- Parish House
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Have you ever considered what kind of life God lives? What it is that God experiences? I have to admit that too often my thoughts of God are a mixture of what God can do for me, or the basic properties of God, or on the darkest days whether or not God even exists. I think about what God calls us to and about what God has for us in the future. But I don’t often think of what God’s life must be like; who God is in Godself.
That changed for me about a year ago, driving along 630, listening to an audio version of the philosopher Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. His insight was so rich that even though many months have passed, I can still remember that I listened to the passage between the University and Woodrow exits.
Willard begins by saying that “We should…think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe.” Have you ever thought about God in such terms? Have you ever considered that God’s life is interesting and that God’s experience is fundamentally full of joy? Willard goes on to say that “The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy. All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”
Think of the great moments of joy and beauty in your life. I can remember a sunrise I saw on a beach in Australia when I was twelve years old because it was the most spectacular mix of reds and purples that I had ever seen or have ever since seen. My daughter Lily talks regularly of an encounter we had on a vacation two years ago where we were able to see a red fox in its wild beauty up close. Each of us have our own moments and memories of such profound wonder and delight that they stay with us for decades and these are all part of God’s own experience. Can you imagine the immense happiness of witnessing every sunrise of all time not only here but on every planet and every moon? Can you imagine being able to contain and absorb such joy in all of its profound reality?
When Isaiah, is taken up into heaven in a vision, he witnesses God in fullness, surrounded by heavenly beings who sing God’s eternal praise. They proclaim that God’s glory fills the earth. We can imagine then, God’s joyous being permeating the universe, taking in all that is good and true and beautiful and reflecting it back in radiant glory. We should imagine the heavenly throne room that Isaiah witnesses as a place of happiness, but a kind of happiness so excessive to human experience that it is overwhelming, even terrifying.
I recently came across an example of what this terrifying joy might look like in reading the chronicles of Narnia to my daughters. Toward the end of the book titled Prince Caspian, Aslan has returned to Narnia and is helping take it back from the corrupt tyrant Miraz, a man who created a kingdom of all business with no room for magic. Aslan, you will remember, is the true ruler of Narnia–a Lion who is clearly a Christ figure–that ordains various human kings to rule Narnia under his authority.
As Aslan comes into Narnia to place Prince Caspian on the throne, he does so with a joyous and raucous celebration. Aslan is accompanied by the Roman god of wine, Bacchus, and as they reclaim the kingdom they create a parade of mythological creatures, talking animals, and allied humans. As they celebrate, they create and destroy, tearing down a bridge to liberate a river god and disrupting two schools where dry and boring lessons were being taught. Some welcome Aslan, happy that the old stories of his existence were true. Others, run and scream in terror, not ready to embrace the wild feast that is descending upon them.
Reflecting on this passage, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has commented that “’the ordered state of sin’ isn’t just the tyranny of a White Witch or a King Miraz; it is whatever makes drab and oppressive the flow of joy and energy in the world of animals, humans–and even rivers.” So it is that when Aslan arrives, joy and energy are unleashed in a kind of terrifying wildness.
When Isaiah witnesses the wild holiness of God, his response is akin to those who fled in terror before the Bacchanalian parade of Aslan’s return. He feels unready for the party, unclean and unworthy. But God answers those feelings and invites Isaiah into the adventures of the kingdom.
We see this even more clearly in our Gospel lesson, where Peter, lost in the humdrum life of a peasant fisherman, is overwhelmed by the abundance of Jesus. Jesus, unblocks “the flow of joy and energy” and shows Peter, what it is like to follow him. It is not that he suddenly promises Peter that all is going to be easy, that now he’ll always catch boatloads of fish. Both Peter and Isaiah face much suffering because of following the ways of God, but in their encounters with the abundant glory of God they also recognize that there is no more joy-filled energy or happiness than is available through God’s kingdom.
When Peter feels all the shame of his finite existence, his lack of faith before the abundance of Jesus, he feels the weight of his sin. Jesus answers Peter by saying, “Do not fear,” and then invites Peter to join in the joy of God. And that, we must understand, is our own invitation.
I find myself too often in the Kingdom of Miraz, the flow of joy and energy blocked in a world that is drab and oppressive. I get caught up in the minutiae of life, I get distracted by the passing news of the day, the busyness of things. But God wants to invite us into the infinite joy that is his eternal existence. Think of the smile on Jesus’ face, the glint in his eye, when he so overwhelmed the expectation of those peasant fishermen and then invited them to join his conspiracy to unblock the flows of divine glory in the world. Jesus invites us into that conspiracy as well, telling us that in a world that says that the only inevitabilities of life are death and taxes, tax payments can be pulled from the mouths of fish and death is no more than a prelude to resurrection.
So hear the words of Jesus to Peter for yourself–”do not fear!” Instead of fear, let us live into the endless joy of the God whose happy glory fills all the earth. Amen.