Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Three Simple Questions: Who Is God?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 17:22-31.  This was one of those sermons that preached much better than it was written:

About a year ago we did a sermon series entitled Three Simple Rules based on a book of the same name by Bishop Reuben Job which discussed the general rules written by John Wesley the founder of Methodism.  Does anyone remember those rules? (do no harm, do good, stay in love with God, glad to see I was effective).  Well this year, Bishop Job published a new book entitled Three Simple Questions, although as it turns out the questions are anything but simple, at least not for me.  Those questions are Who is God, second who am I, and finally who are we together.  I think those questions are a lot of things, but simple is not one of them, especially trying to answer who God is.  People have written tomes on this topic, and you’ll find me referencing more people than normal today, and we still haven’t exhausted what might be said, or any of the arguments that surround the topic.  If we were to open the conversation up between all of us I doubt that we would come to any unanimous claims about who God is.  Even within United Methodism we can’t agree.  Every Wednesday all the Methodist clergy from the area get together, and of the nine clergy, I’m willing to guess there would be at least 18 opinions offered as to who God is.  As someone once said, united Methodists are a lot of things, but united is not one of them.  And if we were to begin talking with other denominations it would become even worse.

There are some who have proposed that a lot of the arguments that are currently taking place within American Christianity are rooted in differences in the conception of God between the liberal and conservative sides of the church, and liberal and conservative in this sense do not correspond to political positions.  It is said that on the conservative side that they view God as father as the authoritarian figure, who to some degree is distant from us,  and while recognizing that God loves us is also the disciplinarian because God must uphold a sense of justice.  Those who hold such a position also tend to want the family unit ordered and operating the same way, with men firmly in charge of the family, making all decisions and judgments, whose word is sacrosanct and final.  On the other side of the spectrum are those who might still view God as father, but in a more familiar role more like daddy, which is how Abba should be translated.  God is all loving, there for us at every step, waits for us to return when we are away and is ready to welcome us back with loving arms.  While there may still be some judgment elements, view of God is much more forgiving, more loving, more egalitarian in its approach, and a similar attitude is also seen in family structures, in which there is less assignment of roles based on gender, and there is a closer affinity between parents, especially fathers, and their children.  Now obviously this position is a gross over simplification, and there are lots of overlapping beliefs and characteristics, and yet there is also a large degree of truth to be found there as well.  The simple fact is who we conceive God to be plays a significant role in our lives and in whom and what we worship.

As Methodists we follow what is known as arminian theology, which is named after Jacob Arminius, not after the country of Armenia, we are arminian not Armenian, and that stands in contrast to Calvinist, who follow the teachings of John Calvin.  One of the major differences, and the one most pertinent to us here is the idea of atonement, that is for whom did Christ die and how does it work.  Calvinists believe in limited atonement, that only some people will be saved, which is typically talked about as predestination or sometimes called double predestination.  So if you ever hear people talking about our salvation already being predetermined, that is Calvinist.  What is also true of Calvinists is the believe in what is called as preservation of the saints, which means that once you are saved you are saved for all of eternity, there is nothing you can do to change that because God’s grace is irresistible, you have no choice in accepting God’s grace or not, because either God is going to give you God’s grace or you’re not going to receive it you have no choice.  The final piece is the fact that Calvinists believe that there is nothing redeeming about humanity, that we have what is called total depravity.  We are all just little bundles of sin and there is nothing good about us.

Now as arminians, we differ with them on most of these issues.  The one area where some people agree is on the issue of total depravity.  That is not a position with which I agree, but you can believe that and still be primarily armininian.  But where we do disagree is on the issue of atonement, in that we believe that Christ died for everyone, that God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness are extended to each and every one of us.  But we must also be willing to either accept or reject that offer of grace, which means that God’s grace is resistible.  But it’s not just that God’s grace is resistible but that we exist on sort of a sliding scale in our relationship with God.  Sometimes we are doing really well and at other times we may have turned our backs on God, and so we do not believe that once you are save you are always saved because being a Christian, and being in relationship with God, is a lifelong journey.  That is who we understand who God is and how God works.  But of course God is so much more than that.

Bishop Job relates a story about when he was early into the ministry and he had a twelve-year-old girl come up to him after service and say “Can you tell me more about God?”  He sat down with the girl and says that “she was looking for guidance, direction, truth, light, and understanding and she was looking to me to provide it.”  As they talked and Bishop Job tried to tell her about who God is, what he and the girl encountered was that God is always somehow just beyond our ability to understand let alone describe because our knowledge is always incomplete and the nature of language is also always lacking, but that doesn’t stop us. Somehow we still have to try and find a way, find a word, that will help us to understand or describe who God is, even when we feel like we will never be successful.  But we have to keep using words, not only because it’s really all we have, and trying to describe God playing charades is even harder, but it’s also because words are so important to our understanding of who God is and how God works.  In the beginning all was darkness and void and then God said, “let there be light.”  God spoke it into existence and it came to be, and then of course we are told in John’s gospel, “in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”  Jesus is that word, so even though language is limiting and cannot ever serve to fully explain God, at the same time it is central to understanding who God is.

But in addition to naming God with our words, we also name God through our actions, where we are silent, and where we put our trust.  Sometimes these things do point us to God, but sometimes they show our god to be our career, or money, or hobby, or something else which claims our allegiance.  There’s a great book called The Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel, which talks about claiming that we believe in God but living as if God doesn’t exist, or replacing God with another god.  The simple fact is we all have a God of one sort of another, even atheists and agnostics.  We all have something which drives us or where we put all of our attention, passion and adoration, “something that determines the direction of our lives,” as Bishop Job says.  In addition, what we think about God can have great impact on what or how we worship.  Whenever someone tells me that they don’t believe in God, my first question to them is to have them tell me about the God they don’t believe in because more than likely I don’t believe in that God either.  I once had one of the youth of a church I was serving come and say that he didn’t want to be confirmed because he didn’t believe he could make the profession of faith with integrity, certainly a position I respect.  So I asked him why and he told me all the things he didn’t believe, or didn’t believe in, and at the end  of his list I think he was a little shocked, and perhaps dismayed, because I told him that I didn’t believe in any of those things either.  But that doesn’t mean we still don’t have some misconceptions about God.

Bishop Will Willimon has said we have a desire to turn God into our personal genie who will give us whatever we ask for our desire, and when it doesn’t happen then we question whether God actually exists, or worse we don’t even ask let alone believe that God could ever do such a thing.  For some reason we want to make God either too small, or too safe.  Thinking back to last week’s passage from John in which, after the disciples haven’t caught any fish, Jesus tells the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and then their nets get filled.  But we want God to simply fill our nets, we don’t want to have to do the work ourselves.  Mark Buchanan says “We want a God who provides but doesn’t intrude, who protects but never demands, never judges, never meddles.  We want a God who keeps his distance and doesn’t crowd us.”  We don’t want to be challenged by God, we don’t want to be asked to do things, especially things that, like we talked about last week, take us out of our comfort zones.  We want God to answer to us, but don’t want to have to answer to God.  We want a God who will fill our nets, but not one who asks us to do it ourselves.

Often that’s simply because either we want to make God safe, or we want to keep God at arm’s length because we’re too afraid of what will happen is we truly invite God into our lives.  We are told in Exodus that after the Israelites had escaped from Egypt and were in the wilderness, Moses had been talking with God on Mt. Sinai, but “when all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sounds of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid, and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us or we will die.’” (Exodus ) or as someone else I read this week said, “we long for hearsay about God, but do not ourselves want to hear God say anything.”  It’s the same reason why we are afraid of truly inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives because when that happens we know that things will be taken out of our control, that God will be in control and that leaves us nervous and scared.

The other great mistake we do is to make God in our image.  In taming and controlling God, in trying to make God safe and in making God small, we reverse the order of things, and as we discussed when we looked at Paul, we become convinced that if we believe something, if we do something, then God must be okay with it because we would never do or think something that was wrong.  There are lots of problems with making God is our image.  The first is that if God is just like us, then there is really no need for God, except as justification for our actions, and if that is God is for, then God is certainly not someone who demands out attention, let alone our worship or awe, the same can be said of a God who is safe or small.  Here’s a good way to decide if we are making God is our image, in the words of Anne Lamott, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do,” and it might be added if God only like the people you like.

Does God challenge us, make us different and hopefully better?  Or does our conception of God simply match everything we already believe and do?  We are made in God’s image, and because of that simple reality we are called to be more than who and what we are, we are called to live into that image, we are called to be challenged and pushed, we are called not to sit back and let God fill up our nets we are set aside to follow God’s call of come follow me.  Jesus is constantly challenging the religious leaders, challenging those who surround him, challenging the disciples, and challenging us.  Jesus, the manifestation of God in human form, constantly and totally manifests God’s nature and that is one of love.  If there is one thing that we can say about who God is, it is that God is a God of love and everything else manifests out of that.  “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)

In the book Joshua by Joseph Grizone, a retired Catholic priest, Joshua is sort of a modern Jesus.  As a carpenter he is hired by two churches to carve for them statues of Jesus.  But Joshua reverses what each church asks for.  For the liberal church, they want an image of Jesus conveying compassion and love, but he gives them one of an angry Jesus, remembering the time that Jesus overturned the tables in the Temple, as an example.  The conservative church wants a statue of Jesus that conveys Jesus as the judge, or maybe the angry Jesus, and instead they get Jesus who shows compassion.  Both of those sides are the nature of God because both of those sides are the nature of love, and these are the pieces of God that we have to hold in tension with each other when we make the claim that God is love, and it is a claim that we will explore next week when we look to answer the question, who am I? Because God wants to be in relation with the creation, and God invites us all to live as God’s children, because God is love. Amen.

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