Perhaps you have heard the story of the blind people who were brought to an elephant and asked to describe it. Each of them could only feel one part of the elephant. One felt the trunk and said, “An elephant is like a long, thin tube, very strong and flexible. It can move up and down and spray water everywhere.” Another felt the side and said, “An elephant is like a massive wall.” Another felt the ear and said, “An elephant is like a large flap.” One felt the tusk and said, “An elephant is hard and pointy.” Another felt the tail and said, “An elephant is thin and ropy.” Another felt a foot and said, “An elephant is like a tree stump: thick and sturdy.” None of them were wrong; they just didn’t have the whole picture.
Our journey with the Divine is like that. We have all sorts of partial images to work with, and they help us wrap our heads around the concept of God, but none of them gets the whole picture, which is too complex and mysterious for us to know in this lifetime.
In this worship service so far today, there have been multiple images and multiple names for the Divine. So here’s the quiz: What are some of them? [Input.]
Our prelude was “What Child Is This?” and we saw a photo of a crèche with the Christ Child in the manger. All through Advent we talked about welcoming the Christ Child into our hearts and souls and lives. On Christmas we lit the Christ Candle, shared the birth story readings from Luke, sang all the songs that celebrate Christ’s birth specifically in a stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. We talk about Christ being Emmanuel, meaning God with us, incarnate in a human body in our midst—specifically in the body of a man named Jesus whom we call the Son of God, even the only-begotten Son of God. At Christmas we focus on Christ as a newborn baby, and everything is about a fresh beginning.
That’s one way to talk about welcoming the Divine: Jesus the Christ, or the Messiah, the anointed one. It’s a good way, a powerful way. As Christians, we hang our hats on an identity as people who find our way to God by following Christ. We talk about God as a trinity, three in one—Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. All of these are images to help us wrap our minds around the Divine. Creator as the one who made us, the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Christ as God incarnate in human flesh, one of us. Spirit as a force, a breath, a wind moving in and among us, sometimes given form as a dove.
In our Christmas Eve service and in a longer form today, we also read the opening to the gospel of John. In that reading we get more words for the Christ: Word, life, light. We read, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
We hold multiple images of divine presence all at once. Spirit as breath, Christ as Word or light or life. God is often depicted as an old man in a white robe and with long flowing white hair and beard. Sometimes that God is judgmental and angry, greatly to be feared, the one who will make us pay for our sins. Sometimes he (and in that image, God is a “he”) is forgiving and compassionate, like a loving father.
In European and American art, God and Jesus are usually depicted as white. In other cultures, God and Jesus sometimes take on the physical characteristics of the people in that culture. Or sometimes they’re still depicted as white. If you conjure up images of Jesus, perhaps you think of that painting where Jesus stands at the door and knocks. He looks to be about six feet tall and white with flowing blond-brown hair.
I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say I’m pretty sure that’s not what he looked like. Given the part of the world where he was born, I think people would have said something if his skin were a different color from everyone around him, and their skin is brown. And I’m guessing they were way shorter than six feet tall. So we might guess that Jesus was short, by today’s standards, maybe wiry, with dark brown hair.
We have other images of the Divine, too: as savior, as a dove, as a lamb, as a shepherd, sweeping in on a cloud with a double-edged sword in his teeth. God as warrior king, as judge, as helpless baby, as lamb at the slaughter, as vulnerable and crucified. Spirit as divine breath moving over the waters of chaos in creation.
In Proverbs 8, we see God accompanied by Wisdom, personified as a woman. Yes, just as there are images of the Divine as masculine, there are images of the Divine as feminine. Here is an example of both, spoken by Wisdom:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, …
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race. (Proverbs 8:22-31)
God is pictured as a shepherd who leaves the flock of 99 sheep to go looking for the one that has gone astray. God is a woman who sweeps her house and searches diligently until she finds that one lost coin. So many images of the Divine.
You get the picture. The Divine can be male or female, human or animal, baby or elder, black, brown, white, breath, wind. Why does it matter? Why do we in this congregation make God gender-neutral when we read scripture?
It matters because how we perceive God impacts how we are in the world, both with ourselves and with others. If we believe that God is an angry father ready to send us to hell for our mistakes, we may be paralyzed with fear, stuck in our sins. And we may impose that judgmental theology on others. We see it in action when Christians tell others that God hates them and they are going to hell.
How we understand the Divine matters. If we believe that God is white, that Jesus was white, that the Chosen People are white, we may be tempted to treat people of other skin tones as somehow inferior.
If we believe that God is only male, we may ignore the Divine speaking through female or nonbinary voices. How many fabulous women preachers never got to answer that call because they were told women couldn’t be preachers? Our loss.
If we understand the Divine as love and life force and breath, we may listen for the Divine in ways that open us beyond the human to all of creation.
The images and metaphors we use help us try to describe the Divine. We are like those who tried to describe the elephant—as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “Now I see in part, but then, face to face.” We cannot fully grasp the mystery, the complexity, the fullness of God. So we use metaphor, stories, parables, images, to try and wrap our heads around some part of that divine Presence that we sense, that we experience, that we know to be there without knowing the words for it. In fact, words are inadequate. They put limits on the limitless, box in what cannot be contained, quantify the immeasurable.
At Christmas we welcomed the Christ Child, and this is a good image to work with. We can also welcome the Divine Mystery, the great unknowable that somehow creates us and loves us and desires to be in relationship with us. This year I invite all of us to practice opening ourselves to that Divine Presence in all its variations, and see where that takes us. If we know anything about the Divine, it is that our creator is all about love even of those deemed unlovable, inclusion of those left out, healing for those deemed beyond hope, forgiveness for all those who desire a fresh start. We welcome the Christ Child as a fresh start, an openness to the new spirit that can be born in us. We welcome Spirit, moving and dancing and whispering in our midst. We welcome Wisdom, who has been with God since the beginning. We welcome the Word, who is life and light. We welcome the Divine Presence in the darkness as well.
Welcome, New Year. May it be full of Divine Presence, by whatever name or color or shape or gender. May we welcome Jesus in every person we meet. May we welcome Spirit in every gathering. May we welcome the Creator every time we enjoy a flower or watch a hummingbird or marvel at a fir cone. May our eyes and ears, our hearts and souls, be alive to the presence of the Divine in every moment of every day. And as we welcome the Divine in all forms, may we be transformed by God’s abundant love, holding us, surrounding us, carrying us, welcoming us, every step of our journey. Amen.