University Congregational Church
Feb. 8, 2015
Tough Theological Questions: Is God Active in Our World?
A few weeks ago, we all heard the story of the 7 year old girl who walked up to a mile through a dark and unfamiliar wooded area in Kentucky. After a plane crash killed her mother, father, sister, and cousin, she walked through the woods looking for help and ended up on the doorstep of Larry Wilkins. He opened the door to see the little girl, whose legs were bleeding and who thought her arm was broken. She told him the story of the plane crash, trying to wake her parents up, and looking for help.
Upon hearing this story, some people asked that age-old question: “Where is God when things like this happen?”
Last week, we received news of another horrific beheading of the 2nd Japanese captive held by ISIS and the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive. Both were videoed and released to terrorize the world. It is human nature to question: “Where is God when these unspeakable atrocities are perpetrated?”
A Bedouin settlement was destroyed this week by Israeli tanks, as it has been in the past. I wondered if it was a settlement we saw last year when some from our church traveled to Israel. The Bedouins vow to rebuild and the government vows to destroy again. “Where is God?”
We find ourselves in a world that seems even more troubled than usual – with so much tragedy, so much unrest, so much violence and fear – and it seems that there is so little we can do about it. We still struggle our way out of deep economic troubles while the gap between the rich and poor grows wider. Too many of us are out of work or underemployed or feeling insecure in our jobs.
The Gospel writer of John addressed his gospel to those who ask that question, “Where is God”? While the other three Gospel writers begin with stories of Jesus’ birth and ministry, John begins his story long before human history begins – at the very dawn of creation. Listen now to this beautiful and lofty language reminding us that the transcendent, beyond-words God took on flesh, came to us, found us, sought us out, and took on our own existence, with its pains, sorrow, vulnerability and joy.
1-2 The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.
3-5 Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.
6-8 There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.
9-13 The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
14 The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
John1:1-14 The Message
Stephen Bauman describes this text especially well: “God,” he writes, “is embedded with us in the human predicament.” Others note the concept of God “pitching a tent” in our midst. Fred Craddock also sums it up saying that “whatever else John 1:14 means, it does state without question the depth, the intensity, and the pursuit of God’s love for the world.”
There are two points to this story to emphasize: “God’s Presence: Your God is Too Big.” Daniel Hans is a Presbyterian minister in the United States. In 1986 he and his wife Beth lost their three year old daughter Laura to cancer. Daniel and Beth watched in agony as their little girl faced nine hospitalizations and four separate operations in the last nine months of her life. Their hearts broke as they watched Laura die, and they struggled to make sense of what had happened.
In 1987 Daniel Hans released a book containing some of the sermons he preached throughout his daughter’s battle with cancer and in the period immediately after her death. One of them is titled: “Caution. Your God is too Big.” Hans relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things they had hoped God would do but that God didn’t. People described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn child only to see it die, of the hope God would protect his people from violence only to hear of an elderly woman being stabbed on her way to church, prayed for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own – he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse.
Hans suggests that disappointments like these are the stuff of life, and that if we read the Scriptures we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats by God we hear story after story of disappointment with God, of times God appears silent and inactive. God’s action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but more often than not to walk through our suffering with us.
Going on to the second point…“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” What a powerful sentence. The traditional meaning of this sentence is that God became flesh in Jesus and Jesus came to earth to live. The Word as it is described is not an intellectualized, conceptual God. Instead, the Word is flesh and blood. We may not be able to describe the incredible mystery that is God, but we know words to describe God and can insert them into the sentence…
“Love became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”
“Peace became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”
“Grace became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”
And then, instead of saying “became flesh” what if we said the name of a person?
“Love was demonstrated by John and moved into the neighborhood”
“Sue, a peace loving person moved into the neighborhood”
“Our new neighbor, Joe, is the epitome of grace”
In her sermon, “Waiting in the Dark”, Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on what it feels like to wait for some all-important thing, as John the Baptist did: before Jesus arrived, “John’s life was one long Advent, a waiting in the dark for the light, a waiting without knowing for the one thing that would change everything.” Many of us wait for the news that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us. Some of us may have secretly – in the deepest places of our hearts – given up hope. Or, worse, we may assume that it’s all up to us, or that we can somehow make everything right, all by our own efforts, without a God who has chosen to be right here, right in the midst of everything that we face. As we wait, Taylor writes we can live in hope and trust: “We may be short on details,” she writes, “but we are not short on hope or wonder at this mystery whose good hands we are in.”
Sometimes we get caught up in the details of how and when we will experience the presence of God. Will there be a cure for the cancer we’ve feared? An intervention in the course of things that can only be attributed to God? If bad things keep happening, does that mean that God has abdicated power or never was to begin with?
Our text does more than remind us of what God did, long ago; rather, it proclaims that God is active in the world today, in this setting of history. “The Word” as described in the Gospel of John, can remain an abstract concept to us. It can be a very good idea that few people have ever seen. Or, The Word can become flesh in people who act on it. We probably all know people within whom the Word of God has become flesh… people who embody the words of Christ well… people who go beyond their own interests and selflessly offer hope to another.
Teenage athletes don’t have a reputation for always being nice to the little guy. However, the Olivet Michigan middle school football team went above and beyond for a teammate, and their plan to lift up a student with behavioral and learning disabilities is an amazing example of unexpected kindness.
For weeks in the 2013 season, the team conspired behind the back of their coach to come up with a secret play, according to a report from CBS News. When one player surprisingly went down at the one-yard-line during a game, fans groaned. But it was all on purpose. It set the stage for their next play, which gave teammate Keith Orr the chance to score his first touchdown. His team crowded around to protect him while he carried the ball into the end-zone.
For Keith and his parents, it renewed their faith in the goodness of the world.
And why did the team decide to do it? “It’s just like to make someone’s day, make someone’s week, just make them happy,” player Justice Miller told CBS. Where is God, we ask. At a middle school in Olivet, Michigan.
Desmond Tutu said, “God without us, will not; as we, without God, cannot.”
What if we truly set about living as if it were true – that we are the word of God in flesh?
We are not merely to read about God,
Even to understand God,
We are meant to enact,
To embody God.
Kate Matthews Huey, “Close to God’s Heart” , www.ucc.org
John Dominic Crossan, “The Greatest Prayer”, pg. 94
Adapted from Daniel Hans book: God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)