A Sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, March 14, 2004, Lent 3, dedicated to the 15 new adult members and their 13 children, a special dedication to Schlelia Daines and Arstell Washington on their baptismal day, and always to the glory of God!
(Part IV of VIII in the sermon series "The Heart of Christianity")
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
At the heart of Christianity is God. Without a great declaration affirming God's reality, Christian faith makes no sense and crumbles to the ground. To have Jesus, upon whom we build the centrality of our faith, we must have God at the heart of this centrality. God is the One at the Heart of All.
So often our hymn writers, like Brian Wren, gather together the many names we call our God. Look at your bulletin, "Strong-Mother God, Warm Father-God, Old Aching God, Young Growing God, Great, Living God, the One who is Wiser than despair, far beyond our Seeing, Genius at play, Everlasting Home." In "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," Walter Chalmers Smith offers us another array of names for God. Smith continues, "In Light, Inaccessible, Hid from our Eyes, All Blessed, All Glorious, the Ancient of Days, Almighty, Victorious, thy Great name we praise. Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light, nor wanting nor wasting Thou rulest in might, Thy justice like mountains high soaring above, Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love"
Whether in hymnody or in holy scripture, the names and nature of God are described as unchangeable, infinite, impassible, and both an omniscient and omnipresent. In fact, in Hebrew, God's name may not be spoken with vowels. Thus, "YHWH" is used to utter the unspeakable name of God.
In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg describes the relationship for the God I have named mostly (thus far) as one in which God is "out there." This is the God of "the More." But, there is also the God who is "right here." This God with whom we walk and talk and relate in a prayerful and personal way. As the Apostle Paul says in Acts 17:28, this is "the God in whom we live and move and have our being." Notice how the language works. We are in God. We live in God. We move in God. We have our being in God. This God is not "out there." This God is "in here." (Borg, p.66). So which is it? Is God out there? Is God in here? I believe, as most do in our Christian faith, that it is both.
In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a passing reference to a God who does "Wholesale business," and a God who does "Retail business" (William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997, pp. 383-384). Borg appropriates James' expressions and goes on to explain that the "wholesale God" in any religion is the God of "ultimate reality" and "being itself." The "retail God" is the God (or in Hinduism, the gods) who we find as the central character(s) of the sacred texts and stories. This God, by nature, is the personal God who takes on personlike being (Ibid, pp. 70-72). Although some may find this language for God too crass, I believe it helps us conceptualize God in ways that we understand. In the one, God is distant in a storehouse of experience. In the other, God is tangible, touchable, realizable in way we can move, and live and have our being. However, you see God, I believe that God is more of a presence than a force or energy source.
I am one who believes God speaks to us. I don't mean, necessarily, in a way of hearing voices or divine proclamation. I believe God speaks in dreams and visions, in prodding, in pulling, in leading us through the right path when we are faced with choices, through people who are in the path of God, through devotion and worship, through scripture and tradition. In all these ways, I believe God is still speaking. So our task is to listen to God in our lives (to paraphrase Frederick Buechner). We need to listen to what happens in our lives because it is through what happens that God speaks. It is in language that is not always easy to decipher, but it is powerful, memorable, unforgettable.
An example of listening to God in our lives happened here in the service held Friday Night praying for the deliverance of the Highway Shooter - a deliverance to justice. In a language that for many of us was hard to decipher, the language of Full Gospel Baptist prayer, we were led by Dr. Johannes Christian. His names for God, his words to God, his style and the style of his elders in prayer was not familiar to many of us who were present. For some, it may have been uncomfortable. But, at the heart of his prayer (and mine) was and is a deep and abiding belief that the Highway Shooter will lay down his gun, pick up the phone and turn himself in. I have this belief because I believe he will repent, face justice and face the consequences of killing Gail Knisley and shooting over 23 other cars and trucks. Because I believe the character of God is one of love and justice, I believe through the power of love, God will find a way to bring this man to justice.
As much as we speak about God and prayer that God will reveal God's will to us, there is another dimension of the I-Thou relationship we must consider. Often, you and I feel the silence and absence of God. Perhaps many us feel this more than we feel the presence and power of God. But it is important to note that the Bible speaks more of God's utter silence than God's utterances. In his book, The Disappearance of God, Rabbi Richard Elliot Friedman posits this claim. Rabbi Friedman chronicles the divine recession in Hebrew Scripture. Working his way from Genesis through the minor prophets, Rabbi Friedman paints a portrait of God that fades as he goes. The picture of God which seems clear at the beginning changes as God recedes and humanity steps forward. In other words, Hebrew scripture tells us a story of God who chooses to speak and act less and less.
After Babel, God was never again made visible to all humankind. The people of Israel had a special relationship with God that lasted through their 40 years of wondering in the wilderness, but after Moses saw God's backside on Sinai, the period of visible, audible encounters with God came to an end. After the commandments were delivered, God never spoke directly to the people again. Moses had to hide his eyes in God's presence and after Moses no one was alive who had ever laid eyes on God.
With the words in the Exodus, "I AM WHO I AM," God offers as much an explanation of Godself as we are to receive until the revelation of Jesus Christ. With Samuel as the last person to whom God was "revealed," and Solomon the last person to whom God "appeared," the verb for God is retired. With God's last public miracle on Mt. Carmel as Elijah destroys the prophets of Ba'al, God takes a lower and lower profile. Visions and dreams replace the mighty acts of God. Then, for the next one thousand years, the people of Israel simply remember God, worship God, and glorify God. But, the personal relationship that once existed with God recedes and God becomes largely a matter of personal belief.
Until the time of Jesus, when you and I come to know God in the Christ, God is silent. In Jesus, God becomes visible and audible again. Angels sing of his birth and attend to him in the wilderness. Miracles follow him around. Winds and water obey him. The angels of God announce his coming and clear his path. God speaks at his baptism and his transfiguration, "This is my beloved son, the one in whom I well pleased."
The effect Christ's coming has on Christianity is to make us an overly talkative religion. But, truthfully, God is silent in Christian scriptures as well as in Hebrew scriptures. In each gospel, the Word comes forth from God's silence. IN John, the Word comes from the silence at the beginning of creation. In Luke, the silence of poor old Zechariah accompanies his wife Elizabeth as she gives birth to John. For Matthew, there is the uncomfortable silence between Mary and Joseph as she explains how she got pregnant before their marriage. And in Mark, the voice of the prophet tears through the wilderness silence of generations to bring good news of Jesus' coming. And certainly, in the passion narratives as the end of the gospels Jesus' silence before the authorities and God's silence when called upon by his own beloved son while sweats blood in the Garden of Gethsemane is shattering to say the least. (Images on the silence of God are drawn from Barbara Brown Taylor's book, When God is Silent, Cowley Publications, Cambridge, MA. , 1998, pp. 41-82).
But, in the midst of crying out to God for answers, we need to remember that "only idols always answer. The God who keeps silence, even when God's own flesh and blood is begging for a word, is the God beyond anyone's control. An answer will come, but not until the silence is complete. And even then, the answer will be given in silence. With the cross and the empty tomb, God has provided us with two events that defy all our efforts to domesticate them" (Taylor, p. 80).
God is still speaking - in silence as well as in the listening to our lives. In closing, I share the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson who has written, "Do not speak of God too much. After a very little conversation on the highest nature, thoughts desert us and we run for formalism."
Each of us seeks God. And as we do, let us carry more listening than speaking into the pursuit. Let us be disciplined by wonder more than words. In silence, in listening; in wonder, I close with these words from Robert Nathan:
Now from the world the light of God is gone,
And we in darkness move and are afraid,
Some blaming heaven for the evil done,
And some each other for the part they played.
And all their woes on God are strictly laid,
For being absent from these earthly ills,
Who set the trees to be the noontide shade,
And placed the stars in beauty of the hills.
Turn not away and cry that all is lost;
It is not so, the world is in God's hands
As once it was when Egypt's mighty host
Rode to the sea and vanished in the sands.
For still the heart, by love and pity wrung.
Finds the same God as when the world was young.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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