A Sermon: The Big Questions-What is the Nature of God?

Preached by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt, June 24th, 2012 at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean, Virginia

Exodus 3:1-17, John 3:16, I John 4:16

            This summer I am preaching a series of sermons that I am calling The Big Questions. It is centered around the claim I’ve begun to make to our confirmation classes each year as they work on faith statements.  The claim is this:  that no matter how we answer them, there are certain big questions in life that we don’t get to avoid facing and answering for ourselves.  The answers might be “maybe,” “I don’t know,” “yes”, “no,” or any number of other possibilities—and our answers might change over time, but we don’t get to avoid facing the questions and answering them for ourselves. 

             These are questions like: Is there a God or not? What does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life?  Who is Jesus? How should we approach scripture?  Why do bad things happen—especially to people we consider good? Is there life after death?  And so forth.

             These are big questions, questions to which the texts of the Bible and the tenets of our tradition speak.  No matter how we answer them ourselves, we do well to listen to those who have gone before.

             Last Sunday we looked at the question of whether God exists, trying in the process to engage, at least to a degree, the arguments of atheists and then moving to some of what I consider to be proof of God’s existence and ongoing activity in the world.  On the way out of church, someone said something like this, “If you ask me, the real question is not whether God exists.    The physics of it—the idea that something had to create all that is, that there has to be something behind it all—is proof enough.  No, the real question, as Jewish thinkers have understood, is what is the nature of God?  Is God benevolent or malevolent?  Present and approachable or distant and removed?  This sort of thing. 

             So what is the nature of God?  That’s the question we’ll begin to tackle today.  It would be the ultimate in arrogance to think we’d come to a neatly wrapped, tightly packaged answer in fifteen to twenty minutes.   One reason why goes back to the text I’m about to read from the book of Exodus:  the story of how Moses encounters God in a burning bush.  When Moses asks God’s name, God responds, “I am that I am.”   You should know that this is perhaps better translated, “I will be what I will be.  I’ll be and do whatever I please and I can’t be put in a box.”

            No wonder the prophet Isaiah, when he experienced his call in the Temple in the text I read from on Confirmation Sunday, found that the Temple could not contain God.  Only the hem of God’s robe could fit in the Temple.

            Listen now for God’s word in the story of the call of Moses from Exodus 3.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’

            Now let’s leap ahead some fifteen to eighteen hundred years to a brief, but well known, passage from John’s gospel:

 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 

            Beyond that, also in the tradition of John, but this time from the I letter of John, hear how God is described, in I John 4:16:

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.   God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

            Before I conduct a memorial service, I always meet with the family and friends of the deceased for a time of telling stories and reflecting on the life of the one who has died and what he or she meant to each person in the room.  Near the end of that time I ask the people gathered to try to sum up the life of their loved one—their spouse, their father or mother, grandma or grandpa, relative or friend, in twenty-five words or less.

             It’s an interesting exercise.   One lesson in it is that it is really impossible and unfair to reduce all that a loved one has meant and means to you, all the memories and stories, the successes and the sorrows, the interests and inclinations, the passions and problems into twenty-five words.  You can’t reduce a person’s whole life to the size of a sound bite.

            But the second thing I’ve learned is that that when you do work to do that, when you strive to distill the essence of a person and what they meant and mean to you into a sentence or two, or even into a string of adjectives or nouns, you get down to the important stuff.  You get down to what matters.

             What do these insights have to say to us about the nature of God?  Before we go further, let me hasten to say that contrary to what Friedrich Nietzsche[i], and Thomas Altizer[ii], and the Time magazine cover[iii] that came out in the year of my birth, 1966, God is not dead.  God is very much alive.  So this is not a sermon to memorialize God.  It is, however, a chance to ask what is really important about God.  To try to distill, in so far as that it is possible, what matters most about God.

            Our Old Testament text steps into that challenging territory as it recounts Moses encounter with the Divine in a burning bush.  Now, it’s a danger to take one event, one text, one story and say that it tells you all that you need to know about God.  We wouldn’t—or at least shouldn’t—do that when it comes to people.   Why on Earth would we think we could do that with God?

           That being said, here’s the window into God’s nature we get in the story of the burning bush:

            *God appears in something ordinary, yet extraordinary; something that Moses might have missed had he not turned aside.  Surely there were other bushes that had been fire during his wanderings in Midian in the years that he took care of his father in law’s sheep.  Surely there were other bushes that had occasionally been aflame.  But he turned towards this one.   The wonder is that Moses turned aside to attend to this sight.

             *We learn that God is both holy and engaged.  Moses has to take his shoes off to be near God, Moses has to show some reverence, but God still speaks to him. 

             *We learn that God is connected to a history and a tradition.  God self-identifies here as the father of Moses’ ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

            *We learn that God sees and hears the misery of God’s people. 

           *We learn that God calls and sends human beings like Moses to be God’s agents to address the pain in the world.   You need to remember that, Habitat mission team!  God calls and sends human beings like Moses and like you to address the pain in the world.

             *And when Moses asks for God’s name, “Who shall I tell them has sent me?”  God says, “I AM that I AM.  I will be what I will be.  I am going to be whatever I choose to be, Moses.  It’s not up to you to define me, it’s up to me to define me.  In other words, Moses, don’t try to box me in or dumb me down or make me safe and easy to swallow.  Let me be God.  And you be Moses, the one I’ve sent.

            Don’t dumb me down, box me in, make me safe and easy to swallow….  But we do that all the time, don’t we?  Both on the right and on the left?   We dumb things down, we make them a little too easy to swallow, too safe, too settled.

            Yesterday I was talking to Dave Sippel, one of the consultants who was here from Youth Ministry Architects.  He and a colleague of his were in town over the past few days to listen to youth, parents and other adults of Immanuel and then to provide some recommendations for our youth ministry here in the future.

            Dave told Chris Samsen and me about walking with a kid from the youth group he volunteers with, who told Dave that he had it all figured out.   He sleeps with crystals under his pillow, because they give him a sense of power.   Furthermore, he told Dave that he knew for sure that Jesus wasn’t divine, he was just a human being.  Let me add here very quickly that there are different ways of understanding how Jesus embodied God.  But to categorically deny that Jesus could embody God, or that God could be embodied in Jesus, as if that were the only reasonable answer to the question of whether or not Jesus were divine seems foolhardy.

          Dave said to the young man, “Is that your final answer?”

         The boy responded, “Yes.  I’m sure.  I know.  I’m set on this.  I’m not going to change my viewpoint.”

          Dave responded, “So let me get this straight.  At fourteen, you’ve got life and your ideas about God and spirituality all figured out, all settled for the rest of your life.  Let me know how that works out for you.  Hold on, man.  You’re not done growing.   There’s more you’ll learn.  God isn’t finished with you yet.”

          If “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be” is an essential part of God’s nature then that means there’s an ongoing story.  There’s more revealing, more growing to do.

            It’s always interesting to see how people react when they read through the Bible in our Year of the Bible program.  It is hard sledding once you get past the 24th chapter of Exodus or so.   You’re sailing right along with some interesting stories about Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Esau and Jacob’s wives and sons, especially Joseph, the dreamer.  You get into those stories and you think to yourself, “Man, my family is not the first dysfunctional family ever.   There were dysfunctional families in the Bible!  They put the fun in dysfunctional!”   And then you get to Moses: first as a baby in the basket of reeds, and then he grows into a man.   You get the Exodus and he leads the people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea and into the wilderness, and then there’s a bunch of laws and a few more stories and more laws and it seems like you are wading through molasses.  But that’s not the problem.

             The problem is that when the story picks up again, when it gets a little speed and momentum, is when you get to the book of Joshua.  The picture you get of God in Joshua is a portrait of a God who calls the Israelites to wipe their enemies out entirely—men, women, children, animals, everything.[iv]  It’s not a nice picture.  It’s downright genocidal.   More than one person has told me, after getting to that part, “I’m not sure I can believe in God any more.   I can’t believe in that kind of God.”  So I try to tell them, “Don’t stop there.  God doesn’t stop there.  The people’s understanding of God doesn’t stop there.  Get to the prophets.  Before you reject the Old Testament altogether, get to the prophets.  The prophets tell the people that God wants them to take care of the poor and the oppressed and the alien and the widow and the orphan. Get to Isaiah, who portrays God as a mother who cannot forget her nursing child.[v]  Get to Amos who says that God cannot stand worship when it is not connected to the practice of justice.[vi]  Get to Hosea, where God weeps for the people turning away from the call to love.”[vii]

             Then hang with it until you get to Jesus.  Because Jesus, you need to know, is just the Greek word for Joshua.   What Jesus’ life does is to re-interpret that long ago story of Joshua, turning it on its head.  He’s the new Joshua, whose life shows that the way to conquer, the way to win, the way to really be faithful to God and inherit the kingdom that God promises. It is not through violence, but through love. 

             Any Johnny Depp fans out there?  I never watched the movie Don Juan DeMarco, but I ran across a clip in which Depp’s character, Don Juan, says this: “There are only four questions of value in life.   What is sacred?  Of what is the Spirit made?  What is worth living for?  And what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same.  Only love.”[viii]

             Love is not squishy and sentimental.  And if you’ve ever tried to love somebody, particularly someone you don’t really like—someone who is an enemy—you know that love is not safe.

             C.S. Lewis in his wonderful series of children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, deals with the question of the embodiment of love, God, Jesus.  He portrays the embodiment of love in the character of Aslan the Lion—a Christ figure if there ever was one.  At one point, a member of the Beaver family says about Aslan:  “He’s not safe.  Who said anything about safe?  Of course he isn’t safe!  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”[ix]

             Aslan is the embodiment of all that is good.  He is the embodiment of love.  But he’s still fearsome.  There’s a reverence, an awe, a fear even, that is appropriate in his presence.  I think It is a healthy fear of love and where it might lead us.

             It is really important when we talk about the nature of God to remember that we have to honor paradox.  We have to hold things in tension.[x]  If we don’t keep both sides of the paradox in tension we lose something vital.  For instance, is God transcendent?  Is God way beyond us?  Or is God immanent, as near as our next breath?  Is God distant, or is God right here?  Well, the answer is both.  You can’t lose the tension on one side or the other or you lose something crucial to the nature of God.

             When I think about the paradox of the transcendence and immanence of God, I remember the first church I served in upstate New York, the Community Chapel of West Glens Falls.   We were the tiny white clapboard Presbyterian church with 125 members.    And there was this gigantic Presbyterian church a mile or two across town—across the tracks, as it were.  That church was gigantic, stone, like a cathedral.  Sometimes you’d walk into that building, with its Gothic architecture, and it was all you could do not to be overawed by the sheer majesty of God, the sense of God’s transcendence, the bigness of God.  But then you’d walk into the little white Chapel that I served—it was the size of just the area from the choir to the Amen corner over there on the lower level here in terms of seating—and you would hear people share celebrations and concerns and you couldn’t help but get a sense of the nearness of God.   One form of architecture wasn’t going to sum up the nature of God.  We needed the cathedral and the little tiny chapel. 

             The question of God’s nature is an important one.  But just as important, if not more so, is the question of how we respond to that nature.  Did you catch the piece on the news about the bullied bus monitor, the 68 year old grandmother from outside of Rochester, New York who was mocked and tormented by middle school children the bus?  Did you watch the video on You Tube?  I felt the same way about watching that video as I did about watching the Passion of the Christ.  I didn’t really want to see it. 

             I watched it, though, and I witnessed these middle school kids just abusively mocking and cursing at this 68 year old woman, treating her like anything but a child of God.  And I thought to myself, “Who else went through that kind of treatment?”   Whatever you believe about the divinity of Jesus, you know that he went through that kind of treatment.  When I look at Jesus, and I ponder how he went through that kind of abuse and worse, I get a window into God, and what God wants from me.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

[i] Friedrich Nietzsche addressed the concept of the Death of God in two separate works.   See Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science (Sections 108—New Struggles; 125 (The Madman); and 343 (The Meaning of Our Cheerfulness).  His book was first published in 1882, and was reprinted by Cambridge University Press in 2001.  He also spoke to the Death of God in Thus Spoke Zarathustra which was published in four parts between 1883-1885.  You can find it reprinted by Oxford University Press in 2005. 

[ii] Thomas J.J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966)

 

[iii] “Is God Dead?” Time Magazine (April 8th, 1966).

[iv] See Joshua 6 and 7.

[v] Isaiah 49:15

[vi] Amos 5:21-24

[vii] Hosea 11

[viii] Don Juan DeMarco was released in 1994, adapted from a work by Lord Byron, written and directed by Jeremy Leven, and starred Johnny Depp.

 

[ix] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was originally published by Harper Collins in Great Britain in 1950.   You can find a more recent edition through (New York: Harper Trophy, 1994).

[x] I am indebted for this insight to a lecture I heard the Lutheran theologian Marva Dawn give at a conference in Montreat, NC.

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