There are at least two ways we can conceive of our relationship with God; two ways we can approach God, or to let God approach us. Theologians use the terms “imminence” or “transcendence” to talk the times when God seems first very close (“imminent”) or very far away (“transcendent”), and there are good advantages to either vantage point.
For an example of transcendence, God writ large: look at the picture of God in the first chapter of Genesis: creating a world from waste and void, creating light and darkness, wet and dry, fish and vegetables and animals and humankind: all pointing to a God who is larger than creation, larger than our vision or our hope can contain. Listen to Isaiah: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” We find the prophets, again and again, recalling people to the knowledge that God is more than an idol, more than proper liturgical action, more than a familiar formula to make life safe for friends and family and to ensure victory over strangers and foreigners. God is much bigger than this.
In the New Testament we see this transcendence primarily in John’s Gospel and in the “war in heaven” special effects and themes in the Revelation to John. Amazing visions, big pictures of God. Keeping our vision large.
But then there is the understanding of God as “close” to us, which is imminent and all over the scriptures. Listen to Deuteronomy: “The word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it” That places us as the body of God in the world, the children of God, the family of God. And listen to the lesson from Isaiah from last week:
“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord...you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
This is the language of an intimate relationship!
Often Scripture uses both imminent and transcendent ideas and images, together or in counterpoint, to give us a wider understanding of God. Todays reading from Nehemiah is a wonderful example. In a scene some 400 years before Christ, refugees have returned to the city of Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and gather to hear the word of the Lord being read aloud. And people get scared! Because the “law of Moses” seems so big and so strong and so demanding that there seems to be no hope. We’re talking major Transcendence here! And this still happens. There are people whose understanding of God is such that God could not possibly be honoring of our infirmities and fragility, but can only be approached as some kind of angry father in the sky. That is the reaction of the people gathering to hear the law as they assemble to rebuild in the ruins of Jerusalem.
And Ezra the priest says do not weep! For “this day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep... Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
What wonderful words. “The joy of the Lord is your strength”. Hebrew Scholars say it means that God’s joy is in giving strength to the people on the Sabbath day, because the attempt to please God, to show up to listen to God, when we’re afraid of how big God might be, does in fact please God. And maybe there’s the point; that sometimes, and I say this very carefully, it might do us good to be afraid of how God might call us and where God might take us.
I remember some 25 years ago, getting ready to move to a new town to take up a new ministry, and praying in my seminary Chapel: feeling an immense distance between what I felt God was asking me to do and what I could see myself achieving. But this tension came with a growing assurance that the open space would, in itself, provide a place for God’s will to be done in my life, whether I could conceive of it or not. I didn’t need to figure it out! So I could make the next step in my life with a growing hope that God meet me where I was, take me where I needed to go and give me what I needed; that his will might happen in my life in his good time. So both near and far, both big and small. This came when I let my hands be empty and open to God’s promise, and when I let myself be free to find out where God would take me. There’s the paradox: to keep open on both how far God can go and how close God can come.
The Gospel of Luke keeps this balance alive, moving between transcendence and imminence. Luke’s Jesus meets the people where they are: meets them in understanding and affection, and occasionally challenges them to the point of being rude and shockingly familiar; to takes them where they would never expect to go: to know that deep “joy of the Lord”
Here’s the centre of today’s Gospel:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now Jesus is in his hometown synagogue, with people who have known him for years, and in that that they might have been like many of us who have spent some time in the church, with the liturgical round of lessons and readings and hymns bringing a seasonal rhythm and reassurance that we know what’s coming next, that there will not be too many surprises from here on out.
But that attitude does not do well, either for the people in Nazareth, or for us either, it doesn’t open a faithful space to be amazed at a message that might make us brand new. Listen again! “To bring good news to the poor... To proclaim release... recovery of sight... the oppressed go free...proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
To hear Jesus anew, to allow God to be very big and very far off, as well as to be very close and very much in love with us, we must be willing to let him take us step by step and day by day to places and ways we never expected in order that we might become people we never thought to be.That is why we’re here. The Eucharist is very big and very small. It is larger than the world yet it is something that we are able to consume, to take upon our tongue, bring into our bodies, incorporate into our daily lives; taken with empty hands and a great hope that the God who is higher than all the heavens and bigger than all the cosmos is still, as St. Augustine says,” closer to us than we are to ourselves” and able to meet us in the midst of our daily lives,
We are like Jesus’ family and friends in Nazareth, we are like those wandering Israelites returning to Jerusalem to rebuild their broken hope; called to come with empty hands and hearts ready to receive grace, to hear and see, to taste this Jesus, who comes offering the bread of heaven and the sweet wine of hope, a taste of the kingdom, where we will come to know that the “joy of the Lord is our strength.”
In the name of Christ