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October 7, 2013

“Bigger” Isaiah 40:12-26; Romans 8:18-25; Luke 10:21-24 © 10.6.13 (World Communion Sunday) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Those of you over 60 may remember a common prank involving the tobacco brand “Prince Albert.” You called a store which you knew would carry such a product, and you asked “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” Since the tobacco commonly came packaged that way, the clerk would answer “Yes.” At which point the prankster would respond “Well, you better let him out!” and hang up, laughing.

There’s a call I’d like to place to most Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but it wouldn’t be a prank, and the question would not be a joke. “Do you have God in a box?” I would say, pretty sure that they do. Then, I would insist: “Well, you better let him out!”

So many of today’s world and national conflicts center on or arise from religion, along with the other usual suspects, money and power. And I am convinced that those stemming from belief have in common a God in a box. In other words, the practitioners follow their own small vision of the deity. They keep the divine hemmed in, pushed down, controlled, co-opted, and privately owned. They trot out such a god to legitimate their political and personal agendas and mention his name when to do so will stir an emotional response from the crowd. This is God as empty symbol, tribal patron, national guardian. Oddly enough, he loves and blesses his worshippers and hates those whom they despise. His word is the opinion of whoever it is claiming to speak in his name and his will is whatever they already wanted to do anyway, but now assert he told them to carry out.

If you worship a god like that, I beg you, let him out of his box. And if you notice that I do, say the same to me. Because that god is nothing more than a lie, an idol, a sham who cannot save, cannot help, cannot guide, cannot create, cannot love. We may think we want a god who is our servant, who will grant our every whim, but do we really? Can such a god give us meaning, carry us through the night of trouble, lift us up in indescribable joy, teach us and inspire us to transcend our petty squabbles and selfish demands and live in peace? I don’t believe so. We need a bigger God. We need the God of the Bible, that the prophets and apostles proclaimed, that Jesus revealed.

This is a God first of all who is beyond all our categories. We can say and understand some important things about God, but ultimately we are limited by our language, the capacity of our minds and hearts, and our very nature. How can the created possibly comprehend the uncreated? I mean that in both senses of “comprehend.” We can’t enclose God; again, no God in a box, can or anything other kind of container, including the Bible or doctrines. And we can’t understand God in any ultimate way. Everything we say and believe about God is but a rough approximation, a glimpse in a poor mirror, as Paul said. Fuzzy. Incomplete. We conventionally talk about God as “he,” for example, but of course, that’s because our language is limited. God is no more a he than God is a she or an it. God is beyond gender but also inclusive of gender. We use all sorts of images to describe God, but they are only metaphors. God is not actually a Father or a Rock or a Mother Hen or even a Person, a Someone. But talking that way is the best we can do with the indescribable, the incomprehensible, the immense, the wild and uncontrolled reality of the divine whose Spirit blows anywhere and everywhere without consulting us.

Religion is our attempt to organize beliefs about God into something we can handle and deal with without going mad from the mystery. Ritual surrounds and channels the power of the divine so that it doesn’t kill us. Never for one moment let us deceive ourselves. When we defend Christianity or Islam or Judaism, we are not defending God; we are protecting a human invention. As a bumper sticker I once saw had it: “God is bigger than any one religion.”

Presbyterian minister Christopher Joiner, pastor of First Presbyterian in Franklin, TN, wrote about the bigness of God in a recent blog. Joiner said he is often asked why he is still in the PC(USA). His first reason is this: “I think God is big, in the sense of sovereign, in the sense of ‘such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high, I cannot attain it’ (Psalm 139:6), in the sense of ‘O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!’ (Romans 11:33). John Calvin thought this was the most important message of scripture, and the PCUSA thinks so too. God is God, and we are not. When you start here, you will not let yourself become doctrinaire, you will make room for a variety of viewpoints (since no one person or church or doctrine can capture all of God), and you will encourage your people to never stop learning…. [M]y primary identity is Child of God, a God so much bigger than the categories we seek to impose”

But if God is bigger than any human system, so is his purpose bigger than human salvation. Remember that the intent of God is to renew all of creation. He made human beings from the dust of the earth, connected intimately to this planet, not to rule over it but to be his stewards, trusted with its care and the care of all other creatures. Human sin, our dereliction of duty, our abdication of our trusteeship, harms everything on this planet. On the other hand, when we catch the vision of what God is working for, we join in compassionate and responsible attention to the environment, to animals, fish and birds, to all God has made. Recall that Noah’s ark didn’t simply include humans; it saved two of every animal. I will forever remember a farmer in Moultrie, GA saying that “blessed are the merciful” called us to be merciful to our animals. Our sense of what God is doing has to include more than just getting us to heaven. It has to be about caring for the resources God has provided for us and every creature he made.

But God’s intent is even bigger than this world. The promise of Scripture is that God will bring a new heaven and a new earth. That is the cosmic vision of which we are a part. Whatever worlds may be out there, whatever beings may populate them, God’s dream includes them. Whatever evil there may be in the universe will be done away. Whatever joy is known and love is shown will be made even dearer and deeper. The stars will sing, the galaxies rejoice, as the psalmists might say were they writing today. And God will be all, in all.

Finally, if God is bigger than our religion and his purpose is beyond our salvation, so is his power and peace stronger than our pain and despair. Paul Tillich was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th or any century. It was precisely in the context of our search for meaning and hope that he spoke about what he called “the God above the God of theism.” Theism, t-h-e-i-s-m, not to be confused with deism, is the very sort of insufficient vision of God I’ve been talking about. Tillich wrote in his classic work The Courage to Be of “absolute faith,” which we have when we are grasped by this God beyond categories and language. Such faith enables us to live with courage when everything around us fails, when the traditional comforts and symbols of religion lose their meaning. Being held by the God above and beyond conventional belief enables us to affirm life even when “all around my soul gives way,” as the hymn put it. Whether in the face of death or guilt or condemnation, this bigger God, this true God, delivers us to hope and courage.

This is then a God who is able. Able to love. Able to save. Able to comfort and cleanse and renew. The small god of typical conventional religion found all too often in our churches and nation can do none of those things. Only one who is bigger than all we know and believe, beyond our imaginations, boundless in being, can be found faithfully beside us in need, below us when we need support, and ahead of us beckoning us to new life.


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