Psalm 19:1-4; John 1:1-5; Hebrews 1:1-4
God is always speaking. These three readings from the Bible are clear about this. Language pours out from all creation. Hebrews says that God has always been talking to us. The prophets were the early mouthpieces. They encountered God and tried with their words to explain what they encountered, something beyond words. Imagine…, how could Moses put into words the forty days he spent in the cloud and fire and smoke of God’s mountain-shaking presence? The ten commandments? Do you think that could possibly be all? I am sure this is why we have so many a varied voices from the prophets – putting mystery into words is suggestive, at best.
The prophets need help from the poets. The songs of God’s people in the Psalms color outside the lines. Day and night themselves pour forth speech in praise of the Creator. No words, no speech, but their voice goes out to the ends of the earth. Everywhere, universally, the speech of praise surrounds us. We breathe this language of praise in and out of our bodies and souls every moment.
And in these last days God spoke through a son, an incarnation, an embodiment of God’s own nature.
I can say “amen!” to the mysterious ways of God’s speech. During my time in the wildness over the past couple of weeks, I heard the language of creatures. Some chirpers seemed to follow me along the trail. I imagined them keeping a close watch on exactly what I was up to and alerting their tribe of my presence. Squirrels have a particularly piercing warning screech. The quiet white pelicans swam calmly, when over their heads were the loud squawking Canada geese. Who can be peaceful and calm when they are around?! Ravens sound so different from crows! Elk make a screeching, trumpeting call, while the frightened deer, who I accidentally separated from her babies, made no sound. But she communicated clearly by heading in a straight line to her young ones, and it was up to me to get out of her way!
Some of the language used sound, something we might identify as language. But some of the language was silent – color and light were always grabbing my attention. Thirty shades of pink to orange to red to burgundy to purple among the roadside shrubs told me how much each plant wanted to express its own nature, it’s own unique song of praise.
Or the movement of clouds across the sky told me that there was power blowing through the space above me. Motion is a form of speech. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). The wind forcefully reminded me to take off my hat, and bow to the presence of Creator.
Or there was another kind of sound – not from the creatures. One trail almost did me in. In the trail review was incorrectly labeled as “easy – a place to run with your dog.” But this trail went straight up the side of the mountain like two thousand stair steps through the root-gouged trail. I kept my eyes on my pathway on that broken trail! But then I began to hear space. How can that be? I am not sure. Did I hear it, or sense it, or see it? There was more light through the trees. The wind got colder, like air conditioned breeze. The lake was certainly close by. Encouraged by this speech, I renewed my effort. The speech had been true. Moments later the light broke over open water, reflecting the grand granite mountain towering above it.
Water speaks. We describe it as a babbling brook or roaring waves. We use sound words to describe water. Do we listen? What do we hear?
One of the fundamental teachings of Scripture is that God is exalted far beyond our ability to grasp or conceive. One of the fundamental affirmations about God is that no one can “see God’s face” and live (Exodus 33:20). John says, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1:18). It is so easy for the word, God, to roll off our lips. Some use it so freely that it sounds like verbal punctuation. God’s speech is different. It can be a still small voice or a roaring thunder. A songbird, or screaming osprey. God’s speech is mysterious. We hear it new every time. And we hear it in something we never expected.
Frederick Buechner wrote a book called, Son of Laughter, about the life of Jacob and his father, Laughter (who we know as Isaac). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph – we call them the Patriarchs, because they were the first followers of the particular God they encountered and tried to understand, or at least to follow. Buechner calls that God, “The Fear.” The Fear. With this name, Buechner is trying to help us feel the otherness of God. All the other people had gods of silver, with faces to see and hands to hold.
Buechner’s Jacob says, “The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted…. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless” (p. 184).
Be careful to think you can control the Fear. Always be in awe. Always know that this God is not in our control. God’s speech is everywhere, accessible, mysterious, uncontrollable, and fearsome!
We creatures respond to what we cannot control with fear, warning, speech. Something totally other, is terrifying. So the creatures of the wild squawk, chirp, screech, trumpet, flap, caw, gobble, hoot, moo, and so many other forms of speech. More than anything, it is Fear which draws out language from them.
What creatures, light, color, sound – all of it – are trying to communicate is that the one we call God is far beyond our ability to grasp or conceive. Prophets gave words to their experience of the Presence. And then humans began to revere their words. But each prophet’s word is like one painting among many.
What all these ways of speaking about God are referring to is God’s hiddenness. Or, God’s mystery, otherness. I think most of us aren’t entirely comfortable with a God who remains hidden. We long for a sign, something tangible that we can hang our faith on. We all would like to be able to pull back the veil and take a peek. But there was an impenetrable veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. That center of the divine presence is mysterious, always outside of our control, or even of our will to encounter. Buechner again: “The Fear comes when he comes. It is the Fear who summons. The gods give in return for your gifts to them…. The Fear leaps out of the black night” (p. 184).
God’s way remains hidden. We do not yet see God’s reign completed. We do not yet see all tears wiped away, all suffering and sickness and pain and injustice banished from humankind. We do not yet see all things made new. Hidden, but in plain sight.
So what is God saying now? What is the speech we hear. Yes, there is creation, as I have described. Yes, there are the words of the prophets, which we pour over, study and dissect. But the writer of Hebrews puts it simply: Jesus is God’s ultimate speech to us. We see Jesus. Jesus is “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3).
Incarnation. I realize that we may believe ourselves to be too sophisticated to think much of antiquated concepts like God being incarnate in a human being. But the concept of incarnation is not about the biology of where children come from. It is an affirmation that Jesus really and truly does show us what God is like. Jesus is God’s speech to us – God’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We can look at Jesus, his life, his teaching, his mercy, his justice, and we can be confident that we are seeing a true image of God.
And when we look at Jesus, what is it that we see? We see him embracing the ones nobody else would embrace. We see him confronting the religious people with the falseness of their self-assured confidence. We see him forgiving sinners and restoring people to their right mind. We see him teaching people to follow the Way by loving God whole-heartedly and loving others sincerely.
In these last days, God has spoken to us in a person. A life. Not the teachings, though those are helpful. How did Jesus live? He healed sick people – any who came – until he was at the point of exhaustion. And then he rested. He went away to be alone. To be one-on-one with the Presence. Jesus played with children. Time in play was not a waste, but a God-thing. He ate, slept, talked, laughed. Jesus LIVED. Truly lived. And even his death did not get in the way of that. Still he LIVED.
John says it: “What has come into being in the Word was life” (1:4). Life is the very presence of God. Unpredictable, uncontrollable, wild, ecstatic and dangerous. Life. And the truly mysterious part of this LIFE is that it is unphased by death. A hurdle? Okay, I’ll give you that. Jesus’ excruciating death was tragic, so deep that we know God understands suffering. But even that does not stop life. God’s speech is life. God is speaking life into all our personal hells.
That is what this table means today. We eat and drink of elements which have been picked, strained, bottled; sifted, ground and baked. Like Jesus, these elements have suffered. Yet they are for us life. Life still speaks on this table, in this community of remembering, listening.
Today, as we gather around the Table, we remember that we are not alone. Jesus is here, as always. And today, we have millions of others around the world sitting next to us in our pews. Many of these know suffering, have been broken by prison or war or starvation or addiction. Yet, they are fed by the same food. Most have skin of brown – all kinds of shades of brown! As white-skinned humans, we are a minority in the Jesus family. We are the foreigners! Jesus was brown-skinned after all! And so were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. So were the prophets. No, we whites are new-comers, strange-looking to this ancient family. Hear those among your pew neighbors speaking in sounds strange to your ears, languages beyond our small comprehension. And, remember that death doesn’t get in the way of this LIFE. So, see the loved ones who have gone before in this great host of witnesses, sitting with you in the pews. This place is packed!
Let us listen with our bodies, as we eat this food. Just as God spoke with the embodied Jesus.