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the language of hope (an imaginary sermon)

What does it mean to be made in the image of God?  What are the gifts that God has given uniquely to humanity?  One of those gifts is the gift of language.  Now of course, other animals can communicate, but humanity has been given the unique ability to communicate with a depth and breadth unmatched in the animal kingdom.  Language is the tool by which we share our deepest thoughts, feelings, ideas, hopes, dreams, faith, and even this sermon – not to mention our prayers and hymns – this morning.  Language is also the special way that God has chosen to relate to all humanity, through the written Word of Scripture and the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth.  Language is so fundamental that we even think using language – you know, that voice in your head that constantly goes and goes.  So language itself is a good gift from God that helps us to think and communicate; it is part of what makes us who we are.

Language is so powerful that it shapes the reality that we perceive.  It determines and changes what we understand about the world around us.  Our perception of the world is in a sense filtered through language.  We experience the way that this works but we rarely stop to think about it.  Imagine as you read through the local paper this afternoon, you come across a picture of a nearby creek.  Crystal clear water rushes past boulders, with green forested banks on either side.  You can almost see the trout swimming along the bottom.  But how you understand the reality of this creek is determined by the caption beneath the photo: “Two Children Drown in Flash Flood” or “An Ideal Spot for a Summer Afternoon.”  Along the same lines, think about the difference in language between a newspaper article and a personal diary of the exact same event.  The language will shape how we understand what is taking place.  How we talk about things affects how we experience them.  Words influence the way we think and act.

Words carry their power with them into the life of the church, our life together here in this sacred space.  We are formed and shaped and marked by the words uttered here week in and week out.  Our words of greeting to one another.  Our hymns and songs that we sing about God and unto God.  Our prayers of confession.  “The peace of Christ be with you.”  “We believe in one God, the Father almighty…”  “This is the word of the Lord…”  “Our Father, who art in heaven…”  Through this liturgy, fashioned from the raw material of syllables, words and sentences, refined over 2000 years, we speak to one another and to God, and we believe that God speaks to us.  And we are changed, transformed.  I am not saying that Christian faith, or that the experiences of the gathered worshiping community, can be simply and easily reduced to language.  But I am saying that our words matter. 

The words we employ to talk about God inevitably shape our perception of who God is.  Because of their power, we must always remember that our words never really capture God.  We cannot really describe the fullness of God, and the moment we think that we have, we have created an idol of our own making, just as surely as those Canaanites made idols out of clay.  The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s “thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:8-11).  Even those characteristics that we affirm about God need an asterisk, a qualifier.  When we talk about God’s love, what we mean is that God’s love is not like human love.  When we say that God is all-knowing, we mean that God does not know like humans know.  Otherwise, our language would put God into a cage.  But God refuses to be caged, to be fully captured by human language.

Why does all this talk about language and our words matter?  What is the big deal?  It matters because we so often make God smaller by forgetting the asterisks.  It matters because we start to equate almighty God with our fallen human attributes, forgetting that God utterly transcends and goes beyond such images.  For example, the language of God as Father is deeply Scriptural and has been continually affirmed by 2000 years of church tradition.  But in the very moment when we forget or ignore the asterisk, we define God’s fatherhood in terms of our own experience of sinful human fatherhood.  Of course, it should be the other way around, all human fatherhood must always be defined in terms of its relationship to the ultimate and indescribable fatherhood of God.  


Take another example.  When we describe God as King, we should not be describing and imagining God as simply the most powerful of earthly kings, like the one with the largest castle and most powerful army.  Rather, human kingship must be understood in terms of how it fails to embody the true kingship of almighty God.  Again, when we invert the relationship, when we forget that our language for imaging and imagining God is, in the end, insufficient, we stand on the brink of idolatry.  We think we can possess God, and we make God smaller as a result.  Because of the fallen ways that we employ language, trying (however inadvertently) to capture God, we desperately need words and images that will shatter our fallen tendencies and give us a broader vision of the glory of God.
We stand together today in need of a richer, broader and deeper vocabulary for speaking of and to God.  In our words, our prayers, our songs, our speech, we need to make space for all of us to breathe.  We need space for God to be mysterious, beyond all comprehension, beyond possession, as well as intimate and personal.  What might this look like here, in this body? 

First of all, we need to offer grace to each other as we begin to think more carefully about our language for God.  We need to be gracious and forgiving precisely because language is powerful.  Our language for God, in both public worship services and our most private prayers and longings, hits the very core of who we understand God to be and how we understand our relationship to God.  It gets to the center of our identity.  Whether we experience God primarily as Father, Friend, Judge, Lord or Holy Lover, any attempt to alter or change that language will feel like a blow to our relationship with God.  And so as we struggle together to think more deeply and fruitfully about our language for God, both corporately and individually, remember that we enter this conversation with profoundly different experiences.  Remember that all of us come from very different places, spiritually and emotionally, and that it might be messy at times as we begin the process of working through this particular aspect of our faith together.

For some people in this room who have suffered verbal, emotional or physical abuse from the men in their lives, the image of God as Father is deeply problematic, if not destructive.  So then how might we simultaneously affirm the deeply adoptive and profoundly generous, self-giving “parental” love of God and reject the forms of human fatherhood that are anything but life-giving?  In this case, we might join with the prophet Isaiah and picture God as a loving mother who brings comfort and hope to her child who is nearly lost in distress.  We might dare to imagine the English pronoun “she” belonging also to God.  We might paraphrase the prophet as saying: “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted her people, and will have compassion on her suffering ones.  But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’  Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me” (Isaiah 49: 13-16).  What would it mean for us to imagine the caption “Heavenly Mother” next to that picture of God in our heads?  Perhaps some of us will experience this language as wonderfully freeing and life-giving, like a cool stream on a hot day.  Perhaps, in drawing on this ancient tradition expressed in Isaiah, we will experience the tender, intimate, comforting love of God in a new way.  Elsewhere Isaiah affirms God’s deeply maternal love for God’s people, saying: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.  You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies shall flourish like the grass” (Isaiah 66:13-14). 

We desperately need a vast variety of images to talk about God, for when our language becomes small, uncreative and unimaginative we cage God in.  We limit the way that we are able to relate to God.  But the Bible, not to mention 2000 years of church history, have given us incredible resources for imagining a God who cannot be so easily contained.  Our God is Lord of all and slave to all.  Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer.  Mighty Warrior, riding on the clouds.  Victim of torture and abuse, left for dead at the city dump.  Righteous and holy.  Compassionate and merciful.  Glorious and beautiful.  Despised and rejected.  Father.  Mother.  Sister.  Brother.

St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 12th century, was bold to imagine Christ not as the most beautiful and perfect of people but rather as the lowest and most wretched.  He understood God not in terms of wealth and power, which was the common language – the common image – of his day, but rather in terms of Christ’s poverty.  St. Francis recovered a biblical image that had been lost in the medieval church and put it into practice in his own life, taking vows of poverty and chastity and ministering among lepers, humbly washing their wounds and ministering life in the name of Christ.  Creatively, imaginatively, he dared to speak a new word about God and it changed his life.


Similarly, Julian of Norwich, who lived in 14th century England, received a profound revelation of divine love – a love that was extravagant and even scandalous in its power and depth.  The deep deep love of Christ that Julian describes is that of a mother who brings forth life into the world through pain and suffering and who graciously feeds and sustains her beloved children with her own body.  Writing nearly seven hundred years ago, she said: “We know that our mothers only bring us into the world to suffer and die, but our true mother, Jesus, he who is all love, bears us into joy and eternal life…. The mother can give her child milk to suck, but our dear mother Jesus can feed us with himself, and he does so most generously and most tenderly with the holy sacrament which is the precious food of life itself…. This fair, lovely word ‘mother,’ it is so sweet and so tender in itself that it cannot truly be said of any but of him” (LT 60).  As you can imagine, her words were and are scandalous for the Church, for they emphasize a kind of tenderness, intimacy and domesticity that we hesitate to assign to God, and yet her words, like those of Isaiah, ring true to this day. 

So with the prophets of ancient Israel, with the authors of the New Testament, with the mothers and fathers of Christian spirituality, with brother Francis of Assisi and sister Julian of Norwich, I invite us to be receptive to a broader vocabulary for God.  I invite us, together, to struggle to grasp how we might baptize our language for God, offering hope and life to one another.  Both new and ancient words bear the potential to infuse our corporate and individual worship with new life in the Spirit, with new depth and power.  Deal gracefully with one another, walking in love, as some of our images will undoubtedly be problematic for some and life-giving for others.  If we will open our eyes to the richness of Scripture and tradition, we will find an expansive horizon beyond what we ever thought possible, for all things are possible with God.  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, the holy, fathomless, creative One whom no language can capture, who is alone our salvation.  Amen.