Many years ago, on a trip to Rome, I was able to stand in the Sistine Chapel and study the masterpiece of Michelangelo. His fresco on the ceiling was painted in the early 1500s, and is arguably the most famous attempt to depict God in the western world. In the Sistine chapel, God appears in a traditional form – an older man with flowing white hair and a beard, reaching out a very human looking finger to create Adam. Staring up at it, it was beautiful; it took your breath away. But even so, it felt incomplete. Brilliant as it was, it could not capture the fullness of the divine. And also, do we really think God’s wholeness can be confined to one image, and in this case, one that bears more than a striking resemblance to Santa Claus?
In our gospel, we hear again these versus from John, foretelling the coming of Jesus into the world; the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. But a few lines have been added at the end: No one has ever seen God. It is through Jesus that we come to see The Divine.
What is the point of this reminder, coming to us after Christmas, when we are still full of the divine imagery of our faith. The angels appearing to Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds as emissaries of God. The star in the sky. The baby bright in the manger. Must we leave that cozy place so soon?
And yet, this is an important line in the gospel, because it reminds us of an essential quality of the gospel, through which nothing else is possible. We cannot have the faith of Mary without it. Or the trust of Joseph. Or the courage of the shepherds. We cannot truly heed the teachings of a carpenters son, if we do not possess it. That essential quality is humility.
Humility is much under attack these days; self-righteousness often feels as if it wins the moment. We know what we know; we think what we think. We like being right. By nature, we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. If there is a mystery, we want it solved; we are a species constantly striving for answers.
Why wouldn’t we than want to know the face of God? And so of course, over the centuries, we have had many depictions. Most of them through the bulk of history, patriarchal, which has served only to limit God’s fullness rather than expose it. More lately, we have seen a broader range of depictions that include the wider spectrum of human existence. And yet it is always about us taking our existence and applying it to God. Our depictions will always be incomplete – for how can a single one capture all of the grace and depth and nuance of God?
Not being able to see God also seems to come up a lot when I am debating faith with someone who does not share it. “How can you know that God exists?”, they ask, looking for me to supply proof. But of course it is a trick question, as John reminds us this morning: I can’t produce a picture of God. I cannot call God down from heaven. I can’t ask God to send a text. And yet I have faith in God’s existence. I believe in something beyond what I can fully imagine. I am comfortable in my uncertainty. I am humbled by what I do not know.
Even if we apply this to our understanding of God – even if we can enjoy the beauty of the Sistine Chapel and yet reject it as anywhere near a complete understanding of God – we struggle to apply that same humility to our actions in the larger world. We are constantly under pressure to be certain, to take a side, to have a position – and yet this posture is paradoxical to the gospel. It is in the midst of uncertainty that the Gospel becomes clear.
For the gospel teaches us to reject certainty, to refrain from dichotomy. Rather, it helps us live comfortably with what we do not know, and cannot know, and what’s more, do not need to know. This begins with the face of God, which we cannot see; and it extends into the lives of those around us, which we should not judge. By embracing uncertainty, we practice humility; we become open to the answers that come our way.
I have now been a pastor for enough decades to see all the ways we get this wrong. I can tell that pretty much every time, the church or its people, veers into the territory of “we know what is right” terrible injustice occurs and pain happens. The people who think they know what is right are always the majority; and what they know to be right is usually slapping some judgement or restriction on the minority. This is very opposite of the gospel; which does not seek the right answer, but the best one, the more grace-centred one. Love, kindness and generosity are not solid, unchanging like rocks; they are fluid like the water travelling around those rocks. The gospel doesn’t say “I know what is right for you” it asks: How may I be of service?
This is where the uncertainty and the humility come in. Indeed, this is where we come closest to seeing God.
Michelangelo left many secrets in the Sistine Chapel—little Easter eggs we are still trying to figure out. One of them, discovered only about ten years ago, is still much debated. In a panel, known as Separation of Light from Darkness, Michelangelo appears to have painted a precise image of the human spinal cord and brain stem in the space leading up from God’s chest and throat. In essence, the voice box of God is painted in the shape of the brain of humanity. This has prompted all sorts of debate. What was Michelangelo trying to say? Was it heresy or prophecy? Was the artist-scientist suggesting the tension at the time between science and the church? Was the artist-rebel challenging the church authorities who told people the only way to God was through them? Was the artist-believer saying that humanity has been entrusted with the responsibility of being God’s presence, God’s advocate on earth? We cannot ask Michelangelo. So we cannot ever know. But our discussion in uncertainty, or reflection of this complex piece of art, or humble admission that we can never know, doesn’t take us farther from God. It brings us closer.
In uncertainty, the gospel becomes clear. In humility, we accept not knowing the answer, but instead ask the right question: How may I be not the rock that blocks the path, but the water finds a way through? And in this way, humbled and uncertain, and in search of the loving way, we come as close as we can to truly seeing God.