Living into God – a Lenten sermon series by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Lent 1: Theosis – Living into God (number 1 of 4)

10 March 2019

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16

Romans 10: 4-13

Matthew 4: 1 – 15

Theosis – the Greek word which we will translate as “Living into God” is the overall theme for the next few Sunday mornings. My hope is that I will be able to encourage you in your journey ever deeper into God as we explore the readings set for each Sunday. So come on a journey with me; come as pilgrim people; come as those who are baptized and have made the symbolic journey from font to altar; who, each week, make the journey from the pew to the altar to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of Christ.

The story begins, as all good stories do, long long ago when the People of Israel, who called themselves God’s Chosen, came together each year to celebrate the harvest. As they brought the basket of grapes, or grain, or cabbages, or eggs; as they brought a sheep or goat, a dove or even an ox, they were to say to the priest, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there became a great nation, mighty and populous…” (Deut 26: 5ff) This was the mantra to be recited each year, and handed on from generation to generation, telling the story from father to daughter, grandmother to grandchildren, aunt to nephews. It is the story of the beginning of a people and their extraordinary journey from being nobodies to being somebodies, bold, brave and brash enough to call themselves “God’s Chosen people.”

The details of the story begin in Genesis chapter 12 where a man called Abram, for some inexplicable reason, and quite at odds with the people among whom he lived – both his own family and the surrounding peoples and nations – thought that a particular god had called him. The calling was to leave his kins-people, his home and country and go on a journey. It was not at all clear where he would go or what he would find when he got there. But there was, said this unnamed god, a blessing in it for Abram. His offspring would become a great nation and would be a blessing to others. (Gen 12: 2ff). What a lovely thing – to be a blessing to others.

The story – really a long saga – wends its way through the chapters of Genesis until it comes to Joseph, the spoilt favourite son of Abram’s grandson Jacob. Sold into slavery Joseph ended up in Egypt – a nobody, an alien with nothing in a strange land. Over time his fortunes changed, he came to hold a powerful position in government and was able to save his extended family, including the older brothers who had sold him into slavery.

We then to move into the next book in the Bible, Exodus, and read about an extraordinary man with an Egyptian name who became the great leader of his people. It was to Moses that the god of Abram finally chose to reveal god-self at the burning bush. Standing barefoot on the holy ground around the bush the name Yahweh, Jehovah, was given. It is a no name meaning simply “I am who I am”. God will not be pinned down by a name or by some human thinking God can be tamed and controlled. Instead this God, “I am who I am”, orders Moses to return to Egypt and lead his people out of slavery and into the wilderness. There they will spend a generation of wandering, slowly coming to understand that God, “I am who I am”, is not bound to one place or one people, but is to be found anywhere and everywhere.

Later the psalmist will say that when he looks to the heavens, to the moon and the stars, God is there. And this God, this “I am who I am”, for some profoundly mysterious reason, has decided to enter into a special and deep relationship with humankind. In biblical terms we refer to the Covenant, or Testament. An agreement, always lop-sided, whereby God undertakes to love and protect and provide and care for the people in return for their loyalty, love and worship. God who is absolutely transcendent, far above everything and anything we can comprehend or imagine, chooses to become immanent, close at hand. Later on an even more outrageous claim will be made about God, “I am who I am”, and the name Emmanuel comes to be used – God is with us. God becomes incarnate and takes on human form and nature as Jesus of Nazareth. But that’s well down on the journey.

So here, with their basket of harvest produce, their doves and goats for thank-offerings, the people remember who they are and who God is. They were nothing – a wandering Aramean, aliens in a strange land. As they spent a lifetime wandering across the desert, the wilderness, they faced trials and temptations. They made many mistakes. They seemed, at times, to take two steps backwards for every step forward. Throughout their wanderings, these ancient people who traced their lineage back to the ‘wandering Aramean’, were loved, cosseted, cajoled, scolded, punished, and rewarded by God. This utterly transcendent God who, so they and we believe, is Creator of all that is, both seen and unseen, remained close to these people who dared to call on the name that is no name, “I am who I am.”

Writing to the Christians in Rome many centuries later St Paul makes oblique reference to the closeness of God when he writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and on your hearts.” (Romans 10: 8) Here is Emmanuel – God with us not only on the journey but in our hearts, on our lips. In some ways perhaps ‘theosis’, living into God, is the wrong way round. It seems that God indwells us, rather than the other way round. But, as with the ancient people who brought their harvest takings to the altar of God, so with us – we too need to make the journey into the wilderness, seeking to draw ever closer to God. In biblical terms the wilderness without the distractions of city life, is the place to find God. People like Bishop Bruce Rosier, whose funeral was held here during the week, understood something of this and sought God in the Outback, in the Flinders Ranges, in the delicate flower that bears his name, in the people of God who are made in God’s image.

And so to the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday in Lent – the journey with Jesus into the wilderness, there to face the temptations of the devil. There is a clear link between Jesus’s forty days in the desert and the forty years that Moses led the liberated slaves through the desert. Like them, Jesus would face trials and be tested – almost beyond limit. The choice that Jesus had to make is the same that the people with Moses had to make – who will I follow? Who will be my god? The choice is there for us too. And we are invited to take time during Lent to think about the question, to play with the thought, to dig deep into our lives. Who will I follow? Which of the many competing ‘gods’ and demands on my time, the ‘devils’ of our day, will capture my imagination, attention and allegiance? It is so very seductive. Just do this, do that – and all the rest will follow.

For those in positions of authority and leadership – be that in the church, in a school, at work, as a parent or even close friend – the temptation is there to take more than is offered. We find ourselves shocked, alarmed, disgusted at the revelations of dishonest and degraded behavior by cardinals, mega-pop stars, bankers, by people we trusted and thought we knew well. No one, it seems, is beyond the wiles of the devil – in whatever shape or form or concept that might be. The subtlety of the question or suggestion is so tempting, so disarming, so delicious to contemplate. Even as we may be tempted to point fingers at others, we would do well to remember other words of St Paul to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23); or last Sunday’s Gospel reading when Jesus suggests we notice the plank in our own eye before we point out the speck in our brother’s. (Luke 6: 41)

Theosis, the journey into God, follows the way of the cross. There is no escaping that. With Jesus we need to “walk the slow and dangerous way his wounded feet have trod.” (See the hymn “Earth’s fragile beauty we possess) It is as we journey along the way of God, as we respond to Jesus’s call to follow Him, as we travel, not alone, but in the company of other Christians, other pilgrims, that we are enabled to sing the pilgrim song, the song of the church, the song of all the faithful, “Your kingdom come, O Lord.” (ibid)

As we journey into God, as we live ever more deeply into God, may that be our song too: “Your kingdom come, O Lord!”