The season of Epiphany is the time the church traditionally talks about the revelation of God to all of humanity.
It is the time to ask some of the most difficult questions of our faith. Who or what is God? What is God like? What does God feel? What does God want? How does God relate to and interact with us and the world? How does God reveal God’s self to us?
These are very difficult questions, because with our mortal minds, I do not believe we can ever answer them completely. And as I said last week, I am okay with that. In the words of Fosdick: “I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.” I am very comfortable living, as the Apostle Paul wrote, in a world where I “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor 13).
I love the way we begin each service with the Lord’s Prayer praying, “Hallowed be Thy name.” For the name of God is so above our mortal comprehension it always evokes reverence, awe, and respect.
And I believe that one of the problems with religion these days is that, for many in the church, there is no mystery. Too many people have the world and have God all figured out. They are know-it-alls and listen to a sermon or attend a Bible Study not to learn anything new, not to be challenged, but to have what they already know reaffirmed. They have all of the answers and never have any doubts.
A parishioner came to see me one day almost in tears. She was so upset that she was shaking. A friend of hers was dying. She said that she was not sure about her friend’s faith so she asked her: “Without any doubt, do you know that if you died today that you would spend eternity in heaven?”
Has anyone ever asked you that before?
The dying woman responded, “I hope so.”
Well, that response tore her friend completely out of her frame! For she wanted her to respond: “Yes! No doubt about it, I know! I know unequivocally, for absolute certainty!”
But her friend’s response did not sound that troubling to me. She may not have responded with absolute certainty, but it sounded to me as if she had faith. She hoped. She believed. She trusted.
To be honest, I tend to get along better with people who are honest enough to admit that they sometimes have their doubts; that they do not always know absolutely. And I am often wary of those who have no doubts whatsoever, because it has been my experience that those are the ones who are the quickest to judge and are the first to belittle, even condemn, others who hold different beliefs.
A member of a pastor search committee once asked me if I believed the Biblical account of Jonah and the whale should be taken literally. She asked, “Did it actually historically happen the way the Bible says it did?”
I responded, “I believe that God can do what God wants to do. I have no trouble believing that God can use a whale to actually swallow man and spit him out on the beach of God’s choosing. However, if I die and get to heaven and find out that it was just a fictional story to reveal a great truth about the will of God, then I am not going to get angry and ask for a transfer!”
I believe the problem with the church today is that too many church people are so closed-minded they would opt for the transfer. They are so convinced, so right, so certain about the things of God that they leave no room for mystery and thus no need for faith, hope or trust.
One of the great things about our heritage as Disciples of Christ is our individual freedom to interpret the scriptures and to understand God and God’s relation to the world. We are encouraged to have open-minds when reading the Bible. No one was more of a free-thinker or had more of an open mind than our forefather, Barton Stone. That is why I believe he was so inclusive, welcoming all people to the Lord’s table. And that is why I believe we are such a non-judgmental, non-self-righteous, accepting people today. We do not presume to have all the answers. And we are not even close to having God all figured out.
Now, I wished we could just end the sermon right here. I wished we could just stand now and sing our hymn of commitment, pat ourselves on the back, and then go get some lunch. But, we can’t do it. We can’t do it, because now, now the sermon is just beginning.
We open-minded, free thinkers have to be very careful, that while embracing the mystery of God, we do not completely depersonalize God. While we accept broad views and opinions, while we practice widespread inclusivity and acceptance, we do not make the mistake and generalize God.
In emphasizing God as mysterious Spirit, a Spirit that Jesus says is comparable to the wind, blowing when and where it wills, in stressing God as Light in our world working in mysterious ways, we must be careful not make God into some sort of generic, vague enigmatic force.
In church, we say very specifically, “May the Spirit of Christ be with you.” We do not say very vaguely say, “May the force be with you.” That’s from Obie One Canobie and Yoda; not from the Old and New Testaments.
I have noticed, especially over the last decade, how Christians, in their attempts to find common ground with other faith groups, talk more about following a general God and less about following a specific Christ. When relating to Hindus, Muslims and Jews, I have heard Christians say things like: “We have our differences,” “but we all believe in God.” But in our attempt to find common ground and unity, I believe we sacrifice God as a distinct, particular, and very personal being.
You hear a lot of talk today about spirituality. More and more people are calling themselves “spiritual” instead of “Christian.” There are far more books at Barnes and Nobles on Spirituality than are on Jesus. William Willimon says he can understand why this sort of reasoning is so attractive. “The more vague, indistinct, mushy, and impersonal we can make God, the better for us!” Willimon says that if God is so mysterious, “Then we can make God just about anything we want. We can render God into a projection of our sweet sentimentality and we will never have to grow, change, or be born again.”[i]
And when we depersonalize God we ignore about almost everything said about God in scripture. Take, for instance, today’s lectionary lessons—every one of them. Each of them, in their own way, speaks of a very personal God who sees, speaks, acts, moves, feels and intrudes. In the Old Testament Lesson for the day, the prophet Isaiah recounts how, even before he was born, God knew him personally and intimately and had special plans for him.
In the Epistle Lesson, Paul, when challenged by some dissidents at one of his early congregations, defends his authority as leader on the basis that God Almighty, the creator of all that is, had reached down and touched him, personally authorizing him as an apostle. The Greek word apostle, literally means “someone personally sent from God.”
And in our Gospel Lesson that I read this morning, John the Baptist looks at Jesus and sees in him the very presence of God in the flesh, the personification of God among us. And Jesus himself said, that if we know him, we know his Father as well (John 14:7).
I believe we should think of this hour on Sunday morning as our attempt to get personal with God, to give that word “God,” which can be terribly abstract and general, some specific concreteness. Sunday morning is the time when we tell God who we are, but more importantly, it is the time when we listen to God tell us who God is.[ii]
Our God is not distant, aloof, some indistinct concept or some abstract idea. Our God is a personal being who yearns for the most intimate of relationships with each one of us. Our God is one who continually rips the heavens wide and swoops like a bird when we least expect it, calling us by name, affirming us as God’s beloved children. God reaches out and reaches in and touches the places in us that most need touching. And our hearts, our very souls burn with love.
Let me just stop my sermon for a moment and just look at you. As your pastor, part of what I love about you is not your vague generalities, but your very personal ways: the particular ways you love, the intimate ways you care, the unique ways you act, the peculiar way you share, the specific you give, the distinctive ways you serve, the certain ways you accept, the special ways your forgive.
I love you not for your generalities, but for your personal uniqueness.
“Humanity in general” does not move me. A congregation “in general” does not energize me, evoke me, persuade me or love me—but you specifically can. You particularly can. You explicitly and certainly can.
The same is true with God. Here in this season of Epiphany, it is time to get personal, to get down to the specifics. We believe, that in the personal specifics of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have seen God. We have seen not some general, vague idea, not some mysterious force, but we have seen a person, a person walking among us, calling us, urging us, challenging us, loving us, forgiving us, changing us, and one day resurrecting us revealing the true life of God—revealing who God is, what God is like, how God feels, and how God relates to us and our world.
No, we do not have all of the answers. And as I said, I am comfortable not knowing all of the answers. I fully embrace the mystery of all that is. I believe that there is a very good reason that each Sunday, we unite our hearts and pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name.” For His name is so beyond our fragile minds, so above our finite understanding, so outside our mortal comprehension, so utterly mysterious, that it is a name that is to always be revered and respected and sanctified.
However, that name just so happens to be “Father”—a word that cannot be any more personal. And the good news is, we pray, not merely “Father” but we pray very intimately and very specifically and personally “Our Father.”
No, when it comes to God, we cannot know it all, but what we can know is certainly, absolutely, unequivocally, undoubtedly enough.