Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sermon: “Imago Dei: In the Image of God’s Mind”, Genesis 1:1-5/John 1:1-5, 9-14/Matthew 1:18-24 (December 8, 2019)

(Week 2 in our Advent series on how we reflect God's Image--
last week's sermon can be found here)


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.” For many of us, these words are as familiar as our own names, as comfortable as an old, worn shoe. We recite them faithfully at our Christmas Eve services, year after year, and some of you may have even memorized this passage during your Sunday School days. But as familiar as it is, do we really know what it’s saying?

Well, it sounds like it’s time for a Greek lesson! (Cue collective groaning.) The Greek term that’s translated here as “the Word” is ο λογος (ho logos). The most basic meaning of logos is, indeed, a spoken or written word but (the Greeks being the notorious philosophers that they are) this term has several other possible interpretations that add depth to our understanding. Logos also means reason, logic, or plan. So logos doesn’t just refer to spoken or written language, as most English translations seem to imply; it refers much more broadly to mental processes as a whole. In other words, logos is a function of the mind.

Our Advent Project: Mind
And now, to follow up our Greek lesson with a philosophy lesson: humanity has a long history of connecting this Greek idea of logos to something greater than just the human mind. As far back as the 6th century BCE, the philosopher Heracleitus talked about logos as a “cosmic process” that’s comparable to humanity’s capacity to reason, just on a much grander scale. By the 1st century CE, Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria had begun using the idea of logos to describe that which allows the human mind to connect with and engage the divine. So, as Christians began to associate Jesus with this idea of logos, their thinking didn’t develop in a vacuum. John’s audience likely would have made the connection between logos and the principle of divine reason. They would have understood that John’s idea of logos has something to do with the role of God’s mind in creation.

Knowing the history of this term can help us better understand the connection between the creation accounts of Genesis and John. When John talks about “the Word”, he’s referring to more than just the literal words that God spoke. He’s telling us that Jesus is, and always has been, the way that humanity comprehends God (“logos” in the sense that Philo of Alexandria described). And he’s telling us that this element of comprehension, this sense of logic and order, was an integral part of creation.

In the beginning, God imagined, and it became reality. In the beginning, God spoke, and creation happened. In the beginning, God drew boundaries and created patterns and order, and it was good. Out of God’s mind came everything that was and is and ever shall be, purposefully arranged according to God’s plan. It was all perfectly decent and in order, for the sake of God’s pleasure and our benefit (maybe God’s Presbyterian, after all). So, logos seems an apt term to use when describing creation. It’s clear that this was a process that emerged out of God’s mind as much as anything else.

It turns out that, contrary to our expectations, God’s mind is less about intellectual prowess or exorbitant knowledge than it is about order, discernment, and creative curiosity. Less about omniscience and more about intentional process. That’s what it means that “in the beginning was ho logos and ho logos was with God and ho logos was God.” Creation didn’t just happen—boom!—out of sheer mental power. It was dynamic; it was conversational and interactive; it was orderly AND creative. That’s what God’s mind is like.

Now, although we know we were created in God’s image, our own minds don’t always do a very good job of reflecting these qualities. We tend to prioritize intellectual achievement and strength when we use our own mental abilities. However, there’s one time that our minds can’t help but mirror God’s: when we’re dreaming. Colloquially speaking, a dream is something undefined, intangible, aspirational—as far away from the idea of “logos” as you can get. That’s because the things that we dream in our sleep often make little sense to our waking brain, trained as it is to follow the “rules” of the physical world and human logic. But some scientists believe that when we dream, our minds are actually trying to work through problems that we struggle to solve while awake. According to this theory, dreams are a creative thinking process that help us create order out of chaos. Sound familiar? To me, it sounds like dreams are the brain’s way of trying to pull a Genesis within the human mind.

In a way, we could say that when God created the universe, God had a dream—a vision, a desire, a goal—and through and with and as the logos, God’s dream took shape and became reality. Each time we dream (whether awake or asleep) we’re doing the same thing within our own minds. Although we don’t have the power to create tangible universes with our minds, we have the same capacity to reason and process as God does, to create order and meaning out of chaos. We have the same capacity for creative curiosity, with which we explore and influence the world around us. Our minds aren’t perfect replicas of God’s, but they’re certainly capable of being an extraordinary reflection—imago dei once again.

For all that he gets sidelined in the Advent and Christmas stories, Joseph has a lot he can teach us about reflecting God’s mind. Whereas John the Baptist demands spiritual repentance and Mary ponders things in her heart, Joseph is a pretty cerebral guy. He has a big problem, and he tries to think his way through it: his betrothed appears to have committed adultery, and while it wouldn’t be seemly for him to follow through with the engagement, he also doesn’t want to embarrass or shame his fiancée. He has a difficult choice to make.

I’m sure his decision-making process included some of the techniques that we still use to make decisions today: listing all possible options, weighing the pros and cons, considering the worst-case scenarios. But scripture tells us that as he was pondering this situation, the answer came to him in a dream. It was only when his mind was free to stretch and explore that he was able to discover what it was that God wanted from him. It was only when he stopped trying to rationalize his way through his predicament and allowed his mind to reflect God’s way of thinking that he was able to work out the right solution.

Now, you could argue that this wasn’t Joseph’s mind doing the work; God had sent the angel to provide him with the answer he needed. But what you can’t deny is that Joseph was entirely responsible for what happened next. He could have disregarded the angel’s instructions, writing them off as absurd or unreasonable. But he didn’t. He gathered all of the information available to him, using the full capacity of his mind, and he made a choice to obey what the angel had told him. He made a choice to do the merciful, gracious, generous thing—to take Mary as his wife, and to legally claim Jesus as his own by virtue of naming him.

See, choice is a way that our minds reflect imago dei, too. The capacity to decide on a righteous course of action and to follow through is a divine characteristic. Joseph’s action wasn’t righteous because he was blindly obedient. It was righteous because the divine mind showed him the right thing to do, and his human mind made the decision to do it. Obedience based in recognizing what’s right is a holy choice—one that Joseph made in saying yes to his dream, one that Mary made in saying yes to the angel, and one that Jesus himself made many years later in the Garden of Gethsemane in saying yes to his own death.

You may not be faced with the decision to raise the Messiah as your own child, but we all have choices to make every single day. We all must use our mind’s imago dei to decide how to treat one another, how to use our resources, how to follow God. These aren’t easy choices to make; in fact, it’s far easier to make the wrong ones. John 1:10-11 says, “The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize [it]…his own people didn’t welcome him.” Just because we were created by the logos and are surrounded by it even now doesn’t mean that we’ll recognize it when it pursues us.

But if we allow ourselves to think not just the way we’re used to, but the way God thinks, if we engage the logos and allow ourselves to dream with God, incredible things will happen. Our minds are a powerful gift—not because of what they contain, but what they’re capable of. And as Joseph shows us, dreaming is often the best way to figure that out. In the words of a quote often attributed to Walt Disney, “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

So what are your dreams? How is the divine trying to speak to your mind even now to convince you of the righteous thing to do? Do you dream of a Church where all feel safe and welcomed? Do you dream of a nation where everyone has what they need to survive? Do you dream of a world where no one lives in fear of abuse or exploitation? Don’t make the mistake of writing off your dreams as ambiguous, intangible, unachievable. Dreams are the mind’s way of making sense out of the world, of bringing logos to chaos. Listen to what they tell you. Listen to what God is telling you. Let your mind reflect the divine as it was created to. And then make your choice. Because your decision to do what’s right is the most divine thing your mind is capable of. Amen.

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