06.05.2016 Preaching Text: “God is back…!” (Luke 7:16) MSG
In a new book entitled, Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, authors Ian Golden and Chris Kutama describe the remarkable changes wrought by the “original” Renaissance some 500 years ago.
After recuperating from the devastating effects of the Black Death, Europe began to rebound. The authors cite the years between the 1490’s and 1520’s as a time not only of unparalleled artistic achievement (Michelangelo and Da Vinci), but of earth-shattering inventions such as Gutenberg’s printing press, Columbus’ discovery of the New World, and Vasco da Gama’s mapping of a sea route to Asia’s riches.
Along with this came Copernicus’ revolutionary theories of a sun-centered cosmos, and similar advances in a wide range of fields, from biology to engineering to navigation to medicine.
“Basic, common-sense ‘truths’ that had stood unquestioned for centuries, even millennia,” the authors write, “were eroding away. The Earth did not stand still. The sun did not revolve around it. The ‘known’ world wasn’t even half of the whole. The human heart wasn’t the soul; it was a pump. In mere decades, printing boosted the production of books from hundreds to millions per year, and these weird facts and new ideas traveled farther, faster than had ever been possible.”
These heady discoveries and advances in knowledge also produced a sea-change in human thinking and perceiving. And among the “common-sense ‘truths’ that stood unquestioned for centuries, even millennia,” that now were “eroding,” was humanity’s relationship to God and the church.
For the first time in history, human beings in earnest began to see themselves at the center of things, as opposed to God. With this the influence and authority of the church was to change as well. Mystical unknowns now were explained by science and reason. God was on His way out.
A similar kind of revolutionary change, though perhaps on a smaller scale, occurred in the West at the turn-of-the-century some 100 years ago.
Bolstered by inventions such as electricity and the steam engine, and with industry spawning unprecedented wealth and massive societal change, many were convinced that, as in the Renaissance, humans were on the cusp of solving all of life’s problems. The effects of prosperity and “progress” left many wondering what role, in any, God and the church should play. Many decided not much. And God grew fainter still.
In today’s reading from Luke, we encounter another time and a different cause, but here, too, God had grown distant and remote from everyday life. Here we read the account of Jesus bringing a widow’s dead son back to life.
Jesus’ ministry, it’s essential to note, took place after hundreds of years of Israel’s oppression at the hands of various foreign powers. From this came a fervent hope that God would finally break his silence and actively intervene in human affairs, and usher in the long-anticipated Golden Age of God’s eternal reign.
Tellingly, in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, after Jesus heals the widow’s dead son, those carrying the dead body, recognizing that they were “in a place of holy mystery, shout out, “God is back, looking to the needs of his people!” Here they are witness to God’s miraculous, holy in-breaking, the Eternal manifest in time.
This is an important message for us, because in our post-Renaissance, post-turn-of-the-century world, God also seems absent, all-but crowded out by modernity’s dreams born of human achievement and utopian aspiration.
Thus the words “God is back” speak to our faint, dormant hearts, hearts that yearn, if only subconsciously, for the God now all but lost and forgotten.
These words remind our dulled senses of the real, existential, holy, life-altering power of God, a power capable of bringing even life out of death. For perhaps the worst effect of human hubris and self-sufficiency is its inability to see beyond the limits of a human-centered world.
The miracle stories in scripture remind us of just how meager is our vision. And among the things of which we are most blind is the holy truth that this world is not all there is. Christ’s miracle in Nain thus reveals the hidden power of God’s unending promise to each of us: the dead shall be raised.
In the Nicene Creed the faithful confess: “I am waiting for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the Age to come.”
This is heart of the gospel. For we live under conditions of the fall, in a fallen world that is a distortion of what it was created to be. Only in the “Age to come” shall we know life without death and corruption.
The “Age to come,” in fact, is the truest aspiration of Christian faith, that time when God’s holy mysteries shall be both known and lived.
When the “new heaven and the new earth” comes, that is, all vestiges of the fall will be eliminated. All of life shall be healed, renewed, and glorified. It is this that Jesus’ Nain healing prefigures. It is the breaking-in of God’s cosmic power to overturn and recreate. All of life shall be radically and forever changed. All settled truths of human expectancy shall be replaced by God’s holy purposes. Truths only hinted at in this life shall become reality.
This new Age, writes Timothy Ware, “is not simply a return to the beginning, a restoration of the original state of perfection in Paradise, but…a fresh departure.” The last things, in other words, shall be greater than the first.
Even in heaven perfection shall involve growth. “The essence of perfection consists precisely in never becoming perfect, but in always reaching forward to some higher perfection that lies beyond. Because God is infinite, this constant reaching forward…proves limitless.”
Here “the soul possesses God, and yet still seeks him; her joy is full, and yet grows always more intense.”
“God grows ever nearer to us, yet he still remains the Other; we behold him face to face, yet we continue to advance further and further into the Divine mystery.”
These are ancient Christian truths now all but dead and buried. In our age of faint hopes and narrowed vision, the words “God is back” seem impossible to utter. Yet, as heard on the ancient streets of Nain, they convey a faithful human response to an iron-clad, eternal promise that will shatter our human-centered, ghost-haunted world.
God indeed shall resurrect our dulled, moribund lives, and reveal to us that place of holy mystery, situating us finally amidst the glories of an altogether new heaven and earth. Amen.