Scripture: Luke 13:31-35
Ask someone sometime where they see God. This is not something we do often in polite society, is it. We’re afraid we may get a harangue or a moral lesson. We’re leery of someone trying to convert us to their way of seeing. We’ve almost forgotten how to talk about God in a way that is inviting rather than coercing, a way that opens up conversation rather than strong-arming people into an unwanted acquiescence.
So admittedly there are risks that go with asking someone about their experience of God. Rob Bell, in the book many at Federated are reading this Lent, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, acknowledges the difficulties of doing this. And yet he shows us the richness of trying to find a way to talk about this most abstract, intangible of subjects.
So imagine it: a little child, maybe your child or grandchild, comes up to you and asks, “Who is God?” Your friend tells you she’s confused about her faith and wants to know where you find God. Your father lies on his death bed and says he’s scared and wonders what will become of him when he dies. And it’s up to you to speak into his void. It’s up to you to say what it is you believe, what it is that matters most to you, what it is that grounds your life. What do you say?
What’s so hard about this is: this is the subject that matters most in all of life. And, at the same time, it’s the most difficult subject in the world to talk about with any clarity or precision. To me, the whole subject is exhilarating, as the presence of God insinuates itself into my life. And, a the very same time, I experience doubt and struggle for words and am mystified by some of God’s apparent ways. So when I speak about God, I need do so always with utter humility. I don’t know anything. And precisely because of that, I need to question, to seek, to explore. My deep conviction is that, in our seeking, we will find. Remember Jesus’ words to his followers: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11:9). And so I explore and study and reflect.
In our class on Bell’s book this past Friday, when I asked what people thought of when they thought of God, one of the participants said almost immediately that he thought of God as a “benevolent mystery.” What a lovely phrase! And it’s lovely for two reasons, both because of the “benevolent” part and also because of the “mystery” part. The truth is that “God is never fully known” (“Bring Many Names,” v. 6) If we don’t approach the subject of God with humility, as I mentioned, we are going to foul it up. The truth is we are always, spiritually, somewhat in the dark, and it’s best if we recognize that.
Nobody knew better than the writers of the Bible how difficult it is to talk about God. Both testaments are full of countless images for the Holy One. In the Hebrew Scriptures—what we sometimes call the Old Testament—images of God proliferate. We see God as a king, a father, a shepherd, a rock. And we know when we hear such images that God isn’t any of those things literally. Those images show us, instead, that God is like a king in being the ruler of all creation; that God is like a “warm father, . . . hugging every child” (“Bring Many Names,” v. 3); that God leads us, like a shepherd, “in paths of righteousness” (Psalm 23:3); that God is solid as the day is long—rock-solid, in truth—an immoveable foundation under our feet. These images tell us much more about God than any literal language could tell us. Here’s the way one dictionary defines God: “the Sole Supreme being, eternal, spiritual, and transcendent, who is the creator and ruler of all and is infinite in all attributes” (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/god). That sort of language doesn’t tell me anywhere near as much about God as saying that God is father.
Jesus, too, never used precise, literal language to talk about the Holy One. He used verbal pictures, metaphors and stories to convey what is ultimately inexpressible. In John’s gospel, he says he is the light of the world, the bread of life, the Good Shepherd, the door, the true vine. And if we pause with any of these, they are redolent of some facet of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Likewise with the stories Jesus tells. What is God like? God is like a father who welcomes his son home even when the son has abandoned his father (Luke 15:11-32, a story we will encounter two weeks from today in our “Fifth Sunday Worship Experience”). God is a boss who pays workers the same whether they start work at the beginning of the day or the end of the day (Matthew 20:1-13). Stories like these convey so much more about God than I could ever convey with a sentence about God’s properties or qualities, like saying that God is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. That sort of language can have its purpose, but it’s generally dry, inert, lifeless. Jesus’ language about God, on the other hand, sings and shimmers.
It is imprecise, though. And it has the danger that we will start to think of those images as literally what God is. If we use any image too much, its ability to evoke the grand mystery of God dries up and it stops singing and shimmering. This is why it makes such a difference to add to the images we use for God, and to continue to seek out new ways of shining light on the God who is our all in all.
Over the last several decades, the contemporary church has struggled with what to do with some of the traditional images for God. The metaphor “father” has been at the forefront of our reflections. On the one hand, that word “father” has been a marvelous door into the mystery of the Holy One. The father who welcomes home the prodigal son is an image that never stops bringing a tear to my eye. Some of you have had a marvelous relationship with your father, and that experience or memory of your father sheds light on the magnificence of God. That is part of how you are close to God: God is like the father you grew up with.
Simply to take away the image of a father as a window on God would be to impoverish us all. That’s not the answer as we continually seek images for the wondrous God who adores us. I do think, though, that we are enriched as people of faith as we add other images and fill out some of what we may have been missing.
So over these last decades, we have sought to add to our store of images for the great and wonderful God. Lauren Winner, a theologian at Duke University, suggests we are much the richer as we supplement the familiar images of our faith with fresh and new images. She reminds us that the Bible has images of God as clothing (you “put on” Christ, right?) and laughter (when the ancient Sarah discovers she’s pregnant) and fire and a beekeeper and a loaf of bread and a cypress tree. All of these expand our notions of the Creator. They may well help us see facets of God that we had not noticed before. As Winner says, when we restrict our images for God to a few favorites, we cease being able to be surprised and really grabbed. “‘Shepherd’ and ‘light’ are perfectly wonderful images, but in fixing on them—in fixing on any three or four primary metaphors for God—we have truncated our relationship with the divine, and we cut ourselves off from the more voluble and variable witness of the scriptures, which depict God as clothing. As fire. As comedian. Sleeper. Water. Dog” (Wearing God, pp. 6-7). See how much grander and stranger and more accessible and more beautiful God is when we live with these other images.
Not only that, but it’s tremendously enriching to supplement other human images for this God beyond all knowing. And the idea is not to replace male images for God, but to complement them with images that fill out the magnificence of the Holy One. And in a way that I think has surprised some of us, the resistance to that expansion of images has sometimes been extraordinarily strong. Some of you know that my father was a professor and scholar of the New Testament. And he spent the last years of his working life seeking to offer a biblical translation that expanded our images for God. We read this morning, in fact—as we do most Sunday mornings—from his translation of the New Testament.
And what might surprise you is the vehemence of the objections that greeted him and his translating companions as they published their version several decades ago. There was, in fact, fierce resistance to the notion of calling God “Mother.” The resistance was so ferocious, in fact, that he received a sizable amount of hate mail, including mail that threatened the lives of his children! All because the letter-writers were undone by the notion of calling God “Mother.” And this was the case even though these same letter-writers almost certainly never objected in the slightest to calling God a rock. It was fine to sing to God “Rock of Ages,” yet, in their eyes, it was despicable to picture God as a Mother who held us close.
As Jesus moves closer to his death and has more and more hostile encounters with the powers-that-be who would just as soon get rid of him, he laments how fickle and unresponsive the people of Jerusalem have been to the God who never leaves them alone. And he says to the people of Jerusalem, “How often I’ve longed to gather your children, gather your children like a hen, her brood safe under her wings—but you refused and turned away!” (Luke 13:34, The Message).
And we’re invited, with those words, to encounter God not just as a father, but also as a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. And if we spend time with that image, our faith is enlarged somehow. We can picture ourselves, perhaps, caught in a storm, the wind howling, the foxes perhaps threatening. And along comes the mother hen to gather us under the safety of her warm and soft and protective wings. And we are safe.
In Bell’s book about how we talk about God, he tells the story of a woman he met. “A few years ago,” he says, “I was speaking in [Boston], and afterward a woman told me about the time she had been in the hospital for ongoing cancer treatment, lying in bed thinking that she wasn’t going to make it. She remembers being lower than she’d ever been before, filled with despair, wondering if she was going to die soon, when the night-shift nurse entered her room and began to lovingly care for her. Throughout the night the nurse returned repeatedly, checking on her and calming her and reassuring her and speaking to her in a way that lifted her entire being and gave her hope. In the morning, she woke up feeling like a different person. She then asked the morning nurse for the name of the woman who had been caring for her [during the night], giving a detailed description [of the woman].
“The morning nurse said that no one who fit that description worked on that floor of the hospital, not to mention the night before in this woman’s room” (pp. 76-77).
And so the woman is left with an image of God that’s compelling and sublime. Life and grace had come to this frightened woman in an angelic, holy way, a divine female presence who shows up unbidden, to support and sustain this patient in mysterious ways. And if we might return to the idea of God I referred to earlier: yes, this God is a mystery, but so also is this God benevolent. This God shows up, sometimes when we least expect it, to lighten the load and brighten the darkness, to embrace with a fierce affection, to cover protectively with soft and beautiful wings. God loves us with a nurse’s tender care.
And if that’s true—and as people of faith, we testify that it is—if that’s true, what are we to make of it? And maybe the most pressing question of all: what does that mean we’re to be as the children of this gentle and kind nurse, as the children who are adored by this doting mother hen? If we take that God seriously, it means that everybody is gathered under that protective wing. It means that we act as vessels of God in welcoming everybody. The child ostracized at her school? Held under that wing. The neighbor with the irritating manner? Held under that wing. And today we ask: Muslims around the world? Ah, yes—held under that warm, protective wing. How do we embody this God in our daily comings and goings? By sharing that love with Muslim sisters and brothers. By standing with anyone who may be in peril. By embracing the world in all its fragility. The “benevolent mystery” at the heart of the universe asks no less. And by God, we will respond. And let the people say, “Amen.”