Sermon preached at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday before Advent 2023
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 5th November 2023 at 3.00 PM
When I was interviewing potential undergraduate students to study theology, I would quite often ask them ‘How useful is the word ‘God’?’ Frequently, there would be a short pause, as the candidates digested that we were more interested in understanding how they thought, than we were in picking apart single lines from their carefully prepared personal statements. The question is a useful one because it immediately gets behind what we mean when we use the word, as well as opening up conversations around the limits of language, context, and whether or not it is possible to speak of any vocabulary holding a kind of dignity which is a ‘given’, which signifies a reality beyond that which language can usually sustain.
What names do we give to God? There are many in scripture. Although in the Jewish tradition the Divine Name itself was too holy to be spoken out loud or even written in full, there is a naming of God which goes on in the Hebrew Bible, not least in Moses’s encounter with God at the Burning Bush. When Moses asks for the identity of the divine voice in that story, he is given a formulation usually translated into English as ‘I Am Who I Am’. Yahweh, the Lord, is revealed as fully unrestricted presence and power, and in the next section of that dialogue in the Book Exodus, the Lord discloses himself as Lord of history and the One who will be responsible for the unfolding of the covenant relationship which is the future. By the time we reach the first century AD, the Greek speaking synagogues of the ancient near East were using a word of real importance for the earliest Christian understanding of who God is. In the space left for the Divine Name, these Greek-speaking Jewish communities used the word ‘kurios’ or Lord, a title which is given to Jesus from the earlier days of Christian worship and practice.
No matter what other names we ascribe to God – and there are many in scripture and in the tradition more widely – the name that Christians can most trustfully use is simply ‘Jesus.’ It is quite plausible to argue that no single name or word for God is adequate on its own. But the life in which we see God most perfectly revealed, is Jesus’s life. In a sermon he preached on one of the psalms, St Augustine counselled his listeners not to get themselves tied up in knots in attempting to apprehend the full reality of God’s name and being. Referring to Moses’ encounter with ‘I Am Who I Am’ at the burning bush, he has this to say to his people,
‘You cannot take it in, for this is too much to understand, too much to grasp. Hold on instead to what he who you cannot understand became for you. Hold onto the flesh of Christ…’
This is at once both a classically pastoral and profoundly theological turn for Augustine. We may not fully apprehend the meaning of the Divine Name, any more than we can fully apprehend the total content of revelation. But we can understand who God is for us. Jesus is the name of the One who dwells with us, among us, teaching, healing, proclaiming the Kingdom, and in his death and resurrection, showing us who God is for us, in his very person. He is Alpha and Omega, the Firstborn of All Creation, as well as many other names, some of which we will hear in Advent: Root of Jesse, Adonai, King of the Nations, Key of David… but in order to understand any of this, we must heed St Augustine’s advice. ‘Hold onto the flesh of Christ.’
In today’s first reading, we heard a regal account from the Book of Daniel of God’s victory and the establishment of God’s Kingdom. In that prophecy – Daniel’s vision – he refers to the Lord as ‘the Ancient One’, or ‘Ancient of Days’. In Christian theology, this is received as a description of God the Father, the origin, creator and destiny of all. But presented to this ‘Ancient of Days’ is a figure who is of supreme importance in how we understand the scene. One like a ‘human being’, or in a more literal translation, one like a ‘Son of Man’ is presented to this Ancient of Days. To this Son of Man is given ‘dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.’
This a sparkling and cosmic passage, full of the kind of rich imagery which permeates and activates the imagination, and which promises the final victory of God’s love over all which threatens it. This ‘Son of Man’ (or the one like a ‘Human Being’) is an enigmatic figure who appears in several Old Testament prophecies. The Hebrew in which the phrase is rooted should really be translated, ‘Son of Adam.’ And yet, it is a messianic title, and one which Jesus uses for himself in the New Testament. Jesus is this Son of Man, and identifies himself to his listeners with this cosmic figure, to whose Kingdom all peoples, nations and languages will come.
That is why I prefer the translation of ‘Son of Man’, because without it we lose the immediacy of connection with Jesus’s teaching about himself. Without this phrase we risk severing one important typological link between Old and New Testaments: the danger is that we miss what is really going on. But perhaps that other translation ‘one like a human being’ has a few benefits of its own. At the centre of this otherworldly scene in the Book of Daniel, of visions and fire and clouds, comes a human being. And this human being is the Son of Man, a title used by Jesus to refer to himself. A title so freighted by messianic weight and symbolism that it is surely one of the factors that leads to his death and arrest.
Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Man, the Human Being, the one who will judge the world, and whom all peoples shall serve. It is hard for us to comprehend all this. And so, we take St Augustine’s advice, and ‘Hold onto the flesh of Christ.’
The idea that God has uniquely revealed himself in one human life was as controversial in the ancient world as it is now. There are of course some Christians today who would prefer what we might think of as a simply ‘spiritual’ truth, ethereal, other-worldly, no need to deal with the messy physical stuff. But God has cleaved himself to the flesh of Christ; the Son of Man is also the Human Being. And without this, we shall not be able to name God, because this Human Being is God’s perfect self-expression, in whom we see the world’s past, present and future. God’s full revelation in the person of Jesus Christ unveils for us just how badly the word ‘God’ can be used. It can be used to control or to threaten, to intimidate or to confuse. The Son of Man – the Human One – stands in judgement on it all, relentlessly placing God’s own image in the fragility and complexity of human life, apt for the sanctification for which it yearns and cries out. That is why when we speak of God, we must also speak for human rights. That is why we must also commit to policies which promote human dignity for all. That is why the use of the name of God in acts of violence is such a deep blasphemy.
In all the complexities of life, love, politics, ethics, and religion, let us heed St Augustine’s advice, so applicable for almost any situation: ‘Hold onto the flesh of Christ.’
 Daniel 7: 14