Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Three Simple Questions: Who is God?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 17:22-31:

Several years ago when I was appointed here, we did a sermon series based on a book by Bishop Reuben Job entitled Three Simple Rules.  Bishop Job didn’t create those three rules, instead they came to us from John Wesley, the found of Methodism, and they were his general rules, the things we were supposed to do if we were to call ourselves Methodists, and those three things were to first do no harm, second to do good and third was to stay in love with God.  Several years after Bishop Job wrote that book, he wrote another book entitled Three Simple Questions.  These questions go to the heart of our faith even more than Wesley’s rules did, and those three simple questions are: Who is God?; Who am I?; and Who are We Together?  Now those three questions might be a lot of things, but I don’t think they are very simple, and yet we have to answer them in order not only to proclaim a faith, to have a set of beliefs, but also, more importantly, to live our faith because how we answer those questions should impact our actions, although sometimes there is a disconnect between what we say we believe and how we actually live our lives out and the God that we worship in our lives.
Everyone has to answer who is God.  Even atheists and agnostics have to answer this question, and every one of us has a god, whether it’s the God, or a different smaller god, money, fame, fortune, power, education. But there is something that holds our allegiance, something or someone we serve to give our lives meaning and purpose, something gives us the rules, guidelines, whatever you might call them, about how we are to live our lives.  So what can we say about God?  First is that God is obviously a baseball fan because it’s the one sport that’s mentioned the most times in scripture, the other is tennis.  And second, and most importantly, we can say that God is a Yankee fan simply because the Yankees are twenty-seven time world series champions.  That’s more than the next three best teams combined.

I know they haven’t won in a while, but that’s because God has to give other fans a chance as well, right?  But isn’t that what we hear all the time, that someone is winning, especially in sports, because God is favoring them, and so athletes point to God, or where they imagine God is, when they score, or do something great.  So that must be who God is and how God works right?  And anything that contradicts that must be wrong right?  When Arian Foster of the Houston Texans says that he doesn’t believe that then it must mean that he’s an atheist right?  But perhaps the players who say things actually believe in a different idea of God, but don’t live that reality.  Who we imagine God to be is incredibly important to who and what we are.  So who is God?

What’s the first question we normally ask someone we are meeting for the first time?  We say what’s your name, or who are you?  When God tells Moses that he is going to be sent back to the Israelites in Egypt to set them free from slavery.  What does Moses ask?  Who should I say who is sending me?  Who are you?  And God says “I am.”  The Hebrew word there is known as the Tetragrammaton, it’s transliterated into the Latin the letters YHWH, often wrongly pronounced Yahweh.  I say wrongly pronounced because the name has no vowels in it so we have no idea how it should actually be pronounced, and for orthodox Jews it doesn’t matter because they don’t say the name.  Instead they say simply “the name” or “Adonai” which means Lord.  But the word comes from the verb to be, and it’s more than just I am, but instead “I am who I am,” or it can also be the future tense “I will be whom I will be,” or perhaps even “I will be what I choose to be.”  God’s name is a verb, not a noun, God’s not static, but in motion, in being.

So while we talk in belief in God, God is rooted in being, and since we are made in the image of God, an idea we will explore more next week, we too are about being, about being in our faith not merely having our faith.  What this also says is that God is not about the past; God is about the present and the future.  But does that really describe who God is?  Well to a large degree, but there is still so much more, and so there are lots of other names given for God in scripture.  What are some of the other names of God given?  But do those all say who God is?  No because there is always something lacking.

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.  There is something ineffable about God, that is there is something that cannot be explained in words.

Words are limiting both in our way of being able to explain profound things, but there is also something about words that limits the things that are being described.  If I say flower, it gives a large range of things to choose from, but also limits out things that aren’t flowers, and if I say rose, it limits it even more.  So by saying things about God it limits God in profound ways, and we then have to come up with ways to explain the other aspects that get left out, if we are cognizant of what gets left out.  Taoism is one of the major eastern religions, and I think the first line of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu gets at this ineffability, it says Tao k’o Tao, fei ch’ang Tao, the way that is spoken is not the true way.  That is as soon as you begin speaking about the Tao, the way, then you have limited it to such a degree that what is being said will lead you away from the true way.

And yet 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 the question who is God.  Because what we as Christians have, that other religions don’t have, is God in the person of Christ, and also in the Holy Spirit, because while God is one, God is also three, and again the limits of language impose on our ability to explain and understand the nature of God.

But, what we are told in the letter of the Hebrews is that Jesus “is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being.”  Jesus is the incarnation of God, the word made flesh.  When we want to look at who God is and what God desires and what God does, we look to Christ, who as the writer of Colossians says is the “image of the invisible God.”  In Jesus we see God expressed in human form, and what we see is not someone bound by our limitations or our preconceived ideas of who and what God is.  Indeed, with whom does Jesus have the highest level of conflict?  With those who consider themselves the most religious, with those who were the most religious, the very people who thought they had God and scripture and interpretation all figured out, those who had boxed in and tamed and controlled God.  But what they saw in Christ, what we see in Christ, what we see in God, is something, and someone greater than we can think, imagine or comprehend.  But sometimes we don’t like that, because that God is too scary so instead we try and make a God in our own image.

A number of years ago JB Phillips wrote a book about this entitled Your God is too Small.  Often the God we talk about is someone who would have a hard time getting out of a wet paper sack, let alone creating the entire world.  We create a tribal God who belongs to us, rather than belonging to everyone, a God who hates the same people we hate, rather than giving love, grace and blessings to everyone.  As soon as we think we have God all figured out we have to go back and try again because there’s something we have missed.  If we our God is not pushing us and challenging us, moving us out of our comfort zones and shaking us to the core of our being, then our God is too small, because God should send us into a feeling of trembling, awe and amazement.

There has been a lot of talk about the rise of the nones, those who don’t have an religious affiliation, and what it means for the end of the church.  But what doesn’t get reported all that often is the fact that more that 85% of the nones say they believe in a divine being, and a large percentage of them engage in prayer every day.  So instead of attacking them, we should instead be approaching them as Paul does to the Athenians and saying, you have this idea about this unknown God, but let me tell you about my understanding of God as personified in the person of Christ.  Whenever someone tells me they don’t believe in God, I want them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in, because more than likely I don’t believe in that God either.

I’ll be honest and say that we have to tell the nones about a God that’s different from the one they typically hear about from the church.  About a God who refuses to accept the cultural boundaries that we establish, who is more likely to be around the sinners than around the saints, because they are the ones who have been excluded who need to see and hear about a new world, a new way of living, about the kingdom of God, about a people who don’t just talk about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, but who actually live that out.  Who understand and who offer a fundamentally different view of the world, of humanity and how we live together, to see the world as God sees it, to see the world as Jesus saw it and taught it, and that is to see a God who is always beyond us, and yet who also want to be with us and dwell in us as we are called to dwell in God.  To see and offer the love of God that Jesus revealed to us.

In 1 John we read, “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.” (4:7-8) God is love, and we see that throughout scripture, and most importantly we see that in the person of Jesus, who was sent to us why?  Because God so loved the world that he sent his only son, not to condemn the world, but to redeem the world, and in the words of Bishop Job, “to heal our brokenness, mend our relationships, sustain us day by day and light our path forward as we seek the way of peace and plenty for all God’s children.”

God cannot be contained in any creedal statement, God cannot be contained in any words or descriptions, because God is always beyond our limited capacity to understand or experience.  As Paul says, now we know only in part, but at some point we shall fully know God, and so we have to understand that God comes to us in different ways because God comes to us where we are and as we are, as beloved children of God, and God comes to us in love.  God comes to us in this table, in which God shares with us and we share with each other the bread and the cup, given to us without cost, because God loves us.  Who is God?  God is beyond our language and beyond our ultimate comprehension, but we see who God is and what God calls for us in the person of Jesus Christ, and as Paul says to the Athenians, “In Him we live and move and have our being,” for we too are God’s offspring.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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