Sunday, August 19, 2012

America's Four Images of God


August 19, 2012
Pentecost XII
Fr. Philip Eberhart
Audio Here
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When I was in seminary in the early 1980’s it was in vogue to teach that a preacher should preach with the bible in one hand and the “Times” in the other, or whatever local version of the New York Times was at hand, in our case the Denver Post.  I didn’t take that advice because I saw many a preacher lean more heavily on the Times than on the bible and I determined that I was not going to be one of those guys.

But every once in a while a circumstance comes along that causes the populace to reflect on God and God’s relative position and importance in our lives.  That happened a few weeks ago in Aurora.  Last Sunday’s Denver Post contained an article entitled, “Aurora shooting inspires various perspectives on God and belief”, by the Post’s Electa Draper. (click title to see original article).

As I read through the article, I saw some of the “witnesses” of God’s power and presence in the midst of the horror in that theater.  We’ve all heard the story of Petra Anderson and her miraculous “defect” that allowed a piece of buckshot to pass through her head without touching her brain!  There are other “miracle” stories, and as many questions out there in our culture about the stories that are not miracles!!

The two questions that come up whenever there is a tragedy in life or a storm on the coast, or an earthquake or flood:  Is there a God and where is He?

Suffering is a reality in our world – a very harsh and unrelenting reality.  We laugh at the insurance commercial that features the guy who calls himself MAYHEM, but its no laughing matter that ‘Mayhem’ exists, and sometimes insurance can’t fix it.



FOUR VIEWS (link to USA Today article)

The Denver Post article was about some of the stories out there about God’s prevention or intervention at the shooting in Aurora.  But the article took its cues from research done a couple years ago by a couple sociologists from Baylor Univ and their work entitled, America’s Four Gods. (Link to 4 Gods Website)

Baylor Univ sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader’s research shows that 9 of 10 in America believe in God’s existence in some form, though the agreement pretty much stops there and divides into four or five distinct camps.  According to the research we fall into camps that are divided along two intersecting lines.

A vertical line between Distance (theologians call this Transcendence) and Engagement (what theology refers to as Immanence.)

A horizontal line between Judgement (God’s Holiness) and Benevolence (God’s Love).

So we have a construct that looks something like a cross. This construct creates 4 distinct quadrants based on how you score on questions regarding your view of God.


Is God critical… severe…. Punishing …. Wrathful… Angered by human sin … angered by MY sin?


Is God ever-present … concerned with the well-being of the world … concerned with my personal well-being … directly involved in world affairs … directly involved in my affairs?


The questions score your views of God’s engagement with and demeanor toward our human plight on earth and your life in particular.  It then finds four quadrants or views that prevail in America.


1.  The Authoritative God:  28% of Americans believe in a God that is engaged in history and that metes our punishment to nations and peoples who do not follow him.  To quote:

“They divide the world by good and evil and appeal to people who are worried, concerned or scared.  They respond to a powerful God guiding this country, and if we don’t explicitly talk about (that) God, then we have the wrong God or no God at all.”


2.  The Benevolent God, by contrast, is held to be true by 22% of Americans.  Again quoting from Froese:

            “Their God is a force for good who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts                            
               and will comfort all.”  This God is engaged in our world and loves and supports                   
               us in caring for others.


3.  The Critical God, held by 21% of Americans, is a judgmental God, who sees and keeps score, and will settle the score and balance the scales in the next life. 


4.  The Distant God, held by nearly one in four (24%) Americans, is one who “booted up the universe, but leaves us pretty much on our own.  This distant God gives us more responsibility for the state of our world and our lives.  A Rabbi from Boulder was quoted

“There’s no one that can fix things if I mess them up.  God’s not telling me what I should do.”  Her new book is entitled, God Envy: A Rabbi’s Confession [A Book for People who Don’t believe God can intervene in their lives and why Judaism is still important].


The four views of God span the denominational and spiritual spectrum of American life and often inform us even more than our denominational affiliation on matters of morality, views of science, money, evil, war and natural disasters.

Our view of God will inform where we look for answers and what answers are available to us in times of crisis, both personally and globally.  And these views of God are real in our culture, you can check them out at the Starbucks you get coffee at.  Also a popular and unifying thread, according to the researchers is that “Americans of every stripe overwhelmingly believe that all good people go to heaven, that many faiths contain truth and that religious diversity is good for the nation.”

 So what do we “church folk” do with this kind of information, this kind of research? It’s about us!  It’s about our national views of God. (click here to take the test!) It’s enlightening and troubling at the same time.  But most of all I find that it tends toward a narrowing and division of our view of God based on what we expect and experience of God through our own lives and in the experience of others around us.

Is there a more comprehensive view of God that is available?  Where do we find it?

Now I’m back to the reason why I don’t preach from the newspaper very often!


A Biblical Worldview and God Image

 Interestingly, our scriptures this morning from the Lections point us to some wisdom here in our dilemma:

 From our Psalm:
“Fear the LORD, you that are his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing.”

“Come, children, and listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD.”

 From Paul:
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.  So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

From John:
“My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who “eat and drink” abide in me, and I in them.

 The portrait we have of God from our American research is a bit like the story of the four blind men who were asked to describe an elephant.  One touched the leg and described it as a tree-like animal.  One touched the truck and described it as a large snake like animal. One touched the tail and disagreed, saying it was a small and sinewy snake. While the fourth touched the side of the elephant and described it as a wall.

None of us has the complete picture, but all of us bring a piece of understanding.

All of us have our experience of God and judgements about other’s experience or claims, but we are left with incomplete pictures, like a puzzle with some of the pieces missing!

There is only one place that gives us a complete picture of God and who He is and the way that He relates to us.  And we cannot know Him or experience Him apart from a relationship with this Word.

Last week we quoted from the beginning of John’s gospel and I want to go there again today:
”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”

 Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God.”  And that “in Him (Jesus) all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily!”

 Where should we look to see God?
Look at Jesus Christ.

In Him we see the balance of these four “natures” that the Baylor researchers have identified.  Transcendence and Immanence;  Holiness and Unfailing Love.

 The great wonder of the revelation of Jesus is that we see Him not at the outer reaches of these axes, but at the very center of the target!  He is the full embodiment, en-flesh-ment of all that God is, and to “see God” we simply need to look at Jesus!!

To see God’s transcendence, we look at Jesus’ place with the Father before the worlds began and Jesus place in creation, “through him all things were made that were made!”

And “In Him, all things hold together.”

To see God’s immanence, we only need to look at Phil 2 and the self-emptying of Jesus in obedience to his Father, coming to earth as a servant, slave, and sacrifice for salvation.

To see God’s judgement, we only need to look at the cross, and hear the cry of Jesus, “Eli, Eli, Lama Sabathani!”   My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? And we hear from his lips, “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do!” and with his final breath, “IT IS FINISHED!”

To see God’s love, we simply ask, “How much do you love me, LORD?” and we look to Jesus, hanging on the cross, and say, “THIS MUCH!”
Friends, the truth of our God is not found in the extremes ends of an “either/or” proposition, either God is judgmental or God is benevolent, either God is close at hand or God is distant.  Even our experiences of one another will lead us to those kinds of conclusions about a person differently at different times and in different circumstances.

 But our God reveals Himself to us in the coming of His Son, Jesus Christ.  The cross itself is the best way to picture what has happened here.

 The cross bar is the place where Jesus’ hands were nailed.  He embraces us, engages us, and transforms us, as He takes our place in the place of judgment for our sin.  And with His hands he offers us a New Life.  “Old things have gone, New things have come!”

And he asks us to extend our hands, “ as His Ambassadors of reconciliation!”

We offer the same offer that Jesus offers:  The great exchange!!  He who knew no sin became sin for us (for you), so that we (you) can become righteousness in Him.”

John said it this way, “to as many as received Him, he gave the right to become children of God.”

At the end of the day … at the end of our life, its not going to matter how bad, or even how good we were in this life!  At the end it a matter of Who you know.  The only way into the company of Heaven is through the Door called Jesus Christ.  At some point we have got to stop speculating about who God is, and look at Jesus and answer the question that he asked of his disciples…


WHO DO YOU SAY THAT I AM?


May we pray.

Dear Jesus, we look to you for our wisdom.  We look to you for our knowledge of God.  We look to you for our “image” of God and to see what God is like.  In you, Lord, dwells all the fullness of the Godhead, bodily!  We acknowledge you, Jesus, as Lord of lords and as King of Kings … and we acknowledge you as our King … as MY KING.

Come this day, by your Spirit, into our hearts and minds, and reveal yourself in your fullness to us.  As we eat and drink at your Table, open our eyes to see and our ears to hear and our hearts and minds to believe and experience you in your fullness.  Come Holy Spirit.  Come!

In Jesus Name and for the Sake of His Kingdom,

Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The "I AM's" of Jesus

August 12, 2012
Pentecost XI
Fr. Philip Eberhart


The “I AM’s” of Jesus




As I began to read through our gospel passage this morning I was struck by Jesus saying, “I AM.”  As you know, these were the words that, in Hebrew, form what is called the Tetragrammaton, or the 4-letter, nearly unpronounceable name of God given to Moses at the encounter with God’s presence at the burning bush.  Y – H – W – H  from which we get the anglicized version:  Yahweh or Jehovah, that we are more familiar with.

Just a bit of history around this word:

As it was revealed to Moses the Name of God was considered to be holy, so holy that, when written in the Old Testament in the original form (YHWH) the scribe, would stop his work, go wash ritually, come back, write the Name, and go wash ritually again, before continuing to write.  Something similar to a Dr. preparing for surgery!  This was serious business.

Of course these words are normal parts of speech.  A personal pronoun, I, and a verb of being, AM. 
I AM.

When I began to process this sermon, I did a search in the Gospels for those two words and came up with hundreds of instances of their use, of course.  Then it occurred to me that adding the definite article “THE” would separate out the specific instances that I was looking for in the gospels.  What I found was very interesting.

The “I AM’s” of Jesus occur exclusively in the Gospel of John.  Save one very important one:  The Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke all record Jesus response to the question of the High Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, at his trial:

Mark 14: 61-62;  Luke 22:70; and Matthew 26:63-64

All record Jesus answering a direct question by the High Priest:

"I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

 In all three accounts, Jesus answers in the affirmative, in Mark and Luke with the actual words “I AM” and in Matthew with “YOU SAID IT!”  and He followed the admission with a further statement:

 “I tell you, hereafter you will see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, AND COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.”

In the Gospel of John, John’s concern with placing Jesus in his Spiritual place in the cosmos is evident from the very outset where we read, in John’s prologue:

 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”

 John wants from the outset to make it clear to his readers that we are not talking about an ordinary, run-of-the-mill, every day Jewish Rabbi.  We are talking in completely different categories here.

 He goes on to make it even more explicit in his first chapter:  vss. 9-12

 “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,” (ESV)

 Here we begin to see John’s use of metaphor for the what of Jesus mission in the world.

 And that is the point of John’s usage of the “I AM’s” throughout his gospel account.

 And those actually begin with the one in our reading this morning:
I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE…
            I AM THE BREAD THAT CAME DOWN OUT OF HEAVEN.
I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE…
            I AM THE LIVING BREAD THAT CAME DOWN OUT OF HEAVEN;

And then the punch line:  In vs. 51

 “… if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.”

 Jesus is here likening Himself to the Manna from heaven that Moses gave the children of Israel in the wilderness after the Exodus.  Jesus makes very explicit connections between himself and this “bread from heaven.”

And then at the last, He connects the bread with his own sacrifice, and hearkens back to the whole sacrificial system of ancient Israel.  Jesus is saying, very clearly to his Jewish hearers that His body, given on the cross and celebrated in remembrance, on this Table, is the BREAD OF LIFE, given by God for the life of the world.

We call the Eucharist a “means of grace.”  Indeed!  “Anyone who eats of this bread, will live forever!”   Hallelujah!!


Let’s press on to the other I AM’s of Jesus in John’s gospel:

 Just two chapters later in Jn 8:   “I AM the Light of the world:  He who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life!”

He repeats this again in Jn 9, then in Jn 10, we are all familiar with the great passage:

I AM THE DOOR OF THE SHEEP… (He elaborates)
            I AM THE DOOR;  IF ANYONE ENTERS THROUGH ME, HE WILL BE
            SAVED, AND WILL GO IN AND OUT AND FIND PASTURE.

 I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD … WHO LAYS DOWN HIS LIFE FOR THE SHEEP
           I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD, AND I KNOW MY OWN AND MY OWN KNOW ME;

Jesus, takes on the metaphor of the Shepherd, in John 10, just as God has had that role through Israel’s history, the Great Shepherd of Israel.  We hearken back to the very familiar Psalm 23:

 Psa 23:1 The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.
Psa 23:2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
Psa 23:3  He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Psa 23:4  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Psa 23:5  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Psa 23:6  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

 Here we find a Psalm of ultimate comfort, one we use often at funerals or in times of difficulty.  It reveals the role of the Shepherd of Israel.  Also from Psalm 95:7

 Psa 95:7  For he [is] our God; and we [are] the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. “

Jesus taps into an historical reference to God the Father with his Jewish hearers.
I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD.

 And again, in the very next chapter, Jesus claims the Name and Nature of God:

 Jn 11:25
I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE;  HE WHO BELIEVES IN ME, WILL LIVE EVEN IF HE DIES,

 A clear reference to the power of God the Father to give and sustain life, Jesus here is claiming the Power of God as His own power.  Of course, one can claim such power easily, but in the setting of Jn 11, Jesus is talking to Mary, the sister of the dead Lazarus.

From her he immediately turns and makes his words a reality in their hearing that day:

 LAZARUS, COME FORTH!!!


And in his final discourse, after supper with his disciples in the Upper Room, Jesus tells Philip and the others,

I AM THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFE;  NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER BUT THROUGH ME.

These words of Jesus are the capstone of the I AM sayings!  Jesus sets himself apart here in stark contrast to the world, and to the many ways, the many truths that we run after.  There is one source of truth and life from God the Father, and Jesus is the Way.  As Paul was later to preach

 “There is no other Name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved!”

Just let me say, that if you entertain any of the popular notions of today’s pluralistic, multi-cultural religious elite, that there are “many ways to God” or that there is no one way that is “THE WAY” then this statement of Jesus must act as a STOP sign for us, before turning down that path.



And finally, Jesus final two I AM’s

 I AM THE TRUE VINE;
            I AM THE VINE, YOU ARE THE BRANCHES;  HE WHO ABIDES IN ME
            AND I IN HIM, HE BEARS MUCH FRUIT, FOR APART FROM ME YOU
            CAN DO NOTHING!!!

 Speaks for itself, eh?

And the final I am, from Matt 28:

            I AM WITH YOU, EVEN TO THE END OF THE AGE!

AMEN AND AMEN