Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Seeing the Invisible

Colossians 1:15-20; Galatians 4:4-7; John 1:1-5, 10-14
January 1, 2012
© 2011 Norman Stolpe

I. I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve prayed through the Psalms once a month for over 40 years to stretch, stimulate and structure my prayer life. On Tuesday I started with Psalm 27 as I have for about 500 months now (I’m sure I’ve missed a few). With all that repetitive familiarity, verse 4 stopped me dead still. “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.” God has answered that prayer by giving me a whole career with the community of God’s people, inquiring of God and enjoying God. Candy could tell you of several occasions this week that showed this did not make me an especially spiritual person. But God graciously still lets me inquire into Scripture and soak up the beauty of the Lord.

A. Psalms 42 and 63 speak exquisitely of thirsting for God.

1. Claiming to be spiritual (even or especially if not religious) is very popular. However, Christian spirituality does not focus on who we are. Rather, Christian spirituality is about us focusing on Jesus, which does shape and change us, of course.

2. Quenching this thirst is not restricted to pastors. I’m thankful that my pastoral career allows me great opportunities to gaze at God, if I take the time with the right intention.

3. I know some of you have been given deeply satisfying ways of seeing God. Would anyone be willing to tell us about either how you experience the yearning for God or how God invites you to see the invisible?

B. I have watched some of the Public TV programs on how the Newtonian physics in which we live our daily lives doesn’t apply in the vast reaches of space or the interior of atoms, at extremely high or low temperatures. The models and formulas physicists use to explain this seem counterintuitive. Perhaps in a similar way, as finite, physical creatures to grasp the infinite, spiritual God we are unable to envision God, who is after all, invisible.

1. When the Roman Empire conquered a new territory, with political prudence, they did not require people to give up their gods. They simply said, give us an idol of your gods and we will put them in the Pantheon alongside of our gods and the gods of others who have come into the empire.

2. But when they conquered Judea, the Romans ran into a problem. The Jews said, “We don’t have a visual representation of our God, because our God is invisible. Not only that, all those idols are actually fakes, our God is the only true God for all people.” From this arose a whole constellation of attitudes that made Judea a constantly troublesome province on the far frontier of the Roman Empire.

3. The emergence of Christianity out of these Jewish roots was even more difficult for the Roman Empire. The God of the Christians was the man Jesus, who was executed for sedition against the Roman Empire.

II. The passages we read from Galatians and Colossians point us to Jesus as God’s answer to our craving to see God. By looking at Jesus in the Gospels, in prayer and in the Church, our yearning to see God is satisfied. John’s Gospel opens with a hymn that celebrates the invisible, spiritual God become visible flesh in Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

A. Colossians 1:18 calls Jesus the head of his body, the Church. We have a tendency to see the Church in institutional and organizational terms, but the New Testament presents the Church much more organically.

1. Jesus gave the Church baptism and communion to convey the spiritual reality of his redemption and presence to us through tangible elements.

2. When I think of the Church as the Body of Christ, I like to think of it as a mosaic portrait of Jesus. Each one of us is a chip of stone, ceramic or glass that makes up this portrait. None of us are a very accurate or complete picture, but together we represent Jesus.

3. This is not just an abstract idea. We live it every day with each other. Can you share some experience you’ve had with people in the Church by which you saw Jesus, and thus saw God?

B. We have a natural tendency to think of prayer of telling God what we want. If we push ourselves a bit, we acknowledge that thanks and praise are more important. I’ve quoted Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709) Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) before with an approach to prayer that may be as difficult to grasp as non-Newtonian physics. “To pray means to stand before God with the mind in the heart, to gaze unswervingly at God, and to converse with God in reverent fear and hope, unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” Have any of you had this kind of experience?

C. Prayer that is about looking at the invisible God is predicated on a rich and growing saturation with the Gospels. Not that the Gospels are better or more important than the rest of Scripture, but we see Jesus in the Gospels.

III. By looking at Jesus in the Gospels, in prayer and in the Church, our yearning to see God is satisfied. John’s Gospel opens with a hymn that celebrates the invisible, spiritual God become visible flesh in Jesus. The Scriptures we have read today tell us what to look for when we see Jesus in the Gospels: God in the flesh who is not only our creator and redeemer but creator and redeemer of everything.

A. Galatians 4:4 is about as close to the Christmas story as the New Testament Epistles come. Jesus, as God’s Son was born of a woman – a flesh and blood human who made the same journey from birth to death that we all take.

1. Colossians is also an early hymn that celebrates Jesus as the visible, tangible image of the image of God, in whom all the fullness of God dwells.

2. John gives us an eloquent if inscrutable hymn of the Word of God become flesh to camp out with us, as God camped with the Israelites in the Tabernacle on the journey through the wilderness – temporary but not illusory.

3. He himself is the light of life, by which the invisible God is illuminated, allowing us a way to see God when we see Jesus. In this light we see the glory of God when we see Jesus. As Psalm 36:9 says, “In your light, we see light.”

B. The language of Galatians 4:4 is subtle and because of the way we think of the sequence of parents and children we miss the point that God sent the Son who was not made when he was born of a woman but already was. When Colossians 1:15 speaks of him as the “firstborn of creation,” it is specifically not intending to say the Son was the first creature created, rather that as the creator, he has the right of inheritance to all creation.

1. John clearly echoes the creation language of Genesis one, “in the beginning.” Remember that in Genesis God said, “Let there be …” and it was so. John is presenting Jesus as that creative Word. This Word is not a symbol or idea, this Word is creative authority and power. John Calvin translates Word as “God’s Speech.”

2. Colossians 1:17 extends this creative power and authority to sustaining all that is created. Here is no clockmaker God of the Deists who wound up the universe and let it go. The creation is continuous.

C. Colossians presents Jesus as the redeeming God who does not let either humanity or creation languish endlessly in brokenness. Rather, through Jesus God was pleased to reconcile with all things, making peace through the blood of Christ’s cross.

1. Galatians expresses this redemption as our being adopted as God’s children and heirs. We have gotten so used to addressing God as “Father” that we have lost the radical impact of what Jesus started and passed on to the Church. I regret that the gender issues of our time also distract us from the power of addressing God as “Father.” It’s not about God being male or female, but about God being familiar and accessible. Because of Jesus, we can speak to God comfortably, intimately.

2. John says that those who believe in the Word have the power to become the children of God. This is not some magical or mystical power, rather it is the right and authority to become the children of God. This kind of believing is not simply agreeing with a theological description of Jesus, this is the experience of looking at Jesus and seeing God.

IV. By looking at Jesus in the Gospels, in prayer and in the Church, our yearning to see God is satisfied.

A. Has any Gospel episode given you an especially clear view of God as you looked at Jesus?

B. Especially on New Year’s Day, I thought I could only introduce one new song. I would have liked to have used CH 158, Her Baby Newly Breathing, and I suggest you look at the wonderful poetry. It would have been easier to sing than 171 God’s Love Made Visible, but that fit the theme so well and is so much fun, I hope you will give it a good try and maybe get Jaime to use it again next year.

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