A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on 18 July 2004, by David Gill. Two passages from the Christian scriptures were read during the service: Colossians 1:15-28 and St Luke 10:38-42.
When our Muslim friends say their prayers, they often use one particularly powerful expression: “Allahu akhbar” – “God is great”. Like
any religious language the phrase can be misused, and has been. Still, I love hearing those strong, haunting, oft-repeated words.
Why? Because they are a reminder, for all of us, of the glory, the wonder, the dazzling bigness of the mystery we dare to call “God”.
Christians, no less than our Muslim cousins, need that reminder. For it is all too easy, all too human, to forget that God is indeed great, great beyond even our best attempts at understanding.
Nearly thirty years ago a biblical scholar named J B Phillips wrote a book around this theme. It became a best seller. The title was provocative: “Your God is Too Small”. The first part of the book did a demolition job on a series of what Phillips called “unreal gods” – or, more accurately, grossly inadequate but widely held images of God. God the resident policeman, for example. God the parental hangover. God the grand old man. God the managing director. Even, God the heavenly bosom. More constructively, the book went on to offer somewhat more adequate imagery, picture language, for the Almighty.
“Your God is Too Small”. That’s a fair rebuke, I think, for most people, most of the time. And it’s not only a challenge to those of us who do believe in the Divine. It challenges those who don’t, as well.
When an atheist friend tells me he doesn’t believe in God and starts to explain why, I often want to agree wholeheartedly and protest that I don’t believe in that kind of God either. More importantly, nor does the Church. Some concepts of God are grossly inadequate. They deserve to be rejected. Because they are just too small for the mind-boggling mystery of which they claim to speak.
God is indeed great, my friends. So let’s make sure that greatness is acknowledged, not only in the awe of our worship but in the caution, the hesitancy, of our words. Gregory of Nyssa, a great fourth century theologian, had a warning for all who dare speak of the Divine: “Let those who would pry into the mysteries of the life of God, realise just how little they understand of the mystery of the life of an ant”.
Christians do not own God. Never forget it.
Martin Buber, a twentieth century Jewish philosopher, sounded a warning against the temptation of looking on God as something to be possessed, used, held. Treat God as an object, he warned, and you end up holding a phantom. “God, the eternal Presence, does not permit himself to be held. Woe to the man so possessed that he thinks he possesses God!”
And woe to the Christian Church, or any other religion, when it makes the same mistake. The Almighty does not wear a Christian label. Or any other label, for that matter. There is only one God “in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes”, as we sang in the first hymn this morning. It is of that one Reality that we, severally, speak -- in our different accents and with our hesitant, inadequate voices.
Of course, the Christian Church cherishes its doctrines, its teachings. Rightly, we treasure the insights that have come to us through the ages. But our doctrines, even at their best, are not God. There is a vast, yawning gulf between the Divine Mystery and our stuttering attempts to speak of it.
The Bible knows about that gulf. But it also knows the gulf is not the end of the story.
This morning we heard two readings from the Christian scriptures. Can you remember the first? It came from the letter to the Colossians, the first chapter. It’s a wonderful, sweeping, visionary passage, full of the greatness, the majesty, the wonder of God. But full, too, of what God has done to reach out, in love and mercy, to us poor, frail, blind mortals.
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, it claims, we have seen “the image of the invisible God”. Wrap your mind around that one: the image, the full and authentic representation, of the invisible God.
“In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”. Wow! Not just a little bit of God, not just a hint of God, not 1% of God with 99% left behind. But the whole fullness of God. Wow!
In him is “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations, but has now been revealed”. In this man, the mystery has revealed itself, has broken itself open, has become transparent before our eyes. Wow, again!
What a claim! What a faith!
Yet, incredibly, so many people today react to the Christian message not with a wow, but with a yawn. Christianity, they think, is boring. Boring!
You can say a lot of things about the Christian faith. Call it mind boggling, if you like. Call it unbelievable, if you must. But never, ever, call it boring.
What does this startling claim mean for you and me? It means we pay attention, that’s what. Very, very careful attention!
Remember this morning’s gospel passage? Jesus is visiting the home of Mary and Martha. Mary is sitting at his feet, listening. It is the position of a disciple, a learner, a student. Martha on the other hand is rushing around organizing the hospitality. She is worried, distracted, bothered by many things. She’s stressed out. She would have been right at home here in Hong Kong! Finally she cracks: Lord, she says, it’s just not fair. Tell my sister to lend a hand!
And Jesus’ response? Gently but firmly, Martha is told that she has got it wrong. That it is time for her to go on strike. Not because the practicalities she was fussing about were unimportant, but because there was something vastly more important. This simple little story was the gospel writer’s way of saying: for God’s sake (literally), copy Mary’s example and listen, very carefully, to this special man.
Yes, God is great. The true measure of that greatness is God come among us. Love incarnate, love crucified and risen, love unearned and unearnable, love without limit and love without end, among us in the one they called the Christ.
Listen to him, my friend. Watch him. Follow him. For it is in the listening, in the watching, above all in the following, that you may discover in your own experience who he is. And may come, with the whole Church through the ages, to say, in awe and gratitude, “My Lord … and my God”.
To him be praise and glory, now and forever, and to ages of ages. AMEN