mighty stone pillars and statutes, rich woods and tapestries, and lofty music.  I think, rather, that given Jesus’ birth record he would be just as out of place there as he would be at a Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales.  After all, we like our deities to remain “high and lifted up” – far above the corruption of lower class humanity.  We would rather have the name of our deity pronounced in the more lofty open throated English “Gawd” than the too familiar buddy-buddy name of Jesus.  Somehow, a god who would prefer blue-grass music to Mozart and Beethoven just does not meet our criteria for divinity.

I suspect that if we were to have to look for Jesus’ arrival today that we would be better off looking for him at a truck stop.  His neighbors are more likely to be migrant workers and trailer park inhabitants than a gated suburban community.  I suspect that his address would more likely be under a bridge, overpass or homeless shelter than in a 2,000 square foot house.  He would be more acquainted with the living conditions of foreigners in our land than the economic well-to-do and socially established.  As a religious reformer, his audience would more likely be among the illiterate and poorly educated working class than among the highly respected theologians and seminarians of our day.  His calloused carpenter hands would shake more gnarled and calloused hands than manicured ones.

In short, most of us might have a hard time relating to this truck stop birth of Jesus.  I suspect, however, that it is all part of God’s redemption scheme.  For those of us who think we are better off than others, we will need to get down on Jesus’ level and humble ourselves to accept him and his mission to the least, the last and the lost of this world.  To those among this latter group, he raises their vision, empowers their future and invites them to participate in his redemption story.  So, the next time you have a chance to stop in your travels at a truck stop, just think to yourself, “Maybe Jesus is here.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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