Where is God? To help prepare for this message I typed those three words – where is God – into the Google search engine, just to see what would happen. Amazingly, to me at least, the top search result has a fairly clear, definitely concise answer: God is in Europe. No, I’m not kidding, hear me out. More specifically God is in Central Europe, in the country of Budapest. You were thinking Jerusalem or perhaps the Vatican, weren’t you? Nope! And more specifically than that God is the name of a town in Hungary, with a population of around 18,000. It’s about a 45 minute drive north, and slightly east, of Budapest, located right along the beautiful, historic, serene Danube River.
So if you’re looking for God, and have some time, and enough spending money for a transatlantic flight, well, you’re excused from the service – go, FIND GOD. It’s ok, you can go now. We just ask that you take some photos, collect some stories, and come back and share those experiences with us, that’d be kinda fun.
For the rest of us not traveling to Europe today, my apologies, we’ll have to talk about this notion of where God is a little longer. I’ll try to keep you awake as best I’m able 🙂
This week we begin a brief three week series on Jesus: who he was, who he is, who Jesus is to come. Today we’ll tackle the backstory, of who Jesus was. But before we do that we need head back even further in the family tree and start with God the Father.
God in the O.T.
Similar to a Google search result that answers the question Where is God, in Old Testament times God was location-specific. In Genesis chapter 3, God walks in the garden, right alongside Adam and Eve. But after original sin God arguably became less mobile, more elusive, more difficult to access for we humans. God was around, sure, but it depended on time, and place, and sometimes on who you knew. God was often in the mountains, which is where Moses was handed the 10 commandments. Or, if you’re a fan of Mel Brook’s 1981 film History of the World, Part I, perhaps there were originally 15 commandments. In that satiric story Moses drops one of the tablets, shattering it, before he can present them to his people.
Some of my favorite God spottings in the O.T. are event-based, in a specific spot, like in a burning bush, in Ezekiel’s dry bones, or where God speaks to God’s people through a talking donkey. And when God could be found consistently it was often in a single, isolated location, like a tent only Moses could enter, or the holy of holies. That’s an area of the temple only accessible once a year by the high priest. God was here, on earth, but it was a limited access deal.
God in the Neighborhood
The location of the divine, and how we can access it, changes, rather radically, with the arrival of God’s son Jesus. That’s the focus of today’s scripture from John chapter 1, a powerful, poetic text that offers a unique birth narrative for Jesus that doubles as the creation story too.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, John begins. Here the identity of God is inextricably linked to the Word, the first spoken, later written story of God and God’s people.
He was in the beginning with God, verse two continues. This ‘he’ reference here is to God’s son, the soon-to-be revealed Christ. Here John isn’t speaking of the earthly birth of Jesus, but instead ties it to the implied presence of Jesus with God, and alongside God, from all eternity.
The focal point of today’s text, and the turn that makes our gospels relevant, comes to us in verse 14. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, we’re told, the glory of a father’s only son. I t is that moment, of Word become flesh, of God present with us, in the form of God’s son Jesus, both fully human and fully divine, that literally births Christianity. And it is that moment that unshackles our understanding of a limited access God, instead transforming it into a here and now, in the flesh, available to all through the life, death and resurrection of Christ kind-of-God.
In the Message, a modern biblical paraphrase that came out in 2002, author Eugene Peterson provides fresh, vivid language in verse 14, rendering it as the Word was made flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. I love that. God’s son Jesus as not only human, but neighbor. Not only walking the earth, but living locally. Not only a divine role model but someone residing next-door, someone you can literally break bread with.
Someone who removes, once and for all, this concept of a limited access God, expanding it to a God available to all tribes, all peoples, all social classes, accessible, in the flesh, right in your neighborhood. This was a colossal shift in understanding of the divine two thousand years ago, and it continues to inform us today.
God in Heaven
This notion of where God and Jesus can be found became more personal on February 29, 2016, when our 15 year-old dog, a rat terrier named Salsa, passed away. Our daughter, in kindergarten at the time, wanted to know where Salsa went. To heaven of course, Kathi and I replied, to be with God and Jesus. This explanation seemed to work for all of us; we found comfort knowing Salsa was safe and cared for. But saying goodnight to everyone at chez Arnold is part of our evening routine, and with Salsa no longer with us, well, this created a problem. Fortunately our daughter had the solution.
Each evening, after bath-time, story-time and the brushing of teeth, our family ends the day with a hug and a kiss. Our other terrier, Chips, who is 17 and still with us, joins in on this too; we humans give the hug, in return she often provides not a kiss but more of a lick. Shortly after Salsa passed away our daughter had the grand idea that, as part of our goodnight routine, we should do something similar for Salsa. So each night since then we now head out to the front porch, look to the heavens, notice the stars, search for the moon, and say goodnight to Salsa, and God, and Jesus. We then thank God and Jesus for taking care of Salsa. And then thank God and Jesus for taking care of us. For our family it’s a warm fuzzy moment.
This worked well for the Arnold clan for about a year, at least until a few months ago, when the time came for us to move from South Florida to Ames Iowa. Three-year old Graham seemed worried, I noticed one night before bed, so I asked him what the matter was. “I don’t want to move away from Salsa and God and Jesus,” he replied, “because then I won’t be able to say goodnight to them…I’ll miss them!”
“No worries,” I respond, trying to provide some comfort, “Salsa and God and Jesus are moving with us. When we move they do too. We’ll be able to say goodnight to them from the porch of our new home. They will always be with us, and they’ll never leave us.” And for the last three months, each evening, from a new porch 1,500 miles northwest of the Florida one, our sacred evening ritual continues. God and Jesus have moved into our new neighborhood, and we can connect with them any time we like.
My takeaway from this, a lesson that came from our children, is that deep down, we want to be close to our creator, close to the provider of all we have. Close to those we care for, those with us now, those that have gone before. As we commemorate All Saints day during this service we experience that closeness, that presence of those we love, through memory, prayer and the lighting of a candle. It’s a presence that cuts across time and celestial distance, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.
So who was Jesus? Jesus was as John chapter 1 implies, the Word, with God, from the very beginning. And even more Jesus was Word became flesh, the Son of God that lived among us. The Son of God that desired to be so close to each of us that Jesus up and moved right into our local neighborhood. Jesus was, and is, in no small way, our divine next door neighbor.
As we close I’d like to end with a bit of song, you likely recognize this tune, it’s the theme from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, the children’s television show that came out in 1967. The star of that show, and the author of this song, is Fred Rogers, who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. As you listen to this familiar tune, I ask you consider it a bit differently, from the perspective of Jesus, speaking to you, as neighbor.
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…
So, let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor?
Good day, neighbor. Amen.