UNITY OF VANCOUVER
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Jesus' Unique Image of God
Reverend Bernadette Voorhees
March 21, 2021
All Rights Reserved
I invite you to focus your attention in the center of your forehead, the seat of your spiritual faculties of imagination and faith. Now draw upon your memories to bring to your awareness an image of yourself walking into a movie theatre. See yourself entering the movie theatre, walking down the aisle and taking a seat in the front row. See yourself sitting there and looking up at the blank white screen, waiting for the movie to begin. Now, still aware of yourself as the observer or watcher of the movie on the screen, begin to see your image of Jesus beginning to take shape on the screen. As the scene takes shape, you can see that he is in a garden high on the Mount Of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. As you look closer at the image on the screen, you see that Jesus is sitting alone in prayer on a bench, nestled among colorful flowers and olive trees. As you look more closely at the picture forming on the screen, Jesus appears to become aware of your presence and silently motions to you, inviting you to come up and join him. In your mind’s eye, see yourself, standing, then appearing on the stage and entering into the garden from the right side of the movie screen. Jesus again motions to you. This time inviting you to sit next to him on the bench. See yourself doing this. (Brief pause)
As you sit with Jesus, he appears to be looking down into the city and at the people of Jerusalem. So, you ask him what he sees and what he is thinking and he shares this thought with you, “All that I see is God. All that I see is good.” He invites you to contemplate some troubling aspect of your own life and to examine it from the highest spiritual vantage point. Resting on the mountain of prayer, he invites you to join him in holding the thought: “All that I see is God. All that I see is good.”
See this scene clearly on the screen in your mind and then take the vision of it deeply inside to be stored as a cherished memory by seeing those words etched in light on your mind: “All that I see is God. All that I see is good.” Now etch these words in light upon on your heart. “All that I see is God. All that I see is good.” See the scene of this happening clearly playing out on the movie screen until you can see these words of light running like teleprompter across your mind and heart. “All that I see is God. All that I see is good.”
Now close your inner eyes and ears to everything but the sound of your breathing. In the darkness, hear the sound of your breath flowing in and the sound of your breath flowing out. Once again become aware of Jesus sitting next to you in prayer and begin to synchronize your in and out breath with his and like Jesus let every in breath carry the truth of God’s goodness deep into every cell of your being by affirming: “All that I see is God.” Let every out breath carry the truth of God’s goodness into every area of your life by affirming: “All that I see is good.” Breathe in with Jesus, knowing in your mind “All that I see is God.” Breathe out with Jesus feeling in your heart, “All that I see is good.”
Sit in the silence just breathing with Jesus for a few more moments, creating a relationship of oneness with God and with him. Breathe in with Jesus, knowing in your mind “All that I see is God.” Breathe out with Jesus feeling in your heart, “All that I see is good.”
Now, once again become aware of yourself sitting in the front row of a movie theater as the observer or watcher of a movie on the screen about Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives high above the City of Jerusalem. As you look closer at the image on the screen, you see that Jesus is again sitting alone in prayer as the movie appears to be ending, words appear and scroll up onto the screen. “Long ago, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives with his disciples. Knowing the difficult times he was about to experience he went there to pray and he asked his disciples to stay awake and to pray with him. For all he did and gave to others, it was the only thing he ever asked for himself and they all denied him. They all went to sleep. Will you?
And with that thought the movie ends. The screen goes blank and you exit the theater and once again begin to enter normal waking consciousness. Let us do this now by speaking together the words of our Prayer For Protection. The light of God surrounds us; the love of God enfolds us; the power of God protects us and the Presence of God watches over us. Wherever we are God is and all is well. Amen
JESUS’ UNIQUE IMAGE OF GOD
Deep within each of us is an image of what we believe is real. Jesus taught that this inner image matters because how you see Ultimate Reality or define God affects how you respond to life especially in times of personal or social crisis. Our image of Ultimate Reality can bring us peace and draw us closer together or it can create stress and tear us apart. Your image of reality determines whether you respond to the events of your life with fear or faith and trust. To explore your image of ultimate reality begin by asking yourself some basic questions: Do I think of God as angry or loving? Do I think that God plays favorites and likes some people more than others? Are some people chosen by God to be saved or protected from hardships like Noah and his family were saved from the flood and Lot and his family were saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah?
The conflict between Jesus and the religious and secular leaders of Jerusalem wasn’t a struggle between a new religion (Christianity) and an old religion (Judaism). It was a struggle between different ways of seeing God and different ways of being ‘Jewish’ in a time of crisis. What do you think God has to do with your everyday life especially in our current time of social and economic upheaval? What does it mean to be a Christian in today’s world?
In the time of Jesus, Judaism wasn’t one large group of people who all thought the same way and practiced the same rituals, etc. It was composed of many different sects, each offering a different worldview and survival strategy for dealing with the Roman occupation of Palestine and the stress of Roman taxation in addition to the immense requirements the Jewish Temple Priests in Jerusalem placed upon the people. Here is a list of the major groups occupying Jerusalem during the lifetime of Jesus and John the Baptist and the strategy they offered people to survive and even prosper during a time of immense crisis.
1. The Sadducees. The Sadducees were a conservative, small, rich, well-educated and powerful priestly aristocratic group at the top of the social pyramid. Viewed as collaborators by the majority of the Jewish people, they earned the dislike of all the other sects because of the compromises they made to secure their own status, wealth and power. They opposed all change because it could disturb the status quo and threaten their power.
2. The Pharisees. The Pharisees responded to the social crisis with a ‘politic of holiness’, which polarized society into clean and unclean, pure and defiled, Jew and Gentile, righteous and sinner by emphasizing extreme observance of all Torah laws. They fasted, tithed down to smallest herb, rigorously observed Sabbath laws and treated all aspects of life as a part of the temple worship service. They wore robes with long tassels and would walk blocks out of their way to avoid crossing paths with a woman, leper or anyone they considered unclean.
3. The Essenes. The Essenes were religious extremists who believed a life of holiness within Jewish society had become impossible so they withdrew from society to the wilderness to live in ‘pure, secluded communities’ governed by strict laws. They saw themselves as ‘children of light’ and saw all others including the Romans as ‘children of darkness.’ They believed the end of the world was coming ‘now’ and they looked forward to the day when God would destroy the Romans and punish all unbelievers.
4. The Resistance Movement included many independent, extremely violent sects like the Zealots and Sicarii. Beginning in about 37BC and marked by frequent incidents of guerilla warfare against Romans and Jews alike, the Resistance Movement ended with the mass suicide of all community members who had retreated to a mountain refuge called at Masada in 74 C.E. Zealots believed that holiness and salvation could only be achieved by expelling Rome and everything and everyone else they deemed idolatrous which also included the Sadducees, Pharisees and Scribes.
5. The 'Am ha -'aretz. The word Am ha -'aretz is a Hebrew term meaning ‘people of the land’. Composed of mostly Israelites outside the traditional religious expression demanded by the Temple Priests in Jerusalem as well as those suffering exclusion and prejudice like lepers, the handicapped, prostitutes and non-observant (non-tithing) Jews. They were members of no sect at all and not scrupulous in obeying laws, especially laws of purity because they couldn’t read and were uneducated and ignorant of the contents of Torah. They were shunned and ridiculed by Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. It was here among this large group of people that Jesus found most of his following, calling them lost sheep without a shepherd.
There was intense competition among these and numerous other groups. Each group generated another group preaching just the opposite fragmenting Jewish society even more. The more intense the demands of holiness became however defined, the greater the number of people who didn’t meet them and the intention to produce a sharper division between Jew and Gentile through religious practice actually backfired producing greater divisions and conflicts among the Jewish people themselves, which brings us to John The Baptist.
6. John The Baptist had a message of doom and gloom that was simple and grim and echoed a belief in end times theology. “The judgment is coming NOW, not in some distant future. And whereas the Prophets of old had foretold the destruction of the Gentile invaders and vindication of the Chosen people, the judgment John preached was directed against Israel itself. It was very personal. Salvation was only for those who had repented, been baptized and who had become a part of John’s wilderness community.
John’s message was terrifying on a personal level and it deepened the crisis within Judaism. Jesus initially responded to John’s message but sometime after his own baptism, he went north to the towns around the Sea of Galilee and began to preach a radically new message. The contrasting life-styles of the two prophets illustrated their very different views of God and that difference was not lost on the people. John preached and scratched in the desert in order to remind his followers how bad things were and how few would be saved. On the other hand, Jesus rarely passed up a good meal and flask of wine, regardless of the company, saying, “God’s banquet is all around us.” Matt. 11:16-19 says, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates and mimicking two prophets, “When we piped, you wouldn’t dance, When we wailed, you wouldn’t mourn. For John came neither eating nor drinking and they said, “He is possessed. I came eating and drinking and they say, “Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
This reminds me of what Abraham Lincoln said about pleasing the people. It’s impossible. Yet, the generation was right about one thing: with the coming of Jesus on the scene, the image of God had dramatically changed. To summarize:
1. The Orthodox Judaism of the Pharisees and Scribes held out the promise of a future apocalyptic triumph for Israel in return for strict observance of the letter of the Law.
2. John the Baptist like the Essenes preached of a terrifying God who was so angry at humanity that he was going to end the world. God was coming as a Judge and only those few who repented and changed would be saved.
3. Jesus’ image of God is summarized in the strikingly simple name with which he addressed the divine. He referred to God as ‘Abba,” which is the Aramaic word for Papa. (Mark 14:36) The use of this name for God was a shock to the dominant idea of God as a harsh judge and destroyer; an image from Zoroastrianism that had infiltrated Judaism during the Babylonian exile. The Pharisees saw Yahweh as a distant and almost impersonal sovereign, who required the mediation of angels, the Law and the complexities of religious ritual, including animal sacrifice. But with the simple and intimate word “Abba”, Jesus declared that God was immediately and intimately present and accessible to all; not as a harsh judge but as a loving generous Father whose presence was a pure and unearned gift. According to Jesus, everyone could relate to God directly and without fear. “Be not afraid,” Jesus told his followers. “Do not be anxious about your life. Do not worry. Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:25-30)
This teaching takes on a completely different meaning when it’s compared to the fear and exclusion messages of his contemporaries. According to Jesus, one didn’t have to earn the Father’s favor or bargain for his grace by scrupulously observing the minutiae of the Temple Laws. One simply had to call on God. “Ask and it will be given you. What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him.” (Mt. 7:7; 9-11
According to the prophet from Galilee, the Father was not to be found in a distant heaven, or in the temple in Jerusalem, God was to be found in every man, woman and child. God had poured himself out and had disappeared into mankind and could be found nowhere else but there. Jesus sought to bring an end to all images of God that invoked fear, exclusion and promoted social unrest that would bring the wrath of Rome down upon them. His proclamation “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” marked the death of religion for since there was no separation and God and Man were just two sides of the same coin, religion as outer observances was obsolete. Jesus’ image of God meant completely transforming ones life into a mirror reflection of God as love, justice, mercy and compassion to all.
The presence of God among men, which Jesus preached was not new. In fact it was very old and all Jesus did was bring to light in a fresh way what had been lost or forgotten in Exile and which had become obscured by the religious dogmas enforced by the Temple Priests. Jesus saw his role as reforming and revitalizing Judaism, a religion, which had turned into a tyrant.
The newness of his message was the shock of something old and forgotten; something lost that had been found again. The Father of the Kingdom was the very same Father of the Creation who had “made all things good”, who had “made man and woman in his image and likeness” and who “saw everything that he had made and said it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31)
According to Jesus, receiving God’s forgiveness didn’t require animal sacrifice or any sacrifice at all. Jesus’ message of the kingdom radically redefined the traditional notions of salvation. Salvation was no longer to be understood as the forgiving of a debt or as the reward for being good. Salvation wasn’t an escape ‘from time’ and death through resurrection of the body or immortality of the soul. It was a triumph ‘within time’ in the form of peaceful social existence in a Theocratic State. Forgiveness was a recognition that everything was already done and perfect in God’s presence and that everyone was already saved from the beginning precisely because they didn’t need salvation. God’s grace had already been abundantly bestowed and the only task left to us to do now was to live out that gift. Jesus believed in the concept of Original Blessing and not in the concept of Original Sin. To Jesus, God wasn’t an object of worship or a vengeful judge. God was a loving Presence dwelling in us, a loving, life force surrounding us and a Principle by which to live.
Jesus’ image of God as gracious and compassionate is the key to understanding his teachings. While Jesus never actually used the word Grace, it became became one of the central words in the Christian tradition because as an oral teacher, Jesus painted a vivid picture of God’s character as graciousness. For example: “Consider the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap. They have neither storehouse nor barn and yet God feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” And “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” I used to hear these sayings and think “I’m a bad Christian because I really don’t trust that much.” Now, I hear them differently. They aren’t meant to be a criticism of me. Jesus meant them as an invitation to see Reality or God differently.
The Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, was sacred Scripture for Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries. In it, the Hebrew and Aramaic word translated as ‘compassion’ is the plural of a noun that means ‘womb’ or ‘nourishing, life giving, loving, protecting wombishness’. This image of God is found in Jeremiah: “Thus says Yahweh: Is Israel my dear son? My darling child? For the more I speak of him, the more I remember him. Therefore my womb trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion upon him.”
In the Hebrew Bible the word compassion is used to mean both ‘a feeling and a way of being that flows out of that feeling’. The ancients viewed compassion as located in the loins; in women, in the womb; in men, in the bowels hence the odd expression found in the Old Testament. “His bowels were moved with compassion.” This means that feeling happens at a level somewhere below the level of the head (intellect) and being ‘moved by that feeling’ to do something. The feeling of compassion leads to being compassionate. This is what is meant in the New Testament by Jesus’ command “Love as I have loved you.”
The Hebrew words for compassion and compassionate are often mistranslated into the English words, mercy and merciful. Compassion is very different from mercy and being compassionate is very different from being merciful. In English, mercy and merciful imply a superior relationship to someone who has done something wrong. One is merciful toward somebody to whom one has the right or power to act otherwise. Jesus’ statement “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is rooted in ancient Jewish tradition. His actions demonstrated the Double Thread or Double Sided aspect of compassion. Compassion as a feeling and a way of being that flows out of that feeling. An image of what God is like and what we’re to be like as the image and likeness of God made manifest, (Luke 6:36) was revealed in the miraculous deeds of Jesus as well as the authority with which he spoke and the inclusion of everyone in a circle of loving acceptance as one great family. For example: In first century Palestine, sharing a meal signified acceptance. When Jesus shared meals with sinners and outcasts, he illustrated his image of a gracious and compassionate God embracing those whose mode of life had placed them outside the boundaries of acceptance established by Conventional Wisdom. This idea is repeated in many of Jesus’ sayings. He speaks of a God who makes the “sun to rise on the evil and the good and who sends the rain upon the just and unjust without thought of reward or punishment.”
In his “Parable of the Vineyard Owner”, Jesus tells the story of a man who paid all of his workers a full day’s wage even though many had worked only a small part of the day. When those who had worked the longest complained, the owner asked, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” The complaining workers metaphysically represent the protesting voice of Conventional Wisdom expressing the Dominant Consciousness of the time and in effect saying, “Look at us, we’re doing it all right, we’re working harder. God should love us more and save us at the exclusion of everyone else who is doing it wrong!” They saw Jesus’ Ultimate Reality or his Image of God as Graciousness as unfair “to them.” Do you sometimes find yourself responding to life as the “discontent workers?” What is your image of how life should be? Has your image ever collided with someone else’s or with culture? Is life fair?
These themes run through the three Acts of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. In Act One: The Prodigal Son journeys into to a far country, becomes an outcast, squanders his money, is reduced to poverty and becomes an employee of a Gentile pig farmer. Jesus’ paints a picture of ultimate dereliction in a first century Jewish context. As a swineherd, the Prodigal is worse than an outcast, he is an untouchable. Act One ends with the Prodigal’s decision to return home. In Act Two, the focus is on the Father. Seeing his son at a great distance, the Father has compassion and rushes out to meet him. Before the Prodigal can even speak, the father embraces and kisses him. Brushing aside his son’s carefully prepared confession, the father joyfully clothes his son with his best robe and puts a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet—all symbols of acceptance and restoration; then he orders a banquet be prepared. In this parable, the Father’s behavior is joyfully extravagant. What do you think of a father who acts this way? Is it more or less than you would do? Just what you would do in that circumstance? Should he have given the son a reprimand and put him through a probationary period? And are we supposed to think God is like this? Do you think God is like this? The parable could have ended here, as a powerful statement about the compassion of God, but it doesn’t. Act Three, begins with the sound of music and dancing floating into the nearby fields. The focus shifts to a third character, the older son. Hearing the sounds of celebration and finding out what is going on from a servant, he adamantly refuses to join the banquet. Instead he complains saying: “All these years I have been a dutiful and obedient son, and I was never so wondrously treated.” The father implores him to join the celebration and the parable ends with a question hanging in the air “Will you come?” “Will he or will the older son’s image of the way things ought to be keep him out of the banquet? What do you think of the older son’s reaction? Is it understandable or justified? Or is he a jerk unable to see what parental compassion involves? What do you think? Will he join the celebration or will he let his feelings of resentment and sense of unfairness keep him outside?
At the center of this parable is an invitation to see the character of God in a new way. God is like the father who yearns for his sons’ return from exile. When he sees him coming, he is “filled with compassion and joyously celebrates”. And his compassion is inclusive and extends to his dutiful son as well. But for the dutiful son to do so would of course involve him seeing very differently; he would have to let go of his most basic vision of the way he thinks life should be. If you see Ultimate Reality as hostile, indifferent, or as a judge then self-preservation becomes the first law of your being and your response to life is to try and protect yourself against ‘it’ and make yourself secure as the older son, complaining workers, the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots and even John the Baptist tried to do. In doing so, they saw the material side of life as separate from the invisible side of life. If you see that God is all, then your image of reality is life giving and nourishing, then another response to life becomes possible: trust.
The idea that our life on earth is primarily about meeting God’s requirements to ensure a blessed next life is completely foreign to the message of Jesus. Yet judgment as seeing ‘reality rightly’ does have an important place in his message. Blindness has consequences. According to Jesus, an individual or society that doesn’t ‘see rightly’ doesn’t know ‘the things that make for peace” and is doomed to relive the mistakes of the past. It’s only when we understand what Jesus’ meant by compassion that we realize how radical his message and vision were. For Jesus, compassion was political. He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant social paradigm of his social world and advocated a politics of compassion.
Jesus was born into a critical time in his people’s history. They had once been a God centered people led by charismatic prophets, but they had been conquered and while in Exile, they had lost their way. When they returned from Exile their religion had become institutionalized: all form and ritual with no spirit back of them; no first hand and immediate experience of God. In the charismatic tradition of Judaism, Jesus created a great big picture window in the wall, through which man can view the spiritual dimension of life. A window is something to be seen through, not to be looked at.
To Jesus, religion wasn’t just a way of believing or worshiping. It was a way of living. You can’t accomplish Jesus’ ideal simply by believing things about him. You must come to believe about yourself what Jesus believed about himself. Unless you appreciate the great discovery of the power within you, you’ll miss the point of the ministry of Jesus and be a part of a Christian church that is just a monument to a man never understood and a message never applied.
1. For Jesus, God was an experiential reality, what do you think God has to do with your everyday life?
2. In the Prodigal Son Parable, the Father’s behavior is joyfully extravagant. What do you think of a father who acts this way? Is it more or less than you would do? Should he at least have given the son a reprimand and put him on probation? What do you think parental compassion involves? Do you think God is like this?
3. What do you think of the older son’s reaction? Is it understandable? Should life be the way he (or anyone) thinks it should be? Is he a jerk? Will he join the celebration or let his feelings of resentment and unfairness keep him outside?
4. Do you sometimes find yourself responding to life as the ‘discontent workers and the older son?’ What is your ‘image’ of how life should be? Has your ‘image’ ever collided with someone else’s or with culture? Is life fair?
5. Of the various concepts discussed this lesson as ways different to handle social and personal crisis, which do you think dominates Christianity today? Are any of these concepts being used to handle the current ‘crisis’ in our culture?
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