Who Is God? (Sermon to a Baptist Congregation)
We Baptists tend to be more concerned with what God wants with us…than with who God is because we take who God is for granted. But I want to say that we can’t take that for granted anymore because there are so many powerful and influential “pictures” of God in culture that bleed into Christian and even Baptist thinking about God and can distort our beliefs about what God wants with us and from us.
In case you’re wondering what I’m talking about, let me remind you of Hollywood portrayals of God: George Burns in “O God,” Morgan Freeman in “Bruce Almighty,” a nameless but angry face in the sky in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and, most recently, “The Shack” in which God appears first as an African-American woman and then as a Native American man
No wonder people are confused about who God is! Popular culture, especially television and movies, powerfully influence Americans’ thoughts about everything. And I don’t think Baptist are automatically immune to being wrongly influenced by popular culture just because we carry out Bibles to church.
English New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright tells a story that expresses the difference between the God of merely human culture and religion and the God Jesus came to reveal to us. Wright began his ministry as a chaplain at Oxford University where one of his duties was to meet with incoming first-year undergraduates. Most were happy to talk with him, but there were always a few who – either with embarrassment or great pride — would say something like, “Oh, you won’t be seeing much of me because I don’t believe in God.” The chaplain had a stock response ready for the budding young atheist — “Oh, that’s very interesting … exactly which God is it you don’t believe in?”
When the student recovered from their surprise, the God they didn’t believe in usually turned out to be an all-seeing cosmic Killjoy who looked down with dismay at a world that never seemed to satisfy Him. If He intervened at all in our world it was only to perform the odd miracle to keep us guessing what He was up to. Mostly He spent His time figuring out who deserved hell and who was good enough to share His heaven.
When the student finished describing the God they didn’t believe in, Wright would respond soberly, “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that God — because I don’t believe in Him either.” Many students were taken aback by this, but others took it in stride because they’d heard the rumor that most of the chaplains at Oxford were closet atheists. After a pregnant pause Father Wright would finally let the other shoe drop and say with a kind smile — “But I do believe in the God I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.”
To drop my main point on your early, let me tell another story. Over the years one of the most influential Christian theologians both in Europe and America has been now 93 year old Jürgen Moltmann. I have studied him, read his book, and had opportunities to meet him and even have dinner with him. He has been something of a mentor from afar for me and many Christian theologians around my age—both older and younger.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Recently I watched a series of segments of an interview with Moltmann on Youtube. The interviewer is a former student of Moltmann’s and a friendly acquaintance of my own who teaches Christian theology at Yale Divinity School. At the very beginning of the interview Miroslav Volf asks his mentor Moltmann “Who is God for you?” Without hesitation world class theologian said “Jesus.” Then he said “If it weren’t for Jesus I wouldn’t believe in God.”
Now these stories warm our hearts and sound very pious to us. But sometimes I wonder how much we really agree with Wright and Moltmann. Is Jesus the “face” we always think of first and foremost when we think of “God?” It should be.
I believe there can be no more important question than “Who is God?” because even among believers in God have so many different “pictures” of God in their minds. And every mental image of God has consequences for everyday life. Did you know that Hitler believed in God? He absolutely did. When he narrowly escaped death from a bomb planted near him by a conspirator he frequently attributed his survival to God. He saw his narrow escape from assassination as proof that God was with him and on his side.
I happen to think that everyone believes in God; I don’t take atheism very seriously. I believe awareness of a creator being who is all powerful and eternal is planted in our hearts. To me atheists are just those people who are in denial about what they really know. You have heard the old saying about war and soldiers “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Well, I will dare to say there are no atheists at all. There are only people whose god or gods are unworthy of worship or they prefer to live in denial of the one supreme creator God because they don’t want to be accountable to him.
So, for me the real question is not whether God exists but who God is. Which of the many gods people believe in, or deny believing in, is worthy of worship? And how should we Christians depict God to ourselves and other people?
What we all need and really want is a God who is both and equally great and good. Remember the old prayer “God is great and God is good…and we thank him for our food?” There’s some good theology packed into that.
Fortunately for us, the one true God, worthy of everyone’s worship, has revealed himself and not only in a book. He revealed himself most fully, most perfectly, most completely in a person—Jesus Christ who was more than a prophet or founder of a religion or even a moral teacher and example. We believe he was God incarnate. But that means, then, that he was and still is the “human face of God”—God showing us himself, especially his character in a human being like us but without sin.
So what do we see of God in Jesus Christ? That is the sixty-four thousand dollar question—not just for theologians or preachers but for all Christians and for all people.
Right now you might be wondering why I’m talking about this? Why does this even really matter? “We already know this!” Well, yes, most sermons I hear are reminders of what most Christians already believe. What a sermon does beyond reminding is to explain why remembering is important.
So let me tell you another story that will perhaps explain why this is important to think about.
In the year 2000 the Southern Baptist Convention held a meeting where it amended its statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. Now the BF&M was first written in 1925 and revised in 1963. Why did the SBC amend it in 2000? Well, you probably know they included a new clause about women not being preachers or pastors. But even worse, in my opinion, they removed from the 1963 BF&M a clause that said Jesus Christ is the key to interpreting all of Scripture. That was the most controversial part of the change and in 2001 the Baptist General Convention of Texas voted to reject the 2000 amended BF&M and keep the 1963 one. And the main reason given was the removal of Jesus Christ from it—as the key to interpreting all of Scripture.
So now back to my sermon, my main explanation and exhortation to you.
In Jesus Christ God revealed, in a way not before revealed through any prophet, that he, God, is both perfectly great and perfectly good—two things we often have trouble holding together. We have a tendency to separate “greatness” and “goodness” probably because so many good people we know are not especially great—at least in terms of power—and so many of the great people we know—especially in terms of power—are not very good.
Over the centuries of Christian thought about God theology and worship have tended to swing back and forth—over-emphasizing God’s greatness to the detriment of his goodness or over-emphasizing God’s goodness to the detriment of his greatness. The “trick” is to hold them together. But that may change our human common sense notions of both—greatness and goodness.
So what was revealed of God in Jesus Christ that we need to make the center of our thoughts about God?
First, in Jesus Christ God revealed himself as compassionate power. Second, God revealed himself as powerful compassion.
Compassionate power—revealed in Jesus’s healings and raisings from the dead. If you were suffering you wanted to be near Jesus.
Powerful compassion—revealed in Jesus’s judgment on those who oppressed the weak and powerless and rejected those who society rejected—especially the self-righteous Sadducees and Pharisees. You didn’t want to mess with Jesus.
Now I’ve never really been one who likes to preach because I believe preaching can and should upset people. I don’t like to upset people. But let me risk it now. You can’t fire me, so…
Because I believe God perfectly revealed himself in Jesus Christ, in a way far superior to through any human prophet, I invite my students to read the Bible backwards. Start with the New Testament and read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament—especially in light of the person of Jesus Christ as the perfect revelation of God, even, yes, the God of the Old Testament who tried very hard to reveal himself, his heart, if you will, through prophets.
I’ll risk a bit of a caricature here and suggest that God up in heaven was shaking his head sadly and saying to himself—or among themselves (Father, Son and Holy Spirit)—“People, even our people, even our best prophets, just aren’t quite getting what we’re telling them. There’s only one thing left to do—for their salvation but also for their relationship with us—become one of them.” Then the incarnation happened thanks be to God.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a follower of early church heretic Marcion of Rome who, in the second century, gathered a large following among Christians by taking my point to an extreme. He wanted to throw the whole Old Testament out of the Bible and even suggest that the creator God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, Jehovah, was not the God of Jesus Christ. The church fathers were right to oppose him.
However, I worry that too many Christians have only an Old Testament picture of God in their minds when they think of God. Martin Luther was a culprit in this; he posited a “hidden God,” a “God behind Jesus Christ,” who was and is the author of evil and all calamity and who, for his own reasons we can never fathom, wants innocent children to die horrible deaths. But then Luther would turn right around and say “But don’t think about that; picture Jesus only when you think about God.” I’ve never been able to figure out how Luther could say both of those things.
But I meet many Christians today who have a similar view of God and that is what I reject. For me and I hope also for you God is Jesus and Jesus is God and there is no “hidden God” lurking behind Jesus who secretly isn’t really so compassionate after all.
No, God is like Jesus. No, wait, that’s not strong enough. God is Jesus and Jesus is God. Jesus said to his disciples “If you see me, you see the Father.” He meant, the Father is no different in character and disposition than me.
So my final word to you is “Change your mind about God—if you struggle with God’s goodness or power.” Focus on Jesus when you wonder what God is like. God is one who condescends to die on a cross for you, for us, for all mankind. That’s a scandal to the rational mind; so we tend to think of God as the angry Father who would slaughter us all for our sins if only Jesus would get out of the way. That’s not what Jesus said or revealed about God who can limit his power but not his love.
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