( Daniel 7, 9-10 & 13-14; Revelation 1, 4b-8; John 18, 33-37)
Religious jokes usually circulate in a number of different versions. Here’s a version of one I’m particularly fond of.
There was once a tornado in the Southern United States so strong that it blew down an angel from Heaven. The folk who found the angel immediately began asking questions. “Tell me,” said one” you have seen God. What is he like?” The angel looked at them and smiled. “SHE is BLACK”, it replied.
If you have read ‘The Shack’ by William Paul Young, you will find it partly reflects the thrust of that joke in its portrayal of God. ‘The Shack’ is a novel, but also a work of theology. It concerns a man called Mack, whose youngest daughter was abducted during a family holiday in the Oregon wilderness. She is never found, but there is evidence in the shack of the title, that she was murdered. Mack’s grief at this destroys his faith in God. Then, one day he slips on an icy driveway when he is going to collect the mail. When he opens the mailbox, there is only one item – a note from God (who the family call Papa) inviting him to go back to the shack. When he gets there, he encounters God the Trinity in the form of three people, and Papa (God the Father) is female and black!
I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. But do read it, if you can; it’s one of those life-changing books, that everyone should know.
We are told in many places in the Scriptures, and in the tradition, that God is not a being like us. If you want to talk properly about God, you have to use abstract philosophical concepts, because the use of any human categories limits God in ways that are unacceptable. But human beings are not very good at imagining things in the abstract, and are even worse at relating to abstract concepts, in the way our faith expects us to relate to God. So all of us fall back on creating pictures in our minds to help us to try to grasp what God is like.
Genesis 1 tells us that human beings were created in the image of God. Human beings in turn tend to ‘create’ or imagine a God made in their image, a God who is like them or like some category of human being they know.
Today, the last Sunday before Advent, is known in some churches as ‘Christ the King’. The readings direct our thoughts to one human category through which we express what we think God is like, that of a human monarch.
Daniel imagines God holding court in a throne room of a monarch of one the the many empires that conquered the Hebrew kingdom, surrounded by thousands of servants, and acting as both judge and jury, dispensing justice. Before him comes ‘one like a son of man’ a human being who is given power and authority over a major part of the monarch’s dominions.
The book of Revelation also portrays God as an earthly monarch, holding court in great glory and sending out his commanders to fight and defeat his enemies. Jesus is God’s lieutenant, whose enemies shake in fear as he approaches in power through the clouds. In the reading from John, we have a passage which talks about the monarchs of this world, but which contrasts those with the kingdoms of God and Jesus.
When the community who composed the Gospel of John reflected on their experience of the life, death and teaching of Jesus, they realised that the picture of an all-conquering earthly ruler was not the right one to convey the reality of the Kingdom of God. So, when they imagined the confrontation between Pilate, who held earthly power, and Jesus, who embodied the Kingdom of God, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world”.
That’s not a thought that has had a great deal of influence on the Christian tradition. Most have continued to imagine God the Father, and Christ the Son like secular monarchs, and the coming of God’s Kingdom as an event that will violently destroy all human power systems, punish God’s enemies and install the faithful in positions of earthly power.
We tend to ignore the hints in the Scriptures that the reign of God is something quite different. Daniel says that God’s ruler will be one like ‘a son of man’, that is with the limitations of human beings, not overwhelming power.
Revelation says that Jesus Christ brought us into the Kingdom as priests (all of us, not just the ordained!) through his faithfulness, and through the shedding of his blood. Jesus in John rejects secular definitions of power and authority, and stands by Truth, even when it means his own death.
Jesus came to show us the truth about a different kind of God and a different way of being a monarch.
The way we think about God and Christ and the nature of their kingdom is not just theory. It affects the way we think it is right to act, in everything from the nature of our ministry, what sin is and how we escape its consequences, to the way we conduct our civic relationships and settle our differences.
Another book which I found life changing is one by the American theologian, Marcus J Borg, called “The God We Never Knew”. It is all about how he moved from the image of God he was taught in his childhood, which became increasingly unsatisfactory as he grew up and studied, to a way of thinking about God and living with God that he never knew as a child, a way that was consistent with the Bible and the tradition, but which made sense to a 21st century mind.
The concept of God with which Borg (and perhaps many of us) grew up was of a supernatural being ‘out there’ far away, who created the world a long time ago. The best metaphors for this being are King or Judge, or an authoritarian patriarchal father, totally different and separate from us, all knowing and all powerful. Sometimes, he (this being was always thought of as masculine) intervened in the world, in the sort of events described in the Bible. But essentially this God was not here, but somewhere else. If we were good enough, and believed strongly enough, and abased ourselves enough about the sins we committed, we might be allowed to be with this being after death.
Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘supernatural theism’ or ‘the monarchical model’. Because human beings need something concrete to speak to, when Borg worshipped or prayed, his picture of God was based on the Lutheran pastor who led the services in his church each Sunday – a big man, with grey hair and a black robe, who always shook his finger as he preached. So Borg saw God as the big eye-in-the-sky, always watching, always disapproving, always judging.
But as he grew older, studied theology and read the works of theologians such as John Robinson and Paul Tillich, he came to a different understanding of God, panentheism. This thinks of God as all around us, within us, but also more than everything. What is more, we are within God. God is constantly creating, constantly nurturing, constantly present in the world, but is infinitely more than the world.
In this model, the best metaphors for God are Abba/Daddy, lover, mother, Wisdom, companion on the journey. Borg calls this way of thinking about God ‘The Spirit model’. The concrete image which sums up this picture of God for him is of his wife, a priest, bending down to give a small child who is kneeling at the altar rail the consecrated bread. He says: “I was struck by the difference: an image of God as a male authority figure, shaking his finger at us versus the image of God as a beautiful loving woman bending down to feed us”.( p.71)
Borg emphasises that both the monarchical model of God and the Spirit model are true to the Bible and to the tradition, and have nurtured Christian belief and worship through the ages; but he argues that supernatural theism is becoming more and more difficult to maintain alongside a modern world view. Throughout history, the male, distant, King and Judge model has been the dominant one, at times the only one that was allowed. This has had consequences for our church organisation, particularly the insistence that you had to be a human male in order to speak for and represent this ‘male’ God.
But the loving, nurturing, female model is there, in the Scriptures and the tradition too, if you look for it. One of the names used for God in the Old Testament, El Shaddai, can be translated as the all sufficient one, the providing one, God as a mother who feeds us from her own substance – an image taken up again in the 1st Epistle of Peter and the writings of Julian of Norwich.
In different places in the Bible God is spoken of as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, and as a caring parent, leading her toddlers with reins to keep them safe.
When you come to think of Christ the King according to this model, you get a very different picture from the rather triumphalist image of the commander of armies of angels who will come in power to defeat and punish the wicked. You get a picture of a servant ruler, who sustains and nurtures and comforts her people, who works to repair relationships and reconcile the divided parts of her realm. You get the Scandinavian welfare monarchy rather than Henry V.
And if that’s the image you carry in your mind of our divine monarch, then you will have a very different picture of what living under God’s sovereign rule is all about. If Christ is our authority, then Christ’s agenda takes priority – striving for peace and justice for all, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, sacrificing your good for the good of others, even your enemies.
If we are living in Christ’s Kingdom, it’s not about conquest or power, it’s not about saying one group of people are better or holier or better able to represent God than another; it’s about sacrifice and service; it’s about rejecting systems that oppress and reject people; it’s about a completely different reality that works within human secular systems to subvert them and transform them into systems of justice, peace and love.
What we celebrate as we think of Christ the King is the foolishness of God, who redeems through sacrifice and servanthood, who lifts our humanity to the divine, who leads us with infinite tenderness to fulness of life: the monarch whose majesty is shown through meekness.