Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Joyful Presence

Joyful Presence
Acts 17:22-31; Jn 14:15-21[1]   
  When it comes to our views of God, it seems that we tend to fall into one of two extremes: either God as a glorified version of Santa Clause or God as the exalted monarch. Some seem to envision God as a kindly, but somewhat comic figure, like George Burns or Morgan Freeman. God is good and cares about us, but is not someone you take very seriously. Others seem to think of God as if they were having an audience with the Queen of England. You only speak to God in certain tightly scripted ways, you address God with “Thees” and “Thous,” and you never, ever touch him. I think these extremes, either an overly casual view of God, or an overly formal view, seem to dominate our ideas about God.
  And yet, while the Scriptures do tread lightly when it comes to some aspects of experiencing God’s presence, in many ways they reveal a God who is both “high and lofty,” who “inhabits eternity,” but also is concerned about and present with “those who are contrite and humble in spirit” to give them new life (Isa. 57:15).  I’ll grant you, that’s a difficult balance to maintain. But if we’re talking about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the prophets, and the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, it’s a balance that we have to try to keep.[2]
  Two of our lessons for today observe that balance. In St. Paul’s sermon to the Greeks in Athens, he uses the fact that they had a shrine dedicated to “an unknown God” as an opportunity to proclaim to them the God who must have seemed very strange to them: a God who is both exalted and yet intimately involved in the lives of ordinary people. Paul begins by insisting that this “unknown” God whom he wants to make known to them is “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). He is the God who “gives to all mortals life and breath and all things” (17:25). This must have seemed to be a strange God indeed, for although the Greek deities were thought to be exalted and powerful, they saw mere mortals only as pawns to be used however it suited them.
  But this “unknown” God whom Paul seeks to introduce to the people of Athens is a God who cares very much about all creation, humanity included.[3] In fact, the whole reason why this God created humanity was to have a relationship with them. The Apostle puts it this way: “he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, ... so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27). The idea is that from the orderliness and beauty of nature, as well as from the mystery of their own experience, somehow people would be able to discern that behind it all stood a creator who loved them.
  And to emphasize the point, he quoted one of their own poets: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).[4] This was something that most people of his day and time very likely didn’t believe. They believed the “gods” lived on Mount Olympus, beyond their reach, but close enough to meddle in human affairs. But St. Paul presents the God of the Scriptures as one who is intimately involved in human life. As one contemporary observer put it, we live in a “God-bathed world.”[5] The God in whose presence we constantly live is the one who cares for and nurtures all creation.[6]  This God is always as close to us as the air we are breathing.[7] This kind of relationship with God is one that I would say few of the people of Athens would have thought possible.
  Jesus offered the same message to his disciples in our Gospel lesson. In this section of John’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his followers for his imminent departure. Although he said many things that they very likely didn’t fully understand at the time, after his death and resurrection, these teachings must have been among the most cherished of Jesus’ words. He has told them already that he is going to the Father; here he reassures them that he will not leave them alone. He promises to give them the “Spirit of Truth” who will live in them, but he also promises that his presence will be with them as well. Then he makes what must have been an astonishing statement to a group of Jewish fishermen: when he comes to them they would know “that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn. 14:20). In other words, not only would they enjoy his continued presence in their lives. They would also share with him in the relationship he had with the Father.[8] I can only imagine the look of shock on their faces as he made this amazing promise.
  It seems to me that this is another facet of Easter joy. Jesus and the Apostles promised that through him we can enjoy the constant presence of the God who is as close as the air we are breathing. The idea that we humans could possibly have a relationship with the “Lord of heaven and earth” is one that is just as astonishing today as it was then. And yet it is entirely consistent with the witness of the Scriptures. The promise of our Creator is that there is no place we can go that is outside the realm of God’s loving care.[9] The promise of our resurrected Savior is that wherever we are, he is with us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love.[10]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/25/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:477, where he says that the “lesson of Isaiah 57:15” is that “God in His love and for His love’s sake is present to everything and everywhere.”
[3] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:282-83, where he defines the fact that God is the one “who gives everything life and breath” by saying, “in loving us God has given and gives Himself to us, and gives Himself fully, since this loving is His own being and essence.”
[4] Paul is quoting the 6th century BCE poet Epimenides of Crete. On the presence of God in creation, cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:476: “there is no absence of God in His creation. There are in it many forms of the remoteness and nearness of God, and of His coming and going in the full reality of all that is denoted by these terms. There is a presence of God in wrath and a presence in grace. There is a presence in His hiddenness and a presence in His revelation. And in all these are the most diverse gradations. But there is no non-presence of God in His creation.”
[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 61, 78, 90; cf. also Moltmann, Trinity, 104; Moltmann, God in Creation, 5, 96.
[6] Matthew 5:45; 6:26-30; 10:19; Ps 145:9, 15-16.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17, 98.
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann’s concept of God’s “interpenetration” of all creation; see Trinity and the Kingdom, 39, 104-5.  See also Moltmann, God in Creation, 9; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 161.
[8] Cf. Jn. 14:23: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  On this, see George R. Beasley-Murray, John, 258; and Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:543.
[9] Cf. Ps. 139. Other Scriptures assure us that God is never farther away from us than a father teaching a toddler to walk (Hosea 11:3), or a mother gently nursing an infant (Isaiah 49:15).
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, 102: “It is not just for us that it is important to experience the nearness of God in what happens to us. It is important for God too, for he wants to live among us and on this earth for ever and ever.”

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