Where is God? Living into the Presence 4-24-16

Today is the concluding sermon of three sermons on the subject of “Where is God.” It has turned into a trinitarian exploration of the different ways God is present to us in a myriad of forms. Last week, I concluded with the declaration of Jesus that “wherever two or more followers are gathered, I will be there.” Someone came to me after the sermon a bit concerned. She can go nameless except for her initials, Marilyn Arnott. She said, “Are you saying that God is not present when we are by ourselves?” Now that’s a fair question, wouldn’t you say? And the answer of course is no. Jesus was emphasizing the importance of community and God’s presence in the community, but God is found in all kinds of ways, including when we are by ourselves.

With that in mind, let’s listen to today’s assigned reading from near the very end of the Bible, Revelation 21: 1-6

Revelation 21:1-6  Then I saw new heavens and a new earth.  The former heavens and the former earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer. I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as a bride and groom on their wedding day. And I heard a loud voice calling from the throne, “Look! God’s Tabernacle is among humankind!  God will live with them; they will be God’s people, and God will be fully present among them, The Most High will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  And death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more, for the old order has fallen.” The One who sat on the throne said, “Look!  I’m making everything new!” and added, “Write this, for what I am saying is trustworthy and true.” And that One continued, “It is finished.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  To those who are thirsty I will give drink freely from the spring of the water of life.

June 24, 2016

Where is God? Living into the Presence

My three younger brothers and I all slept in one bedroom -before we moved into a bigger house when I was six years old. We had a bunkbed and a pull out bed all in one little room. When the bed was pulled out the room was all beds. In the evening my mother would tuck us in, read a story, try to get us to quiet down, and say our bedtime prayer. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

My Dad bought a newfangled tape-recorder and taped this whole ritual one December evening. My mother, after finishing her story, one of my favorites, prompts us to say the prayer, “God bless… Mommy and Daddy” she says, and a tiny voice in the background pipes up, “And Davey!” She ignores the voice and continues with the prayer, “God bless, Grandma and Grandpa” “And Davey!”  “And everyone we love.” “And Davey!” “And David, John, Jim and Richard.”

God was close and present in that little room. I wasn’t thinking about where God was – clearly I was only thinking about myself. But if you asked me where God was I would not have said “right here. All around us.” I would have said, “God is in heaven.” And if you pressed it I would have said, “God is in the sky, in the clouds with the angels.” or something like that.

That image was helpful for a literal-minded little boy. And images like that are helpful for all of us at times in our lives. As we have seen the last few weeks, the Bible has different images of where God is, sometimes in side-by-side chapters as in Genesis, where God is depicted as walking in the garden with Adam and Eve in one chapter, and in the next God is more of a large, creative force deep in the universe.

Last week we talked about how all of these images are metaphors that help us imagine God who is almost beyond our imagination. We talked about the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and how Jesus talked about being present whenever followers gathered together to remember him. This is also a metaphor that expresses a deep and very real truth.

Walter Wink taught that our image of God creates us. When I sit each morning to meditate and pray, I am not trying to conjure a specific image or picture of God, but I certainly feel that presence and listen for the voice of God – in the quiet of the moment, in my own thoughts, in my breath united with the air around me.

Even the image of God all around us, though, even the image of God within us and in all of creation, is a reduction of who God is. Paul Tillich, the great 20th century theologian, wrote about the God beyond God. He said God is so far beyond any of images of God, that we could think of a God beyond them all, separate from any image, more mysterious, less comprehensible than any idea that we can form.

The image of God in our assigned passage this morning from Revelation has helped to create us – has helped to create our faith. Revelation is one of the key books in the Bible where we get our understanding of God in heaven, up above and in charge. The interesting thing about it though, when we read it carefully, is the vision of what is going to happen in the future.

We think of ourselves as going to be with God, going to heaven when we die, Revelation envisions new heavens and a new earth at some time in the future. Everything is made new and then the new Jerusalem comes out of that new heaven and unites with the earth. God takes up residence among humanity. God wipes away every tear from the eye of humankind as death and pain is no more.

So in the end instead of God being found in heaven, God is found in a combined, newly created heaven and earth. As has happened throughout this series, we find different and often contradictory portrayals of where God may be found. God is portrayed as absent and everywhere, walking among us and a the center of the universe, far above earth and present with us in every pain and difficulty in humanity.

And it this sounds like I’m pointing out a problem, I’m really not. Because our theology – and our understanding of where God is – has always been able to handle paradox and contradiction. We image God in many ways expressing different understandings and images of God, reflecting our relationship with God at different times and places, and all of those expressions have their validity, express some truth about the great mystery that we portray in a most mysterious way when we talk about the Trinity, God who is One over all humanity, yet somehow three different aspects, persons, or forms. We talk about hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence and sometimes we hear and feel with a certainty and sometimes it is more of a metaphor and either way we are calling attention to a reality that undergirds our lives, renews us, and keeps us going when things get hard.

As we come to the end of this sermon series, I want to acknowledge what I’ve learned in each one of these three sermons. Remember, the whole idea for this sermon series came from a monk’s simple statement in a radio interview that he no longer thinks of God as being above, but as being all around. I thought that this series was going to be an examination and confirmation of that basic idea, simple, but mature theology.

Yet, every time and every way I have gone at the question ‘Where is God?” I have found my sophisticated intention challenged by other ways of thinking about it – God’s particular location among the poor, God’s particular location in the garden, especially on this Earth day, God’s particular location with each one of us. Yes, God is everywhere, all around us, but more importantly, God is right here, when a child prays “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”

On Easter Sunday, as we were preparing for the celebration of resurrection, several young people were playing in the sanctuary, waiting for the service to begin. As we put the long white cloth over the cross and turned on the lights to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus, the children didn’t need any kind of elaborate explanation or sophisticated theological concept. I saw them sit right here, taking turns, and I heard Sarah say, “I’m sitting in the arms of Jesus.” “I’m sitting in the arms of God.”

It was only later that I realized, They’re the ones who know where God is. God is holding them, right here, right now. This is God’s good news. Amen.