My thanks to Nancy Johnson for sharing a well-crafted story of her spiritual journey last Sunday, while I was away at the Association of Disciples for Theological Discussion.
This was the second and final Sunday on the beliefs portion of the Spiritual Inventory series (spiritual practices, beliefs, fellowship, and mission). There are all kinds of religious beliefs we could examine, but I chose addressing how God acts for today because (1) I think it addresses a crucial intellectual difficulty that many have with faith in God and (2) it relates so closely to the rest of the series: the way we understand our spiritual practices, the way God is present in our fellowship, and the point of missions.
A caveat: I wish I had had more time to explore Paul’s view of God. I do not mean to say that Paul would agree exactly with how I describe God acting in this sermon. But I think it is consistent with what he tends to put first when it comes to how God acts in our life. I guess I’d say that the New Testament times, in which Paul lived, were suffused with the powerful action of the Spirit, such that there was little distinction between God acting in Jesus and God acting now in our lives. I think we experience things differently, with a 2000-year gulf between Jesus and ourselves.
Isaiah 45:1-7 ; 1st Thessalonians 1:1-10
In 587 BC, Israel went into exile at the hands of the Babylonians, who destroyed the Jerusalem temple and carried away its riches. The Babylonians no doubt attributed their victory to the power of their gods over the God of Israel. But Isaiah, early on in his prophesies, saw Israel’s defeat as God’s act of divine punishment for Israel’s lack of faithfulness. In our reading from Isaiah for today, God is speaking to Cyrus, calling him the “anointed”—literally, God’s messiah or Christ. Cyrus was the new Persian emperor, who went on to defeat the Babylonians and subsequently allowed the Israelites to return and rebuild their temple. In this passage, God is telling Cyrus that it is in fact God who is acting through him, even though Cyrus seems unable to recognize this: “I call you by name…though you do not know me.” For Isaiah, God is doing it all: the destruction of Israel, the restoration of Israel. It sounds both comforting and terrifying. “I form light and create darkness, I make weal (well-being) and create woe. I the Lord do all these things.”
We might similarly be inclined to see God acting in the seeming accidents and incidentals of our life. Do you prayerfully expect God to send a Cyrus into your life? Or do you see God’s judging hand at work when something goes wrong? Do you see the hand of God when you get that windfall of a tax return? Or when you find out that you’re losing your hearing? Is this how God acts in your life? Do you see everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, to be by God’s hand?
I don’t. I certainly don’t sit around and wonder why God did this and not that, today; why God made my glasses vanish, again, or why, as some people might say, God gave my mother dementia. I’m not willing to say Isaiah was simply wrong. Nor do I deny that God can act in my life in an extraordinary way. I have experienced God’s intervention. What about you? Question 1 on the Spiritual Inventory asks you about when God has acted in your life. And do you see that act of God as connected with the God we worship in church?
There was an evening when I was 16 in which I placed myself before God’s presence in a powerful and tumultuous way. As I regained composure, I thought it would be comforting to have a friend visit, especially my friend Rick. A few minutes later, Rick arrived. He later said he was just driving around and didn’t know why he decided to stop in. I can’t explain it. Nor do I feel the need to. This time when God seemingly intervened in my life is not a particularly important event in my spiritual life. So even though I concede that it is possible, I don’t sit around waiting for God to intervene in this way. I want to explain why today.
For one thing, if we think of God as stepping in and intervening in our lives when we need it, we will inevitably have to ask why God fails to intervene so often. What about those in genuine need who cry out to God and meet only a bad end? That happens every day around the globe. How many among us have cried out to God to intervene, perhaps not for ourselves, but more likely for a loved one—a son in danger, a family member facing a grave illness. And are you angry that God didn’t do anything? That’s question two in our inventory.
It makes sense that you’d be angry, and some of the psalms express just that anger; but maybe you are angry because you expect God to act in a way that God does not. Maybe you are expecting God to act like some movie superhero who comes to our rescue when we face great peril, but who otherwise leaves us alone and hangs out in the Bat Cave or Mt. Olympus, or another heavenly abode. Maybe you are angry at that god there, in that heaven, who ignored you in your time of great need; you’re angry at superhero god or worse, angry at yourself—afraid you did not do enough to appease this god and entice him to come to your aid. If only I had prayed harder, if only I followed god’s rules better, if only I went to church more…
Or maybe you once were angry at or disappointed with this god, and so you’ve relocated god far, far away. Maybe you’ve found bitter comfort by making god remote, a distant creator who merely watches the world from afar and doesn’t interfere. So maybe you no longer think of god as really active in your daily life. Or maybe, instead of imprisoning God in some remote, far away location, you have confined god to the nearest location: your own inner voice. Maybe god only acts in your life now as a whisperer, a voice of conscience and inner insight, but whom you keep safely tucked away in the quiet of your spirit. These very different beliefs about where God is and how God acts all spin out from the same starting point: we want God to act like a powerful policeman or umpire in the world, stepping in to help or to cry foul; and when God fails to do this, we perhaps demote God to a less significant role—the distant architect, or the inner voice.
God can fill all of these roles, but I don’t think we should limit God to them. None of them is very biblical, and none matches well with the way we worship and sing about God. Have you fallen into one of these options: God the fixer; God the remote artificer; God the quiet whisperer? Is this you? That’s question three. Are these ideas about God really working for you?
This is why beliefs really matter. Beliefs affect how we pray to God, what we expect from God, what we hope from God. They affect the spiritual practices we’ve already talked about, as well as the fellowship and mission which are up next in this series. Theology can get very speculative and get lost in the clouds, trust me, I know, but right now we are talking about beliefs that make a difference. And all of us hold ideas about God that are not truly up to the greatness of God. Like the Thessalonians Paul writes to, we all need to turn away from idols and worship the living and true God. I’m preaching about this because I want us to go beyond the little idols of our own mind that get in the way of the true God.
So who is the “living and true” God? Well, I don’t think that the true God just steps in now and then to act, as if he were an absent-minded Super or something. We come up with (or we hear from preachers!) these simple-minded images for who God is, and they often lead us into worshipping less than the true God. But the Bible never, or almost never, has God appear in person to save the day. Rather, God the creator is ceaselessly at work in and through all things. So even though prophets like Isaiah can identify a particular act, like Cyrus’ rise, with God, strictly speaking God does not act only here or only there, but everywhere. And if God acts everywhere, then God acts in no one place.
My teacher, Kathryn Tanner, came up with this way of explaining it: God doesn’t act in the same way as all the other things act in the world. So you don’t have to say: either nature acts, or God acts; either human beings do something, or God does something. God exists within everything, so close that God acts in and through everything, even while God is completely beyond everything. And no, we shouldn’t expect this to be clear and easily grasped. If you want something you can easily grasp, be prepared to end up with an idol in your hand.
One helpful outcome of Tanner’s view is that we no longer need to choose between science and religious faith. God acts ceaselessly in and through nature, rather than intervening in it from the outside. Now, Dan Brown has a new book out, Origin, which I will not read, because DaVinci Code was enough for me. I’d rather just enjoy the snarky reviews. They tell me that as Origin begins, a whiz-kid innovator is about to reveal a discovery that [quote] “boldly contradicted almost every established religious doctrine, and it did so in a distressingly simple and persuasive manner.” Right before the big reveal, the innovator is assassinated by a nefarious Catholic agent, and the rest of the plot unfolds likewise in a distressingly simple and predictable manner. The innovator’s discovery apparently has to do with a scientific experiment showing that life could have begun through random, natural processes, rather than a divine ‘zap.’ Well, I hate to ruin the plot, but this ‘discovery’ doesn’t end religion as I know it at all. Because the god Dan Brown is ‘debunking’ is an idol. It is a superhero god who pokes his finger into the world and goes “zap.” Anyone who imagines such a god—and that’s probably all of us at one time or another—is picturing god to act here and there, in time and in space, just like a creature acts. Just like we act, only more powerfully. To confuse God with a creature in this way is the very definition of idolatry. I don’t think Dan Brown has any idea who this one that Paul calls “the living and true God” is. Neither apparently do all the creationists who are trying to interfere with the teaching of evolution in our public schools. God as described by Kathryn Tanner, does not step in to zap the first bacterium into being, but acts everywhere and nowhere. By the way, you might suspect that Tanner is just redefining God to avoid the challenges of science and Darwin, but in fact her ideas stem from how theologians understood God 1000 years or more before Darwin.
Just 500 years ago (big anniversary of the Reformation this month, remember?), Martin Luther echoed Isaiah by saying, there’s the God we know from the Word, who works our life and salvation by the Spirit. And then there’s the hidden God, who “works life, and death, and all in all.” We aren’t to worry about that hidden God. What we need to focus on is the God who works for our salvation, who asks us to put our faith in him. This is the God who acts here in the church, through God’s Word and Spirit. I submit to you that this is how we should first and foremost think of God acting in our lives.
We see this in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Paul begins, as always, by giving thanks to God for their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.” Notice that the actions Paul is thankful for are not divine, cloud-parting miracles. He’s not thankful that God cured their disease or spared them from the latest war or miraculously provided them with food. Instead he’s thankful for their ordinary actions of faith, love, and hope. They, the Thessalonians, did these ordinary (but if you think about it, genuinely miraculous) actions; but God is the author, because their work of faith, love, and hope are “in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This work that God did in them happened through Paul. He preached the Word about Jesus Christ to them, about what God has done, once and forever, in Jesus. And the message lit up in them and took off. As Paul puts it, “Our message came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” They received this gospel and it gave their lives the new shape of faith, love, and hope.
All of this good power, power for the good, is God’s action in the Thessalonians, through Paul and his friends; God’s action by Word and Spirit. When the same happens here to us, we recognize the action of the God who is Jesus Christ and the God who is the Holy Spirit. We hear the truth about God (unless our preaching goes astray), and it lights up in us, it rings true to us, it changes the way we see the world and ourselves and others, and it unleashes a power in us, the power of the Holy Spirit, that starts to move outward to others. There’s no science-defying miracle here. There’s no portentous sign from above. No magic. It’s all just the stuff of ordinary humanity: some words, maybe some water, maybe some bread and juice, and then a new understanding, a new energy and purpose. Yet how momentous are these ordinary acts of God! A new way of life is born into the world. This is the stuff of the coming Kingdom of God.
We will no doubt keep praying for God to intervene in our lives. “God forbid,” as we say, if Jessica or Silas were to become seriously ill, I’d be on my knees praying for a miracle. Scripture also tells us to cast all our cares upon God. But let us not lose sight of the greatest miracle of divine action in our very midst. God speaks to us in the story of Christ Jesus, and that story reshapes our life together into a holy love for all. Let us not forget to pray above all for that. Pray that God’s word may be rightly preached here, not just by me, but by all of us. Pray that you (and I) will understand that word and it will come with the power of the Holy Spirit to reshape our life. And may God be with you, choosing you out of the depths of God’s mystery to receive God the Word and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Spiritual Inventory Week Six
Since I mentioned super-heroes…