The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 20, 2015
Who is God?
Exactly five years ago, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, I was ordained as a priest. In five years, I have learned a whole lot. I have learned how difficult it is to hold hands with a parishioner as they die, and to bury them. I have learned how wonderful it is to bless new babies at the hospital and baptize them. I have learned how the church’s septic system works, or doesn’t work. I have learned that people are people, for good and for ill.
And now that it’s been five years since I graduated from seminary, I have spent some time reflecting on what I learned there. I learned that there is a valid theological argument to baptize robots if they ever acquire consciousness. In seminary I learned just enough New Testament Greek to know that I don’t know anything about Greek. In seminary, I learned that I actually made a pretty good wide receiver for a flag football team. I learned all the different ways you could justify throwing somebody overboard on a lifeboat if it will save somebody else. In seminary I learned ethics, history, theology, liturgy. I learned all sorts of complex theological systems, but there is one lesson that I am still learning.
And perhaps it’s the trickiest question of all. And the most basic. The answer dictates why we are here. The question: who is God? It almost sounds dumb to ask that question. I mean, we’re in church, we should know the answer, right? But really, think about it. Who is God? I struggle answering. It’s so simple and so complex.
We know the other characters in the holy scriptures, and we meet some of them this morning. We can describe them pretty well. Who are Zechariah and Elizabeth? They’re the parents of John the Baptist. Who is Joseph? He’s engaged to be married to Mary. Who is Mary? She’s the Virgin mother of Jesus.
And Mary, Mary is interesting. We have latched onto her because we can understand her. We sympathize with her role as a mother. As a wife. As a disciple. We get it. Whereas we struggle with God’s identity, we latch on to this image of the Virgin Mary. We know who Mary is. But God, God eludes us.
[I think that is why the Virgin Mary is so deeply revered in many corners of Christianity. It’s because we humans wrap our minds around her while we struggle with understanding God. Mary is a person who has borne a child. A woman who lived and died. We can relate to her. And that is by no means a bad thing. I have great respect for our Catholic brothers and sisters that so highly honor the Virgin Mary.
But we must dig deeper to answer that most basic question,] “who is God?” A place to start is right here in the Magnificat, in Mary’s song. Mary knows God pretty well, I mean, she gave birth to God and changed God’s diapers.
But once we start reading the Mary’s song, we get very uncomfortable very quickly. We ask, “who is God?” And Mary says, God is the one who has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Who is God? God is the one who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. Who is God? God is the one who scatters the proud who trust in their own strength.
Who is God? God is the one who chose an unmarried teenage girl to give birth to Jesus in a barn. Who is God? God is the one who hung out with prostitutes, lepers, the crippled, and everybody who was struggling with mental illness. Who is God? God is the one who, when faced with violence did not respond in violence, but stretched wide his arms on the cross.
We have such difficulty describing this God because this God is so drastically different from us. If we wanted to spread a message, we would get the slickest marketing campaign. We would hire the greatest speaker. We would choose someone with an impeccable record who came from a good, solid family. We would choose someone with an honorable background from a reputable town. And surely, surely, we would pick somebody who would kill if they had to.
Who is God? God is most assuredly not us. This is what should make us so very nervous during Advent. God is coming. And God is not like us. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
So why does this even matter? Because who God is, is what we are supposed to become. The ancient writer Athanasius said it best: “God became man, so that man might become like God.” Let me put it this way – being a Christian is not about getting fire insurance from eternal hell. We don’t do all of this just to make sure we get to heaven. We are Christians, we follow Jesus, because we know that this is the best way to live. And that this God, and the way this God behaves, radical and backwards as it may seem – we know that it’s right. And that it’s lovely. And beautiful. Figuring out who God is, is the same thing as figuring out who we are supposed to be.
In other words – you are what you worship. The gods of this world are calling to you, and you know them by name. They go by the names of racism, of bigotry, of greed, of violence, of xenophobia. And when you get to know those gods, you become like them. The same with the true God; as you get to know God, your life starts to look like the life of Jesus. This means that we’re more concerned about the lifting up the lowly than about the powerful who sit on their thrones. Yes, I’m saying that the meth addict under I 45 is more important than anybody running for President. We don’t put our trust in the donkey or the elephant, we trust in the Lamb (I owe this phrase to the Rev. Nik Forti).
We should care more about filling the hungry with good things than pandering to the rich. That means we should give more to church and charity than we spend on tickets for sporting events and movies, and paying for players and actors who make millions. As our friends and neighbors buy bigger houses and bigger cars and bigger boats and bigger TVs, we give our money away to things that really matter.
As the world plunges into darkness and violence, as everybody is clamoring for retribution and warfare, we follow the way of peace, even stretching our arms wide upon the cross. Why? Because God is the one who was crucified, and we are the people who follow that God.
This is our way forward as a church community as well. As the world wants to tear us apart – liberals over there and conservatives over there. Rich people in this neighborhood and poor people in that apartment complex. Black, white, brown – all in different parts of town with different schools and different churches. This church, specifically Holy Comforter, is to be that radical place where, with God, we do the unexpected. Look around, this is already us. We are liberal and conservative, we are rich and we are poor. We are black, white, brown. We are the unexpected community that follows this unexpected God. We are the church that knows, despite what all the statistics tell us, that people still want to hear the good news of the living Christ. Rather than living in complacency, we are the church that is following God’s call to boldly lay claim to our future. Our physical structures, our ministries, our entire way of being all flow downhill from the most basic of questions – who is God? And once we start answering that question – buckle your seat belts – because that’s when God shows up and God starts doing incredible things.
In my five years of priesthood, I have learned a lot. I have learned how to officiate weddings. I have learned how to make decent church coffee. I have learned that if you set off the church security alarm, the sheriff will show up. But most of all, I have learned about God. Who is God? God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having first raised Israel out of Egypt (see Robert Jenson, The Triune God). God is the faithful one. God does not go back on his promises. As Mary says, “God has remembered his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” God is faithful. The promises that God has made to us – promises of mercy, and grace, and acceptance – those will not go away. I have learned that when I trust this God, and follow this God, when I faithfully start asking who God is, that’s not a sign of doubt. Or ingratitude. It’s a sign of discipleship. So be careful. When you start asking who God is, your life will start to change. And you will become what you worship.