One of my favourite stories of concealed identity hiding in plain sight is from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Miserables, where the escaped convict, Jean Valjean, is pursued for years by now retired Inspector Javert. As it turns out Jean Valjean, who had changed his name to M. Madeleine has now become a successful business man and the Mayor of Toulon. Javert arrives in Toulon and is immediately recognised by Valjean. But Javert does not recognise the now clean-shaven, genteel aristocratic Mayor of Toulon as his nemesis. But when he observes the compassion of M. Madeleine he recalls the time in prison when Jean Valjean had also displayed a similar extraordinary compassion for unfortunate fellow prisoners. The more he observed such acts of kindness and generosity from M. Madeleine the more Javert became convinced of the true identity of Madeleine. There is something about this idea of concealed identity that comes from the story of Christ. The prophet Isaiah foretold that when the Servant of the LORD would appear He would be largely unrecognised – there would be no form, no beauty, that we would desire Him (Isa. 53:2). But how on earth was this possible? How in God’s Name could those who were created by Him in His image not recognise Him for who He was? The answer to this great puzzle lies in one word: the kenosis.
This Sunday I conclude the BECAUSE HE IS series. Each of the six instalments of this series has dealt with a truth about God. My hope throughout the series so far has been that I might introduce those unfamiliar or less acquainted with God to experience a richer, deeper and more intimate knowledge of Him. My motive for doing this has been to lead someone who had never loved God to come to gladly love Him — and for those who were in like of God to become besotted with their love for God. I have repeatedly said throughout this series so far that I have not wanted this to be merely a series of lectures or just interesting information for your fancy. (Added to this, I have confessed that Kim has forbidden me from lecturing this series!) But now, as I prepare to conclude this series this Sunday, I want to give you some of the theological background behind what I consider to be one of the most important series of sermons I have delivered.
Bonzai trees are amazing. The Japanese discovered that they could trick a big tree into thinking it was always meant to be a very, very, small tree. They would take a cutting of a maple or oak tree and coax it to form its own roots and then plant it into a very shallow glazed earthenware pot. Each time it developed a shoot they would prune it back appropriately. Once the root system was developed, they would upheave it out of the pot and trim its roots back before repotting it back into its shallow pot. They would then repeat this process over and over and over until the miniature tree resembled its fully mature huge relative — except in miniature form. At some point the bonzai tree becomes convinced that it was always meant to be a miniature tree. Again, I think there is a spiritual parallel to draw from this process of bonzai tree making…
While we live in a generation where many people view ‘religion’ as a private and personal experience that bears little relevance to the real world, the Psalmist saw his connection with God as a vital, passionate, life-enriching connection, that he needed more than the air he breathed or the water his thirst longed for. It is my pastoral mission to help those whose hearts are inclined toward God to join with the Psalmist and to pant after a deeper communion with God.
It would be easy to think that the Bible presents an unimaginably glorious picture of God. He is described as being light. His appearance seems radiate the kind of light that not only blinds the viewer but also attracts them as well. The light that God emanates is not the photonic light of this temporal dimension, but the kind of light which only eternity can sustain. It is the kind of light that warms and comforts those who are drawn to it and the kind of light that warns and exposes those who try to run from it. God’s eyes are described as being like fire – they pierce the soul of the onlooker. When He speaks His voice is variously described as being like mighty thunder or the sound of many crashing waters over a gigantic waterfall. When He speaks, whatever He decrees happens. Everyone who is permitted to be in His immediate presence is not only overcome with a sense of their deepest purpose being awoken – to fully worship the Most Glorious Being in the Universe – but also to discover that in so doing, their deepest longings are infinitely satisfied. Thus, every picture of God on His Throne which the Bible reveals to us is a scene of unimaginable worship.