Chuck Norris & the image of God

I’ve been thinking about the most powerful human being ever to live. And no, I don’t mean Jesus. I mean Chuck Norris — martial arts expert, movie & TV star, and Internet phenomenon.

Here are some facts about Chuck Norris that I got from the always reputable

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he had three missed calls from Chuck Norris.

Chuck Norris can jump out of a bottomless pit.

Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.

We know that Jesus can walk on water, but Chuck Norris can swim through land.

Chuck Norris and Superman once fought each other on a bet. The loser had to start wearing his underwear outside of his clothes.

Chuck Norris is the reason why Waldo is hiding.

Chuck Norris counted to infinity. Twice.

Chuck Norris can win a game of Connect Four in only three moves.

Chuck Norris doesn’t do push-ups. He pushes the earth down.

Chuck Norris can start a fire by rubbing two ice cubes together.

In other words, Chuck Norris is awesome. He’s mighty. He’s, in fact, the peak of what it means to be human.

As a culture, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it means to be truly human. That’s what all of these superhero movies are about which have been filling our movie theaters over the past few years. They all take take basic human qualities and explode them, blowing them up into huge proportions. We don’t expect them to just beat up the bad guys, we expect them to show us what the ultimate in being human is.

Every culture has done this. The Greeks told the story of Odysseus to show what it means to be a man in that culture and his wife Persephone showed what it meant to be a Greek woman.

Our heroes are our ideals, our vision of what it means to be truly human.

Along with superheroes, we’ve got musicians and actors and athletes to show us what it means to be human in America. (And they’re SO good at it!) If you don’t believe that, go to Google and type in any question about a celebrity and you’ll get vast conversations about their beliefs and actions, about their character. People are watching them closely, because these people express to us the ultimate in being human.

We want heroes to show us how to live.

The Bible, on the other hand, gives us something different. The people we’re shown in the Bible simply can’t be turned into heroes and celebrities. We keep trying to do it, but the biblical text resists it. The Bible doesn’t want us to model our lives after these characters. It wants us to model our lives after the One in whose image these characters were made.

The way the Bible is written tells us that we know who we are as human beings not by looking in the mirror and not by looking at the best and brightest around us, but by looking at the God in whose image we are all made.

The way we conceive of God and the way we conceive of ourselves are deeply interrelated. What’s really important is that we get the direction correct. Let me explain.

In the ancient Near East where the Bible was written, people looked around themselves for the greatest, most powerful things they saw. Then they took those characteristics and applied them to a god.

They saw the sun’s life-giving warmth and made an image of the sun, attributing to it the power of life.

They saw a falcon’s far-seeing sight and made an image of a falcon, attributing to it the power of knowledge.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 2.58.55 PM

They saw a bull’s fearsome horn and mighty back and made an image of a bull, attributing to it violent power.

They saw a dog’s endless hunger and made an image of it, attributing to it death’s power.

Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 2.29.50 PM

They often combined these animal powers with human figures to make a god. But in each of these cases, they began with what they saw in creatures and created a god with those same powers but magnified to an even greater degree.

The Greeks did the same thing, but they ditched the animal world and focused just on humanity. Aristotle wrote that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” In other words, we take the very best of what we see in humanity and we refine it to its pure essence (e.g., kindness). Then we magnify it to its utmost (e.g., the most kind person imaginable). Then we write it on a piece of paper and tack it onto a pin board with a bunch of other traits that we have come up with and say, “This bunch of ultimate traits is my god.”

Really that’s just the same thing the idol-makers in the ancient Near East were doing, right? Both start with what we see around us, explode it to its biggest and best, and then call it God.

The Bible does things exactly the opposite of how we do it. The Bible begins with God and then tells us what it means to be human by looking at him.

For Aristotle, God was just an idea based on the realities he experienced around him. For the Hebrews, God was a living reality that they had experienced over and over and over again — the most real reality of their lives — who gave definition to everything else.

A Hebrew knows what faithfulness is not by seeing human faithfulness, multiplying it by 100, and applying it to God, but by seeing how God has been faithful in real and tangible ways over years and through generations with his people. The countryside of Israel was littered with piles of rocks to remind themselves of the many episodes where God showed himself to be faithful to them. When they came upon these piles of rocks, they’d remember and recount the stories of God’s faithfulness. This reminded them of what faithfulness looked like and called them to be faithful themselves.

Likewise, we know what love and compassion and kindness are by watching God and seeing how he has acted so graciously in our own lives and through great historic acts of loving kindness like the exodus and the cross of Jesus.

Because we are made in the image of God, we know what it means to be human by intently watching God, seeing who he is by how he acts, and taking on the same qualities in the ways we live ourselves.

It’s all about direction, where we start and where we end.

Do we start with what we understand about ourselves and apply it to God? Or do we start with what we’ve experienced of God and apply it to ourselves?

The Bible is clear that whatever god we worship, we’re going to eventually become like that god. So, if we start with beasts, we’re going to end up with a beastly god and become beastly ourselves.

Listen to the psalmists in Psalms 115 & 135 [Message]:

Our God is in heaven doing whatever he wants to do. Their gods are metal and wood, handmade in a basement shop: Carved mouths that can’t talk, painted eyes that can’t see, Tin ears that can’t hear, molded noses that can’t smell, Hands that can’t grasp, feet that can’t walk or run, throats that never utter a sound. Those who make them have become just like them, have become just like the gods they trust. (Psalm 115:3-8).

God, your name is eternal, God, you’ll never be out-of-date. God stands up for his people, God holds the hands of his people. The gods of the godless nations are mere trinkets, made for quick sale in the markets: Chiseled mouths that can’t talk, painted eyes that can’t see, Carved ears that can’t hear— dead wood! cold metal! Those who make and trust them become like them. (Psalm 135: 13-18)

Throughout the Scriptures and the rest of human history, we see people becoming like the gods they worship. We see the nations acting beastly.

The Assyrian lion tearing its victims to shreds, such that nothing is left at all of the northern kingdom of Israel after it is defeated by them.

The Roman eagle descending like lightning from above with decisive killing blows.

If we start with beasts, we end up with beastly gods and we ourselves become beasts.

If we start out with ideas, like the Greeks, we end up with a God who is just a good idea and we treat other human beings as if they are just ideas as well.

The problem with the gods of the ancient world is that they are ALL about power. We humans often feel so powerless that we look around us for powerful gods.

If we’re struggling with money, we look for financial power from a money god … or the stock market or the lottery.

If we’re struggling with not being able to get pregnant, we look for the power of a fertility god … or a drug or a treatment.

If we’re struggling with our health, we seek the power of a medicine god … or a doctor or a miracle cure.

The gods we create for ourselves are all about power. It’s all about being in control. We want to be in control, so we make controlling gods.

But the God in whose image we are made is Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in relationship with one another — and so as powerful as our God is, what he’s really about is relationship. He is about that intersection, that coming together of life and love.

The power of our God is used not over his creation, but under it to serve it and transform us to be more and more like him in whose image we were made.

The psalmist puts it this way:

One thing God has spoken,
    two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
    and with you, Lord, is unfailing love” (Psalm 62:11-12)

Lists in Hebrew poetry emphasize the final item on the list. So, God’s power serves his love.

And when we get to the New Testament, Colossians 1 refers to Jesus as the “image of the invisible God.” We see the image of God that we were created to be most clearly in Jesus — he images perfectly our invisible God.And the image of Jesus that dominates our Scriptures and our imaginations is Jesus on the cross. Jesus, who sets aside his power in love for us so that the deformed image of God in us might be reformed, transformed. Love and life coming together.

They say that Chuck Norris once kicked a horse in the chin. It’s descendants are now know as giraffes.

They say there is no theory of evolution, just the list of animals Chuck Norris let’s live.

They say Chuck Norris has been to Mars, which is why there is no life on Mars.

They say that a street was once named after Chuck Norris, but they had to change the name because no one crosses Chuck Norris and lives.

As much as I love the Chuck Norris jokes, they are really just about raw power. It’s something that we so-often-powerless human beings laugh at and long for at the same time.

We paint Chuck Norris as absurdly powerful because we are absurdly powerless.

But here’s the thing, whenever we choose power over relationship, we are choosing the way of the ancient god-makers, we are choosing the beastly way. Everyone who chooses power over relationship becomes a beast in the end.

On the other hand, when we look at our Lord, we see One who has chosen relationship over power. And I’m not just talking about the New Testament here. We see the overwhelming faithfulness of God as we read through the Old Testament — how God refuses to give up on his people who over and over and over again turn their back on him for these power gods.

As we watch this God of ours who chooses relationship over power, we slowly, bit by bit begin to imitate him and are recreated in his image. We begin to more clearly bear his likeness.

But you have to hear me clearly on this.

I’m not telling you to choose relationship over power. That will be the result of what God calls us to do. If you focus on the idea of relationship over power, you make the Greek mistake of reducing everything to ideas, including God.

What the Scriptures call us to do is to keep our eyes on our Lord. Fix our gaze on him. That’s why we are so adamant about reading through the Bible — we want to see our Lord and to see him at work in the world. As we do that, we begin to choose relationship over power because our lives more closely resemble the life of the one in whose image we were made.

That, I believe, is why Jesus gave us this Lord’s Supper to share as our central act. In it, we see this God of ours who has set aside much of his power to be one of us, washing feet and serving at table. We see him eating with a betrayer, a denier, and a bunch of run-away-when-I-needed-you-mosts. We see him offering his broken body and poured out blood as the most-needed meal of our lives. We see him preparing to die that we might live.

As we see this story of God in our retelling of it again and again and as we eat and drink this offering of self for the sake of communion, it becomes us. We become the image of God that our Lord intended us to be.