This Lent, we’ve been exploring the theme of encountering God: going out into the wilderness to meet God; seeking to discover or uncover God amidst the fulness, the clutter of our lives. Last Sunday, John Burton reflected with you on some of the ways we encounter God: in the first, stumbling words of a grandchild, in music, and in the vast mysteries of the universe.
Today’s readings continue this theme and, on the one hand, amplify this theme of seeking after God; and on the other hand, remind us of some of the ways that that is problematic for us. The psalm, Psalm 63, that we read responsively with Sue, really amplifies this theme of longing, with its language of desire and thirst; praising and feasting; singing and clinging.
It’s very physical, embodied language. It’s unembarrassed and unashamed; passionate and self-forgetful. How many of us have such an image of God?
A God whose company we hunger and thirst for. A God we can’t wait to be with. Whose companionship is like the richest feast of the finest food; the very thought of whom makes us burst forth in song. A God we dream about in our beds at night, or who makes us toss and turn unable to sleep.
It sounds like a passionate love affair: all that hungering and thirsting and tossing and turning. And it is: it’s a passionate, disruptive, soul-churning, love for God. Very often in the Old Testament, in the Psalms but also in other places, God is described in these highly personal terms: a companion, a mother, a father, a lover. One we have a hard time living with, and one whom we can’t live without.
A person who calls us, seduces us, cherishes us, and chastises us. God is at once intimate and all-powerful. What John described last week as imminent and transcendent. Somehow our ancestors were able to hold both of those aspects together in their experience of God. This tends to be how I think about God: as a person with whom I am in intimate relationship, as well as the awesome power of the universe.
But I encounter a lot of people in the church today who have a hard time thinking about God in this way. For many people it seems almost an offense against reason to think of God as in any way a personal being. I think this is a product of our modern, so-called Enlightenment worldview, which tells us that scientific truth is the only truth that matters.
Even before the Enlightenment, Galileo pointed his telescope at the night sky and proved that the earth was not the center of the universe. Humans were decentered, dethroned as the pinnacle of God’s creation. And ever since then, scientists and philosophers have used their telescopes and microscopes and stethoscopes and other instruments, they’ve poked and prodded, looked high and low, out there and in here; and wherever they’ve looked, they couldn’t find God anywhere.
About the only thing they could ever find was a suggestion of God’s fingerprints. In the miraculous majesty of a universe so vast and complex, of a human genome made of billions of bits, in something so beyond our capacity to make or build, perhaps there is some higher mind or consciousness at work.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve never been able to warm to this notion of God. Give me that restless, relentless God who won’t let me sleep at night. The one who keeps prodding me, haunting my dreams as well as my waking moments, challenging me to love more, to listen more, to tend to those around me, to open my heart. The one who knows all of my sins, and loves me still. The one who believes that nothing in my past is a permanent impediment to a grace-filled future. The one who calls me to go to where I would not otherwise go; who commissions me, and equips me, and fashions me into an instrument of God’s redemptive love in the world.
A few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a CD of songs her cousin had recorded. It was contemporary Christian music, which was something I wasn’t very used to listening to. As I listened to it more, I realized that the artist was conveying the same passion that you hear in contemporary popular music, in love songs; but he was expressing that passionate, intimate love to God. Just like in the Psalms. And it struck me then, that we have this language of passion, that it is very normal for us, but that we don’t think it’s normal to direct that passion to God.
We reserve that feeling for our relationships with others. But we also have that kind of passion in other places. If you think of this language of thirsting and longing, of feasting till we are full, of lying awake at night—sometimes our passions are misdirected. Speaking for myself, whenever Apple comes up with a new product, I find myself in this place of longing; I stay up half the night in order to get my order in at the first available moment. And it’s true that my technology products give me a lot of enjoyment, but they can never satisfy the deeper longings.
Sometimes our misdirected longings get expressed in addictions; sometimes our hungering and feasting leads us to over consume; sometimes we lie awake at night because of anxiety, going in circles over the same problem, over and over again, and trying to solve it ourselves.
What our ancient ancestors knew is that when you push God to the outer edges, when you eliminate the possibility of a personal relationship with God, when you forget about God or turn away from God in their terms, then you create the potential for all sorts of problems.
When we relegate God to the status of an impersonal Being—the Deistic watchmaker God John spoke of last week—then we are left to our own devices. And left to our own devices, without reference to God, we often do not do so well.
It is in the context of a personal relationship with God that we are confronted with God’s claims on us, and God’s challenges to us, as well as God’s saving love for us.
A God who is the architect of our DNA may make some kind of claim on us; it may lead us to some kind of solidarity with other human beings, with whom we share 99 point something percent of our DNA. But a God who leads slaves out of bondage with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; a God who handwrites a covenant on tablets of stone to guide and shape human life in community; a God who sends prophets, and finally a Son, to demonstrate God’s relentless, unfailing commitment to widows and orphans, and all kinds of outcasts, the ones we treat as human refuse—a God who does that makes claims upon us that we cannot so easily evade.
And I think perhaps this is the biggest part of the problem for us. We live in an age that values personal freedom and autonomy above all else. In such an age, a personal God—a God who speaks to us and makes demands of us—is really rather inconvenient. In our era, we are like young people who have finally moved out of our parents’ house, finally out from under their watchful and restrictive control. Now we get to do things our way.
Our parents’ wisdom is still with us, somewhere in the back of our minds, providing a loose framework for how we live now. But we think we know so much more than anyone who’s ever lived before us, that we no longer need their old-fashioned notions and mythologies.
We’ve become so attached to what we call freedom that a covenant relationship with a demanding God is decidedly unappealing for us. Especially when we read stories like today’s Gospel story, which seems to carry such tones of judgment. The repeated refrain of, “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” disinclines us to draw near to God.
And yet that is exactly what Jesus is calling for here. It’s a Lenten call for a return to God. The word “repent” means to undergo a change of mind, a change in one’s thoughts, feelings, and practices. Notice what Jesus is saying in this passage. Twice he raises the question about whether the experience of suffering is God’s punishment for sin. Twice he responds, No. And then he calls people to repentance.
I think what Jesus is saying here is that the basis of our relationship with God should not be fear. Believing in God, believing in a personal God, does not mean putting ourselves in the hands of a judgmental, authoritarian version of a parental figure. This story ends with a parable, the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. We read it sometimes as a conversation between God as the landowner, and Jesus as the gardener pleading for one more chance. In this reading, God is angry, judgmental, and impatient.
But what if we see ourselves as the landowner: angry, impatient, with our misdirected desires, and God as the gardener, patient, merciful, the source of nurturing, saving love?
It makes sense, and it will make more sense when we read the story of the waiting father from Luke’s gospel next week. In Jesus, God comes close to us and invites us to come close to God. As we continue our Lenten journey together, may our fears and anxieties diminish, may our desires and longings find their true object, and may we know, wherever we are, no matter our circumstances, the saving love of God. Amen.
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