Our Visible Invisible God – July 17

A sermon based on Colossians 1:15-18

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 17, 2022*

by Rev. Scott Elliott

Little Bobby and Grandma were looking at seaside vacation pictures. Grandma pointed to one and said, “This looks just like art. Did you know God painted it all for us, Bobby?” “Yes,” Bobby said, “And God painted it left-handed.” Confused Grandma asked “What makes you say God did it left-handed?” “Well,” Bobby said, “we learned in Sunday School that Jesus is sitting ON the right hand of God.”

I like Bobby’s take on God being a southpaw, but I really like grandma’s assertion that God’s handiwork is seen in nature. The magnificent photos that just came back from James Webb telescope prove that’s true.   But I am convinced that if we stop and look, the presence of God can be seen in every brush stroke of creation. Not just in exceptional magnified views of the universe, but in every detail large or small.

I also think that that reality seems to conflict with assertions in our hymn and in our lesson that God is invisible.  The theological term for this invisibleness of God is “transcendent,” the idea being that God transcends creation and is beyond it. The word translated as “invisible” in the lesson today is aoratos it means “unseen.” The assertion that God is unseen and transcendent can be confusing since the Bible also states God is everywhere and in everything, soaking the universe. We can in fact see a lot of God in creation– God made visible. It we take the time to look God looks back at us from every atom and molecule, every animate and inanimate thing.  When we look we CAN see God.  Such experiences of the presence of God on earth are referred to as the “immanence of God.”  God is immanent. Another way to say it is a word we use a lot, “incarnate.”

“Transcendent,” “immanent,” and “incarnate” are fancy schmancy words that theologians came up with long after our lesson from Colossians was written.  But the lesson can be heard to be about the visibility of the invisible God and how God permeates and interconnects the entire universe. Listen to the first few verses again:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers– all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Hear how Christ is the image of the invisible God? An “image” by definition is visible. Christians see God through Christ and claim that God is incarnate in the world, especially in acts of love. Christianity offers the theological concept that God is in humanity, seen in our actions. What we do matters. Jesus is resurrected because he “got” this concept. He lived and breathed it, and even died for it.  For Christians Jesus has been resurrected and lives on in ways we can experience him and God through him.

God’s incarnation is experienced when we step onto the Way, the path of Jesus’.  Theologian John Cobb calls Jesus’ Way a “field of force.” We step into the field of force on Jesus’ Way.

To kinda borrow from Star Wars, we sense the force is with us. God IS experienced. Or to use the boiled down essence of our lesson, we see and experience the “unseen” God.

God’s presence is like a beautiful intricate spider web. The web’s there, but unseen until the morning dew drops gather on the strands and reflect the dawn’s rays of sunlight. We can understand God as being like a web weaving all of creation together, Sacred strands connecting everything. I love that image.  Barbara Brown Taylor has a book about God in creation called The Luminous Web kinda like the image of the invisible spider web made visible by morning dew.  I’ve long thought that Christianity is poetic.  Its stories are strands of metaphor about that-we-cannot-see which help make visible a part of the Sacred web woven in the world. When we look at it we are shown the Gospel of creation in God’s Son-Light.  (And you can’t see the word play in my sermon text but I intentionally spelled son “S.O.N.” son).  .  .

Christianity is like poetry, strands of thought on-that-we-cannot-see which help make visible a part of the Sacred web woven in the world, and when we look at it we are shown the Gospel of creation in God’s Son-Light. Colossians teaches God’s here always and that through Christ we are able to see and experience God.  As we heard,  Paul puts it like this: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God . . . for in [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible . . . all things have been created through [Christ] and for [Christ. Who] is before all things, and in [Christ] all things hold together.”

My summary of all this is that God is truly an incomprehensible creating, present and hopeful power that soaks the universe and endlessly persuades creation to the best it can be in each given moment. For humans the persuasive power is love. And so, Jesus worshiped and honored and moved toward the God who is love and taught his followers to do that. And when we do that, strands of God are misted with our action and vibrate in creation and we are moved by that in the present and bask in the hopefulness of a future filled with more such action making more of God visible and experiential.

God is not, of course,  just experienced in our love. We can also experience God in the wondrous gift of creation.  Connection points to experience God are woven in endless strands through everything. Stop and look at a leaf or an ant, a blade of grass or a butterfly, a pebble or a puppy. God’s there–we just have to look. From drops of water to babbling brooks to oceans deep and clouds bursting with rain, God’s there.  God’s everywhere. Not seeing God where it is possible to see God is our fault. We just don’t take the time to look. That’s why I am often baffled by claims in our texts and hymns that God is invisible, because, truth be told, everywhere we go there is God, everywhere we look and listen and taste and smell and touch there is God. Kinda-like Madge in the old Palmolive commercials if we ask “Where is God?” the answer could honestly be “God? You’re soaking in it!”

I passionately believe in the Bible’s God of ever-present steadfast love and compassion for creation, who through Christ continually aims us toward the best we can be in the given moment. And in that moment God always beckons us toward the hope of the promise of a better self and a better world. The God whose love has no strings attached does this by relating to us persuasively with love through Christ’s constant call and guidance for creation to its promised potential and salvation. We CAN believe that God is what we have our very being in, and that we long to be our best in that beingness.

Paul refers to the ‘Word of God” in the text that we heard ROBIN read so nicely, “I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” Christ is the Word of God that experientially makes unseen parts of God known.

A part of the mystery of God is revealed for Christians through Christ. The strands of the web are exposed not just by what we see in creation but things we do, love we provide to others, care we give to creation, even by our rites and rituals, like the water of baptism, the wine of communion, the prayers we offer up, the praises we sing, recalling the blood shed on the cross and reading words from the Bible. These things can expose God’s presence to us, that’s why we do them.

The “Word of God” Paul refers to in the text is not the Bible. We often hear talk of the “Word of God” as being the Bible, ironically that is not what “Word of God” was intended to mean in the Bible itself. Note that it is the Word of God not the wordS of God. The Word of God is how God is experienced communicating to humans . . . or , if you will, it’s how God is made visible.  The Bible records the Word of God communicating the Divine to humans through creation, through writings, through events, through people– and in the New Testament the Word of God is  especially experienced through the words and acts and person of Jesus. But nowhere does the Bible claim, the Bible itself is the words of God.  Indeed, the Bible could not make that claim since the Bible was not put together before the separate books were written.

The Bible contains the Word of God, to the extent that it communicates God to us, but it is not the only source of the Word of God. The Word of God is a metaphor, a poetic way of expressing those beads of thought on that we cannot see which help make visible a part of the Sacred web woven in the world. To use another metaphor, creation is God’s work of art that Bobby’s grandma referred to. When the United Church of Christ claims “God is still speaking” it means the Word of God continues communicating God through nature and human actions and Scripture, and  most especially through the risen Christ.  Jesus is the decisive revelation of the “Word of God.” As such, Jesus outranks the Bible. When the Bible and what we see in Jesus’ conflict, as they sometimes do, Jesus trumps the conflicting parts of the Bible, and of any religious doctrine or creed.  Jesus’ way prevails and Love wins. That’s what it means to say that Jesus is the Word made flesh. In him, Christians see more clearly than anywhere else the character and passion of God.  4

I have to admit,  of course, that God as a whole is incomprehensible, and therefore invisible and transcendent to a great extent. . . . We can only take in a minute part of the universe and its Creator. The vast majority of creation and Creator are, and always will be, a mystery, unseen, transcendent. But God is not a mystery that’s un-experienced, nor is all of God invisible. The appearance of God is everywhere. God is immanent. Maybe Bobby in the story I told at the start is on to something, maybe we can just see what God’s left hand is up to, and all the rest of God is invisible. That little bit of God we do see is a magnificent wonder and it is soaked with the Divine, God is incarnate. As we say at Christmas time, Christ is Emanuel, which means God is with us. And that is the Truth. And that is the Good News! AMEN.

ENDNOTES

* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2013

  1. Miller, Paul ed., World’s Greatest Collection of Church Jokes, p 142.
  2. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, 63
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.

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