Who is God, anyway, and who are we? These are really basic, fundamental questions in life, for everyone. If you’re a committed non-believer, the who is God part is easy, just skip to the next one. If you are a believing member of any faith tradition, or even a maybe believing person, you want to know something about the nature of who’s supposed to be in charge. It’s a pretty important thing to know about, if we believe that something is responsible for creating the reality we know—what is that entity like? What does that thing, being, person want from us? To put it in modern terms, we want to know their intentions, going forward. And then, who are we? What are our capabilities, our tendencies, the things that shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions? What might we be able to do, and what do we need help with? How do we relate to each other, and to the one who made us? A person could certainly go through life, without thinking about any of these questions, just taking it all as it comes, but most of us, and certainly everyone who has ever left us any record of religious, literary, artistic, political, or historical thought has wondered about these questions.
In Epiphany, we’re looking at the big questions about God and humanity, as we consider the different parts of the revelation we find in the Gospels. The “Who, what, when, where, how” questions, as they are explored in the Christian tradition. We’ve looked at the “What” of Baptism, and at the “When” of Christ’s coming. Today, we arrive at the “Who” questions—it’s the project of today’s story in the Gospel of Luke, but it’s also the thematic program of all of our readings this morning, in a very coherent way. Let’s walk through it.
The scriptures of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, of course deal with the question of who God is. God is the Creator of the world, but not a sitting back after that, letting things take their course, impartial deity. This is a God who has chosen one tribe of all the peoples of the earth to be a kind of test case, a special branch of the human family who will receive a specific revelation about God’s will. This God is the God of the Torah—the giver of the Law, the orderer of all things, from how a tiny flower unfolds in the sunlight, to how a man might look at his neighbor and behave towards him. But it doesn’t end there, either. God reveals the Law, the perfect statement about the way to be in the world, and then God shepherds the people through their ups and downs in trying to follow those principles. This is a very personal, involved God—a God of expectations and emotions: both anger, when the people go astray, and tenderness for them in their fragility. A God who makes things happen: storms and floods, the charges of armies, healings and harvests or plagues and massacres. This God is so much a person, that the most common image in the Old Testament for the relationship between God and the people is the most intimate personal relationship of our experience: that of a couple, lovers or spouses. When the relationship is good, God is a triumphant bridegroom and the people are the joyful bride; when things are going badly, the people are an unfaithful wife and God is a jilted, furious husband. The marriage is tempestuous, but never abandoned, by a God who cares passionately.
Who are we, then, that God should care so much for us? There is a lot about that question, too, in the Old Testament. We find an especially poignant set of meditations on that question in the Psalms, the prayers of the people. This is the voice of humanity, describing itself and its predicament. Who are these men and women of millenia ago, so distant from us, but at heart the same. Who are we? Much of the time, as we read in the psalms, we are awestruck, at the majesty of the Creation we see around us—the daily pageant of the sun riding across the sky, the humbling enormity of desert and prairie and ocean. We wonder at the intricacy of how it all works together, life generated and sustained in all its myriad forms. Often, who we are is tiny, in contemplation of the miracle of the universe. Tiny, and clumsy. We are painfully aware of our own presumption, our ability to make mistakes, to go wrong, to offend each other and surely God, too. We can be angry, in the psalms, at how we are treated, at how we are threatened and betrayed by each other, by our bodies, by the forces of nature.
So here we are, a God who made us, and wants things from us—but they’re things we can’t seem to give. The people gathered in front of Ezra and Nehemiah, hearing the Law proclaimed, wept with fear, at the knowledge of their own failures. We are people in need of help, of another way of living, than the one we’ve been able to come up with. Who will help us? That’s the question that the New Testament looks at, and offers a particular answer. Who is the Saviour? Jesus stands up in worship one day, and announces it, with shocking clarity: it’s me. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Today this scripture, this wish, this hope, this dream from our ancestors, has been fulfilled in your hearing. By Jesus of Nazareth, this real man, alive right now. Who is he? What is he like? What are the words he chooses, to make this declaration about himself? He is someone who is speaking to the poor, to those in prison, and offering freedom. Speaking to us, whether we know it or not, and promising release from our burdens. Rest for the weary. He is the Law handed down to us all those centuries ago, and also the passionate care, the tender mercy of that bridegroom God, both of them, perfect justice and forgiving love, somehow here in this person, from our town? No wonder they had trouble believing it. No wonder we have trouble, today. Who is he, to do all that? Who is he, for you?
That is the question of a lifetime. As we ask it, each day, it’s helpful to look at the question of who we would be, if we did believe in him, and live in the way he asks us to? Who are those who follow Jesus, and carry on his mission? St. Paul calls them the Body of Christ. His body, so somehow physically connected with him, somehow his presence in the world, even after the particular human person he was isn’t here with us anymore. We’re part of him, but not him, though, still ourselves, too, because we’re still different and various, as St. Paul reminds us. The people of the Body of Christ offer many gifts, and we all need each other. Nobody has the whole answer to the question, Who are we? We each have a little piece to bring, a unique contribution, and each one needs all the others, and needs the whole. In fact, we need the weaker ones most of all—they have the most to tell us, and deserve the most honour. Imagine a world that was ordered that way. Imagine a world in which each one of us gets to be the particular person we were created to be, and we get to be together, to work together as God wants, not offending each other, but appreciating each other, in awe of how you have what I need, and you might need what I can do. Who am I? Who are we? I am the one who needs you, we are the ones God has given to each other. Who is Jesus? The one who gives his body, his life, so that we could all become part of his new life. Who is God? The one whose answer to our every question, if we would only dare to ask, is love.