The LORD is…?
Based on Genesis 15:1-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17 – 4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Last week I asked you to imagine how wilderness looked and sounded. We went through a mental exercise that got us in touch with the paradox of wilderness as a place that can be frightening but which also holds possibility. We came to understand that anything new and unexplored always contains these two attributes. This week, I want you to imagine with me what God is like. Like our wilderness experience, contemplating God can hold both fear/trepidation and great potential. What do you imagine God to look like or to be like? Certainly, we have an image of one aspect of God in the form of Jesus – but what about the totality of God (Father, Holy Spirit and Son)? Have you ever tried to explain that to someone?
Most people during their spiritual journey have arrived at images or a set of descriptors to explain what they experience when they interact with God. We’ve all seen the images of light beams poking through clouds, or the calm after a storm, or the massive stone walls of a fortified city, or the face of a newborn infant. These are often “go to” images for the media and for everyday believers who want to try and explain the unexplainable. We’re in good company in trying to find words to explain God – look to Jesus who uses simile to try and help us understand (e.g., the kingdom of heaven is like…). Jesus knew very well how the kingdom of heaven was and how he experienced God – but human words fail when we try to explain something that defies description.
Thankfully, we have a Bible which contains stories of human interactions with the LORD to help guide our imaginations. Afterall, the Bible is not only about our ancestors in the faith and all the things that they did (positive and negative) in relationship with God; it also contains the self-revelation of the LORD across time and people. When we read the Bible and immerse ourselves in its God imagery, then we experience the self-revealing of God in our own hearts, minds and lives.
Our scriptures this week give us many images of the LORD. We have the Psalmist who refers to God as “light”, “salvation” and a “stronghold”. Abram hears the voice of God in a dream and then experiences God as a “deep and terrifying darkness” and also as a “smoking pot and flaming torch”. The Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Philippi about imitating his behaviors which are modeled on the Christ, so that God’s power might transform them into the Body of Christ. Jesus compares the “fox” of the worldly Herod to the sheltering wings of a mothering God. Before we go farther, let us go to God as we understand God today and ask for mercy, wisdom and the strength to continue to experience how the LORD is in our lives…
Abram has come through battles and has been victorious (with the help of the LORD). In our reading for this week, God makes a covenant with Abram that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. The LORD also gave to Abram the land on which he stood as God had promised from the beginning of Abram’s journey. In order to seal the covenant, the LORD walked through the sacrifices that Abram had set out. Abram experienced God as a voice, as deep and terrifying darkness, and as a faithful and trustworthy partner – fulfilling God’s promises.
The writer of Psalm 27 sings of the God that he has experienced. He knows God to be a light and the source of salvation, a strong place of refuge where he has no fear. He knows God to be a protector against enemies. He is so moved by his relationship with the LORD that he seeks to live in God’s house all the days of his life.
Jesus and the Apostle Paul know the heart of God. Paul writes to the believers in Philippi that if they imitate Jesus – really live into the world with the unconditional love of God, then they will be transformed into the body of Christ’s glory. Believing in the power of the love of God to resurrect Jesus as the Christ, puts all worldly things in their proper place and perspective. Likewise, Jesus is told by the Pharisees that King Herod seeks to kill him as he did his cousin, John the Baptizer. Jesus tells the Pharisees to tell that “fox” Herod that he has salvific work to do and that he will not run and hide. Jesus, saddened that the world around him does not recognize the God in their midst, wishes he could just protect them all from worldly oppressors like Herod.
On Friday afternoon as I traveled to Arlington, I listened to the podcast “On Being” hosted by Krista Tippett. In the podcast, Ms. Tippett was interviewing an author who had written a book entitled, “Is God a Mathematician?” Not surprisingly, the author was himself a mathematician. It struck me that this is often how we think about God…God must be a pharmacist, because I loved being a pharmacist and being around other pharmacists. Similarly, God must be a musician if you love music, or an artist if you love creating, etc. We humans begin to see how God is, in those things which God has most gifted us – in that which we most love and cherish.
Yet, God is not only a mathematician, pharmacist, artist, musician – God is all of those and all other gifts that we see in ourselves and others. When we experience the love of a particular set of gifts in ourselves or others, then we begin to experience how God is active and available in the world. It becomes clear that God can no longer be a force which long ago created the universe and all that is in it and be off somewhere playing solitaire and not paying attention to all that is happening in our world. God becomes readily apparent in the here and now – that is why the psalmist’s phrase “the LORD is” is so important for us to grasp. It tells us that God can be experienced in every moment – that God makes God’s-self available to us as we are open to experiencing God.
I asked you in the opening to complete the sentence, “the LORD is…”. I wonder if your view of who and what God is might be a bit clearer? We humans always want to keep things in a place of total understanding, predictability and control – we want to know the answer to what God is. However, the biblical narrative makes it clear that our understanding of God is always evolving, and we as grow in our spiritual understanding, God’s self-revelation to us grows or deepens as well. Thus, it is critical to our spiritual growth to have humility that can admit that we only understand a fraction of who or what God is at any given time.
I find that 12-step programs offer this kind of humility to those who access their teachings. Alcoholics Anonymous Step 3 says, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God [sic him].” Note the past tense of “understood” instead of “understand”. Semantics is important here…at some point a person with a substance use disorder came to the realization that they couldn’t control their substance use and that it was making their life insane. They then realized that they couldn’t survive anymore without something bigger and more powerful than the effect of the substance on their lives – they had to turn to God as they understood that entity. Sobriety and working the program continue to show them who the LORD is in their lives, and it continues to help them stay sober and to grow into sane and serene individuals.
Who and what the LORD is will be somewhat different for all believers – and will change as they live. Yet, for Christians, we have a mentor who continues to show us how the LORD is or can be. This is the point that Paul was making to the Philippians. Their growth towards salvation, towards growing into the mind and heart of Jesus, was all about imitating how he lived in our world. Jesus knew that he would be killed by humans if he kept healing and showing them an alternative lifestyle to their oppression and bondage; He kept on healing and teaching. He knew that one of his students would betray him; He washed the feet of Judas and ate with him anyway. Jesus knew that Peter would deny him, and all the Disciples would flee for their lives when he was arrested; He loved them and forgave them their lack of courageous faith. This is because the LORD is always perfectly loving and forgiving, always available for us no matter what we believe about God, and always near to us even when we choose to believe more in worldly things than in God. That is why the LORD is our Savior and worthy of imitation. May God continue help us to experience how the LORD is everyday – and then to share those experiences with others…amen!