Sunday’s sermon: Who Is This God Character?

who is God

Texts used – Genesis 3:1-15; 1 John 2:24-3:3

  • When I went to college at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, I settled pretty quickly into a Religious Studies major.
    • Found the classes fascinating
      • In-depth study of various world religions
      • Philosophy of religion courses – Modern Religious Thought and Religion and Morality
      • Topical exploration courses – Women in World Religions, The Problem of Evil
    • Among all of these requirements and electives, there was one class that I found particularly challenging: “Critiques of God”
      • Basic break-down of the class: 400 level course, small attendance (~12 students), exceptionally intelligent professor, met for one 3-hr. class per week to hash through things
      • Description from the course catalogue: “Criticisms and objections to the concept of a Supreme Being, leading either to atheism or to non-theistic religions. Movements, systems of thought, and major thinkers who for various reasons have rejected the idea of a God.”[1]  → Basically, this class presented us with every major argument posed throughout history for why God could not/should not exist.
      • I have to be honest with you, this class was really difficult for me. I’d never had my faith questioned like that before – directly denounced on an intellectual level. This class didn’t just challenge aspects of my faith – a doctrine here or a Scriptural interpretation there. It challenged the very foundation of my faith – the existence of God.
    • Now, for the last month, we’ve been talking about various uncomfortable aspects of faith – relationships and stepping outside our comfort zones, wrestling with God and hope. But today, I want to talk about how uncomfortable it can be to cling to faith even when it is challenged and questioned. In our empirically-minded, proof-centered society, we have to admit that it can sometimes be uncomfortable for us to ground ourselves in One who is intangible and unexplainable, inconceivable and ultimately unproveable.
  • OT passage w/Moses illustrates just how unexplainable and undefineable the nature of God truly is → catch Moses in a particularly uncomfortable moment
    • On the one hand, Moses is trying to come to terms with God’s actions.
      • 1st: appears in a burning bush and speaks to Moses out of nowhere
      • Next: declares this scrubby little patch of desert “holy ground”
      • Then: fills Moses in on God’s grand intention to free Israelites from centuries-old Egyptian enslavement
      • Final wrap-up: “Oh, by the way, Moses, you’re going to do this for me.” – God in text: So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.[2]  → Imagine how dumbfounded Moses must have been by all of this.
        • Scholar: In one brief utterance, the grand intention of God has become a specific human responsibility, human obligation, and human vocation. It is Moses who will do what Yahweh said, and Moses who will run the risk that Yahweh seemed ready to take.[3]
    • And as if dealing with all this isn’t enough, Moses also finds himself struggling to grasp the nature of God, to understand who God really – text: Moses said to God, “If I now come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they are going to ask me, ‘What’s this God’s name?’ What am I supposed to say to them?”[4]
      • God’s reply = cryptic at best
        • Heb. word = difficult to pin down – repetition of word “life,” verb “to be” → being of being … becoming of becoming … “I am who I am”[5] … “I will be who I will be”
        • We have to feel for Moses here. I mean, he asks God for a name, some sort of identifier that he can take back to the people of Israel – proof in the face of anticipated skepticism, a name that will speak persuasively and rationally and convincingly to their minds. But instead, God gives Moses something even more vague and confounding than anything Moses could’ve come up with on his own: a name-formula meant to speak abstractly and transcendently to their hearts.
      • Brueggemann: [This] formula bespeaks power, fidelity, and presence. This God is named as the power to create, the one who causes to be. This God is the one who will be present in faithful ways, to make possible what is not otherwise possible.[6]  → This is a truly beautiful description. It’s poetic. It’s inspiring. It carries an indelible implication of holiness – sacred mystery and divine otherness … which is great … when you already believe. But today, the skepticism and incredulity of a post-modern world demands something measurable, something concrete and definitive, and for us, this causes an uncomfortable tension.
  • But I want you to stop and think for a minute about the life of Jesus – teaching when and where he shouldn’t, spending time with people that the Jewish leaders had already written off, loving his neighbors and his enemies alike, preaching a message of forgiveness for all. Jesus lived the gospel message directly into those times and places of uncomfortable tension, and we know that when Jesus faced the ultimate test of skepticism and spiritual hesitancy on the cross, he prevailed! So why should we be so afraid to even try?
    • NT passage speaks to this tension btwn. the faith in our heart-descriptions of God and the stipulations of our “prove it” culture → text: And now, little children, remain in relationship to Jesus, so that when he appears we can have confidence and not be ashamed in front of him when he comes. … Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.[7]
      • This passage is full of incomplete language. It acknowledges that what God is doing “hasn’t yet appeared.” The work of the gospel isn’t done yet. God is still working on us, in us, and through us. And it’s always harder – more uncomfortable – to describe a work-in-progress.
        • Scene from movie “The Vow” → artist is creating art/sculpture → boyfriend asks: “What is it?” → her response: “I don’t know yet.”
        • That’s the way we are, too. That’s the way our faith is. It’s not a definition. It’s not measurable or concrete. It’s not a moment of perfection frozen in time but a journey designed to bring us closer to God each and every day.
    • NT text also guarantees bumps in the road: I write these things to you about those who are attempting to deceive you.[8]  → Gr. “deceive” = “lead you astray,” “cause you to wander” – The deception the author is talking about goes beyond harmless, little white lies. This deception refers to those people and things and ideas that try to distract us. It refers to anything that tries to pull us away from our faith.
      • Relate to this → Toward the end of my senior year in college, I was struggling with reconciling the 4 years I’d spent intellectually studying religion with the faith that had fed my heart and soul my whole life. Somehow, in the midst of one critical-thinking class after another, my faith had migrated from my heart to my head … and it was stuck there.
        • Worship – hymns, prayers, Scriptures, sermons, all of it – became something to analyze, a source of study instead of a source of joy and renewal
        • Fortunately, I had a professor who, though she couldn’t talk about her personal faith in the classroom, was willing to speak to students outside of class. → helped me delineate between the intellectual side of things and the faith side – eventually freed me to lose myself in the awe and adoration of worship again
      • Scholar’s advice: When we center our selves, not in secular society’s immediate interests or anxious fears, but in God’s claims and intentions for us, we remember the One to whom we are finally accountable and from whom we draw our strength.[9]
      • Reassurance from text: See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are![10]  → “God’s children … that is what we are!” Even in the face of the most scrutinizing questions and uncomfortable challenges, this love – this title “God’s child” – cannot be taken from us.
  • So how do we respond to those scrutinizing questions and uncomfortable challenges – doubts, skepticism, incredulity? → Sorry, all … I don’t have any concrete answers for you today. But let’s think about some important concepts.
    • First, we need to be okay with not knowing the answers to all the questions. Moses surely didn’t know all the answers after his encounter with God in the desert … but he went anyway. Faith, at its very core, is unexplainable. Unproveable. Intangible. Inconceivable. We need to learn to be comfortable with that discomfort, to rely on the sovereignty of God – Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all – even in the face of all the world’s skepticism and doubt.
      • Book of Heb: Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.[11] → As Christians, we are not called to have the answers all the time. We are called to ground our identity and hope in the God that we know in our hearts.
    • Flip side – means we don’t give up
      • Don’t give up on continuing to learn about our faith → God at work in us
        • Remember text: [God’s] anointing teaches you about all things … and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be.[12]  → God is continually teaching us. Yes, there will always be some questions that we can’t answer, but how can we keep moving forward in our journey toward God if we stop trying to learn about God?
      • Also important to not give up on sharing God with the world – continue to share the gospel, when it’s comfortable … and when it’s not → Remember, God is still at work in us and through us. As Christians, we are called to carry God’s message of love and forgiveness to the world and to portray that love and forgiveness however we can. We are called to embody the gospel in the face of whatever the world may throw at us … because you never know who your words and actions are going to effect. You never know who God is touching through you.
      • v. 5 – “The Summons” calls us to this embodiment of the message → I find it powerful and telling that this verse comes at the end of the song. All the prior verses are full of questions – questions about who and where and how God is, questions about how and when and why we encounter God, questions about trust and commitment, hope and faith. And yet, when all the questions have been exhausted, there is this final verse – this statement of belief and devotion and faithfulness.
        • Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name. Let me turn and follow you and never be the same. In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show. Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.[13]
    • It kind of reminds me of my “Critiques of God” class. That class was full of questions: questions posed by the professor, questions posed by our readings, questions posed by my classmates – questions that haunted me long after I’d headed home at night. Fortunately, there were other Christians in the class with me – people who could talk their way through their faith intelligently and calmly without getting defensive or flustered or resorting to the “Because I said so” line of reasoning.
      • Without even knowing it, embodied God’s presence for me – taught strength, love and gracious in the face of uncomfortable questions and challenges
      • At the end of the class, their words and actions helped me remain grounded in God. When all those penetrating philosophical questions had been exhausted, the words and actions of these other Christians reassured and even strengthened my belief, my devotion, and my faithfulness.
    • In a world full of questions and doubt, how can you embody God’s love? In a society focused more on fact and figures than devotion and discipleship, how can you proclaim God’s forgiveness? What will win out in your heart, the skepticism … or the summons? Amen.

[1] From The University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire’s online course catalogue: http://www.uwec.edu/OAKDEV/RAR099/CATALOGUES/2009-2010/SPRING/RELS.HTM#450

[2] Ex 3:10.

[3] Walter Brueggemann. “Exodus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 1. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 713.

[4] Ex 3:13.

[5] Ex 3:14.

[6] Brueggemann, 714.

[7] 1 Jn 2:28; 3:2.

[8] 1 Jn 2:26.

[9] C. Clifton Black. “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 410-411.

[10] 1 Jn 3:1.

[11] Heb 11:1.

[12] 1 Jn 2:27b; 3:2b.

[13] “The Summons.” Traditional Scottish melody, words by John Bell. The Iona Community, Scotland, 1987.

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