‘Is there anybody there?’
It’s the sort of question you ask … perhaps the sort of question you hear asked in a play or a film … when you’re pretty sure there IS, but you can’t actually see them clearly or be totally sure that there is.
But you really think there probably is.
And it’s been one of the biggest questions posed by human beings from the earliest times.
So ancient peoples tried to make a stab at the ‘Anyone there?’ question with images of birds and beasts that they venerated, sticks and stones that they set up, ceremonies and rituals involving the stars and the planets.
You see, human beings do have these basic yearnings still implanted in their fallen human nature that are the remnants of the relationship with God we were created to be in, but which are now cracked, smashed and distorted and yet still not totally shattered and ready to be swept up by secularism’s dustpan and brush.
This fifth and final ‘Magnetic Point’ from Dan Strange’s analysis of where our contemporary society yearns for God asks whether there is a way beyond the realm of our normal everyday this-worldly experience … the question is whether there is anyone there but the desire is for transcendence.
Now, at some level or other, most people have a pretty strong hunch that beyond our current reality lies a greater reality.
This greater reality gets constructed in different ways, but it is always thought of as involving a SUPERIOR power.
“There is also a sense that humans stand in some sort of relationship to this higher power, or at least, that they should. This understanding creates the expressed desire to seek connection with this power - but what is it? Who is it?”
(Dan Strange p. 75)
Now, we are not ancient people trying to work out whether an animal or a planet is the transcendent reality, but we inhabit a secular 21st. century culture … so what is on the menu of contemporary beliefs that seek to address this issue of whether there’s anybody there?
• The Menu of Contemporary Beliefs
There’s a pretty full board of beliefs that seek to address this question, which come up with a fair. range of answers.
Here’s a taster …
I suppose we’d say that ‘Scientism’ is the view of the world which says that genuine knowledge of reality has to be determined by physics, chemistry and biology .. stuff like that.
Now, of course, we can argue about that a fair bit around issues of the Naturalistic Fallacy, of whether there are things that are not able to be proven scientifically but are nonetheless real (like love and art and things like that) … and we can point to the sort of emptiness and purposelessness that many find this belief system brings to them … but what we are highlighting here is simply that this approach which says no Higher Power can be measured within the criteria of material science so it doesn’t exist is a response to this yearning to know a Higher Power and that the response it makes is to deny the possibility of what the human heart yearns for … it just outright states that not being scientifically measurable or observable (within its own criteria) no Higher Power can exist.
All the while there are people telling us that our society is now completely secular, there are others telling us that it is also very deeply religious … though perhaps not in the ways that it was.
As James K. A. Smith has said:
“The secular is haunted”
So, in our secular age, 55% of respondents in a Survey of Religion claimed they had been protected by ‘a guardian angel’.
Minorities of people who say they are atheists or agnostics are thoroughgoingly so, and the view that life is thoroughly meaningless is a minority view amongst people of that persuasion.
(Strange p. 78 has the data on this).
So, Western culture seems in our era to be disenchanted with the institutional church, for sure … but where God or some ‘Higher Power’ is concerned it is not so much ‘dis-enchanted’ but ‘differently-enchanted’.
They may or may not believe in God or a range of ‘gods’, but they definitely do seem very much for the most part to have a vague belief in some form of ‘spirituality’ … an openness to ‘the transcendent’ … even if it’s only a sense of ‘connection’ to people or nature or music or art that makes life something more than simply a sum of the parts.
As Strange puts it: “They can’t quite close the door on religion completely shut, and there remains a dissatisfaction and restlessness.”
(Strange, p. 78)
• Behold your God!
You see, the Bible doesn’t just say: ‘Yes, there IS a Higher Power - now off you go and see if you can solve the puzzle’
The Bible says: ‘Yes, there is a Higher Power, not an ‘it’ but a ‘who’, this is Who He is and let me show you what He is like’!
• The Image of the Invisible God
All along, as we’ve been looking at these Five Magnetic Points we’ve been working on the Biblical basis that there is still enough of the image of God in mankind to have these five yearnings within us … even those of us who are still suppressing the truth in our preference for things that aren’t good and therefore still longing for God but looking determinedly away from where He may be found.
Even while Romans 1:18-20 remains the case for much of modern humanity … there are still yearnings for the state of the relationship with God that we were created to fit into.
And yet in SPITE of that, as Romans 1 puts it there:
“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
But - in spite of all that - God has reached out once again at the point of this human turning from where He - the Highest Power - may be clearly known to address the point of our yearning to know the Higher Power … at the point of humanity’s search for transcendence.
And what we have in the real Christ of Christmas is God’s definitive reveal of Himself.
The Higher Power we yearn to know and worship … maximally absolute and maximally personal (or in theology-speak both transcendent and imminent) has reached down to us in our yearning, by His grace, to SHOW Himself.
And He did it when Christ came as the Word (the revelation of God) made flesh (amongst us and with us … Immanuel)
Paul spells it out for us as he describes the real Christ of Christmas in Colossians 1.
You want to know if, Who and what like the Highest Power is?
‘Look ye here!’ says the Apostle …
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.
But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation
— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.
This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”
Very briefly, then, Paul is telling us in this passage here Who He is (vv. 15-19) and there’s what He has done (vv. 20-23).
You want to know Who He is and what He does?
There He is then … the true Christ of Christmas, the revealed answer to the deepest yearnings of your soul for transcendent reality.
You see, people live thinking their deepest yearnings are the things that keep you in the dark … to which you look away from God whilst yearning for all that He is.
Here is the GENUINE Higher Power … and the visual representation of Him is found in Jesus.
Let’s just look at this quickly …
• What is an ‘image’?
Way back in the Old Testament, in the Garden of Eden, we are told that human beings - male and female - were created to be the image of God in Creation.
It doesn’t actually say ‘IN the image of God’ back there, it says ‘AS the image of God’.
Human beings were to be God’s regents, almost, His servants but His stewards representing Him in the work of nurturing His Creation and standing in some derivative and subordinate way in that relationship with all of His creatures.
But we know human beings weren’t content with that, with accepting God’s view of what was right and wrong for and in His Creation and things went rapidly downhill from there.
Well, unique amongst the people of the ancient world, the worship centre for the Old Testament people of God had no ‘images’ in it.
There WAS an inner sanctum in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and then the Jerusalem Temple, where the most intense presence of God on earth was symbolically found … but at its focus the Holy of Holies had not an idol image but the MERCY SEAT above the Ark of the Covenant where atonement was made annually for God’s fallen image in humanity.
Humanity was supposed to reflect God’s character to the world and be the image of God in Creation.
The God of the Old Testament was to be invisible save for the people of God Who reflected His image in His world.
But humanity went freelance and freestyle and things went wrong from there onwards … hence the image-empty holiest place with just provision for the marred image being made there.
• What does this MAKE the ‘image’?
What this makes God’s image on earth is marred, spoiled and a poor reflection … and yet provided for and covered by a symbolic Temple ritual of atonement, until the fulfilment of that sacrifice should come.
Now jump forward with me a few thousand years to what Paul writes about the coming of the actual sacrifice and the state of Eden being restored.
• Who He is, vv. 15-18
• Christ and Creation, vv. 15-16
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
• Jesus - the Image of God
Paul begins this hymn about Christ with pointing to Christ’s true revelation and representation of God and His will.
Humanity was made and placed in the Garden way back in Genesis to be and to represent the image of God.
We’ve gone over how that went wrong.
But here comes Jesus, the proper man of Luther’s old hymn ‘A safe strong hold our God is still’ … the PROPER man.
Humanity as humanity was created to be and the Temple of God’s Spirit as the prototype of the new humanity that He was about to create and bring into being.
Humanity as meant to be and now taken to a fuller, further level is now incarnate in the God-man Christ Jesus.
Genesis 1:26-28 gave us this background understanding of the nature of humanity as it was created:
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Here, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit Paul writes that this proper humanity is back, but redeemingly, the first born of many brethren in Christ.
We do have to notice that the first Adam was created ‘in’ or ‘after’ the image of God … but is not identified AS the image.
But Jesus goes further and IS the very image of God here.
In the words of David Pao in his Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:
“… through Him God’s nature and will are made known.”
(Pao p. 95)
• Firstborn of all Creation
This points to Christ’s supremacy above all created beings.
The idea of firstborn can be a reference to being born first … but it tends to be (as in Ps. 89:27 etc.) an indication that all the power and authority in the household or amongst the Kings of the Earth or whatever adheres to that individual.
Pao: “The title ‘firstborn’, therefore, points to the unique and incomparable identity of Jesus Christ.” (p. 95)
• Creation’s Creator, beneficiary and ruler
“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
Paul is again highlighting the supremacy of Christ by describing His role as the UNIQUE agent of Creation.
And Creation is IN Him, BY Him and FOR Him.
You don’t get more transcendent than the Creator God … ‘wanna see Him?’ (asks Paul).
Here He is - they named Him Jesus!
• Christ and Providence, vv. 17-18a
Now having said that, it therefore follows in Paul’s logic that …
“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”
In Him all things hold together.
Do you ever wonder, given how daft people are, or how wicked or evil or just plain short-sighted human beings seem capable of being, humanity hasn’t smashed itself to bits many times over already?
In Him all things hold together.
He didn’t just make it, He sustains it.
And His might is the key to how He can achieve this.
His Name is Jesus.
Ultimately to put the block on our own self-destruction, He has stepped in to take preservation one step further … to redemption
• What He has done, vv. 18-23
So now Paul brings us forward from this extensive revelation of Who the Higher Power is to this thorough-going exposition of what He’s done:
• Christ and the New Creation, vv. 18b-19
“he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him”
What Christ incarnate has done is to house Deity in humanity.
Now, it was the Scottish Minister Henry Scougall (1650-1678) who wrote the book: ‘The Life of God in the Soul of Man, or, The Nature and Excellency of the Christian Religion’ to help a friend suffering with doubts, but the phrase goes back through a number of Puritans like Thomas Watson to John Calvin himself …
Paul is telling us that if you look at the real Christ of Christmas you see there in Him ‘the full life of God in the soul of a human being’ … and He is the pioneer of putting the Divine image back into the hearts of humanity.
Which is precisely the point of His coming … to put the life of God into the souls of redeemed and God-reconciled human beings … reconciled to God by His own shed blood.
You want to find the transcendent?
More - do you want to know it in yourself?
We know Who He is and can know Him … but will you PLEASE look at what it is that He does?
• Reconciled believers to God, vv. 20-22
“through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour.
22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—“
Alienated humanity is in Christ RECONCILED (for the first time since the sad events with snakes and apples in a Garden, after generations of darkness and sadness and pain) to the transcendent God through the self-sacrificial work of the Son.
Through His physical body.
Christmas and Calvary.
To present His people HOLY … conformed to the right will and purpose of God for His human Creation.
Without blemish … somehow once more unspoiled and fit for the life of sacrificial service to God that is both our proper purpose, reasonable worship and destiny … in the interests of Humanity’s well-being and flourishing.
More - free now because cleansed in conscience and free from eternal accusation.
There is just one rider to Paul’s argument, revelation and proclamation of the reconciliation of humanity with the Transcendent here …
• If they stand firm in the Gospel, v. 23
“if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.”
Redemption has been GLORIOUSLY accomplished and applied.
But there’s to be no more wandering off like you did in Eden.
In our run-up to Christmas this year, then, we’ve been looking at some of the yearnings of the human heart that … even in our secular society … draw reluctant people back towards God.
The image of God that the Lord created mankind with is spoiled and marred and people seek things to meet their yearnings in other directions than Him.
But the image of God in humankind is still strong enough, in its last vestiges but still present, to draw people a little way towards the God Who meets those yearnings.
The trouble is people by nature still look away determinedly from Him – as they did at Eden – and living as His image in His world … and the effect of that is that those yearnings are not resolved and are not met in restored relationship with Him.
Now what God did at Christmas – through the real Christ of Christmas - was to provide and to highlight the way back.
Today we’ve concluded our preparation for Christmas by addressing the question … the question that blatantly bugs an awful lot of OUR people … ‘Is there anybody there?’
And the answer we find in the Christ of Christmas is that there is more than a Higher Power, there’s a Person reaching out to you.
As we said earlier:
The Bible doesn’t just say: ‘Yes, there IS a Higher Power - now off you go and see if you can solve the puzzle’
The Bible says: ‘Yes, there is a Higher Power, not an ‘it’ but a ‘who’, this is Who He is and now let me show you what He is like’!
Paul in Colossians 1:15-23 has summarised and condensed what the earlier Scriptures show us in the description they offer of Jesus, His life and His work.
So the question is whether there is any transcendent reality of the sort that we long for.
‘Is there anyone there?’
Yes, and this is Who He is … and the fact that you even ask the question points to the reality that He WAS there, and now you miss Him.
You miss Him very much.
Make Christmas the time that you welcome His presence again and are welcomed by Him as you come back.