Tamed Cynic
Jason Micheli
The Womby Tomby God

The Womby Tomby God

The hand that inscribed the law on tablets of stone was nail-scarred

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Ascension Sunday

Colossians 1.13-20

Immediately upon opening the Bible, a question confronts the reader.

Should the first verse of the first book of the Bible read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” with “God created…” as a main clause? Or should the verse instead read, “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth,” with “God created…” in a temporal clause. The former posits God as the sheer beginning of everything and makes time itself one of the creatures of God’s making. The latter, looking to the second verse of Genesis, suggests that the chaos over which the Lord’s Spirt broods, bringing forth light and life, was somehow antecedent to God’s creative act.

The King James and the Revised Standard Versions both render the verse in the former translation, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Modern translations like the New Revised Standard Version elect the latter, “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth.” The Hebrew does not settle the disagreement since the Hebrew word order can make either translation intelligible. Consultation of the original language cannot answer the question: Is God the sole and sheer beginning of everything, or is there something prior, alongside God, when God creates?

The imponderables do not end with the Bible’s first verse.

According to scripture's first creation story, God creates by speech-act. Specifically, God creates by commanding, "And God said, “Let there be light;” and there was light.” Hence, the existence of all reality is the result of obedience to a command. The simplicity of the sentence structure masks the underlying mystery. Prior to the creation of any other verbal creatures, to whom does God speak when God speaks his first command? Who does God command to make light and land? Who listens and obeys him?

The questions do not stop there in the creation story.

When God regards what he has thus far created and judges it good, for what is his creation good? Does God’s beginning of everything already have an end in mind? Moreover, on the sixth day, when God determines to create humanity, God declares, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” How can the one true God speak of himself— speak to himself— in the first person plural? For that matter, how can God create Adam in his visible image when scripture likewise insists that God is unseeable. How can God be invisible yet also have an image in whose likeness we can be seen?

Rather than answering the mystery of existence, the creation story elicits still more questions— mysteries for which the Bible supplies no answers. Scripture posits no answers until it comes to this epistle written to a small church in an insignificant city a decade before the oldest of the Gospels:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell.”

Take note—

The subject “he” in verse fifteen refers back to the object of the preceding sentence, the one in whose blood we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins.

As Karl Barth comments on this passage:

“It is to be noted that the One of whom all this is said is called “the head of the body, the church” and the “the first-born of the dead,” and that according to verse twenty it can be said of Him, this He, that it pleased the Father in Him to reconcile all things to himself, “having made peace through the blood of his cross.” But there could obviously be no sense in talking of the blood of the eternal Son of God as such, or of the Logos as the first-born of the dead. The declaration of predestination from verse fifteen onwards cannot, therefore, relate only to a disincarnate Word…The result is that this “He” cannot possibly refer abstractly to the eternal Logos but only to the man Jesus.”

Just so, the answers to the creation story’s questions are straightforward if staggering.

  • Who is present alongside God prior to creation? Jesus.

  • To whom does God command to bring forth light and life— who obeys his command? Jesus.

  • Who is the visible likeness of the unseeable God in whose image Adam and Eve are made? Jesus.

  • For what end is creation good? Jesus— he who is the head of the body; creation is for the covenant community.

Back in Advent, following the children’s Christmas pageant, I sat at the altar and answered the children’s questions at random. It’s a tradition I like to call “Midrash in the Moment.” Thankfully, no child asked me to explain the word virgin. A little girl, however, did ask me at the end a question whose answer ought to inspire still greater amazement and incredulity than Mary’s pregnancy ex nihilo.

“How old is Jesus?” she asked me.

“Well,” I said, “He’s not 2,023 years old.”

After the service, the girl came up to me in the fellowship hall. Cupcake in hand, she said to me, “You didn’t answer my question.”

“I didn’t?”

She shook her head.

“You said Jesus is not 2,023 years old but you didn’t say how old Jesus is.”

I leaned down towards her and I whispered, like I was letting her in on a secret— because I was letting her in on a mystery, “He is before all things.”

She furrowed her eyebrows like she’d just sucked on a lemon.

“That’s not a very clear answer,” she replied.

“Well, it’s the one we got.”

In the Old Testament book that bears his name, Ezekiel is standing amidst the Jewish exiles in Babylon by the Chebar river when God summons him out of the priesthood and into the prophetic office. A theophany occasions the call. God unveils to Ezekiel the heavenly prototype of the temple’s cherubim-throne. At the end of a dizzying and detailed account of the throne’s attributes, Ezekiel testifies that seated above the throne, as the source of the Shekinah— glory— that constitutes the throne, is an “appearance” that is “the figure of a man.” Ever since the exile, the rabbinic tradition has long pondered the mystery and posed the question, “How can the one revealed as the occupant of the heavenly throne look like a man?”

The first Christians supplied the answer, “Because the one who sits on heaven’s throne is a man. The prophet Ezekiel sees what the disciples see on the Mount of Transfiguration. There is indeed an actual mortal man who nevertheless shines forth with the glory of God. The second identity of the triune God is Jesus of Nazareth. But this answer proffered by the church becomes even more problematic when you attempt to plot the prophet’s vision on a timeline.

After all, Ezekiel is given to see Mary’s boy seated on heaven’s throne more than four centuries before she gives birth to him. Jesus is Mary’s maker before he lies in her manger. He is the subject of her existence prior to being an object at her breast. As the Nicene Creed puts it, Mary’s boy is begotten of the Father before all worlds.

Winston was a doctor who worked for the World Health Organization. He hailed from a long line of Methodist preachers in East Africa. He came to worship every Sunday dressed in a double-breasted suit and tortoise shell glasses, and he almost always left expressing appreciation for the sermon. The first time I told Winston that I had once worked as the teaching assistant for Princeton’s course on black preaching his bright smile lit up against his dark skin and I thought he would never stop laughing at me.

“How bad are all the others that they had a white boy teaching black preaching?!” he laughed all the way into the next Sunday.

The first time I preached on this passage, almost twenty years ago, Winston approached me after worship. With a doctor’s concerned bedside countenance, he said to me, “Pastor, I have a serious problem with the sermon you preached.”

“A problem? What problem? I didn’t even attempt any inappropriate humor.”

“Your sermon,” he said, “I understood it.”

“You understood it?”


“Um, how is that a problem?”

He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose before returning them and looking at me, absolutely serious.

“Did you actually read the passage? Think on it? Pray on it? Marvel over it?”

I nodded, “Of course.”

“Any sermon that is faithful to that scripture,” he said, “should not be easy to understand.”

“But that’s sort of my job,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders, “I’m supposed to explain scriptures like that and make them comprehensible to people like you.”

His glasses came off again. He shook his head like I was an especially dimwitted medical resident.

“Who told you that’s your job? No, you’re a preacher! Your task is not to make the scriptures understandable or even— God forbid— simple. Your job, preacher, is to give us Jesus. Your job is to give us Jesus. And Jesus— the passage today reminded us— is infinitely more complex than neurology. Trust me, I know.”

I started to mumble a self-justifying reply.

The doctor waved me off.

“You’re still young. I’ve been dealing with Jesus a lot longer than you. I’ve learned. With Jesus, it’s a lot like baptism— the last thing you want to do is keep your head above water.”

The apostle Paul apparently believes that the antidote to what ails the tiny band of believers at Colossae is no answer at all. The antidote is adoration. The medicine is mystery. As if to say, any problem that bedevils the body of Christ is an indication they have an attenuated Jesus. Churchyour problems will appear much smaller to you if you will look at how big Jesus is, Paul all but writes to the church at Colossae.

Behold the mystery that is Jesus Christ, Paul exhorts the Colossians.

And before you behold the mystery, remember Karl Barth’s exegetical insight, which Barth merely gleaned from the church father Irenaeus. The “He” which begins Paul's hymn to Christ refers not to an abstract Son of God or to an eternal unfleshed Word but to the man Jesus. The claims of the Christ hymn are thus:

  • Jesus of Nazareth is the image of the invisible God.

  • The Friend of Sinners is the first-born of all creation.

  • For in Pilate’s victim all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through Lazarus’s friend.

Who was it then who spoke with Moses in the burning bush and on the burning mount? Who was it that Isaiah saw high and lifted up? To whom does the psalmist speak when he prays, “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” To know the gospel is to know at last how to answer these questions: Jesus! The voice that questioned the prophet Isaiah was a voice Mary would have recognized. The hand that inscribed the law on tablets of stone was nail-scarred; the hand that wrote the torah had a hole in it.

The true God is the baptized God.

The true God, as Robert Jenson likes to say, is the “womby tomby God.”

As Jenson bluntly insists:

“Any theological statement about Jesus is only adequate precisely insofar as it comprehensively and ingeniously offends what everybody at a time and place of course knows to be true of God.”

In other words, any honest reading of the gospel gives us no other recourse but to bend our assumed metaphysics to the announcement that Jesus is Lord. The gospel claim just is that the first century male Galilean Jew, Jesus of Nazareth— prophet, rabbi, and healer— is one of the three whose life together is God.

It’s a mystery.

It’s a paradox.

It’s an enigma.

It’s an incongruity.

It’s a contradiction in terms.

It’s the gospel.

Don’t bother trying to keep your head above the water: a temporal figure, Jesus of Nazareth, is one identity of the eternal God.

Mary’s boy is before all things. And right now, at this very moment, all things are being held together in him and by him.

Stephen Glass is a cautionary tale told to students of journalism. Now known as “the most notorious fraud in journalism,” in the 1990’s Stephen Glass was a celebrated young reporter, writing for the in-flight magazine on Air Force One, landing A-list interviews, and free-lancing long pieces for glossies like Esquire.

Glass made headlines of a different sort in 1998 when the New Republic fired him—and sued him—for inventing characters and scenes whole cloth in his reporting. Over forty of his prize-wining articles turned out to be total fiction. “I took their money and I wrote lies,” Stephen Glass admits today. Stephen Glass’s guild excommunicated him and he left journalism in disgrace. In 2003, the story of his spectacular rise and fall became the subject of the Hollywood film Shattered Glass. 

Less familiar, however, is the next chapter in Stephen Glass’s life. 

In the year after his firing, he fell into a deep depression. He started seeing a therapist four times a week. Starting in 1999, on the advice of his therapist, Stephen Glass wrote apologies to those impacted by his deceit and he began to practice a painstaking, almost obsessive, commitment to telling the truth. 

Just after his shameful exit from journalism, Stephen Glass met Julie Hilden. She was an attorney at the DC law firm handling Glass’s many legal troubles. When she met him, Julie Hilden described Stephen Glass as “the most depressed human being I’ve ever met.” Despite the obvious reservations of friends, Julie Hilden struck up a long-distance relationship with Stephen Glass. Their first conversation was a six-hour marathon on the telephone—so long that both secretly went to the bathroom. Only, Glass later confessed this to Hilden, such was his newfound commitment to truth-telling.

A close friend of Hilden’s recalls saying, “What? You’re going to start dating the criminals? See anyone else," she told her friend, "just not this guy.”

Stephen Glass describes their relationship as an endless conversation about movies and politics and literature and the everyday. 

In 2012, Stephen Glass noticed an error Julie had made on her tax return—an odd mistake for a math major to make. Later that year, he realized Julie had forgotten to review the documents for the closing on their new house. The next year she panicked behind the wheel when she saw all the other cars on the highway. On another occasion a neighbor saw her sucking her thumb, looking as lost and innocent as a child.

Stephen Glass paid cash for the MRI rather than wait for approval from the insurance company. The MRI sounded no alarms. But when the neurologist asked Hilden to draw a clock and put the hands in positions such as “ten to three” or “a quarter to four” she tried but could not do it.

She was only forty-six years old. 

Here’s the thing—here’s where the prose jibes with Paul’s poetry.

After she learned she had Alzheimer’s, she demanded Stephen Glass live with her as if everything was normal. “You can do any research and work you want to help me,” she insisted to him, “but you can’t involve me. I love my life. I’ve never been happier. I want to live in that happiness and be the way I am. We’re just going to live in this way, and we don’t talk about it.” 

It was, he later said, a command to lie. 

And he did, keeping up the pretense of a normal, happy life. He hid her illness from her friends. When some of them caught on to the truth, he conscripted them into playing along with the fiction. Glass redirected Julie out of every dead end and rabbit hole her confusion led her. He later convinced her the nurses and caregivers in their home were there to help with their dog. At the very beginning of her illness he dragged her out of bed and drove her to the Beverly Hills courthouse to marry her so that one of her last, crisp memories would be of his forever love.

Two years after her death in 2018, Stephen Glass wept while telling a classroom of ethics students, “You have to engage in her denial with her. And I engaged in that lie, and I lived that lie with her for years while she was sick… I had committed myself to not lying, but now I was engaged in the biggest lie of all with my life partner in my home.” 

It was, he said, as if his entire life’s story—every single minute of it, all the deceit and disgrace and difficulty—had been prepared beforehand for this single task to be Julie’s comforter; as though, all the disparate moments and events of his life were being held together to create this single coherent story.

“He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

I was standing in the narthex, chewing on the doctor’s counsel, “Your task is not to make the scriptures understandable or even— God forbid— simple. Your job, preacher, is to give us Jesus. And Jesus is infinitely more complex than neurology.”

It was, I realized, a command to tell the truth, to not protect you from the scriptures.

“But what are people supposed to do with a Jesus they can’t possibly begin to comprehend?”

He buttoned the top button of his jacket, indignant I couldn’t diagnose such a simple problem.

“They can trust him,” the doctor said.

I stared at him, silently repeating his four word answer.

Then he leaned towards me, like he was letting me on a secret.

“I’m a smart man,” he said, “much smarter than you, pastor. I have an M.D. and a Ph.D. Every day I’m surrounded by brilliant people who are no match for the world’s ailments. Any Jesus who’s got the whole world in his hands must be a Jesus surpassingly far beyond our grasp.”

A temporal figure, Jesus of Nazareth, is one identity of the eternal God.

Hear the good news:

I cannot simplify the witness this scripture gives to Jesus.

I cannot render it comprehensible.

I cannot make it less bewildering.

I cannot put it in practical terms.


Behold the mystery!

This same Jesus who is the creative subject of your life makes himself an object in your life. He places himself in your hands and on your lips. The infinite contained by the finite. The Creator in whom our lives hold together is himself held in creatures of wine and bread. This same Jesus who is beyond our reach nevertheless makes himself reliably graspable.

For you!

Don’t bother to keep your head above water.

Just come to the table.

Eat what we cannot explain.

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Tamed Cynic
Jason Micheli
Stick around here and I’ll use words as best as I know how to help you give a damn about the God who, in Jesus Christ, no longer gives any damns.