This past week I was back in Ohio helping my mother recover from knee surgery. Because the surgery was in Cincinnati, in addition to spending some nights there, my father and I made several trips to Cincinnati from my home town to see her. Driving down I-75 I noticed things that had changed since I lived there. There is a new mosque which has sprung up since I left and a few miles from it there is a massive Patriot Gun and Knife show. Right across the highway from the gun show is a modern non-denominational church. Several years ago the church erected a 50 foot waist up statue of Jesus with his hands held to the sky. The statue was nicknamed “touchdown Jesus” because his hand expressions were like a football referee’s. In 2010 however, lightening struck the statue and burned it to the ground. When your church’s 50 foot statue of Jesus is hit by lightning it causes much local, and some national, commentary. Undeterred, the congregation commissioned, and this past year, dedicated another 50 foot statue of Jesus, this time full bodied with arms straightened out, which is called “hug me Jesus.” So driving up and down I-75 we got to see a lot of the new statue. As we passed it, I thought about how those two statues signal two different ways humans often view God. The big, majestic, omnipotent God, way up in the sky, as Jesus was praying to God. And then a close God, imminent, open arms waiting to hug us. But as my father and I drove past the church, I realized that perhaps the best depiction of what God is like to me was actually sitting right next to me. Let us pray.
The questions of God’s nature and what God is like are as broad as any we could ask. Trying to answer them covers a lot of ground… First of all, even if we don’t believe in a higher reality or more intelligent being, all of us worship something, whether it’s the human body, money or our career, a movie or sports star, etc. Secondly, as I mentioned two weeks ago, I believe God exists but that God has revealed Godself only partly, and that much remains a mystery. What God has revealed, as we focused on last Sunday, is God incarnate – Jesus reveals God’s nature more directly than anything else. Thirdly, for us to talk about knowing God in a Christian context we must recognize that many people throughout the ages and world have a different experience. Billions of people believe in no God or worship a different God than we do. Judaism, with its monotheistic focus that Christianity adopted, grew out of a part of the world where many Gods were worshipped. Today many Hindus and Buddhists worship a variety of Gods. Many of the qualities of the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition are similar to many of the qualities of the divine as experienced in other traditions, but it must be with great humility that we discuss the nature of God.
And yet, if you have had a sense in prayer or had a direct experience of the sacred or have found comfort in your faith, you might sense that the expression of God in our tradition contains great truth. It does for me. Indeed, to me it is history. I believe Jesus’s birth, miracles and resurrection actually happened; that the Bible contains uniquely inspired wisdom; and that the God I have come to know through the Holy Spirit is reliable and real.
I believe we can know God. And yet, like the people at the church on I-75, I am not exactly sure how to depict God. Humans too often view God as having overly developed characteristics of humanity. Sometimes we think about God as overly nice. Sort of like a Santa Clause who exists to give us whatever we want. So we turn to God only when we need something. In some ways, this conception is like a heavenly grandparent. Whenever the grandparents arrive at our house our kids are excited because it means treats. The grandparents usually come with presents, have a quick draw with the wallet at the candy store and bedtime curfews seem to linger on and on. Not to be critical of grandparents, this is one of the great things about grandparenthood. But if our conception of God is that God is so lenient as to approve everything we do and grant every wish, we will be disappointed.
Other people have a view of God as a great enforcer: very active in the battles of the world. In the Old Testament, we hear of God influencing the outcomes of wars, picking kings, speaking to prophets and bringing natural disasters. We might both long for and fear this vision. On one hand, we fear a God who seems as callous as one who would bring the great flood or allow life deliberately to be taken in wars. On the other hand, we might long for some signs that God is as active in our world as God appeared to be in the Old Testament. I do not believe God is as extreme as in those depictions. At least as God has revealed Godself.
God is certainly powerful enough to have created this incredible world in which we live. Both our choir, and later our congregation, will sing from the great hymn, Our God our Help in Ages, about God having existed from long ago and being the one in whom we have hope in the future. God is immortal, invisible, God only wise. Our Reformed Westminster Confession says that “God is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit.” Our Apostles Creed confesses God is “Almighty, the maker of Heaven and earth.” Grand and sovereign. And thank God that God is. Only a powerful God who could create the world would have the power to rearrange and ultimately save the world.
How do we, given our limited resources of expression, describe the nature of God? From the best I can tell, God is very much like a heavenly parent. I believe God has revealed Godself to be a personal God. God’s choice to reveal God’s character through the person of Jesus tells us a lot about what God is like and how God would have us live. God is personal, but a spirit, not a person. In order to reveal Godself in a way we can understand, God came in human form, but if we try and put God in human form, with a gender and a face, we end up making God in our image. And yet God seeks to be close to us. God wants us to know God personally. While many relationships between parents and children are not as we or they would like, God exhibits the best qualities of a parent.
I feel that way because that is how I view God’s self-description. There are many descriptions in the Bible of what God is like; Paul and Timothy make them, the prophets make them, even Jesus describes God. But here in Exodus 34 we find God’s description. We see God coming down in the clouds, standing with Moses and describing what God is like.
Exodus 34 is a great and helpful passage, the dramatic moment in which Israel, having worshipped a false God, receives a restored covenant with God through Moses. In Exodus 24 we read that God had given Moses two tablets with commandments on them. However, when Moses comes down with the tablets in Exodus 32 and sees the Israelites worshipping a false God, he is so angry that he drops the tablets with the commandments and they are destroyed. But in mercy, God reissues the commandments. In doing so, God reveals the fullness of God’s character. God describes Godself as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
Theologian Phyllis Trible argues that the Hebrew for merciful here derives from the noun “womb,” arguing that the mercy of God is a kind of motherly love, similar to visions from Isaiah and Matthew. God is gracious and forgiving and faithful and slow to anger. The phrase “slow to anger” translates as “long nosed.” As in God’s anger has a chance to cool off because it is breathed through a long nose. God’s steadfast love relates to God’s capacity to put up with a lot because of God’s resolve to sustain relationship far into the future. God’s steadfast love was underscored in Jesus Christ. As John puts it, “God’s love was revealed because God sent his son into the world that we might live through him.”
These qualities that our tradition and scripture tell us God uses to describe Godself, to me are the best of parental characteristics. Not the give-the-kid-everything posture. Not the field-general of some visions of God. But loving and faithful and committed to the well-being of the child for the long haul.
Now God’s grace is not cheap. Our scripture makes clear that God does not simply forget the bad things that happened. Sin has consequences: potentially negative consequences for a long time. But to me, a God big and personal enough to remember both what has gone on and to forgive our iniquities is like a parent. God is deeply committed to relationships with Israel, even when Israel has been irresponsible. God teachers lessons, just like a parent.
For example, in Exodus 24, we read about how God had given Moses two tablets of commandments, which were destroyed when Moses dropped them in anger in Exodus 32. Now the tables are reissued, but this time in Exodus 34, Moses must bring his own tablets on which God would write the laws. It is a lesson in parenting. Moses broke the tablets; He must supply his own. We have a version of that at our dinner table. Our kids break or lose something or deliberately give it to the dog, and they don’t get another one. There is a lesson in responsibility.
God describes Godself as being both forgiving and punishing. But actions speak louder than words and God gives Moses another chance with the tablets. Moreover, when Moses admits Israel’s wrongdoing, referring to Israel as “stiff necked people who have sinned,” he asks God for forgiveness. God responds with grace that God promises to do amazing and marvelous things for them. The most important part of this section for me is the end of verse 10. God will do the awesome things, not to show off, not to show God is God, but God tells Moses he will do great things “for you.” Like a parent would want to do great things for a child.
Likewise, all the attributes of God in this section are listed in relation to humanity. God self describes as being “merciful, and gracious.” Well, that implies we ask merciful and gracious to whom. Slow to anger, about what? Faithful, to whom? Forgiving, of whom or what? All these self-descriptions from God show a desire for relationships on the part of God towards God’s people.
I read recently about a group of 3rd and 4th graders from Illinois who were asked to complete the following sentence, “I know that God is….”
Amanda wrote, “Forgiving, because he forgave in the Bible and he forgives me.” Brandon wrote, providingful because he dropped manna for Moses and he gave my dad a job.”
Paul said, “Caring, because he made the blind man see and he made me catch a very fast line drive in baseball.”
Jeremy concluded, “Merciful, because my brother has been nice to me for a year.”
The ancient Gregory the Theologian once said, “It is difficult to conceive God, but to define God in words is an impossibility.” There are many depictions of God in the Bible, in our culture and in our minds. It is difficult to describe God in a sentence. But God’s self-revelation tells me that God’s relationship to me is most like a parent to a small child: great and grand in my eyes, guiding my path, concerned, engaged, forgiving, grace-filled, loving, willing to remember and correct, wanting a lasting relationship and committed to my long term well-being, ultimately hoping to do marvelous things for our benefit. It’s why Jesus called God Abba, the great parent, and why in every worship service here we begin our great prayer with “Our Father….”
When my dad and I passed the church with the huge statues and actually made our way down to the hospital and walked into my mother’s recovery room after surgery, I got to see the most loving look on her face. The look of happiness at seeing one’s child. The feeling of exhaling when you know in the face of pain that if your child is alright all is well. That there is a long lasting, unconditional love of a parent for a child. And during what was a tough few days of walking and resting and preparing food and medicine and just being together, I saw in my mother, the kind of love a parent has for a child.
After all the words have been used to describe God and even with all the amazing things God can do, what we should most remember about God is that God loves us like a parent. And always will. Amen.