No One Has Seen God

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

I’ve always felt that one of the great privileges and responsibilities of the preacher is to help us confront our unnamed fears. These are the things that haunt us by day and keep us awake at night, and yet we don’t talk about them at work or even home, perhaps for fear they are just too big or serious for everyday conversation. In some ways, I think preaching is precisely about choosing one of these issues in light of both the text and context in front of us, naming it, and then seeing what our faith tradition has to say about it. Tucked in near the end of this week’s gospel reading is one of these major and all-too-often unnamed issues.

“No one has seen God,” St. John writes, and with one deft clause puts his finger on one of the most neuralgic aspects of the life of faith. No one has seen God. That’s right. No one. So how do we know? How do we know there is a God? Even more, if there is a God, how do we know what this God is like?  These questions press upon the hearts and minds of more of our listeners than we might imagine.

A colleague of mine, flying home from a church conference in his clerics, encountered it this way: when his flight hit some major turbulence, the person sitting next to him leaned over and said, “Pastor, do you think God is as good as Jesus?” “What do you mean?” my friend probed. “Well, everyone knows Jesus is nice,” his flight companion responded. “But God….?” And there it is, John’s question, our question: how do we know?

Or take one of the great scenes from Paul Newman’s classic Cool Hand Luke, where in the middle of a thunderstorm Luke yells up to the thunder and lightning, addressing God, “Let me know you’re up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it.” Again, John’s assertion lurks in the background, not just of this film but of our lives.

For many of us, however, it’s hard to ask this question for fear of seeming unfaithful. And so it’s usually prompted by life’s hardships. In the absence of any tangible and clear picture of God, you see, most of us construct one. For many this picture of God is of a benevolent, grandfatherly old man, rather Santa-like, watching over us at a distance. Sooner or later, though, whatever our picture may be, it has a hard time making sense of our lives or providing the comfort or meaning we need. When a loved one falls ill, when an important relationship ends, when we lose a job or have our home life fall apart, many of us wonder where God is in the middle of all this and feel God’s distance, even absence, keenly, and our picture of God, whatever it is, seems to fail.  What if God isn’t benevolent, or caring, or even interested in us at all.

And so trust me: eight days after Christmas, just two days into a new year that doesn’t seem all that much different from the old one, and surrounded by countless broken resolutions, there will be a number of people who, deep in their hearts, will hear John’s affirmation and nod in mute and painful agreement. “No one,” John reminds us, “has ever seen God.” No kidding.

St. John, however, doesn’t only name the truth of our broken and difficult circumstances, he also moves on to name the truth of our great and abiding hope: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Did you hear that? Here, at the end of these famous opening verses to the fourth gospel, John makes clear the whole purpose of his writing: to show us Jesus because in seeing Jesus we see God.

I don’t know how many of you remember when Microsoft first introduced Windows. Up until that time, DOS-driven machines gave no reliable approximation on the screen of what the text of your document would actually look like when printed on paper. There were all kinds of hints — bold type meant one thing, italic another, blue or green yet other things still — but you couldn’t really tell what it was going to look like until you printed a draft. And then came Windows, and what we saw on the screen looked just like what we would print out. It was remarkable. To describe their innovation, Microsoft came up with a clever little name for the device-driver that made all this possible. They called it a WYSIWIG, standing for “What you see if what you get.”

Okay, so I know this is a crude analogy at best, but bear with me: I think John is saying that Jesus is God’s WYSIWIG. That is, what we see in Jesus is what we can expect from God. And what we see in Jesus — and so what we get in God — is the face of love. The one who came preaching and teaching about God’s kingdom; the one who fed the hungry and healed the sick; the one who welcomed the outcast and was a friend to all — this one shows us just who and what God is.

In the cross, especially, we see just how far God will go to tell us that God loves us. Now some Christians, I know, say that Jesus had to die on the cross to make God love us. Their picture of God focuses primarily on God’s justice — God simply cannot love and forgive us until someone has satisfied God’s divine and just wrath at human sin. But I contend that the biblical witness urges us to focus instead primarily on God’s love, contending that Jesus died on the cross not to make God love us but to show us just how much God already loves us. After centuries of communicating through the teachings of the law or the words of the prophets, God in Jesus takes on our human form and flesh, our human life and our lot, to speak to us more directly, more personally, more fully, to tell us just how much God loves us, just how much God values us, just how much God desires for us and through us for the world.

This is the promise of Christmas, that God is resolved to stop at nothing to communicate God’s tremendous love for us; that God is resolved to be a part of our lives here and now so that we can be share in God’s life; that God is resolved to make us God’s own children, now and forever. And because of the cross and resurrection, we can, even amid the great hardships of this life, cling to the promise that, indeed, God is just as good as Jesus.

Thanks be to God for this message…and for your part in proclaiming it.

Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.