Psalm 19 Romans 1: 16-25
Who Is God?
May the Lord be with you! (And also with you…)
For this past Wednesday evening at our monthly session meeting, I have to kind of apologize for having played a bit of a sneaky little trick on your session members. I started off the meeting by first sharing some verses from Acts 17. Acts 17 is essentially documenting an event in which the Apostle Paul is speaking to what would be the equivalent of the Athens city council. He tells them how much he’s been enjoying touring their lovely city, especially going around and seeing some of the absolutely beautiful pagan temples that they’d built. But then, in his speech, his attention turns toward a specific temple that he had found to be of particular note, and that temple of particular note was one that had been devoted to ‘the unknown god’. It seems obvious that the Greeks were clearly just wanting to cover all of their bases. And so Paul declares to this city council, that the god that they have deciphered as being ‘unknown’ is actually no such thing, or in other words, that this unknown god IS in all actuality known by them, and he reasons it like this, he declares that their ‘unknown’ god is actually the God of Israel. And so he explains that how unbeknownst to them, that they have been clearly worshiping the God Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all along. And so I’d imagine that there was a bit of a stunned silence in the room when Paul made that pronouncement.
And then after Paul’s pronouncement, he goes through a bit of a litany of describing this unknown god to them, who is of course our God, and then he heads into the conclusion of his speech to them by stating this. He states, “God’s purpose is for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.” And since this is true, we can’t think of God as an idol designed by craftsmen from gold or silver or stone.” Paul was telling this gathered group of men that the only true God is the one that you cannot see, the one that demands faith, the one that truly is responsible for all of creation and for all that that entails, the God that directs our everyday when we allow ourselves that privilege.
And so after reading these verses, I asked each member of your session to share with each person present just how it is that they picture God in their mind’s eye, just what exactly is their first image that pops into their heads when confronted with such a request. And I think we can all pretty well assume how that picture came out. ...How is that picture for each of you sitting here? Close your eyes for just a second and when I say to you, “Picture God”, what do you see? …Well each session member, or at least just about all, came up with essentially the same picture. And that picture was of a very big man, a clearly older man, one with long white hair and a long white beard, striking eyes, and a bright powerful light shining from behind him – and not a halo so much as just very simply the sun that we know in the sky. I think you all know the picture pretty well, and I’ll assume that many of you actually have a very similar picture right now in your heads too.
Now the reason why that little exercise was perhaps something of a trick, although it was really more of an experiment, is because I had actually known already what the responses would be; there was nothing new that was told to us, no surprises and nothing strange. This European image of God that we all have in our heads from well before any time that we can recall, it’s really very common; and in fact, for sure, THE most common image of God. ..But, there are some problems with that image. The first problem is that that description has nothing to do with our Scriptures, Old or New. The fact of the matter is that there is NO image that details to us how God could physically look to us anywhere in Scripture. Lots of description on how it is that God acts and reacts, but nothing that describes how God may look; he may come in the form of fire, or just as a voice in the clouds, but there aren’t any physical descriptions offered. And so I will tell you that this common image that we have in our heads of our God, is actually a well formed and well described god that has been also known for thousands of years now. And that god is Zeus, Zeus the Greek god, the god who was essentially the father of all of their other gods. Right now, I want you to picture in your heads what you know to be an image of the Greek god Zeus, and I will assume that most all of us, if not all of us will be able to recall such an image from high school or from film, ..and then I’m going to probably assume that that image of Zeus and that that image of our God with the long white hair and beard and striking gaze, are very much essentially the same exact pictures. Kind of interesting isn’t it…
Now of course I’m not the first person to make such a realization, anyone that has studied anthropology and a little bit of theology will clearly have run into this information. But there is a big problem here with this image that is relatively new that really is causing so much of a problem for our churches, and that other big problem with the image is this… If we are having very naturally and normally an image in our heads of our God as Zeus, Zeus a god that is clearly mythological and no longer seen as possibly real on any level, ..how is it then that we think that we can simply come forth and try to claim to a growingly educated community, that that same image is actually real, just as long as we attach a different reference point to it, a different name? It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? And so people are thinking about this point for only a few minutes and then coming to the pretty quick conclusion that clearly this whole ‘god thing’ – no matter what ‘god’ you’re talking about, is just a bunch of wishful thinking on the part of human beings who are simply looking for something else to take responsibility for them and for the lives that they are often times unhappily leading. The thought is, sure, wouldn’t it be nice to have some all-knowing, all powerful force in our universe that really is intricately involved with each and every single one of us? Who really is in charge of our lives so that we can then deflect responsibility for ourselves, from ourselves…. Boy, couldn’t that make life a lot less complicated? But then there’s a problem with that thought, and it is, what do I start thinking, or how do I start thinking, when bad things happen to me if I’ve done nothing wrong? People do think deep down, ‘I’m a good person, I never hurt anyone else, why do I or my mother or my sister or brother or father have cancer or some other debilitating illness? Why do children die and how could anyone abuse someone or something else? None of the loving God stuff really then makes any sense then, what god would make for such allowances, ..needless to say, such actions don’t really give us so much the ability to remain faithful and consoled during life’s difficult times when having this more often than not accepted European/Greek image of God in our heads. And this ladies and gentlemen, is one of the biggest reasons why so many in recent years have turned away from the church. There needs to be a new IMAGE or thought process when it comes to our God. A new and different way of thinking about being in relationship with our God, a God that yes, we do have faith in for numerous legitimate reasons.
We just heard Psalm 19, what an incredibly beautiful description of our God, what incredible words of joy for what it is that we say our God can do for us, and moreover, WANTS to do for us, IF – and that is the big important word here, IF, we make the choice to actually invest in our relationship with God, striving to have that relationship grow and mature. …And so what would that look like?
God is a powerful force, a force without a physical GOD image, that’s what we’re taught from our Scriptures. And yes, there are places in the Old Testament that we say God in human form appeared, God in human form, also known as Christ. ..But as Christ taught us, God is the creator of life, the power, Christ the redeemer is the human/physical form of our God, and the Holy Spirit is the work of God amongst us. Should we simply use the striking image of Christ to describe God?, or should we try to attach an image to love, or to the wind, or to joy, or to the natural world and all of the beauty found there? We could. Imagine if we truly adopted such a nicer image of God, it could be any of those just mentioned, instead of the old man in the sky with the long white hair and beard who seems to be the one who punishes and takes revenge more than anything else? How do you think the changing of the image in your head would effect not just your own attitudes toward God, but then also the attitudes of all those around us, all those who could then be reintroduced to this much different concept and image, always a loving image, not authoritarian and punishing ever? Whether it be Jesus with the children, or a flower or tree, the lady up the street or the man down the road, the baby or toddler, or maybe even my beloved canines… Could all of those not instead be the images in our heads when very humanly picturing our God?
And I know that this isn’t easy, it isn’t easy to teach an old dog new tricks and it isn’t easy to change thought patterns in our usually narrowly focused views of the universe. And Lord knows that that was exactly what Paul had spent such a big period of his life working on. He knew how hard it was to get people to change their ways of thinking. He wrote to the Christians in Rome telling of the way man had been until that point; he told them, “People have known God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. The result was that their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they became utter fools instead. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people, or birds and animals and snakes.”
And keep in mind, when I’m talking about image, I’m not talking about a physical ‘thing’ that you worship, I’m talking about the image that represents God to you and then how that affects your relationship with Him. It should be awe filled, it must be loving and it must be appreciative. How we consider our God is going to influence how it is that we are relationship with that God. If we have an imposing, enforcing father figure, we’re most likely denying ourselves the fullness of the relationship that God really does want to have with us. And why would we want to do such a thing to ourselves?
My prayer this morning is that we truly attempt to begin to change the image of God to us, so that we can then truly be approaching our relationship with our God in a much richer and healthier way, as our heavenly father truly wishes we would.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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