The ‘Son of Man’ is us and our hope

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent 1, 28th November 2021

Someone asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of western civilisation. He said it would be a good idea. If someone asked God what he thought of humanity, I think God would also say itwould be a good idea. There’s a little clue to support that view in today’s gospel reading, where Jesus refers to himself as the ‘Son of Man’, which is usually translated as ‘ordinary person’. It’s an incomplete translation though, probably because translators have had trouble translating what Jesus really said, which is ‘the Son of the Man’, or the more contemporary, ‘the Son of the Human One’.

To understand what that means we have to know who ‘the Human One’ is, and that requires going back almost six hundred years before Jesus was born, to a vision received by the prophet Ezekiel, as he stood by the River Chebar in Babylon. He was there because the Babylonians had conquered his people and transported many of them back to Babylon. There, by the river, Ezekiel had a vision of God, which would give his people hope in their time of hardship.

Reading the account of his vision at the beginning of the Book of Ezekiel, we find it’s pretty weird, because Ezekiel is trying to convey in words, something which is virtually incomprehensible. It is a vision that is so grand, that the full implications of what it conveyed are still not fully expressed and may never be. It may be an inexhaustible vision! That’s why, in ancient times, rabbis would only allow this part of the Book of Ezekiel to be read by mature Jews, if they were accompanied by older and wiser Jews! The vision is so profound, that according to Jewish folklore, four Jewish mystics ascended to heaven and there they saw what Ezekiel saw. Of those four, one went mad, one became a heretic, one died and one returned in his right mind.

What was so profound in Ezekiel’s vision is that in the midst of the amazingly complex description of the divine, God is human! God is named as the Human One, seated on the heavenly throne.

Ezekiel is blown away by his vision of God and so falls to the ground, but God tells him to stand up because he wants to give him a message for his people. From then on, God, the ‘Human One’ addresses Ezekiel as the Son of the Human One (or the Son of the Man in the old language). He must stand when God speaks to him because God doesn’t want him to grovel. Rather than shrinking away, God wants Ezekiel to deliver his message as himself, in his own right, in his own way. Ezekiel then, becomes an intermediary between God and his people. When Jesus later describes himself as the Son of the Human One, he too is ‘passing on’ God’s message in his own way, so much so, that his entire life becomes an expression of God. He is fully God incarnated.

There is another important development in the religious thinking of Israel about the time of Ezekiel’s vision, and it was written into the first creation story of Genesis. It is that human beings are created in the image of God. In the Babylonian creation myth, and others too, only the king is in the image of God. In the Israelite myth, every human being is created in the image of God, which implies that God is human. And that is exactly what Ezekiel saw in his vision by the river. Of course, God is not just human, in the ordinary sense of the term. God is more than Ezekiel’s vision could contain, however, the purpose of Ezekiel’s vision was to inspire humanity (through the Israelite people) to become like God, as revealed in his humanity.

Jesus then, as the Son of the Human One, is the absolute emulator of God, and his mission can be thought of as inviting and empowering us to become fully human too. In some ways, we are not fully human. Rather than emulating God, we run away from our humanity through our fear and selfishness and lust for power and so on. We don’t trust that being human is enough, and yet God revealed to Ezekiel that being human is enough.

As we begin Advent today, we find that the Son of the Human One plays a central role in the meaning Advent. Our gospel reading today conveys a sense of impending disaster, referring to all sorts of terrible occurrences, things that make us feel the world is ending. They are like some of the actual events that are going on in our lives and in the world around us, which can make us feel like our world is ending. That can be literally the whole world, ‘the way things are’ at present (e.g. the ‘status quo’ – our social order, or our value system), or our personal world. When seemingly solid economies collapse or weaken. When the arctic ice, which has been there forever, is melting and looks like it could disappear in our lifetime. When people suffer from war and starvation. When people we love die, when we lose jobs, when the church diminishes, and so on.

Some of those are situations which need our help. Other situations may not be able to be fixed by us, but still need a human response. When the gospel writers present scary circumstances, as in today’s example, they’re trying to provoke a response, like advertisements telling smokers they will die. They’re not imparting information about what’s going to happen; they’re trying to motivate people to stop smoking. Similarly, these stories are to motivate us into being more human. In that way, they can be considered words of judgment, for they ‘judge’ any present lack of humanity on our part.

Today’s gospel says that in the midst of feeling like their world is ending, people will see the Son of the Human One coming in a cloud. At face value, that seems to suggest that our super-hero Jesus will come back and fix everything up for us, but that’s the opposite of what the coming of the Son of the Human One is about. The final implication of Ezekiel’s vision is that the coming of the Son of the Human One is really the coming into human fullness of all the children of the Human One (God). Ezekiel’s vision is not really about God. It’s about us, it’s about us becoming what God made us to be, which is like God, in terms of creativity and love.

An example of that is found in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, there’s a scene in which Harry is attacked by dementors (spirits that suck life out of people). He is rescued by someone summoning a patronus (magical animal) to protect him. Afterwards, he is convinced that his dead father was watching over him and had summoned the patronus. Later, however, Harry travels back in time to witness the event once more. He remains at a distance watching the dementors suck out his life, confidently waiting for his father to appear and save him, but he doesn’t, and Harry begins to die. Confused, the Harry who has travelled back in time and is observing, realises that it is he (time-travelling Harry), who must summon a patronus to save his past self. No-one else is going to rescue him. In doing so, Harry becomes more of what he was born to be.

This is the purpose of Ezekiel’s vision. When first revealed in Babylon to the Jews in captivity, it showed them that their God was not stuck back in Israel, but was very much with them in their circumstances, and then it took hundreds of years for someone to embody the meaning of the vision in their life, and that was Jesus, who understood the conditions of his time as ready for the breaking down of belief in God as a power above, who had to be placated, and replaced it with his example of and a universal invitation to becoming God-like, in creating love.

And now Jesus invites us to live out the meaning of Ezekiel’s vision, which is to fulfill our responsibility to be human; to not be afraid, but to trust, to have faith, and accept the burdens that our time and place put upon us, which are also opportunities to expand what it is to be human and continue to make that a gift to the world.

There are many challenges in the world at present and some are frightening, but God has created us with the ability to take them on, and through our successes and failures, God will give life to the world.