A Sermon at the Church of the Ascension by Margaret Offerman
There are several pivotal moments in our sacred story when his people reached a new perception of the nature of their God. An obvious one occurred when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the ten commandments. From this point, the Israelites worshipped one God (though they sometimes lapsed and took on the belief system of their neighbours). And they obeyed the law their God had delivered to Moses. The law of Moses, the law of God, was extremely detailed and prescriptive. There could be no doubt about what Yahweh demanded of his people in return for his protection from their enemies and their rights to the Promised Land. Exodus 20 vv 5b – 6,
We read a few weeks ago of the encounter between Yahweh and Elijah, when Elijah was so preoccupied with his struggle to divert the Israelites from the worship of Baal that he didn’t realise the significance of God’s still small voice. Yahweh appeared to Elijah, not as a manifestation of his power over the natural world, the God outside, but as an impulse, an awareness from within himself. From then on, the Hebrew scriptures present us with a God we can begin to relate to, not the lawgiver God or the warrior God or the nature God, but a multi-dimensional, companion God. This God is presented in poetic passages of elevated language such as we find in the psalms:
Where could I go to escape your spirit? Where could I flee to avoid your presence? If I climb the heavens you are there.
If I were to take wings and reach the sunrise, or travel westward across the ocean, your hand would still be guiding me, your right hand holding me.
The book of Job is the story of Job’s anguished confrontation with the God who has ceased to be the benevolent champion, the deliverer of Israel, but has turned his back on his own people and connived at their suffering. God is a detached presence again, as he was in the Garden of Eden, a force which must be obeyed, conciliated, feared.
The ambiguity in the bible between the God within and the God outside is encapsulated in the lord’s prayer, our reading this morning. Jesus tells his disciples to pray to God as their father. This God will be a provider of their physical needs. He ‘ll be full of mercy, on condition that they in turn show mercy to those who have done them wrong. There’s no reference to the angry, domineering tendencies that he showed when he appeared to Moses or tested Job. We recognise these qualities of the benevolent father figure as they come to life in the parables that Jesus told. Think of the prodigal son and the unconditional love shown by the father to this disobedient but repentant child. When he saw the prodigal son coming home, the father abandoned dignity and forgot the constraints of old age as he ran across the fields to welcome him home. It’s not by chance that when we talk about the fatherhood of God, it’s this story of the prodigal son that we turn to but we mustn’t ignore the problem of the limitations of our language when we quote this story – attributes we claim for God are often human qualities which we’ve extended beyond the normal human limits.
As well as having all the ideal human qualities of a perfect father, the God Jesus worships is holy. And his name must be hallowed. This ‘other worldly’ aspect of God is supremely important. It’s the transcendent attribute of God which Jesus imbibed from the Hebrew scriptures and it lifts God beyond the image of an old man high above his creation which we see in great works of art such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The book group spent an evening recently explaining their various reactions to ‘the Case for God’ by Karen Armstrong. This is a difficult book because it deals with a difficult subject – the nature of God.
The members of the book group don’t represent anyone but themselves, but there was an implicit unanimity in most of the comments made about God. Theism is belief in an external being to whom sacrifices and prayers can be made in the expectation that this divine being will change the course of events, interfere with natural law. The theme of ‘the Case for God’ is that theism, this traditional view of a superhuman, supernatural God, has lost its meaning and power for the vast mass of people. It began to lose its meaning with the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo. The process continued with the publications of the work of Charles Darwin. It was caricatured by Yuri Gragarin, the first man in space, whose statue now stands outside the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He talked after his return to earth about the stupendous experience he had had and in an aside, he observed that he hadn’t seen God up there. His audience laughed.
Many of our hymns and prayers still use language that suggests that theism is alive and well. We pray to almighty God and we sing of [one] whose almighty word chaos and darkness heard and took their flight. But outside the church these images and this language are empty. And even within the church, as those of us who choose the hymns will testify, it’s hard to find appropriate words to express our perception of God and our relationship with him in a way that makes sense.
‘In his hands he gently bears us,
Rescues us from all our foes’
Without intending to be flippant, I want to know what he was doing a week past Wednesday when 24 Indian children were poisoned by their school dinner. Where is he when thousands of people lose their lives or their livelihoods in tsunamis or earthquakes? The suffering of the innocent is one of the great questions that confront us, as it confronted Job in the 6thc BC or God’s chosen people during the holocaust.
However, in our scepticism about belief in a God as a supernatural being who invades the universe sporadically and arbitrarily, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There’s a depth dimension to human experience, a core to our life, both individually and in the life of the world, which is never apart from what we are and yet it’s beyond us, it transcends us. So we ask: WHAT is God? Rather than WHO is God?
Paul Tillich, a refugee from the holocaust, said that God is the presence in which all personhood can flourish. God is the ground of our being.
This is a long way from clear definitions about God – God the creator, God the lawgiver, God the champion of his people. Tillich talks of an internal reality that opens us up to the meaning of life itself. But this sounds nebulous, ungraspable. (David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham, wrote of Tillich that his writing was obscure and that the obscurity concealed not profundity but muddle.) Thinking about the nature of God is not an easy ride. We have to recognise once again the limitations of language and use words like energy, vitality, creativity, the sublime. We have to think of examples of sacrificial self-giving, compassion, a thirst for justice, and see that they transcend self-interest. They are not the product of the selfish gene. They represent the highest ideals in life. They are the sum of all values. They exist and we can call them God, without having to believe in an independent, supernatural being. And the greatest of these qualities and attributes is love. David Jenkins said that God is as he is in Jesus. Jesus was and is divine love incarnate. As we heard in our epistle this morning: in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.
We are one body made up of different parts. We must use the language of a search, an exploration, a journey, a pilgrimage to describe our need to know God, know his nature and worship his holiness.
This is Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus: 3 vv 14 – 21.