This Being We Call God
I’m sure by this time, you have come to realize that I am more of a teacher than a preacher. My emphasis on teaching is based on the belief that we come to know God and know about God through our heads/our minds; and then we come to love God through our hearts. Occasionally, it happens the other way around: people have dramatic emotional encounters with the Divine and then turn to Christian study and discipline. But for most of us, we first learn about our amazing creator God (through family, Sunday School, Bible Study and the like — and as our learning increases, so does our faith and love.
It is important to learn to love the right God! What do I mean by that? Isn’t there only one God? I would immediately answer “Yes, there is only one God.” But in reading our Holy Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, there appears to be two Gods. Two distinctly different Gods: A stern and wrathful God, a Wizard of Oz god, who puffs and blows and threatens, who leaves Dorothy and the Israelites wandering around Oz for 40 years before bringing them to safety. An angry God who punishes Abraham’s descendants — again and again– for their disobedience. A jealous god who directs his chosen tribe to wipe out all the native inhabitants of Canaan — whole cities and cultures –killing every man, woman, and child.
And then there is the god of the New Testament: The god that Jesus emulates and embodies, the god that bids the little children come, the god who eats with sinners, washes the feet of his disciples, turns the other cheek, prays for his enemies, and dies on a cross? A very different god, indeed. So how do we reconcile these two different gods. Did God change? Is one wrong and the other right? Which one should we follow? Who is this being we call God?
Now to be fair, my first description of Old Testament God was a caricature only – not entirely accurate. The real God created the heavens and earth and everything on it; from one man — Abraham– he created a great nation; he led that nation out of bondage in Egypt; he gave the Law — the 10 Commandments– that we might live righteously and ethically; he brought Israel into the promised land; he spoke through the prophets and raised up great kings. Still yet, as many times as God reconsidered his anger, he did not refrain from exercising his wrath. According to scriptures, God flooded the earth, bent on killing all mankind, save Noah. At the foot of Mt. Sinai, God instructed Moses to have the priests take the sword to their sons, brothers, friends, and neighbors who had bowed down to a golden calf. Then God sent a plague upon those who remained. On arrival in Canaan, God instructed the Israelites to wipe out every native tribe, nation, and people — every man, woman and child.
I know the justification that is often put up for this Old Testament violence: God was trying to create a great nation, and in those formative years it was especially important that there be no wavering, no weak links in the faith, no stray DNA in the gene pool. The foundation for this new monotheistic belief had to be rock solid. God guaranteed this loyalty with covenants, contracts — agreements that the people were very familiar with. God would protect the loyal, as kings pledged themselves to their vassals, but would utterly turn his back on the disloyal.
But I also know, with logic, that the Bible, though inspired by Almighty God, has human fingerprints all over it. It did not descend – all 66 books bound together– from the heavens on 12-pound test line. It evolved over thousands of years from word of mouth through hundreds of translations and copies. The ancients of 3,000 years ago, understood God in the context of their culture at the time. They knew nothing about the physics of disease or natural disaster and ascribed both to the wrath of various gods. Our long-ago ancestors were loyal to family and clan, but suspicious of all others. Individual lives were short and of little importance. The ancient stone gods were territorial and they levied blessings and curses in equal measure.
So, our question this morning is “Who is this being we call God? “ And who better to ask than Jesus Christ? Because as Christians, we trust that Jesus knew God more intimately and more completely than anyone at any time will ever know God. So, who did Jesus say this being called God is?
I re-read the four gospels this week –mostly in one sitting. (An activity I highly recommend!) With a red-letter Bible and pencil and paper, I concentrated on Christ’s recorded words, pulling out every description Christ gave of the character of God: I jotted down 33 quotations from the Gospel of Matthew, 7 non-repeaters from Mark, 12 more from Luke, and 21 from John. I took these 73 passages — recorded as the words of Christ– and looked for the common threads.
Here is what I rediscovered: This being we call God is just as the children’s prayer says, “God is great, God is Good . . . God gives us our food — and for that matter, gives us everything else that is beautiful and useful and formative. God is pure light — in God there is no darkness, no evil, no meanness, no reprisal. God is slow to anger and eager to forgive.
But don’t take me at my word, let’s look at Christ’s words and you can decide for yourself. Jesus says again and again that GOD IS GREAT — God is all-knowing, all-powerful. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, “The Heavenly Father is perfect.” And in chapter 19, “God is the only one who can save” [vs. 26]. In the same gospel, Christ assures his listeners, “The Father knows every sparrow that falls and counts the very hairs on our heads” [10: 29-30]. From the Gospel of Mark, we hear Jesus saying, “God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and is God, not of the dead, but of the living” [12: 26-27]. From Luke, we hear Jesus counseling his disciples: “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” [18: 27]. John’s gospel records Jesus saying, “The Father gives life to those he raises from the dead” [5: 21] and confessing that “every good work that he/Jesus did, was at the Father’s direction [10:32] because the Father is greater than the Son [15: 28]. The picture emerging is of absolute authority and greatness, even the ability to give and restore life, far exceeding any mortal achievement.
But is this great power we call God, a power that we can approach – or one that we should fear? The Israelites, as you remember, could not even touch the base of Mt. Sinai because they feared being struck dead for seeing the face of Yahweh!
But Jesus says nothing about hiding before God or cowering in fear at God’s feet. Instead, he turns to the image of father and child, evoking the love of Godly parents — a love that is without fear. Listen! From Mark 14: God is like an Abba (Father) for whom all things are possible [14: 36]. “God’s spirit,” says Jesus, “desires to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom from oppression” [Luke 4:18]. Christ adds, “When you love your enemies, do good, and lend –expecting nothing–God calls you children” [Mark 4: 35].
Not only that, but this Father God is able anticipate your needs before you speak them: “The Father knows what you need and he will provide for those who strive for the Kingdom. [Therefore, Christ says . . .] “Do not be afraid. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, and into that kingdom God will welcome people from the four points of the Earth — including many whom you would consider ‘lost’” [Luke 12: 32; 13: 19, 29]. And in the mystical Gospel of John, Jesus is reported to have said, “The Father gives life; He judges no one” [5: 21-22]. Wow! So if you have always held some fear in your heart for God, I want you to re-examine the feeling, because there is no fear in perfect love, and God is perfect love.
As we have heard, Jesus testifies to God’s greatness and goodness but then goes even further. “I — Jesus — am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” [John 8: 12]. And again, “God is light and makes his followers the ‘light of the world’ [Matthew 5: 14]. Furthermore, if you knew me, you would also know my Father. The Father who sent me is with me and in me” [John 8: 16-17]. Want to know God? LOOK AT ME! I do not judge anyone — in fact, the Father sent me to provide sanctuary for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the frightened, for God’s Kingdom is like a tree that gives sanctuary to the birds” [Luke 13: 19].
In this sanctuary, God’s goodness manifests in the abundant giving of gifts. The list of God’s gifts is way too long, but here are my favorites:
- God comforts those who mourn [Matthew 5: 4].
- God will give the earth to the meek [Matthew 5: 5].
- God will fill those who hunger and thirst [Matthew 5: 6].
- God will give mercy to the merciful [Matthew 5: 7].
- God will make God’s self known to the pure in heart [Matthew 5: 8].
- God rewards the persecuted in Heaven [Matthew 5: 11].
- God quickly grants justice to his chosen ones [Luke 18: 8].
- God will clothe you and provide your needs if you strive first for the Kingdom of Heaven [Matthew 6: 25-33].
- God clothes the lilies and grass of the field, and will much more clothe you [Luke12: 24-28].
- God gives to everyone who asks [Matthew 7: 7-8].
- God reveals his wisdom to those who have open, childlike spirits [Matthew 11: 35].
- God gives eternal life to those who love him with heart, soul, and mind, and also love their neighbors [Luke 10:27].
- For God so loved the world, that he gave his own son that whosoever would believe in him would have eternal life [John 3: 16].
Do we need to hear any more? Again and again, in all four gospels, Jesus’ words portray God as the Divine Light, the Great Father whose goodness is not to be feared and whose gifts far exceed our imaginations. In only two verses did I hear strains of judgment or punishment: Luke’s transcription has Jesus say, “At the day of judgment, God will judge harshly those who rejected Christ.” Matthew records Christ saying, “On the day of judgment, God will justify or condemn, based upon our good and evil works.” In both cases, God does not strike us down in life like the barren fig tree, but allows us our whole lives to learn to love and bear fruit for the kingdom. He gives us everything, every opportunity, second, third, and fourth chances. He is rooting for us; he is on our side.
Now, as I close this sermon, I want to say something about that God-the-Father comparison we have been talking about. For those whose earthly fathers were great, and good, and giving, the image of Father God is beautiful. But, for many, that is not the case. Perhaps you grew up with a father who was remote or cold, or maybe he was stern and punished you harshly, or he could not or would not provide for your needs. If this is the earthly father you knew, the comparison with God is going to fall apart. Either you have to deny your dad’s failures to make him look like God, or you have to believe that God is distant, angry, even wrathful. Neither is acceptable.
The alternative is simple: Use a different metaphor: If your mama was your safe place, then think of God as your Heavenly Mother; or your loving aunt, or God the Great Coach. Whatever godly role model you have had in your life will do just fine.
The God we hear from Jesus and see in Jesus is the generous God of goodness and light. Do not be afraid of God! He loves us dearly and wants only our love in return. AMEN