The story is told of a couple who once had two boys, ages ten and eight, who were very mischievous. The two were always getting into trouble and their parents could be confident that if any mischief occurred, their two young sons were involved. The parents were at their wit’s end so took the boys to a clergyman in town who had been successful in disciplining children in the past. The pastor asked to see the boys individually, and the eight-year-old was sent in first. The pastor sat the boy down and asked him sternly, “Where is God?” The boy made no response, so the clergyman repeated the question, “Where is God?” Again the boy made no attempt to answer, so the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy’s face, “WHERE IS GOD?” At that, the boy bolted from the room and ran past his brother and parents. His brother followed him down the hall and asked, “What happened?” The younger boy replied, “We are in BIG trouble this time. God is missing and they think we did it!”
God can seem distant. Job cried out “Oh, that I knew where I might find God.” Nietzsche declared that God was dead. This week the headline of the humorous newspaper The Onion reads, “Christ Reluctantly Enters Man’s Heart.”
Yet most of us are looking for something greater than ourselves, both within and without. A higher power, a greater spirit, a sense of the sacred, a larger self, an intelligent divine, whatever it is we know as God. If we have even some sense that God exists, our next question might naturally be, “Where is God? Can we know or understand God?
The first thing we note is that we are limited in our ability to find God our own. John Knox Press author Donald McKim writes that we cannot just climb up to Heaven, peel back the clouds and peer upon God.[i] So if we are going to know God, it is God who is going to have to do the revealing. As John Calvin said, God must come down.”
And that can be difficult to understand because God and we are different in many ways. God is not fundamentally human. We are not God. God and humanity communicate in different ways. We do not communicate with God as precisely as we might with another person. Moreover, we cannot change our life form. As much as my kids like the Transformers toys and as much as many humans would like to become Gods, we are stuck being human. We are quite limited. So for humans to know God in detail, God would ultimately have to become human. And that is what God did in Jesus. As the Westminster Confession put it, “It pleased God to reveal himself” to us in Christ. God has not hidden Godself off in a corner of the heavens. God speaks to us through God’s actions, through scripture, through prayer and through worship. But we know God most directly because God took on the human form we could understand by coming in Jesus Christ.
This is what we experience in our lesson this morning. Jesus said, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” And then Jesus made a startling claim that “anyone who has seen Jesus, has seen God.” “That anyone who knows Jesus, knows God.” This was incredible because Jews at the time believed that God was distant and could not be seen. And here Jesus proclaims that if you know him you know God.
Bill Cosby once joked, “Whenever your kids are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even God’s omnipotence did not extend to His kids.” He might have asked why God had forsaken him, but Jesus was not a different God, Jesus revealed the same God whom Israel knew, who created all things. He claimed the power and wisdom and grace of God in human flesh. And his claim turned out to be true – for Jesus died and three days later came back to life. That is in part what Jesus means in verse eleven by asking the disciples to believe because of the works that he did and would do.
So to see what Jesus does in the Bible is to see what God does. It is to see how God acts. It is to see the caring God has for humans; to see God’s sacrifice and promise. It’s to see God’s love in the way Jesus treated people, God’s caring enough to come to us in human form. Billy Graham once said, “If you want to see what God is like, look at the life of Jesus. And when you do you’ll find that God not only exists, and not only can be known, but that God loves you and wants you to love God back.”
In Jesus God speaks to us. As John said in his Gospel, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.” And then “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” When we speak we use words. When God spoke to humanity, the word became flesh. When we look at the life of Jesus we see what God has to say to us.
One of you recently gave us a book about the Chronicles of Narnia, always one of my favorites. One of the great ones is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Near the end, the main characters, Edmund, Eustace, and Lucy find a Lamb, a meek and humble animal, which is used as a symbol for both Jesus and for humanity. The lamb transforms into Aslan, the noble lion and God/Christ figure in the story. When Aslan tells Edmund and Lucy that they will not return to Narnia, Lucy asks Aslan, “Will you come and visit us in our world? Aslan responds, “In your world, I have another name. You must learn to know me by it. That was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Knowing Jesus means knowing God. And the better we know Christ the better we know God and the better off we are.
Now you might be thinking that this sounds great, but that it doesn’t comport with your personal life experience. You might say it all seems a mystery or that God has never spoken to you in a person. Or you are never sure if God is acting in your life.
If so, you are not alone. That is common. But it’s not that God is done speaking or that God has left you behind. God has always spoken to humanity indirectly. It should not surprise us when God seems hard to see or hear. Keep looking and listening. This is where human efforts are so important to knowing God. God became human to speak to us. It was through the writing of human hands that God formed the wisdom of the Bible. And I believe it is through people, the community, the human church, even with all its imperfections, that God continues to speak.
Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” Have confidence to believe in God but also to believe in yourself. That you can know God as you follow Christ into the world.
Jesus concludes our scripture lesson by saying those “who believe in me will do the works that I do, and they will do greater works than me because I go to the Father.” We are called to use our gifts for good as Jesus did. But how can we do greater works than Jesus? This is where some of our confidence comes from. William Barclay argues that we can. He suggests we take healing for example. Jesus healed miraculously. But over 2000 years, science and medicine have progressed to the point that humans can heal now in ways that would have seemed miraculous in Jesus’s time. Jesus was saying we are to use the gifts we have to heal as he did.
Moreover, Barclay suggests that Jesus means we can do more now because Jesus’ never took his message or healing or good works or lessons outside of Palestine. But when he died and was resurrected, Jesus’ spirit was freed, and “his spirit could work mightily everywhere.” Jesus’ spirit became and is the foundation for the work we and so many others do in the world. Christ-like work which helps us know the character of God.
In 1866, a young Englishmen named Samuel Stone responded to a book by a South African bishop, which questioned many of the tenants of the faith, by writing twelve hymns which fleshed out the basic Christian beliefs in the Apostles Creed and sought to deal with the doctrinal divisions facing the church of England.[ii] One of the hymns, The Churches’ One Foundation, which we’ll sing to conclude worship today, described a church confident in its shared foundation and future in Christ. The starting point for us to live out our knowledge of God in the world.
Christ calls us to believe in him and to the share the good news of his life, the sacrifice in his passion and the promise of his return. God continues to call people of every background and philosophy and age together here at Bradley Hills. And in the use of our gifts for the kingdom of Christ, we get to know God.
Dwight Moody once said, “Out of 100 people, one will read the Bible, the other 99 will read the Christian.” I hope you come to know God through the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. I hope you will read the Bible to learn about him. But I also know that the way many people may learn about God’s love is through someone else’s actions. Maybe through yours.
Theologian Shirley Guthrie wrote, “How do we know God? We know God in a weak helpless baby lying in a cradle in a barn. In a Jew who was the friend of dishonest business people, prostitutes and social outcasts. In a man condemned to die by capital punishment between two thieves.”[iii] He may have seemed rebellious to many, but Jesus was right when he declared, “Whoever has seen me has seen the father.”
And so if the God who created us and truly knows us has the confidence in us to reveal Godself by coming to, as, among and for humanity, than we should have confidence that we can and should learn to know God in return. May it be so. Amen.