God Talk

 Sermon For Sunday April 14, Exodus 3:1-5, 9-10, 13-15; John 8:12-15, 18:33-38

[Note: This is part 2 in a month-long sermon series “Bad With Religion, Good With God” Last week, Dr. Dave Fry, the head of staff, explored the idea that many people feel Church is a place where they have to be perfect all the time and say and do the right things to fit in. Compounding this is the belief that God demands perfection and that we are to think and speak about God in a certain prescribed way.]

Over the last couple of months, the adult church school class that (associate pastor) Holly and I teach, has been exploring the big questions of Christianity through a video series called Animate Faith.

The first lesson, offered by public theologian and author Brian McLaren, focuses on a common struggle among people of faith:

Who exactly is this God we worship?

Is God a mighty fortress, solid and unchanging?

Is God a mystical, unknowable force that floats around us like a vapor?

Is God (in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith which we affirmed moments ago)

“infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute?”

Yes? No? Maybe?

Truth be told, none of us actually know whom God is 100 percent of the time, which makes it challenging to discuss matters of faith if we are unable to speak of God with any certainty.

And yet there are those who speak about God with such certitude that it actually prevents honest and loving God talk and distract us from the reality of God in our lives and world.

During the 8-minute Animate Faith video, McClaren explains:

Sometimes, when I hear people speak about God, I feel like an atheist. The God they speak of I don’t believe in: A God who loves Christians but hates Muslims; or a God who pours luxuries on the rich but consigns the poor to poverty; or a God who cares about human souls but doesn’t care about conserving and protecting our beautiful, fragile planet. So if you ask me, ‘Is God real?’ I first have to ask, ‘Which God are we talking about? And what do you mean by God?’

Let’s first take a look at the Kataphatic tradition of using words and images to talk about God, which most Christians practice on a routine basis:

Image from "Animate Faith" lesson on "God: Faith As A Quest."
Image from “Animate Faith” lesson on “God: Faith As A Quest.”

As seen in the image above, many depictions of God come from scripture. God is referred to in the books of The Bible as

YHWH,

Creator,

heavenly Father,

king,

and the almighty.

Others illustrations come from a mix of life experience, knowledge of how the world works, a particular theological view and modern twists on biblical descriptions. God is a

watchmaker,

chess master,

the man upstairs,

a still, small voice,

a mother bear,

and what is likely considered the most popular representation of God throughout history—The Old Bearded Man.

There are as many portrayals (if not more!) of the Bearded One as there are words and images for God:

The stern workaholic Old Bearded God as illustrated by the 16th Century Renaissance artist Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel AND 21st Century LEGO builder Brendan Powell Smith in the book The Brick Testament.

portrait of God on the Sistine Chapel by 16th Century Renaissance artist Michaelangelo
Portrait of God on the Sistine Chapel by 16th Century Renaissance artist Michaelangelo
God creating man by Brendan Powell Smith, "The Brick Testament" 2013
God creating man by Brendan Powell Smith, “The Brick Testament” 2013

The wise, wistful and witty grandfather Old Bearded God as played by Morgan Freeman in the 2007’s Evan Almighty and 2003’s Bruce Almighty, and George Burns in the classic 1977 comedy Oh God!

Morgan Freeman as God in 2007's "Evan Almighty"
Morgan Freeman as God in 2007’s “Evan Almighty”
George Burns as God in 1977's "Oh God!'
George Burns as God in 1977’s “Oh God!’

 

The whimsical Old Bearded God as presented in literature,

the best-selling satirical book The Last Testament: A Memoir by GOD in which God makes snarkycomments about everything from the creation of the world to American Idol,

 and the beloved children’s book Cat Heaven, in which God, dressed in a colorful outfit, reads to cats that curl up on his bed in heaven.

The Last Testament: A Memoir by God (with David Javerbaum), Simon & Schuster, November 2011
The Last Testament: A Memoir by God (with David Javerbaum), Simon & Schuster, November 2011
"Cat Heaven" by Cynthia Rylant, Blue Sky Press, September 1997
“Cat Heaven” by Cynthia Rylant, Blue Sky Press, September 1997

And the silly fun-loving summer music festival Old Bearded God—a barefooted guy with brown skin, a beard, and a Dr. Seuss hat—my favorite because it’s the description my 4 and half year old daughter Katie gave me (and which I drew) on Friday when I asked her what God looked like.

"God According To Katie Acton" illustration by Andy Acton, Friday April 12, 2013
“God According To Katie Acton” illustration by Andy Acton, Friday April 12, 2013

There are many forms and expressions for God, some of which attempt to explain how God interacts with human beings (a few gleaned from scripture, others from particular religious beliefs) like:

Law Enforcement God who is watching and waiting for us to screw up so he can punish us.

Scorekeeper God who is tallying our good and bad deeds to determine whether we fall on God’s good side or God’s bad side.

Lightning-Bolts-From-The Fingertips God who delivers wrath …in dramatic ways.

These views of God’s personality or character, while commonplace,

are also problematic. They do a great deal of damage to the image of God and Christianity in the world. The distorted notion that God

relishes the opportunity to punish,

keeps score of good deeds,

delivers electrifying wrath or,

flippantly causes bad things to happen,

come from certain Christians (most notably influential religious and political figures) who have scared other Christians into believing such nonsense so they can sit in righteous indignation and power over everyone else.

They project these views of God in the public sphere in a vain attempt to keep people in line—to adhere to an absolute correct way of thinking and talking about God, of interpreting God’s word in scripture, and living out one’s faith in God.

They ultimately try to contain God in a box and only let what they want of God to be pulled forth from their box.

But God cannot and will not be contained, confined or controlled.

God is, in the words of the Exodus story, a flame of fire in a bush that is blazing, but not consumed.

And from that fiery bush, the indistinguishable God chooses the shepherd Moses to go into Egypt:

The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

Moses says to this Divine Spark burning in the desert wilderness:

“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 replies:

“I am who I am. …Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”…‘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.

“I am who I am” 

That is God’s name. That is who God says God is.  Not

The Holy Burning Bush

The Old Bearded Man

The Man Upstairs

The Creator

The Almighty

All wonderful nicknames and descriptions but not the official name of God,

The name of all names,

“I am who I am” 

“Ehyeh aser ehyeh” in the Hebrew

The word ehyeh is the first person singular imperfect form of the word hayah, which means “existed” or “was.”

So “Ehyeh aser ehyeh” literally means, “I will be what I will be”

“I am who I am”

God’s name for all eternity.  Not the

judgmental,

punishing,

score-keeping,

wrathful deity

that some Christians want God to always be to scare others into belief.

“I am who I am”  

God’s title for all generations. Not solely the

Creator,

heavenly Father,

king,

man upstairs,

still, small voice,

or

old bearded deity

that some Christians want God to always be to simplify or water down faith.

“I am who I am”   is not easily seen, felt or touched.

“I am who I am”   is not accessible in the same way that you and I are accessible to one another.

When we pray to God or worship God, it is difficult to form the most exact, concrete and consistent image in our minds.

But still,  many of us have this feeling that there is something more going on in life that allows us to experience such amazing depths of

knowledge,

creativity,

joy,

love,

mercy and hope

in our relationships with one another and the universe. We have this sense that there is some mysteriously divine and benevolent source behind it all.

And that sense that there is something greater than all of us which also desires to be intimately connected to all of creation is what it means to practice the Apophatic tradition.

Held alongside the Kataphatic ways of speaking about the God, we are reminded through the Apophatic method that “God can never be reduced to images or contained by words.” At the end of the day, when all the God talk has subsided, “reverent loving silence is sometimes the most eloquent form of theology.”

In his recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About God, author and pastor Rob Bell points out that:

When we talk about God we’re using language, language that employs a vast array of words and phrases and forms to describe a reality that is fundamentally beyond words and phrases and forms.

Words and images point us to God; they help us understand the divine, but they are not God…When God is described (in scripture) as father or mother or judge or potter or rock or fortress … those writers are taking something they’ve seen, something they’ve experienced, and they’re essentially saying, ‘God is like that.’ It’s an attempt to put that which is beyond language into a frame or form we can grasp…And sometimes language helps, and sometimes language fails.

When God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, dwelt among humanity more than 2,000 years ago, language about who God was and what God was doing failed the religious leaders and the Roman Empire.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the scheming scribes and Pharisees whom he has just stopped from stoning a woman caught cheating on her spouse:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in  darkness but will have the light of life.”

The indignant Pharisees tell Jesus that his testimony is garbage. And Jesus calmly responds:

“Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. 15 You judge by human standards;[a] I judge no one.”

The Pharisees and the scribes are unrelenting in their view that God will come among the people of Israel as a mighty warrior and king like David or in the form of sinister storms and plagues (just like in the old days) to vanquish their foes, the Roman Empire.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ time are absolutely certain God is a Law Enforcement/Score-Keeping/Lighting Bolts type deity; never would God come in the form of a peaceful-loving, mercy-bearing carpenter’s son from the two-bit town of Nazareth in Galilee.

And so the language the Pharisees and scribes have for understanding God fails, preventing them from recognizing that

“I am who I am”   the light of the world

that shines through darkness,

that comes and goes on its own accord,

that judges no one,

is standing before them.

Later on in John’s gospel, Jesus—betrayed, beaten and bound in chains—is brought before Pilate, the Roman governor and figurehead for the Empire.

Pilate asks somewhat condescendingly if Jesus is “the king of the Jews,” which triggers a dialogue between the two about who Jesus or God is:

Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to (The Jewish authorities) … But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?” Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’

Pontius Pilate’s allegiance is to multiple Roman gods and to self-proclaimed savior emperor named Caesar who seeks to conquer the world through violence and oppression.

Pilate could care less about the God of Israel and even less about a man who has been brought forth on charges of blasphemy. But he is certain that Jesus’ kingship cannot overshadow Caesar’s throne.

And so the language (or lack thereof) that Pilate has for understanding God fails, preventing him from recognizing that

“I am who I am”   whose kingdom is not from this world,

 whose followers are not called to fight violently for their rabbi’s release,

who embodies the truth that is God,

is standing before him.

God can never be summed up in one word, phrase or idea to serve our own agendas or fit into our nicely wrapped packages.

God is beyond anything we can deduce and imagine.

“I am who I am”  is the one who hears the cries of those in pain and liberates the downtrodden and oppressed

“I am who I am”  is the one whose light comes into the world and radiates love in the darkest of places

“I am who I am”  is all this and much, much more

That is the truth, “forever, for all generations”

 Amen

…………………………………………………..

Resources:

Animate Faith, “God: A Quest for Faith” by Brian McLaren, http://animate.wearesparkhouse.org/, 2012

Re:Form Faith, “Traditions” http://reform.wearesparkhouse.org/traditions/, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell, Harper One Publishing, 2013.

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