See the Invisible God
March 25, 2008
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Something greater is happening at the Annunciation of Our Lord than that Mary is being chosen to be the Mother of Our Lord. No, far beyond that moment of grace and mercy is the heads-up we’re given, that God will soon become a man. With Martin Luther (1483-1546) we must then agree that “of even greater significance” is the angel Gabriel’s “further word,” that the child to be born “will be great, and... will be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32) – that is, he’ll be God himself (John 5:18) [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. F. A. Klug (1996) 3:286]. Now that’s something unheard of – God in the flesh – God incarnate!
The Invisible One
In general we know that the Holy Incarnation is
not possible since “God is Spirit” and not flesh (John 4:24) – invisible
and not visible – dwelling “in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16;
Psalm 104:2). This puts us at a great disadvantage on this day. For on
this feast day we’re suppose to be looking forward to, and giving thanks
for, the coming birth of God as a human being – and yet because it seems
so unlikely, and frankly preposterous, we’re stymied and at a loss to
know what to do. We’re used to God being an invisible player in history
– remember him, for instance, “routing” the Egyptians in the Red Sea
(Exodus 14:27) and “smiting” the blaspheming Herod in
We’re not alone in our perplexity over this. From of old we’ve been told that God cannot be seen, and if by some quirk we were to catch a glimpse of him, we would surely drop dead, right on the spot (Genesis 16:33; Exodus 33:20). That threat shrouds God in deep darkness and leaves us in doubt and even at times in heavy despair. The great Invisible One of the Holy Scriptures can do this to us. For as that Nebraskan philosopher, O. K. Bouswma (1898-1978), once put it [Without Proof or Evidence (1984) p.28]:
It is as though a man opened a door to a room where there is nothing, under the illusion that he had opened a door and entered a room in which there was a great treasure. [And] the Scriptures are the door.
There seems to be nothing there, because the one we’re longing for, and looking for, is not to be seen or found – for he’s not visible. Can we then never relate in any positive way whatsoever, with the ground of our being (Acts 17:28) – that is, with God himself? Is he permanently removed from us by his invisibility?
Following St. Mary
Does this leave us dead in the water – left disabled, as it were, with no chance whatsoever to celebrate with joy the Annunciation of Our Lord? No, we instead are left with Mary. “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34) she asks – and so do we. In the old Latin Bible her question is rendered: Quomodo fiet istud – and that has the right ring about it. Quomodo fiet istud? As odd as those old words sound – so are we at a loss. How can the mighty invisible one, take on human flesh and dwell among us? This is our quandary – our very question – on this great feast day: Quomodo fiet istud?
Because of this perplexity, it isn’t surprising our God comes to help us. That’s the point in Gabriel’s visit to Mary. If she could have figured it out on her own, if we could have figured this out on our own, we wouldn’t have any need for such an angelic visitation. All we would have had to do is think it through on our own – and maybe read a book or two from the library. But because that would have been a bust, what we’re left with is careful, patient listening instead – taking to heart the words of the angel Gabriel.
Fear Not. In our perplexity and confusion, the first word we hear along with Mary is that we’re favored – not cursed or condemned – and that we should fear not (Luke 1:28-30). This means we can finally deal with our frustrating, invisible God. In fact, we get this hope from God himself through Gabriel. So our efforts at trying to storm the gates of heaven, in order to find out who God really is, are finally over with. No longer do we need to argue that God is really limited in power (Charles Hartshonre, The Divine Relativity, 1948), or multiple (David L. Miller, The New Polytheism, 1974, 1981) or feminine (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, 1992, 1994). We can stand with Martin Luther (1483-1546), who long ago wrote: “Put away all speculation about the Majesty [of God].... You must [instead] run directly to the... mother’s womb” if you want to know who God really is (Luther’s Works 26:30).
Conceived by the Holy Spirit. And that is because we next learn that Mary will give birth to a son, having been conceived exceptionally – by “the power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35). This is the famous – and highly contentious – doctrine of the Virgin Birth. But this is as it had to be, for Christ Jesus could not be born into sin like the rest of us (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3), since he was sinless (Hebrews 4:15; 1 John 3:5), precisely so he could save us from our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:18-19). But even with that explanation we still complain that the virginal conception is preposterous. We even say that one so conceived could not be human like us – as the savior had to be (Hebrews 2:17-18). Against these misgivings, Luther again provides wise counsel [LHP 3:285-289]:
With Mary, God made an exception, something that had never happen before in the world, or would ever again.... She conceived a child and became a mother not by virtue of a man, but by the Holy Spirit. Preposterous to... every thinking person!.... However,... if you’re going to be a Christian, you will perforce believe and do things which other people do not believe or do. Yes, I’ll have to appear odd and strange to other people who are vexed and offended because of my faith.... Not only is [Jesus’ virgin birth] contrary to reason, but also to God’s order of creation.... [But] God... could create humans in more ways than one. In the beginning he did not create man and woman simultaneously and in the same way.... He created Adam from a clod of earth and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils.... After that he created Eve from a rib of Adam.... After that he brought Adam and Eve together and so ordained that from their lineage all mankind should be born.... [But God] chose not to be limited by any of the preceding forms of reproduction, but rather instituted a new way, a fourth, namely, to produce a child from a virgin.... Nevertheless, his arrangement is half of the normal order, in that the child would be born of a young woman.... [So] here I must shove human reason and wisdom under the bench.... for He who is in heaven above.... must be greater, more discerning, more wise than the creature. That is why we should be held captive by God’s Word and not try to speculate beyond it.... We must envelop ourselves in this Word of God, because with our reason we cannot fathom it. Wiseacres literally drown when they try to unravel the miracle [of Jesus’ virgin birth] with their reasoning.
So God is not wildly arbitrary in having his Son virginally conceived – but neither is he slavishly bound to what is regarded as possible and probable according to the dictates of human reason.
Let It Be. Finally Mary tells Gabriel to “let it be according to his word” (Luke 1:38). She who first questioned that she could actually conceive virginally, in the end miraculously volunteers to be “the handmaid of the Lord.” And at that moment she conceives in her womb the Savior of the world, Christ Jesus Our Lord:
Since Mary grasped the word and through faith became pregnant with it in her heart, she also became physically pregnant with that which the word in her heart said to her.... If she had not conceived Christ spiritually in her heart, she would never have conceived him physically. God could have made Christ’s body from her body in her sleep, without her knowing it, as he made Eve from Adam, but then she would not have been his mother, just as Adam was not Eve’s mother.... Thus [Mary] is doubly pregnant, spiritually and physically, and yet with a single fruit (LW 37:89-90).
So if we wonder about the virginal conception of
Jesus as a purely physical phenomenon alone, then we’ll remain baffled.
But if we combine the physical with the spiritual, then we’ll have a
chance for our eyes to be opened, as the disciple’s were long ago in the
Looking to Christ
So look to Christ – since even though no one has ever seen God, he “has made him known” (John 1:18). For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 2:9). And this was because Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Just think of it! We who have been baffled with the rest of humanity from the beginning of time by the invisibility of God, finally now have our answer. For Christ Jesus said, “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) And even though this startling identity has been hidden for ages (Colossians 1:26), we now know it was possible all along because Jesus had been “in the Father’s heart from all eternity” (LW 22:13). Nevertheless this disclosure is anything but obvious or crude:
You must not conceive of this seeing and knowing God as being literal and physical, as a cow stares at a gate; you must not think that he who sees Christ also sees with his eyes the form of the Father. No, this must be done with the vision of the spirit and of faith, and yet in undeniable conformity with the words: Whoever sees Christ with the eyes of faith also sees the Father with those eyes.... Seeing Christ with our physical sight alone avails us nothing; spiritual sight must be added. And this is the sight of the heart or the knowledge of faith (LW 24:59).
So it would be possible to “see and know the Person of Christ [and yet] not see the Father in Christ and Christ in the Father” (LW 24:60). So much for divine visibility! Therefore while the incarnation is to our great advantage, it does not erase our need to believe in what we see in Christ – since many there were who saw the miracles of Christ, and yet “did not believe in him” (John 12:37).
And secondly, this new found divine visibility in Christ Jesus hasn’t been disclosed in what otherwise would be complete divine darkness – since God’s “invisible nature... has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). Luther explains this apparent contradiction in this way:
There are two kinds of knowledge of God: the one is the knowledge of the Law; the other is the knowledge of the Gospel.... Reason is familiar with the knowledge of God which is based on the Law.... [But this knowledge] is not the true knowledge of Him.... One might speak of this as sniffing the existence of God without tasting it. The heathen, the philosophers, and all wise people have progressed to a point where they recognize God through the Law.... The other sort of knowledge [is] from the Gospel. There we learn that all the world is by nature an abomination before God... and is eternally damned. From this the world could not extricate itself except through God’s Son, who lies in the bosom of the Father. He became man, died, and rose again from the dead, extinguishing sin, death, and devil.... But this knowledge does not grow up in our garden, and nature knows nothing at all about it.... This is hidden from reason’s view. It speaks of these with the same authority with which a blind man discusses color (LW 22:150-153).
So while we knew about the Law apart from Christ (John 1:17), that knowledge could never save us from our sins (Romans 8:3).
And thirdly, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that beloved follower of Luther, explains why Christ, being the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), doesn’t turn him into an actual visible image of God – thereby explaining why people could look at him and think he was just an ordinary guy, the “carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55) (Kierkegaard’s Writings 15:192-193):
When a person sees his image in the mirror of the ocean, he sees his own image, but the ocean is not his image, and when he departs the image disappears. The ocean is not the image and cannot keep the image. Why is this, except for the reason that the visible form by its very visibility is powerless.... But God is spirit, is invisible, and the image of invisibility, of course, is in turn invisibility. Thus the invisible Creator reproduces himself in the invisibility, which is the qualification of spirit, and the image of God is explicitly the invisible glory. If God were visible, well, then no one could resemble him or be his image, because... in all that is visible there is nothing, not even a leaf, that resembles another or is its image.... Since God is invisible, no one can visibly resemble him. The lily does not resemble God, precisely because the glory of the lily is visible.... To be spirit, that is the human being’s invisible glory.
So Christ is the image of the invisible God not because of his pretty face, which wasn’t that nice any way – having “no form... that we should look at him” (Isaiah 53:2-3). No, his divinity was what only faith could see. No wonder then that he said, blessed are those who “have not seen, and yet believe” (John 20:29).
Glorifying the Cross
So look to Christ where you would least expect to see all the glory and majesty of heaven revealed – there on the cross, suffering and dying for us. No sooner are we told that Mary has given birth to the Savior, then we are further told that her boy will be spoken against and a sword will pierce through her heart (Luke 2:34-35). This means that the incarnation is only fulfilled in the crucifixion. So we are not to look for untrammeled divine glory in Jesus’ life. No, we instead are to look for that “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). Luther knew that we had it wrong when we imagined that the divine on earth could only be seen where all “punishments” had been removed, and nowhere else (LW 31:227). However, when Christ was punished on the cross for the sins of the world (1 Peter 2:24; LW 26:284), then, and only then, did we actually behold his divine majesty (John 12:23-24). And that was because at that point he was doing the singular work of God – dying for the sins of the world (Hebrews 9:26; 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 John 3:5). So do not be offended by this unexpected victory through death (Hebrews 2:14; Matthew 11:6). Know that it is “exceedingly godless temerity that, where God has humiliated Himself in order to become recognizable, man seeks for himself another way” (LW 29:111).
So repent of that blind alley of glory you’ve been going down, over and over again. Repent and glorify Christ and him crucified (Galatians 6:14). For help with this attack on your waywardness, cry out to the Lord, using these powerful words of Kierkegaard:
Lord Jesus Christ, our foolish minds are weak; they are more than willing to be drawn – and there is so much that wants to draw us to itself. There is pleasure with its seductive power, the multiplicity with its bewildering distractions, the moment with its infatuating importance and the conceited laboriousness of busyness and the careless time-wasting of light-mindedness and the gloomy brooding of heavy-mindedness.... But you, who are the truth, only you... can truly draw a person to yourself, which you have promised to do (KW 20:157).
Christ promised to do that on the cross (John 12:32). In his death is the life we need – which frees us from ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:15). For by being punished in our place, Christ saved us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). That makes his death, our joy – for only in it, is there the forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:5-8). So believe in him (John 14:1) and receive his body and blood this day in the Sacrament of the Altar, that you may abound in the saving life given us by God in this mysterious way (John 6:53; 10:10).
Pursuing the Spirit
And when you leave this place, do good works in the name of him who became incarnate from above for our salvation (Colossians 3:17). Today, let your work be pursuing all the more fully the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Of the great riches manifest in these nine blessings from the Spirit, let us dwell on love and faithfulness combined together. And when we do, pray that we will see what Kierkegaard saw in what makes love faithful or distinctively Christian – which is precisely the love that Christ’s incarnation brings to the world (1 John 4:10):
Ultimately, love for God is the decisive factor; from this originates love for the neighbor.... [Then] to love the neighbor is a thankless task.... [For] love is not... a mood in the pampered soul that knows... no law – Christian love is sheer action, and its every work is holy, because it is the fulfilling of the Law.... True love, divinely understood, must be regarded by the loved ones... as hate, because these refuse to understand... that to be loved is to be helped... to love God (KW 16:57, 78, 99, 108-109).
Amen, amen and amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)