October 1, 2023
Afraid of God?
What if I asked if you were afraid of God? Any of you might laugh. But I should tell you that, to begin with, I’m a little afraid of even using the word “God.” That’s because it’s been so abused over the centuries and so burdened down with mental images of an old man who sits up on top of the clouds, and it’s very hard for any of us to shake those images of our childhood — images that circumscribe and make somehow manageable the unfathomable power and breadth of divinity. You might recall images from Bible-thumping preachers of generations gone by who spoke of God’s wrath meted out upon the evil-doers and who tried to frighten people into declaring their faith. You might say, “Hey preacher, those notions of a scary, frightening God went out with horse-drawn carriages.” What if I said to you that you’d better be afraid of God? Would the smile retreat from your face? Would you consider turning me off and deciding I wasn’t worth listening to anymore? In fear and trembling (to pick up today’s theme) I hope to convince you this morning that there is very good reason to be afraid of God.
Let’s begin with the Apostle Paul and his admonition in this letter to the church at Philippi that people of faith should indeed be afraid. He wrote, “. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” And then he said why this task should be so scary. He concluded, “ . . . for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I want to tell you this morning that I find the notion of Divinity at work within me shaping my will and my work for the Almighty’s own pleasure extremely frightening. My will and my work are shaped by my own inclinations, prejudices, beliefs, and desires. I find that very comfortable. And I find a god who fits neatly into my hip pocket while I’m engaged I my own will and work to be very satisfying. There’s absolutely nothing scary about the bumper sticker: “Jesus is my copilot” – nice to know he’s hanging around to back me up, isn’t it? But a Transformational Power who gets inside me and redirects my will and my work according to Divine priorities instead of my own – that’s way too scary to imagine really happening. Heaven knows what might become of me if I allowed such a thing to happen. In fact, that’s exactly the problem: heaven may know what would become of me, but I sure don’t.
Let me begin to unpack all of this by first letting you in on some of my own theology. Specifically, I want to share a bit of my Christology (which simply means what I believe about Jesus as the Christ). In doing this I am picking up on a very old tradition inspired by some of the verses you heard read this morning from Philippians. When Paul writes that Jesus was, “in the form of God [but] . . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . . And being found in human form . . .” those words practically leapt off the page at the early church fathers. They wanted to know what was this “form of God” that described Jesus, and how did it relate to his “form of a slave” and his “human form”? The debates that grew out of these few words of scripture ended up branding certain notions about Christ as heresy, and establishing an orthodox Christology for the church. So, my own notions about Christ also relate to these verses, but I suspect those learned early church fathers would have declared me a heretic along with the Arianists and Docetists. At any rate, when Paul writes that “it is God who is at work within you,” in my mind this echoes his magnificent words about Christ being “in the form of God” and in “human form”. I happen to think that the difference between Jesus and you and me is simply one of degree. I think we are all divine, to a point, that we are all sons and daughters of The Most High, that Schiller’s Götterfunken – the “God-spark” of joy – is the imago dei – the image of God – that Genesis says resides in all of us from the moment of creation. The difference, in my belief, between Jesus and us is that Jesus just happened to be much more deeply in touch with, or got a larger dose of, or gave himself over more fully to that divinity within.
This is a paradox. To say that we are both human and divine is nonsense. It is as nonsensical to say it about us as to say it about Jesus. And yet our entire religion is built on paradox, the paradox of the trinity (the one God in three persons), the paradox of the virgin birth, the paradox of God’s all-powerful and all-loving nature that seems to make no room for the existence of evil and suffering. If our religion made sense, it would be boring – worse than that, it would inconsequential.
In asserting all this, at least I’m in good company. Soren Kierkegaard picked up on Paul’s phrase and wrote an entire one hundred and twenty page treatise titled Fear and Trembling. In that magnificent work of theology he referred to faith itself as a paradox, the same paradox that Abraham faced when confronted with the horrific choice between killing his son and being disobedient to God. And in another place, he saw this paradox in the human experience of what he refers to as “unutterable joy.” He supposed that “. . . the unutterable joy is based upon the contradiction that an existing human being is composed of the infinite and the finite, is situated in time, so that the joy of the eternal in him becomes unutterable . . . .”
So, what, you might ask, has all this got to do with being afraid of God? It all comes down to this great paradox of our religion, the notion that the infinite power of Love, the force that pervades and sustains the universe, can reside in a single human heart. In other words, in the language of earlier religious formulations, Jesus is constantly knocking on the door of our hearts, and it’s up to us to open that door and, as Paul McCartney suggested, let ’m in. But that door opens on a frightening prospect. Jesus himself opened the door and allowed the Divine Spark within to flare up into a raging flame, and it consumed him, and ultimately destroyed him. In the Garden of Gethsemane he sweated great drops of blood wishing that there were some way to close that door again and douse that fire, but he was too far gone, he was totally committed.
Carl Jung is quoted as saying, “Religion is a defense against the experience of God.” Those words are often taken as an indictment of religion for swamping people in a haze of orthodoxies and theological constructs. I think there may be a deeper truth. I read somewhere – I can’t remember now where – that it was the role of the ancient shaman (and subsequently, the priest) to stand in that place between the people and God not merely as a translator, but as a buffer. This is because the Divine Power of the Universe is all-consuming, and to move too close is to risk be drawn into an overwhelming force that so transforms one’s life that, in essence, the self is finally lost. It is comparable to the Black Hole that resides at the center of a galaxy holding it together and powering its artful motion. Any matter that wanders too close to that source of energy is inescapably drawn into its oblivion. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Divine Power is a Black Hole or simply a destructive force. But I have read the words of Jesus and absorbed the themes of the Bible, and it is abundantly clear that we are not compelled to regard our faith as a convenient add-on, like an app for our cell phones. Faith is meant to be totally transforming and to require complete commitment from us.
I love the words of Annie Dillard in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk: “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?” She asks. “… Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or,” she continues, “as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
I feel a little hypocritical preaching this sermon. I may sound as if I have made this total commitment and am fully in touch with the TNT we are mixing up here on Sunday mornings. Nothing could be further from the truth. I haven’t been able to give myself completely to that spark of Divinity within. I haven’t mustered the courage to allow that Spark to grow into a consuming fire, to permit it to, as Paul said, be at work in me, enabling me “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Frankly, it’s just too scary. The problem is, the meaninglessness of a failure to live for love is even scarier.
So this sermon is being preached to me as well as to you, and it comes with a caution to all of us: that a comfortable god who fits into my life-style and is content with an hour of platitudes every Sunday morning is no God at all. But it comes also with a word of comfort that is another of the bizarre paradoxes of our religion. The power of Love is absolutely transforming, the gospel is demanding of total devotion and the way of Christ is one of complete sacrifice of the self. At the same time, we are accepted, just as we are, and saved – saved from ourselves, from our complacency, from meaninglessness by that same pervasive, all-powerful Love that rules the universe. Go figure.
So, we are left with this: “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” It’s good advice, because if you or I think instead that it just doesn’t matter how we respond to the gospel, or if we are satisfied with a pleasant, undemanding, comfortable god, we may be well advised to approach the Almighty with some “fear and trembling.”