(11) Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. (12) It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” (13) Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” (14) No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.
Religion and striving seem, unfortunately, to be two words that go hand-in-hand. How many of us wonder:
Am I praying enough?
Have I followed the “rules” closely enough?
Am I accepted like this or do I need further penance? (Usually stated in less obvious ways but there nonetheless)
This is not the way it’s supposed to be. Really, it’s not. Contrary to what we usually think, we don’t have to ascend to heaven to be close to God. Nor do we have to cross the sea. The word that brings life isn’t out there somewhere according to Moses, it’s in your mouth and in your heart. You don’t have to try so hard.
In Christian theology, Jesus is called the Word. We see this spelled out in breathtaking clarity in John’s prologue:
(1) In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (2) He was with God in the beginning. (3) Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (4) In him was life, and that life was the light of all people. (5) The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (Jn 1:1-5)
Notice what John says about Jesus – he is “the light of all people.” Not some people, mind you – all people. And where does this light that is Jesus shine? In the darkness. Well, yes. But while obvious, this also seems odd and counterintuitive in some ways because most of us think of the spiritual journey as a long search for the light. The light is out there somewhere. So we strive, and reach, and journey up the mountain or acros the ocean to find the beautiful light which will at last change us; bring us close to God. It’s the search for the hidden treasure or holy grail. This is the stuff movies are made of. But on further reflection, that doesn’t fit with the metaphor of light, does it? Light, by its very nature, wishes to be seen. This is partly what John means when he says that darkness has not overcome the light. Of course not. Darkness can’t overcome light. The nature of darkness is to conceal. It hides what’s actually right in front of you. We bump into things in the dark because we can’t see what is very close to us. But as soon as the light shines, we become aware of what has been there all along. Jesus is that light. “No one has ever seen God,” writes John, “but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (1:18). The point is not that God was hidden until Jesus came. We’ve been bumping into God since the beginning of time!
When Jacob (later called Israel) was on the run from his brother – not exactly a pursuit of holiness – he landed in a place called Luz. Luz was a totally insignificant place. Prior to this moment it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. But in this insignificant place, Jacob – a man running from his past – encounters God (who he was not seeking) in a dream. When he wakes up he exclaims:
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it. He [Jacob] was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven” (Gen 28:16-17). The place of “insignifance” becomes illumed. God has been there all along, of course, but Jacob was blind to God’s presence until this moment of illumination.
Jesus didn’t bring a distant God close. God was never distant! As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is any wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”1 It has always been this way. This is why, as I mentioned in the previous post, that it’s probably a good idea to get rid of this “far from God” language. We may have felt far from God, but God was never far from us. As David Bentley Hart writes, “Christ’s death does not…effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters; he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties” (Gift Exceeding Every Debt, 1998).2 The darkness doesn’t scare God. No, light desires to be seen. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, when right in the middle of our darkness the light shines, revealing that even though we felt a million miles from God, we were, in fact, about to walk right into God’s open arms. God is not distant. “The word is very near you,” teaches Moses. Jesus, “light from light,” is our great revealer of the nearness of God.
I’m nervous that sometimes we make religious pursuits about darkness rather than light; distance instead of nearness. The same goes for discipleship. Even some of our well-intentioned phrases betray us: “God will meet you halfway!” Nonsense. God is chasing you down, has always been chasing you down, with infinite love. We would do well to memorize Brennan Manning’s words:
“God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.”3
Moses’ point is that true religion is not striving to get to God, but understanding that God has already come near to you. God has never not been near to you. “The word is very near you,” says Moses. John clarifies what, or who, that word is: “the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The word that is very near to you is, in fact, God – our Word and Light.
1 Barbara Brown-Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York, NY:HarperCollins, 2009), 15
2Quoted in Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 163
3 Brennan Manning, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2011), 192
*Photo Credit: https://www.theraspecs.com/blog/sudden-light-sensitivity-causes/