What is God Made Of?

A fuller, audio version of this talk will be published as a special episode of the four cubits and a span podcast, and will be available at https://bit.ly/4QS-LS1 (or wherever you get your podcasts). All scripture quotations from the Revised English Bible, copyright © Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press 1989. All rights reserved.

A young friend recently asked this question: “What is God made of?” Those who have been long in the faith might smile fondly at this youthful query, having spent many years contemplating the mysteries of God’s inscrutable nature, but her question is neither naive nor misguided. As humans, we try to make sense of the world by relating it to our own experience. We project ourselves onto the world as we most easily relate to things in terms of our own senses.
So when we want to relate to God - whom we cannot see, or touch, or hear - we want to know what God looks like. What does God sound like? What colour is God? Does God see and taste as we do? If we could enter heaven, as our Lord Jesus has, would we be able to hug God? Would we be able to look God in the eye, and converse with God as a friend or a parent? As adults, and as we grow in faith, we may come to accept that we cannot answer these questions, at least not in this life.
Yet the writers of scripture address questions just like these, and more. Sometimes the questions are phrased differently, with a wisdom and understanding from which we can learn to ask better questions; and what answers there are, are not always the kinds of answers we were looking for.
The creation story in Genesis 1 puts this question right at the climax of the narrative. After creating the cosmos and filling the sea, and the sky, and the earth with life of all kinds, God sets Godself to rule over it in the most unexpected way: 
Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, to have dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, all wild animals on land, and everything that creeps on the earth.’
    God created human beings in his own image;     in the image of God he created them;     male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:26-27)
God will not personally live or rule in this new world. Instead, God’s presence - God’s image - will be present in human beings. This is a great responsibility, but also very surprising. God shares with humans the authority and privilege that belongs to God as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos. 
This is not an act of condescension so much as partnership, an act mirrored in the following creation story in Genesis 2-3. Here, there is only one human in the beginning, and God creates for the human a partner with an equal capacity, because no other creature in the cosmos can stop the human from being alone.
That theme of partnership is one that permeates the story of the people of God in scripture. It continues in the story of the Exodus, where the God of liberation frees the Israelites to be a people dedicated to the name of God; not as servants but as priests, the ones who bring others closer to the divine.
Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I have carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you here to me. If only you will now listen to me and keep my covenant, then out of all peoples you will become my special possession; for the whole earth is mine. You will be to me a kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” Those are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.’
(Exodus 19:3-6)
Shortly thereafter, Moses and Aaron and the elders of the people climb Mount Sinai and see in a vision a representation of God who sits enthroned - but who also shares a meal with them. Ezekiel envisages the same God, and so does John the Revelator: a God who sees, and who knows, and who invites countless others to join with God at the throne (Exodus 24:9-10; Ezekiel 1; Revelation 4, 7:9-11).

When Moses leads the Israelites through the wilderness, the glory of God rests in a tent at the centre of the encampment. Moses goes inside to commune with God, and when he comes out his face is shining like the sun, a physical reflection of the God in whose image he is made. The people of Israel are so terrified that Moses covers his face.
Moses is transformed when he comes closer to God, and the apostle Paul picks up on this powerful imagery in his letter to the church in Corinth. This is the kind of transformation he envisages for the resurrection when the earthy body is transformed into a heavenly body, which he also describes as a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45-50). 
In 2 Corinthians it is this spiritual glory that Paul focuses on, which he calls a spirit of liberation. Here, he reminds us directly of Moses in the wilderness, reflecting the glory of God, and he calls us all to that same transformation.
READ: 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 
Paul is choosing his metaphors and examples very carefully in drawing on the Moses story.  Moses is described as “the most humble man on earth” (Numbers 12:3), whereas most of the others who lead God’s people after the time of Moses and Joshua are characterised either as flawed leaders or as outright cruel tyrants and unjust rulers. 
The prophets chastise the kings of Israel and Judah in the most uncompromising terms. In Amos 5, for example, the prophet observes of Israel that, “She has fallen, to rise no more, / the virgin Israel, / prostrate on her own soil / with no one to lift her up” (v2). This is a dirge for Israel, and the prophet explains why the nation has fallen to the ground to be trampled: because it is responsible for trampling its own people into that same soil.
    You that turn justice to poison     and thrust righteousness to the ground,     you that hate a man who brings the wrongdoer to court     and abominate him who speaks nothing less than truth:     for all this, because you levy taxes on the poor     and extort a tribute of grain from them,     though you have built houses of hewn stone,     you will not live in them;     though you have planted pleasant vineyards,     you will not drink wine from them.     For I know how many are your crimes,     how monstrous your sins:     you bully the innocent, extort ransoms,     and in court push the destitute out of the way.     In such a time, therefore, it is prudent to stay quiet,     for it is an evil time.
    (Amos 5:7-13)
In the prophets’ rhetoric, those who used their power to dominate and exploit and cast down instead of nurturing and lifting up, reap the violence that they sowed.
If Moses’ humility is his defining characteristic, and this is the kind of person who reflects God, then we can draw some conclusions about the leadership of Jesus, whom we as Christians are supposed to be following and reflecting. 
He is the radiance of God’s glory, the stamp of God’s very being, and he sustains the universe by his word of power. When he had brought about purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of God’s Majesty on high, raised as far above the angels as the title he has inherited is superior to theirs.
(Hebrews 1:3-4)
This is the man who made himself a servant to all, who leads not by domination but by example; who is a shepherd, not a tyrant. He is one who empowers and invites people to partner with him in shining the light of God into the world
The parable of the good Samaritan is based in this tradition of liberation, where the freedom that comes with a life following God is not the freedom to do whatever you want for yourself: it’s the freedom to make others free. It’s the freedom to lift each other up in a community - a society - where no person wields authority over any other. 
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” 
(Mark 10:42-45)
This is why Jesus washes his disciples’ feet at the last supper, saying, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14-17). Christians should be trying to project into the world a reflection of the Lord whom they serve, who was himself a servant.
Reflecting God into the world is not about making everybody more like us. It’s about making ourselves - in all of our natural, human diversity - more like Jesus. This is why Jesus always centred other people, not only respecting the image of God in others but drawing attention to it and allowing it to shine out into the world. Jesus honoured women and foreigners and the poor. He touched those with diseases and disabilities. And, like the prophets he sharply criticised those ‘leaders’ who spent their energy flouting their own power instead of empowering others.
What do people see when they look at us? If we claim to be driven by the spirit of God, then our claim will be easily tested. Proverbs 27:19 reads, “As someone sees his face reflected in water, so he sees his own mind reflected in another’s.” Our thoughts and intentions are reflected in the way that we relate to others.
Do we reflect Jesus, as ambassadors? Jesus is the word - the heart and mind of God - embodied in a human being. If we are reflecting Jesus Christ, then we are showing the heart and mind of God, and what is in our hearts will always show in our actions. I think this is what the writer of 1 John describes in chapter four of that letter.
God has never been seen by anyone, but if we love one another, he himself dwells in us; his love is brought to perfection within us.
This is how we know that we dwell in him and he dwells in us: he has imparted his Spirit to us. Moreover, we have seen for ourselves, and we are witnesses, that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is God’s Son, God dwells in him and he in God. Thus we have come to know and believe in the love which God has for us.
God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God, and God in him.
(1 John 4:12-16)
If our hearts are filled with the love of God - if the spirit of the Lord dwells in us - then that way of living and thinking that was epitomised by Jesus will be reflected out into the world. As the Elder writes just a few verses later,
But if someone says, ‘I love God,’ while at the same time hating his [brother or sister], he is a liar. If he does not love a [brother or sister] whom he has seen, he is incapable of loving God whom he has not seen. We have this command from Christ: whoever loves God must love his [brother or sister] too.
(1 John 4:20-21)
So if somebody asks us what God looks like, or what God sounds like - if somebody asks, “What is God made of?” - we might honestly answer, “I don’t know… but everything that God wants you to know about Godself can be seen in humans like Jesus.” And if we’re following Jesus well, and honouring the image of God in this world, then we can invite people to look for God embodied in our humanity: in bodies of all colours and genders and abilities; in children as well as adults; in the care of a stranger for another human; and in the love of a family, whether by birth or of choice.
We may not look God in the eye in this life, or hug God, or converse with God as to a friend or parent. But as we grow in faith, we may come to accept that God wants us to see God’s glory unveiled in the mirror of each other, where the spirit of the Lord is transforming us and leading us all to freedom and liberation.
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