Sunday, December 1, 2019

Sermon: “Imago Dei: In the Image of God’s Spirit”, Isaiah 11:1-10/Matthew 3:1-11 (December 1, 2019)

(Week 1 in our Advent series on how we reflect God's Image)


It’s the beginning of a new liturgical year and Advent is upon us, as you can tell by the beautiful paraments that once again adorn our worship space. This past week, I joked on Facebook that we should start calling these purple ornamentations “prepare-aments”, since purple is the color of the liturgical seasons of preparation. In all seriousness, though, it’s important for us to remember the preparatory aspect of Advent. In the context of worship, we usually talk about it in terms of preparing for the arrival of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, the Messiah…but what does that really mean? What does it entail? Certainly, our preparation doesn’t begin and end with purple paraments (excuse me; prepare-aments) in the sanctuary and bright, colored lights hung outside our homes. This sort of preparation is fun, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t accomplish anything particularly meaningful. I mean, it’s meaningful to us individually—I’m a huge fan of traditions and the feelings they evoke—but aside from providing the “warm fuzzies”, it doesn’t actually really do much, aside from making the spaces around us look pleasant.

What we SHOULD be talking about when contemplating our preparation during Advent is something much more difficult and involved: preparing OURSELVES for the arrival of the Christ-child. I’m not talking about getting a haircut, buying new shoes, and putting on your best holiday sweater; that’s just exterior decorating all over again. I’m talking about preparing ourselves completely, from the inside out, starting from the beginning. Making our entire selves presentable to God incarnate: body, mind, and soul. That’s an awful lot to accomplish in a season of four short weeks. Kinda makes untangling all of the Christmas lights sound downright achievable.

Our Advent Project: Spirit
Luckily, we don’t have to figure it out as we go. We have some pretty good source material to work with. We may be fallible and sinful creatures, but we were still created imago dei, in the image of God. There's something within us that gives us the framework we need to prepare for Christ's coming. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, so to speak; we just need to figure out how to embody the best parts of who we were created to be. Our spirits, our minds, our bodies, and our communities each reflect an aspect of God in a unique way, so this Advent, it’s our task to figure out how each of these parts of ourselves can help us live up to this divine image that we bear.

This week, we’ll begin by considering how our spirits reflect imago dei. This may seem like an easy question with an easy answer (after all, God is first and foremost a spiritual being), but it’s actually not as simple as it seems. To begin with, “spirit” is a pretty confusing concept. What even is our spirit? How do we distinguish our spirit from the rest of who we are? If God is primarily a spiritual being, does that mean our spirits are the only part of us that can reflect the divine? Does it make the rest of our being worthless? Well, first things first: God created human beings Godself and declared us—the ENTIRETY of us—good, so it’s a mistake to consider our spirits somehow superior or separate from our bodies or our minds. As we investigate our imago dei in spiritual terms, we should be careful not to give our spirits an unjustifiably elevated status.

That being said, our spirit is a special part of what it means to be human. It’s the part of us that’s least tangible, most in tune with the unknown, most open to experiencing God’s presence. It’s the inexplicable, inexpressible spark of life that makes each of us who we are. Genesis describes this spark as “God’s breath”, God’s ruach, which is just the first of many metaphors that humanity has used over the centuries in an attempt to describe what the spirit is. It’s also been described as being like a flame or a dove, and we often use other words like “soul” or “heart” interchangeably in an effort to get to the root of the spirit’s essence. In spite of all these efforts, a simple understanding of the spirit still eludes us.

And yet, this is exactly what’s most valuable about our spirits as a reflection of God’s image. It really is a shame that our evidence-obsessed, STEM-centric, achievement-driven society has largely dismissed spiritual understanding as useless, because it’s the best tool at our disposal for comprehending the incomprehensible. Science is wonderful for explaining what we DON’T yet understand, but the spirit is invaluable for teaching us about what we CAN’T understand. We have no other way to perceive such things: the body’s knowledge is limited by what it can experience through the senses, the mind’s by what’s intellectually logical and reasonable. Our spirit is the part of us that can most easily engage the intangible, the illogical, and the incomprehensible…which, let’s be honest, makes up a lot more of life than we might like to admit.

Because of this, our spirit puts us in a unique position to be able to reflect the least rational, most preposterous aspects of God. Don’t believe God is irrational or preposterous? Consider this: God’s essence is boundless, infinite love for all of humanity, regardless of what God gets out of the deal or how we behave towards God. God’s greatest hope is for natural enemies—the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, the lion and the calf—to live together in peace and harmony. That’s a pretty absurd position to take from the human perspective, and yet it’s who God is. If our essence were only our bodies, we’d be preoccupied with our biological needs; if it were only our minds, we’d be driven by which choices make the most sense. Yet God created us to be body and mind AND SPIRIT, so that we have the capacity to embody even the aspects of God that seem most bizarre to us.

It’s through our spirits that we’re able to love one another unconditionally. It’s through our spirits that we’re able to recognize others’ worth and belovedness. It’s through our spirits that we can know, in the deepest parts of who we are, what is faithful and what is righteous and what is God’s will. Our spirits provide the inexplicable drive to do what’s right, even when it doesn’t benefit us. Because that’s who God is; that’s how our spirits reflect God’s spirit.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is in the lectionary for Advent because in the context of the New Testament, we often read it as a prophesy related to Christ. Jesus is the shoot that will grow from the stump of Jesse; Jesus is the little child that will lead all of creation. But of course, Jesus will be born both fully divine AND fully human, with everything that entails. So when scripture says, “The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, an spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord,” would it really be that far-fetched to imagine that these qualities of Jesus’ are the very same ones that God has designed our own spirits to reflect?

Maybe this Advent, our own spirits are being called to remember how they reflect imago dei. Maybe they’re being reminded to delight in fearing the Lord, to refrain from judging by appearances or hearsay, to act with righteousness and equity, no matter how irrational or detrimental to our personal well-being it might seem. This is where the preparation part comes in. Cuz let’s be honest: we ain’t there yet. Even though our spirits reflect God, they’re completely corrupted by our sin and selfishness. And no mirror can reflect well if it’s covered with grime.

John the Baptist frequently makes appearances during Advent for exactly this reason. His call to “Change your hearts and lives” through repentance doesn’t speak to our bodies or our intellect. It’s a challenge to our spirits. The Lord is coming to be with us, to surround us, to enter our hearts, to become one with us; if our spirits aren’t aligned with the image in which they were created, then how can we hope to welcome him properly? We must atone in order for our spirits to be united with Christ’s—literally, the word “atone” etymologically comes from the idea of being “at one” with something.

John makes the consequences of our separation from God sound dire: “The ax is already at the root of the trees…every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire.” But even without the threat of metaphorical deforestation, the stakes are already high enough. We are Christians. We follow Christ. If we aren’t seeking to reflect him as best as we possibly can, then what are we even doing here? If we’re not fighting to reform our spirits in every moment so that we might become united with God’s, then what’s the point? If our spirits aren’t mirroring Christ’s, if we aren’t irrationally helping those in desperate need or loving those who hate us against our better judgement, then I’m not sure he’d understand why we bother celebrating his birth.

Your spirit is a divine gift from God. It helps you to understand the unknown and to sense peace, comfort, and connection when it can’t be found any other way. But it’s also meant to discern good from evil and to produce fruit that reveals God’s will to the world. Your spirit is a reflection of God. It’s how you know you are sacred. But it’s also how others see what God intends us to be. So let your spirit be a mirror. Keep its surface smooth and its image clear. Repent of the times that it’s not, so that you can turn around and again be united with the one it reflects. Let it testify to the unknowable and the divine. And above all, remain open to the Holy Spirit as it moves in you, so that your own spirit might learn to echo it in a way that deserves to be called imago dei. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment