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.

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