I used to ask my new students, “Who is God? What is God like?”
Nine out of ten times I’d get something like this: “God is, well, holy, loving, just,…big.” That is, they would give me a list of attributes. And I don’t disagree. Whatever God is, the question of what it means for God be holy, loving, just, and big are real and meaningful questions.
I have so much sympathy for this approach that if I had written the Bible, I probably would have begun it that way. “Once upon a time there was a God who was holy, loving, just…” and then gone on for page after page of a beautiful attributes. I wouldn’t want anyone to underestimate God. And of course in so doing, I would have been completely wrong.
Welcome back to the Homilies of St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
One of the first great first questions that we want answered about our place in the universe is “who’s in charge here?” See, when life shakes us to the core and we want to know if there is any meaning in it, it matters whether things are random or ordered and who’s doing the ordering. I can accept that the order may be beyond my understanding—I mean after all I’m pretty small, but it makes a huge difference whether or not there is one and if the final authority is fate, luck, physics, a collection of minor deities…or just me.
Christianity answers this question in a word…God. When all is said and done, there is one upon which everything rests—God. When asked about this God, St. Anselm, who was no theological slouch, said that “God is that being than which no greater being can be conceived.” Which is as much as to say, God has each divine attribute to the greatest possible degree—no higher possible love, no higher possible holiness, and so on. That is why I say there’s much virtue in answering the question of who this God is by means of the right list of attributes.
But if you’re really trying to answer the question “Who is this God that’s at the back of it all?”, then such an approach will never work. Actually it borders on heresy because it threatens to reduce God to an object of my consideration. If “Theology” means “the study of God” it certainly cannot mean that God is an object to be studied—to be scrutinized, like a bug pinned to a card.
God is not a concept to be believed in but a person to be met.
No. The biblical story makes it very clear from the beginning. God is not a concept to be believed in but a person to be met. God does not simply hang around heaven waiting for philosophers to prove that God exists. God does not just sit on the divine throne awaiting the conclusions of systematic theologians on the nature of the divine nature.
The first words of scripture teach us this. Yes, the way the Bible actually begins is the right way…the perfect way to start a book that was intended to answer the real questions of life. “In the beginning God created…” God didn’t simply exist. God did something. God acted in history. We know God because God has done great works on our behalf. This God has stepped forth from heaven and trod upon the earth. This story begins, not with the God of a theologian’s list, but a God who comes and interacts with a chosen people. Listen to how Isaiah presents this God in Isaiah 44…
6“Thus says YAHWEH, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the YAHWEH of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me. 7 ‘Who is like Me? Let him proclaim it and declare it; Yes, let him r¬ecount it to Me in order, From the time that I established the ancient nation. And let them declare to them the things that are coming and the events that are going to take place. 8‘Do not tremble and do not be afraid; Have I not long since announced it to you and declared it? And you are My witnesses. Is there any God besides Me, Or is there any other Rock? I know of none.’ ”
Now I actually selected this passage somewhat at random from the whole argument in Isaiah 40-44. I could do so, because they all get at the same point. Notice in it, how God’s own self-definition is bound up with God’s work on behalf of the chosen people, how God’s identity is revealed to us in what God is doing for us.
“Who is like me?” is the question. The answer is of course “No one.” But on what basis? Surely all of God’s attributes are found in other “gods” as well. Mars is powerful, Venus is loving, Jove is majestic, and Saturn ageless and ancient.
The difference that matters to us, is not what God is in the abstract, but who God is to God’s people. This is not some God who just sits on the mountain throwing down lightning bolts on occasion. This God is King in Israel, Redeemer, Lord of hosts, establisher of nations, a Rock. This God is not like the gods of the nations. This God not only exists, but works in the world on behalf of the chosen people. This God has sided with them.
What other God does that? So true is this in scripture that the very identity of the people of God never rests on their own democratic efforts to give themselves a unique niche in the world. The nation of Israel did not become the chosen people because of a self-study or ballet petition, but by divine grace alone. God embraced them.
But this truth presents you and I (and our churches) with a danger. See, it is very easy amid the busyness of life—all our structures and responsibilities—to go about living by a sort of automatic rote. That is, while we would confess that this God is first in all things—that our place, our value, our dignity, our security in the world is by this God’s grace alone—when push comes to shove our choices can betray that we really believe that “it’s all up to us.” (That is, if we don’t make it happen, our homes, our jobs, our lives, our churches will be no more)
We are tempted to use hard times—times that were meant to recall us to our dependence on the graciousness of this God—to simply redefine our own sense our power and control. You and I do this by means of resolutions and goals and hard work, and our churches by recommitments to such things as “market niches” and “target audiences,” and “strategic campaigns” and “overarching visions.” These things may all be fine in their own— I couldn’t tell you their value—ask your pastor.
But in a more fundamental sense, the effort we put into them identifies a graver question: Must we establish our own identity? Is it my job to determine my value and place in the world? Is it the church’s job to define its own mission—define its own identity. Are we really masters of ourselves?
No, not if Christianity is right about the God who stands at the back of all things. If that God is really there, then our identity is one that is given. Our mission is one we can only receive. Not one we decide by means of democratic consensus or some act of self-actualization.
The question then is not, can I figure out who I am, but rather will I accept what this God has already declared me to be. That relationships in God’s kingdom have more to do with divine generosity and grace than some value I bring to the table.
The question then is not, can I figure out who I am, but rather will I accept what this God has already declared me to be.
Read Jesus on this: He takes a lot about “God’s kingdom.” But when you look at the verbs he uses with it, you discover that Jesus believed the kingdom could be given and received; it could be entered or rejected. It can be “stewarded,” but it cannot be “negotiated” or “deserved.” You won’t even find a command to “build” God’s kingdom—God does that. We are just the ones who receive it and enter it. Who work in it as stewards. We do not come to this God or into this Kingdom on our own terms. We are not our own; we are bought with a price. We are not ultimately in charge here. And this is just as true of your church as it is for you—your church also already has a Head—and it is not you or me, or the elders, or the pastor. We are all “the body” who mutually submit to a single “head,” who is Christ.
This “helplessness”, this absolute dependence upon our creator and redeemer, is not a new thing. It is the point and center of the story. This story was never about us making ourselves acceptable to this God or making our way back to God—devising a plan or a strategy for reconciling ourselves to each other or God. Never about us saving ourselves, our churches, our nation, or our world. We know the track record of human efforts along that score.
This story at is most basic level is about the God who comes to us, not the other way around. I know we talk a lot about the sinner coming back to God, choosing God, seeking God, and it’s fine insofar as we’re describing human responsibility.
But don’t let a description of our experience of choice mislead you into believing that this puts us in the final driver seat. This whole thing called life is not a journey focused on us devising clever ways to approach God or even proving our worthiness by our obedience and humility. It is God who comes to give life, identity, purpose, hope. Don’t take my word for it… consider how the narrative of the Bible demonstrates over and over again God’s willingness and desire to “stoop low” in order to meet with the chosen people, who cannot raise themselves to meet God. Consider Adam/Eve in the garden . They don’t go find God. God comes to them in the cool of the day for fellowship.
- Abraham is too old to have children until God comes to him and promises land and offspring.
- Jacob the outcast, sleeping with his head on a Rock, isn’t looking for God. God finds him in his dreams.
- Moses, the washed up murder in the wilderness, doesn’t find God. God comes to him in the burning bush.
- Israel in captivity has even forget who this God is until Yahweh shows up in power to liberate them.
- The Tabernacle in Israel is all about the God of the thunderous mountain who descends to dwell in their midst.
- Gideon, Saul, Elijah—all are hiding when God finds them.
- How often do the prophets begin with “the word of the Lord came to me”?
- What is the Incarnation itself—Jesus come to us, Emmanuel, “God with us”.
- The very angels at the Ascension remind us, “this same Jesus who left you, will come again.”
- Pentecost is about the Spirit of God coming upon the church in power.
- Even right to the very end of the story—Revelation 22—is a picture Heaven coming down and its glory filling the earth.
It’s shocking how consistent the story is. As frequently as it talks about our inability to go to God, it just a frequently reminds us about God’s deep desire to come down to us.
But why? How are we to explain such a grand and lavish and scandalous gesture?
Apparently the whole story of the world is really about a God who desires to be in relationship with us. I will be your God, and you will be my people. That is precisely what God said to Israel after freeing them from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to the foot of the burning mountain.
Apparently the whole story of the world is really about a God who desires to be in relationship with us.
In Exodus 24 we’re told that Moses, Aaron, and the elders are invited up on the edge of the mountain, where God comes down to them and serves them a meal, and I quote “They saw the God of Israel.” What hospitality! What grace!
How can such things be? I don’t know. But that is spirit of the whole story. For God has said with the finality of the thunderclap, “in the midst of all your irrelevance, I have loved you.”
From the beginning God has desired a people who will glory in being God’s people. Mystery beyond all mystery. Glory beyond all glory, we are that people!
If this is so, then times of great uncertainty are exactly the time when we need to step back, and look again that the controlling story that that binds you and I together as the people of God. The next few homilies will rehearse this story, chapter by chapter. Now I don’t plan to say anything that you don’t already know. And that’s the point. The following homilies will be little more than rehearsal—a reaffirmation of those deep common places of God’s people.
I hope God will protect me from innovation. Novelty is not the best attribute in a theologian. But be warned: this story, if sincerely told and deeply embraced, will teach us again to believe that even in whatever difficulty you may be in, you are not alone. God is not absent in your struggle. This God has not been caught unawares. God is not now groping for a “plan b”.
It is my prayer for both of us, that by means of these next few homilies, we will find the courage to believe again that God is not through with you…or with me. With the God of this story, it is not incredible to believe that your best days are still ahead.
Join us next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.
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