Sunday, October 22, 2006

“Sympathetic God”

Hebrews 4:12-16[1]

I must confess that I am one of those people who have trouble with a male image of God. When I think of God as a “he,” God feels distant, disconnected, unconcerned, and uncaring.

So I understand it when people talk about needing to find an alternative image for God. One of my favorite images is from the 1996 movie “A Family Thing.” It’s a story about a 60-year-old man from Arkansas named Earl whose mother dies and leaves him a letter where she reveals that she’s not his real mother. As it turns out, his father had impregnated a young black woman who worked for them. Earl’s mother wants to tell him the truth and to tell him that he has a half-brother in Chicago.

So Earl piles into his beat-up pickup truck and drives to Chicago to find his half-brother, Ray, who is played by James Earl Jones. But when he gets there Ray isn’t very happy to see Earl. You see, he had known the truth about Earl all along, and he had hated him because their mother died giving birth to Earl. Ray was raised by Aunt T., who still lives with him even though she’s getting up there in age.

Ray and Earl finally have it out, and Earl decides to leave. But Aunt T. will have none of it! Because Aunt T. is blind, she says “I don't have the blessing of being able to separate people out by looking at them no more.” And she insists that her stubborn nephew Ray become as color-blind as she is. She doesn’t care what kind of racist her nephew Earl is; he’s flesh and blood and that's all that matters. “I loved my sister,” she tells Earl, “and you her boy, so I love you, too.”

Aunt T. is my image of God. She’s a big black woman with white hair, she’s blind, and she walks with a cane. And here’s this scrawny redneck from Arkansas who shows up on their doorstep after all these years. And when the chips are down, Aunt T. embraces him as her nephew, as family. It doesn’t matter that she’s black and he’s white, because Earl is her sister’s boy, and that’s all that matters for Aunt T. And that means that she loves Earl with a love that will not let him go. What’s more she will take on anyone who tries to get between her and her nephew.

I like that image of God. It reassures me to think of God as someone who loves me with that kind of fierce love.

Through the ages, I would think that there have been many images for God and many ways of describing God. I doubt that “sympathetic” has been on the “top ten list.” Although many will describe God as “compassionate,” I dare say that the way they imagine God doesn’t turn out to be very compassionate. You know, the God who picks some and rejects others. Or the God who smites people just for the heck of it. Or the God who sends a tsunami to punish a whole continent for not being Christian!

For generations, no—for centuries, our image of God has been one of a remote and distant tyrant who can be benevolent at times, but who more often than not is harsh and cruel. Through the ages, men and women have viewed God as someone to stay away from, someone who is dangerous so you don’t want to get too close. We don’t typically view the throne of God as a throne of grace that we can boldly approach to find mercy. In some cultures, a person who approached a king on his throne without being invited was subject to be killed!

But the letter to the Hebrews tells us about a different God—a God of grace and mercy, a God who empathizes with our struggles and sympathizes with our plight, a God who shares our pain and our suffering.[2] And we see that image of God reflected most clearly in Jesus, who in his capacity as our redeemer has “passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14—or better TEV, “gone into the very presence of God”). But more importantly, this Jesus who is our redeemer “understands our weaknesses” because he “faced all of the same temptations as we do” (Heb 4:15, NLT).

I think it is high time to make a final break with the image of God as distant, dispassionate, unconcerned, and uncaring.[3] The image of God revealed by Jesus Christ, the crucified savior, is one of sympathy, caring, and understanding, a God who is intimately involved with us and who cares deeply about us.[4] Because God understands everything we go through, God empathizes with our experience.

This has always been the image of God in Scripture, from the Creator walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, to the strange guest who debates the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah with his friend Abraham, to the one who sees the plight of the helpless and hears their cries for relief, the one who heals the brokenhearted and defends the widow and the orphan.[5]

And I think that it’s perfectly legitimate to use whatever image you need to be able to see God in this light—a God of “overflowing love”;[6] a merciful, gracious, and sympathetic God.

[1] A Sermon preached 10/15/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39; Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 413.

[3] As Jürgen Moltmann insists, The Crucified God, 215.

[4] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God, 14-19.

[5] Genesis 3:8; 18:16-33; Psalm 10:14, 17-18; 146:9; 147:3; Deuteronomy 10:18; Isaiah

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 15.

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