Today’s gospel reading heralds the arrival of a king. Messengers with such a message were not uncommon in Biblical times. A king traveling by caravan would send ahead an ambassador to announce his imminent appearance. Upon receiving such news villagers would scurry about to make preparations. Potholes would be filled, ruts leveled, and banquets prepared. The king’s visit was surely a happening that would not soon be forgotten.
So we read again of John the Baptist who heralds the arrival of God’s salvation. He called on 1st Century Palestine to be prepared for the One promised from long ago. His words remind us to be on the lookout because we never know when God will break into our lives in some startling form or surprising fashion.
We might want to ask why God needs to be announced? Why do we need a John the Baptist to let us know of God’s impending advent? Shouldn’t God’s revelation be self-evident? How could anyone miss the fact that God has something to say?
I want to explore this basic, straightforward question by probing into a very complex subject that has to do with what is termed the ‘psychology of religion’. This field of study explores how people come to have an image of God and how that image functions in their life. I want to spend a few moments describing the work of Ann-Marie Rizzuto put forward in her book, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study. Her ideas are somewhat complicated, and I admit that I myself don’t grasp it all, but I want to do my best to let you know what I do understand because I think it has something important to say to each one of us.
Rizzuto talks about a person’s “representation” of God. By this she means the image and understanding of God that each of us puts together for ourselves. Just as a portrait ‘represents’ the subject, but is not the subject, so too our representations of God are not God; although the more we work at it, the more closely our representations can accurately reflect God.
Rizzuto’s studies have led her to two conclusions. The first is that every child forms some kind of rudimentary representation of God for himself or herself. This initial formulation occurs at a very early age, well before the child turns three. Second, her findings indicate that a child’s initial representation of God is formulated from a combination of father representations, mother representations, self-representations, and a healthy dose of pure fantasy. Stay with me here.
So, for example, if father frequently comes home from work frustrated and angry, the child may think God gets angry with us, sometimes for no reason. If mother stands back silent and helpless in the face of father’s fury, the child’s understanding of God may incorporate traits of powerlessness and suffering. If the child is confused by the environment in which he is raised, he may come to believe that God doesn’t always understand why people mistreat one another. In terms of fantasy, I remember the year my young daughter thought Jesus would have Santa bring back to life her hamster and give it to her for a Christmas present. Rizzuto’s guiding principle is that the child’s representation of God will take on traits that suit the child’s needs for safety and self-worth.
As the child matures psychologically his or her God representation goes through revision, as do representations of parents and self. This new understanding may become the basis for faith or for unfaith. It may also be left untouched, even though the child continues to revise the way she understands her parents and her self. So while the child continues to grow into adolescence and adulthood, her idea of God may stay frozen in a time when she was four or eight or sixteen or whenever. If one’s view of God is not revised to keep pace with one’s own development and maturing, the person will come to perceive the notion of God as ridiculous or irrelevant or, depending of the image, perhaps even threatening and dangerous.
While most children will move beyond an early stage of how they understand their parents, what if they don’t move beyond it in their understanding of God? Rizzuto states there is a great tendency for our representations of God to become rather fixed and impervious to modification or change. If that happens the child’s frozen notion of God may be domineering, neglected, or actively repressed as the child grows into adulthood.
Through her studies of various adults, Rizzuto concludes that with regard to their relation with God all of her subjects fit into one of the four categories. Listen carefully and honestly to see if you can figure out where you fit in:
1. There are those who believe in God and relate to God.
2. There are those who don’t know if God really exists.
3. There are those who are not interested in God and are puzzled (or even angered) by those who do.
4. There are those who struggle with an image of God; an image which is harsh and demanding.
I suspect that there is a least one person here this morning for each of these categories and if you think about spouses and adult children who are not here or in any church this morning, it is certain that we cover all four categories. These varieties make perfect sense if you understand that a person’s representation of God may lie unexamined and unrevised for years and years. That, says Rizzuto, is a very common tendency.
So if your understanding of God is a combination of toddler fantasy and early images of your parents, then you will struggle with how religion makes sense in your present adult world. A frozen understanding of God either will be irrelevant or absurd or an impediment to getting on with the business of life. The same holds true if your idea of God has escaped revision since the time you were 8 or 12 or 22.
In truth, a part of the business of life is to continue to integrate our experience in the journey of life with our understanding of God. Perhaps no one ever told you that before. The representation you had of God in the past does not have to be the representation you have of God today. Nor does today’s representation demand to be tomorrow’s.
We began this sermon with a simple question: why does God’s appearance need to be announced? How could anyone miss what God has to say to him or to her? The complicated answer I put forward can be boiled down to this: we may miss it because the God who appears and the God who speaks is not the God we know or are listening for. And of this you can be sure: on this side of glory the God you know, which is your representation of God, will never be exactly who God really is.
The good news is that the true and living God keeps coming to us throughout our lives; revealing God’s self in Word and Sacrament, in all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, in the poor, through the beauty of creation, in the valley of the shadow death, in the quiet moment, through a still small inner voice, in the Incarnation, and on the Cross. God speaks to us… not just once or twice in our lifetime, but throughout. And each time God speaks and each time we listen, our representation of God becomes clearer and more authentic.
God can surprise us. God will do things that we never dreamed or anticipated. God often is not who we expect. But when we approach the religious dimension of life with the knowledge that our life’s work is to continue to pursue God’s true Self, then the unexpected will become the norm and it will be integrated into our humble representation of the Holy One. If we cultivate this spiritual disposition then we will be forever on the lookout for God’s Advent. We will meet the herald of an ambassador with an open heart and arms ready to embrace because we understand that the God we know always desires to introduce us to the God who is.