Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Know God - Who?

Preached on Sunday, April 26, 2015

Scripture readings: Job 42:1-6; Acts 17:16-34

A little girl was drawing a picture in class. All the kids had their crayons out and they were drawing or thinking about what to draw. The teacher was going from desk to desk, looking at the children’s work.
When she got to the little girl, the teacher asked what she was drawing. The little girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher said, “Nobody knows what God looks like.” And the little girl answered, “They will when I’m finished.”
This is what Paul promised to give to the Athenians: a picture of God. Of course it’s not a picture about what God would look like if you came into God’s presence face to face. In fact the writers of the Bible seem to deliberately avoid saying very much about this.
The Gospel of John is very clear about this. John wrote: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)
Paul told the Athenians the same thing. He told them that God is nothing like any image that any human could make. The images that the Greeks made of their gods (out of gold, or silver, or stone) made them out to be like strong and beautiful humans. Paul said that God is nothing like that. (Acts 17:29)
Yet Paul found the strangest way to say this. He told them that our own identity as God’s offspring should tell us that no image, or statue, or picture could possibly tell us who God is.
My family has some old family photographs and letters going back to the 1850’s and 1860’s. Honestly, the images don’t tell you much about who they are. For one thing, people didn’t smile for the camera one hundred and fifty years ago. It’s the letters that tell you who they are.
We have a bunch of those old letters. Years ago I gave myself the job of deciphering them as well as I could. Their old handwriting wasn’t bad, but it was difficult. It was so different from modern penmanship. That made it hard to read. It took me hours, and days, and weeks to figure them out.
Some of these letters were written to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and to tell loved ones about how life was going far, far away. Some of the letters came from the Civil War, and they describe horrendous things, and angry things, and sad things, and funny things, side by side. These people were writing to loved ones about what they were doing, and seeing, and hearing. More than that, they were writing about how they were doing it, and how they were seeing and hearing it.
After weeks of working with these letters, I suddenly knew these people: at least a little bit, but very vividly. It didn’t matter whether I had a picture of them or not. I wrote a poem about this experience of knowing them.

You grew upon me as I thought of you.
You crept close quietly before I knew
That thought might reach so far.
This paper key
Unlocked your century;
And you (as you once were) to partial view
Appeared behind the door you held ajar. ("The Old Letter" by Dennis Evans)

Paul was going to speak to the Areopagus Council of Athens (the council of religions and morals) about God. It was as if he were delivering a letter to them from God. It was a letter to loved ones who were not really so far away, but acted as though they were. Paul’s message was a letter from God to his estranged and unreconciled offspring.
The message told of what God had done and what God was doing. The message told of the relationship that God had begun with us, and how that relationship was going, and what God wanted it to be, and how God was now going to make it work. If the Athenians were willing to take the time and listen to the message, if they were willing to live inside of the message instead of judging it, then they might meet the God of the message and know this God.
To tell where the Athenians (and all the rest of the Greeks and Romans) were at… would take a long time. Luke mentioned the Epicureans and Stoics, and these were two of the most popular philosophies of that time.
The Epicureans believed that everything was more or less an accident produced by a collision of atoms. Every human was an accident that will come to an end. They saw the gods as living in complete unawareness of this universe and everything in it, and that was why the gods were happy. Humans, the Epicureans taught, could be happy if they imitated the gods by avoiding getting caught up in the troubles of this world as much as possible, until they died and ceased to exist.
The Stoics believed that there was a kind of order and reason behind everything. There was a plan and a will for everything, but there was no personality behind the order of things. The Stoics believed that the individual existence of things and people were temporary and that, when a person dies, they sort of disappear and blend in with the reason or the wisdom behind everything. Until that happened, the important thing was to do one’s duty and to carry out one’s responsibilities, even when that became difficult or fatal, and not to worry about it; not to take it personally, until one merges and disappears back into the oneness of wisdom.
In Athens, there was more than one altar dedicated to “An Unknown God”. There had been a plague in Athens, centuries before Christ, and the people of Athens had tried to stop the plague by offering sacrifices to their gods.
The sacrifices were peace offerings, made so that the gods would be pleased and stop the plague. They had lots and lots of gods, and they offered sacrifices to all of them, but nothing worked.
So the people of Athens decided there must be at least one god that they had missed (a god whose name and identity they didn’t know) so they offered a sacrifice to the unknown god, and the plague stopped. Paul told the people of Athens that their ancestors had been right, in some way. There was a god they didn’t know, but they needed to know him. Paul would make that god known.
Instead of lots of gods running their little shows, Paul told them that they could know a God who created everything and held everything together. This is the God who is the Lord of heaven and earth. This was a way of saying that there is a structure, and an order, and a plan to things. There is a direction and a goal to which we are all going. To truly know God means knowing this.
Paul said that we live inside this order of things, and that we also belong to this order, and that we also belong to the God who made us, who made the world and everything in it. (Acts 17:24)
The gods of the Greeks ate the sacrifices offered to them. They were warmed by the clothing that was put on their statues in their temples, although some of them didn’t wear very much clothing.
The God Paul knew didn’t need anything from us. The God Paul knew made everything for us; and it pleased God to do this.
If the people of Athens could know God as Paul did, they would have known him as the God spoken of, centuries later, by the great old English preacher Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon wrote: “The Lord loves you not to-day, Christian, because of anything you are doing, or being, or saying, or thinking, but he loves you still, because his great heart is full of love, and it runneth over to you.”
Instead of us building a place for God, God has built a house for us with a ceiling that is billions and billions of light years high. There is a message in this house of the universe we live in. If we truly lived in this house with all our heart we would know God much better than we do even now.
Paul told the people of Athens that they should have known something about his God if they took their own poets seriously. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” “We are his offspring.”
We don’t know God until we know that God has made us for relationship with him and with each other. God has made us all from one human, and we cannot know God until we know that we are all related to each other. We belong to everyone, and everyone belongs to us. We have the same needs. We share the same design, because God has made us in his image.
We also don’t know God unless we know that something has gone wrong. The times and places where our nations grow and wither away tells us about God’s rule of the nations but also that there is conflict between humans. It tells us that we have been made for harmony, but also it tells us that we experience and contribute to the disharmony.
Paul spoke of history and the conditions of the nations helping us to “seek God and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” But the words “perhaps reach out for him” imply a sort of bungling on our part: not doing very well with what God gives us. Our reaching out, for God and for the truth, misses the mark.
Paul told the Athenians that they had been living through the last days of long ages of ignorance about God, but now that time was ending. We can see that we are still living in such times of ignorance.
All this tells us that we can’t know God until we realize that we are ignorant. We are bungling in spite of everything that God has done for us. Paul uses the word “repent” and repent includes the thought of needing a new mind. Repentance carries the message that we are responsible to God, and God is the only one who can give us that new mind, and heart, and soul, and life.
The thing inside us that thinks and feels and knows; the thing inside us that motivates us and that makes our choices; the thing that is us: this thing needs to be replaced and made new. This is sin at work in us and we need to be rescued from this old mess.
Paul says that we cannot know God unless we meet the man who rose from the dead, and he meant the man who died on the cross and rose from the dead. He meant Jesus.
Paul says that we cannot know God unless we know him in Jesus. We cannot live in the world as God meant it to be unless we know God in Jesus.
Paul says that we, and the whole world, must pass through the choice of Jesus. There must be a meeting between Jesus and us in which what Jesus has done has been given to us.
Paul said that God “will judge the world with justice though the man he has appointed.” (Acts 17:31) Justice doesn’t always mean punishment and condemnation. Justice also means setting things right: making things right. Justice means restoring and remaking what was injured and broken.
When we trust in the one who died for us and who rose from the dead, then we get the saving justice of God. We are made right. We are remade and become a new creation.
Working through Jesus, God makes us right with him. God makes us right with the world, and right with everyone, and even right with ourselves. This is how we know God. This is the God we must know.
Why does God insist on being known? Why is it so important?
What would you be like, if you didn’t want to know the people who have loved you? And what would you be like if you didn’t want to love the people who loved you?
A little child has an instinct for loving their parents even though they know and understand very little about them. That instinct for love is beautiful. It is tragic when that instinct is damaged or lost.
Adolescents and teenagers often struggle with the love of their parents, and they struggle with knowing and understanding their parents. We don’t always outgrow this struggle. But it is a wonderful thing to grow up and both understand and love your parents. It really is the only way to grow up whole and complete.
I will tell you that, a few years before he died, my dad apologized to me for something. He said to me, “Son, I’m sorry for the way I treated you when you were a kid.” I told him, “I think you did the best you knew how to do. I think you tried to do your best.”
I need to tell you that my dad never abused me physically. The problem was that he could be very unfriendly to me and made me feel that I couldn’t please him.
One of the things he changed, even before he made that strange apology, was that he began to tell me that he loved me. I was in my forties before I ever heard him say that. I never got used to it, but it was a good thing to hear. It was a sign of a deep change in my dad.
I am still having new experiences of understanding my dad better, even after he has passed away. Sometimes I am ashamed when I think of how I was able to misinterpret him, even when he was trying to make up with me. Sometimes I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. I never knew him well enough, and I am the poorer for that.
We need to know God. We need to know God much better. Our life comes from God. Our capacity to love and to be loved comes from God. If we are never willing to know him and love him (if we never choose to know God and love God), then we will never have truly lived. Then we will have chosen to live outside of real life.
Even if, at present, we are dealing with an unknown god, there should be a yearning to know and to love that it would be dangerous for us to ignore. What do people make of themselves when they don’t seek to know and love?
Job said, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6) That’s the shame that can push us through the door into life; the door into life with God and with the man who rose from the dead.

We have this high calling to the life that comes from knowing and loving God. The real God wants you to know that he knows you and that he loves you. You have been created by a God who has made you so that you could know and love, and so that you could enjoy being known and loved, and you will never be happy until you do it.

1 comment:

  1. But would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?
    Sorry, Dennis, you know what I am like about Fiddler On The Roof.

    What a wonderful sermon, as always, I want to go back and read it again, so much here to think about.
    That story at the beginning about the little girl, I have read that before, I love it. That confidence is something we should emulate as Christians.