Wednesday, October 14, 2009

God Knows our Way
Job 23:1-10; Heb. 4:12-16[1]
It’s a strange thing to make a living talking about God. Well, for me it is anyway. I realize there are a lot of folks out there who talk all day long about God and never bat an eye. But I’ve always been keenly aware that whenever I talk about God, what I don’t know by far exceeds what I do know! Because God is beyond our ability to grasp or conceive, we all find ourselves at times saying with Job, “If I go forward, God is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left god hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9). No matter how hard we may have searched for God, it seems God is nowhere to be found. And so we all find ourselves at times asking with the Psalmist, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Ps. 22:1). We struggle with life and do all that we can to work out our salvation, and yet it still seems that no trace of God can be found. We may ask with the Apostles, “who can be saved?” (Mk. 10:26); I think the real question we’re asking is “can anyone be saved?” Jesus’ answer, “for God all things are possible,” doesn’t quite satisfy Peter. He blurts out, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” I think he may have been asking Jesus, “Have we left everything and followed you for nothing?”
As long as we worship a “hidden” God, we may never permanently dispel our doubts about God and salvation. But in the face of our deepest doubts, the book of Hebrews insists again: “We see Jesus.” The idea that Jesus incarnated God not only means that Jesus really and truly shows us what God is like. It also means Jesus shows us that God really and truly understands what it is like to be fully human. Jesus’ experience of our full humanity assures us that God empathizes with us in every facet of our lives.
As hard as it may be to comprehend, one of the major points in the doctrine of incarnation is that God really knows and understands all of our struggles and sufferings, because in Jesus God experienced them. The idea of the incarnation is not just a matter of God “pretending” to be a human being. [2] It’s a matter of God fully entering our reality and fully sharing our humanity in order to redeem every aspect of human experience. And what this means is that we can be confident that God not only “knows the ways that we take,” (cf. Job 23:10) but also understands and compassionately supports us in everything we have to go through. Hebrews says it this way: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). In Jesus, we have an advocate, a sponsor if you will, who is sympathetic because he has fully undergone all that we go through, and he passed every test.
One of the hardest challenges with the “hiddenness” of God is that we have plenty of times in our lives when we may feel like we are forsaken by heaven. But the idea of the incarnation is that the one who fully shared our experience took on even that experience of forsakenness in order to redeem us. Because we all can feel God-forsaken, Jesus became “God-forsaken” for us all on the cross to show us definitively that none of us is ever truly forsaken. Let me add that I do not believe that God actually “forsook” Jesus on the cross. But I do believe that Jesus actually felt “God-forsaken” in the agony he underwent. But even in the depth of his despair, God was there with him.
It may seem strange to us that “God” would undergo such an experience. In fact, most of us have probably believed that it isn’t possible for God to undergo the same experiences we do, simply because that’s what goes with being “God.” But that would be to embrace a view of God that is not biblical. The biblical view of God is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated it in the last year of his life, “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.”[3]
In one sense, then, the incarnation is about who God is. But in another sense, it is about understanding what God is doing in this world. Part of the answer is that God is in the process of restoring all things, as I’ve already said. From this perspective, the answer to the question can anyone be saved is a resounding “Yes!”[4] But to some extent, that can still leave us feeling “God-forsaken,” struggling with our lives in the frustration of feeling like no matter how hard we may search for God, God is nowhere to be found. And so the other part of the message of the incarnation is that God has entered our experience in a dramatic way to leave us a tangible reminder that “God himself participates in our suffering and takes our pains on himself.”[5] The cross is the most powerful demonstration that, no matter what our experience with life may be, “he knows the way that I take” (Job 23:10).[6]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/11/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 240
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letter to Eberhard Bethge dated July 16, 1944, from Letters and Papers from Prison. He continues, “Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a Deus ex machine. The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.” Cf. also Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, rev. ed., 828-891; on this specific letter, cf. ibid., 868-69. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 47.
[4] William C. Placher and David Willis-Watkins, Belonging to God: A Commentary on A Brief Statement of Faith, 60: “The aim and goal of God’s living among us as a human is to deliver, restore, and heal the human condition. The incarnation is God’s establishing solidarity with humanity, not just to comfort persons, but actively to deliver them.”
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 39. He says, “If God takes this road with Christ, if God himself was in Christ, then Christ brings God’s companionship to people who are as humiliated and as emptied of their identity as he was. Christ’s cross stands between all the countless crosses which line the paths of the powerful and the violent, from Spartacus to the concentration camps and to the people who have died of hunger or who have ‘disappeared’ in Latin America.”
[6] Cf. Raymond Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, 151: “A Jesus who walked through the world with unlimited knowledge, knowing exactly what the morrow would bring, knowing with certainty that three days after his death his Father would raise him up, would be a Jesus who could arouse our admiration, but a Jesus still far from us. He would be a Jesus far from a humankind that can only hope in the future and believe in God’s goodness, far from a humankind that must face the supreme uncertainty of death with faith but without knowledge of what is beyond. On the other hand, a Jesus for whom the detailed future had elements of mystery, dread, and hope as it has for us and yet, at the same time, a Jesus who would say, ‘Not my will but yours’—this would be a Jesus who could effectively teach us how to live, for this Jesus would have gone through life’s real trials.”

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