A sermon based on Acts 10:44-48
“I now KNOW that God shows no partiality.” That's the summary sentence for Peter's journey here in Acts and today's scripture reading is the direct result of it. God's love knows no boundaries. Gods love knows no limits. God's love knows no color – no sex – no age – no sexual orientation – no nationality – no religion. God's love has no partiality.
In that moment as their eyes lock, as the child looks at his own father in fear, questioning why, as the father looks down upon his child ready to take the life that he helped bring into the world…in that moment as their eyes lock, irreparable damage is done. In the recording of the remainder of both of their lives, the child never utters another word to his father, and his father never utters another word to God. And God? God waits - waits for that moment to pass - waits for the damage to be done – and THEN says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”…Don’t do anything to him? Isn’t it too late for that?
A look at what may be the best known Bible verse of all time, John 3:16, through the lens of similar but lesser known verse, 1st John 3:16. This message asks the simple question, "What is the only appropriate response to 'the greatest love story ever told'?"
Looking at Isaiah 49:8-16 this message considers the issues with using dominantly masculine language for God both from a biblical and societal point of view. My predominate lens for look at this issue, however, is the nighttime prayers said as I tuck my daughter into bed.
An Advent Sermon for Love Sunday based on 1 John 4:7-16
There is also a Children's message to go with this sermon. Find it here.
1 Kings 19:9-15
9At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 11He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
This is probably my favorite story in the Bible. The more time I spend with it the more I hear God speaking through it and each time there is a new wrinkle that wasn’t there before. For me, each new wrinkle is a reminder that God is a living God and that the Spirit speaks to us fresh and new every day.
We enter the story where, under a royal death sentence, Elijah has fled the northern kingdom of Israel and ultimately will find refuge at Mount Sinai. Now it would be great to be able to say the holy prophet Elijah sought out the holy ground of Sinai where his ancestors received the word of God. That’d be a great way of telling the story and of building up the piousness of Elijah, but that’s not even close to what happened. In this case Elijah is frustrated, mad and feeling a bit hopeless, so he does what any great man of God would do under such circumstances…he lays down under a tree and asks God to kill him.
It’s kind of pathetic when you stop to think about it. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going;” well it would seem that Elijah took the whole “get going” thing a little too literally. Elijah, the great prophet of God, sees things getting tough, see that all of his hard work and obedience to God isn’t paying off the way he wants it to so he runs away from his troubles, lies down under a tree, refuses to eat and hopes to die.
Fortunately, God has other plans and sends food for Elijah and has an angel tell him to go stand on Mount Sinai. Now with all that had gone wrong, as hopeless as he had felt, this ultimately should be good news. After being chased by a mob with no sign or help from God, Elijah clearly felt put out by God, forgotten by God, left behind by God, but then and angel of God appears (with food!, best kind of angel) and tells him to go to Sinai. The angel with food aside, the thought of Mount Sinai alone should have given him hope. It would have reminded him of a different image of God, a God who is not missing, absent, silent; but rather a God who is bold and very clearly present.
As Exodus 19 states:
Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:18-19)
On the mountain of Sinai, God was fully present and Elijah probably expected to encounter God in those three symbols from the Exodus story: wind, earthquake and fire. But quite the opposite happens to Elijah in his Sinai experience. In one of the Bible’s most surprising moments, the God of Creation, the God who destroyed the Tower of Babel, flooded the world and led Israel out of Egypt by a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night – that God let the fire pass, let the hurricane pass, let the earthquake pass and then was revealed in a still, small voice – basically, in silence – God’s voice in a still silent voice, where you would least expect it. Certainly, it was where Elijah least expected it. He thought he'd find God on the mountain top in some grand form: wind, earthquake, fire; but rather, he found God in the simplest thing.
We rarely give ourselves the opportunity to experience God that way – in silence. We surround ourselves with noises. Whether it is the Musac of an elevator, so we don’t have to suffer the 30 second ride in silence, the constant drone of the TV, or the non-stop chatter of our own minds reminding us of what we need to do next, not to forget, or to worry about some more – while we don’t like to admit it, it is all there because we are, at least somewhat, afraid of the silence.
Our story today, if we look at it closely, might also suggest the we surround ourselves with noise not just because we fear the silence, but because, despite the fact that we say we long to hear God, we busy our lives and fill them with noise so that they are neither still nor silent - and if we are lucky we can go through life believing that we are following God’s call without ever really having to hear God truly speak to us.
There is a story that, I think, comes fairly close to conveying this discomfort with hearing God, or more specifically what God might say to us: Once, there was a tourist who wandered too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon. He lost his footing and plunged over the side, clawing and scratching to save himself from certain death in the chasm below. After he went out of sight and just before he fell headlong into empty air, he encountered a scrubby bush, which he grabbed desperately with both hands. The tourist was terrified. He called out to heaven. “Is anybody up there?”. A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky. “Yes, there is.”
“Well, who knew?” thought the tourist. “Can you help me? Can you help me?”
The calm voice replied, “Yes, I probably can. What’s the problem?” The tourist replied, “I fell over a cliff, and now I’m dangling here in space holding onto a bush that’s about to come out by the roots. Help!” The voice from above said, “I’ll try. Do you believe?” “Yes, yes,” said the tourist. “I believe!” “Do you have faith?” “Yes, yes! I have strong faith!” The voice, still aggravatingly calm, said “Well, in that case, just let loose of the bush and everything will turn out fine.” There was a tense pause. Then, the tourist yelled, “Is anybody else up there?”
Whether we realizes it or not, we live out the truth of that little tale. We frequently think we want to hear the voice of God... until - we actually hear the voice of God, hear what God is calling us to do. Frequently, what God wants us to do, what God is calling us to do, is not something that we want to do, is not something with which we are particularly comfortable. So we busy ourselves and our lives, in ways that make it difficult for us to actually hear God’s call.
Let’s go back to this story and considering what deeper, possibly hidden meaning, might God have waiting here for us? What new divine wrinkle might we find?
Looking closer at the story I realized that, contrary to popular belief and a slue of renaissance era paintings and etchings, Elijah was not “standing on the mountain” before God as God had told him to do, as God called him to do. The texts say that after the wind, the earthquake and the fire, and then finally the still, small voice of God, after all of that... now this is a quote, Elijah “wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” Three things to notice here about Elijah. 1) Elijah was not standing on the mountain before God as God called him to do - Elijah was cowering in the perceived protection of a cave. 2) Even after hearing the voice of God, Elijah was only willing to risk it out to the entrance of the cave – in effect still in the cave or at least where he could get back to it quickly and 3) even after hearing God’s voice, recognizing it as God, he wraps his face up as if he could hide from God like Adam and Eve in the garden.
Elijah wants to trust in God, wants to follow God, but like the person hanging in the Grand Canon, his actions say, “Is there somebody else up there?”
God called to Elijah telling him to stand on the mountain, to face the challenges of the mountain by trusting in God and doing what he heard God calling him to do. Elijah hedged his bets. Oh, he climbed the mountain and he saw the fiery storms - but only through the opening of the cave. To that God responds, “What are you doing here?”
Like I said, there’s always a new divine wrinkle in this story for me and I’d like to conclude by offering a final lesson based on the new wrinkle. In divinity school we called this particular kind of lesson, preaching against the text - because the truth sometimes lies outside of what the text seems to be telling us.
I'm going to preach against the text a bit here. You see, I think God was in the fire, the wind and the earthquake. I mean...let’s face it, those three things didn’t occur naturally one right on top of the other. And, as we heard from Exodus, God has appeared in those three modes on this very mountain before.
I believe that God was in those three things, but Elijah simply didn’t see him in them because, instead of following God’s call, he was cowering in a cave. The same is true for us. All too often, our fears of where the call of God may lead us – to places we don’t really want to go – leave us calling out, “Is there anyone else up there?” Our inability to do what God asks, the relative safety we feel in hunkering down in the same old cave rather than following God to the mountain top, prevents us from seeing God in things and places we never thought possible.
All the while - all the while, God calls to us, just like with Elijah, “what are you doing here?” From our mountain tops of power in this world we rest protected from the harsh realities that pass us by. We rest in the perceived protection of our air-conditioned, carpeted, well insulated caves that we sometimes allow to separate us from the reality of the experiences God desires for us. From time to time we may click the remote to watch the majesty and tragedy of Creation through a small opening, but – like Elijah watching from the cave - we only catch glimpses of the grandeur of God and God’s creation. All the while - all the while, God is calling us to stand fully before God and - until we do - God will ask us, “What are you doing here?”
Have you opened yourself to the full possibilities of God? Have you trusted in God’s call to you enough to step out of the cave opening so that you can fully experience the Creation of which God has chosen to make you a part? When the fiery storms of life hit you and others, do you pack it in and settle for a screen sized vision of the reality of God’s Creation or do you step out on faith and experience life the way God desires it for you?
Vandalia Presbyterian Church, what are you doing here? Is this where God wants you to be? Does the life of this church, the worship experience at this church, really reflect God’s call in today’s world? Are you stepping out on faith and trusting in God? If you will, if you are, you will find God in places you could have never imagined.
As life constantly changes, as we peel back the layers of life we will discover God sometimes in the fiery storms and sometimes in the still small voice – but, if we can step out of our caves, if we can fully follow the call of God, what we can be assured of is that every time - every time we find God, it will be a fuller experience and we…we will find ourselves growing in ways that our caves could have never contained.
Isaiah 49:8-168 Thus says the Lord: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; 9 saying to the prisoners, "Come out," to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves." They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; 10 they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. 11 And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. 12 Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. 13 Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 14 But Zion said, "The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me." 15 Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. 16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
Naming God is difficult at best, divisive even in its mildest form and can be thought of as sacrilegious at its worst. I was confronted squarely with this reality as I entered Divinity School. I can only begin to tell how excited was was to be accepted into Divinity School at Wake Forest. I had only applied to Princeton, Duke and Wake Forest and quite frankly had low hopes of being accepted into any of them. I still remember the day my acceptance letter arrived at the house. As I opened it standing mid-way up the driveway, I was overwhelmed with joy and relieved to finally be able to peruse the thing to which I believed God was calling me.
My first day of orientation at Wake made me forget about all of that as this divine calling I had answered, this desire deep in the core of my soul to talk about the God that I love and what that God wants for this world, was given parameters. More specifically, we spent a great deal of time discussing the topic of “gender neutral language.” “Discussing” is a bit of a false misnomer here. What we did was not so much of a discussion as it was that we were told what we were going to do (don't use words like 'father,' 'he,' or 'him' in referring to God), then we were allowed to vent our frustrations and articulate cogent theological perspectives of the problems with being told how we can talk about God, and then told (once again) what we were going to do (don't use words like 'father,' 'he,' or 'him' in referring to God).
I hope that what we are going to talk about here today, doesn't feel anything like that to any of you. While we are going to talk about “gender neutral language,” my hope is to present the case for such language in a way that is inviting and in a way that is convincingly shown to be what God would want.
Now let me say, I've always questioned the gendering of God. Even before that less than comfortable day when I and all of my new classmates sat listening to the Dean Leonard tell us what was acceptable language for talking about God – to the extent that gendered language in referring to God would not receive a passing grade – I was very comfortable thinking about God more as Spirit than Being (neither male or female as opposed to one or the other). I was however much more comfortable calling God “Father” just as Jesus had called God “Abba.”
Jump forward a year. My daughter Kayli was about 7 years old and had received a praying doll as a gift. Each night as I tucked her in bed and she would say her prayers, she would say them with her doll. “Our Father who art in heaven.” Its the same prayer we frequently pray in this service. “Our Father.” Night after night I heard that. At the same time, day after day, I was in school listening to my theology professor, Dr. Frank Tupper, remind those who chose to refer to God as 'he' that and I quote, “God does not have a...” Ok, you know what, I'm not going to quote here. Dr. Tupper would remind them that God does not have male parts. At night in the innocents of a young girl's voice I would hear God called “Father” as her own father tucked her in and during the day a man who dedicated his life to thinking about God would remind me that God does not have...well, God's not a man.
That's where I want to enter this conversation about God. That slice of my life. That moment in time when a young girl embraced the image of God as male and an older man refuted the image of God as male. Today's texts provide an opposite image of God as male. It presents a feminine image of God – God is equated to a mother who will not forget her nursing child or a woman who shows compassion for the child in her womb. Admittedly, some would argue that what we have isn't an equating of God to those images, but rather a placing of God above them, but that sales short the larger work of Isaiah where in a few chapters he says (Isaiah 66:13), “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you....” Clearly Isaiah wishes to equate with the name of God, mother.
Before we go further, let’s consider the importance of naming and names in the Bible. While in modern times names sometimes are meant to say something about a person (my son Hunter's middle name is “Grant” meaning gift), they typically are not thought of as something that identifies a person's character. The opposite is true with biblical names. They were descriptive. They tell us something about the person. Or as we are told in 1 Samuel 25:25, “As his name is, so is he.” Adam's name is from the root adamah – or earth\dirt – the very stuff from which humanity was made. Jacob, meaning “heal grabber,” came out of the womb holding his brother's heal and would later wrestle with an angel of God and change his name to Israel, meaning “One who has struggled with God.”
Biblically names are important. So much so that knowing a person's name gave you knowledge of them and could even suggest that from that knowledge you had a certain control over them. In the story where Jacob changes his name to Israel, he attempts to gain more than a physical advantage over the angel by asking for the angel's name, but the angel (who was willing to give in on the physical battle) does not relent on that battle. Moses tried to gain similar knowledge of God as God spoke to him through a burning bush. Asking for God's name, God replies with a mysterious (almost like the cartoon character Popeye), “I am what I am.”
All of this is to point out how important naming is biblically. Specifically, today we are talking about the naming of God. When speaking to Moses, God said, “My name is “I am what I am.” Well, I don't know about you, but it seems to me that's not even a name. The texts actually say God gave the response of Y-H-W-H (Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh) which is where we get the names, Jehovah, Yahweh and Adonai. But in essence they aren't so much a name as lack of a name.
The earliest name for God in the Bible is Elohim. Interestingly enough, this is not a masculine name – it is grammatically feminine. Another frequently used name for God in the Old Testament is El Shaddai which is popularly translated as God of the Mountains, but because “shad” the root of the word “shaddai” actually means “breast,” it has recently (and possibly more appropriately) been interpreted as “God with Breast,” and considering the image of God presented in today's texts, that seems perfectly reasonable.
Historically, God is presented in churches by masculine dominated language in spite of the fact, which we have just begun to see, that we have a list of biblical images of God as female. In Genesis men AND women are created in God's image. In Hosea (11:3-4,13:8) God is described as a mother and a mother bear. In Proverbs as Lady Wisdom. In Deuteronomy (32:18) God gives birth. As we just heard in Isaiah God is compared to a nursing mother and a pregnant woman. Isaiah also speaks of God as a pregnant woman crying out in pain (49:15). Jeremiah (44:25) - Queen of Heaven. Matthew (23:37) - a Mother Hen. Luke (15:8-10) – a woman looking for her lost coin. And possibly one of the most endearing images of God captured in the song “On Eagles Wings,” Deuteronomy (32:11-12) says, God will care for us just as a mother eagle “stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young as it spreads its wings, takes them up and bears them aloft on its pinions.” And all of those are just to name a few of the Bible's female imaging of God.
Now, even in the face of this abundance of references, there are those who will point to Jesus in an effort to hold on to a dominantly masculine imagining of God. Specifically, they point to his use of calling God, “Abba.” Now there was a time I would answer this concern by helping contextualize the language. Pointing to the family structure of the day. Recognizing that Jesus understands God to be the head of the human household and needed to use language that reflected that understanding. In that day and age, given the social and familial position of a mother, “abba” was the only choice since “ama” (Aramaic for mother) would have carried no understanding of head of the household - he might just as well had used sister as mother in those days. I would have concluded by saying. If Jesus were with us today, given our modern contexts, he just as likely would use mother as much as father. To take it a step further, considering the much higher percentage of women who attend church as compared to men, on a spiritual note he may have chosen mother over father.
While I still hold that perspective as a good response, I also recognize that they are just my feeble attempts at understanding God. We would do better to turn to the words of Jesus the one who chose the word "Abba" to refer to God. In Matthew (23:9) Jesus tells us, "Do not call anyone on earth 'Father' for you have only one 'Father,' who is in heaven." Jesus, whose mother tongue was in all likelihood Aramaic used the word 'abba' for father and here he is saying the word should only be used to refer to God. He seems to be saying, "when I use the word 'Abba' it has nothing to do with the word 'father' used on earth to describe a male parent."
As a male parent myself, as a father, 'abba' in the Aramaic, I stood over Kayli's bed as she said her bedtime prayers. “Our Father,” she said. That night I sat up thinking about what she was saying. About how the language of the church, of her prayers and language in sermons, worship, music, seem to be teaching her that God is male or at least more like a man than a woman; that God is more fittingly addressed as male than female – effectively subordinating women and devaluing the understanding of women as being created equally in the image of God, a God who clearly can be understood as well (and in some cases better) through a female image.
I checked back in on Kayli before going to bed. As I looked at my daughter resting, I was struck with a deep need for the church to begin reprogramming itself to have a fuller understanding of God – one that subordinates no one because everyone is created equally in God's image.
I also checked on my son, Hunter, before I went to bed. He was about 3 and a half at the time. I thought about him growing up in a church that allowed him to believe that on some level he is made more in the image of God than his sister – than any woman for that matter. I decided to teach him and Kayli both, to paraphrase Dr. Tupper, God has no male parts.
It is time for a paradigm shift in the Christian church not only in how we present God in terms of gender but more importantly in the beliefs that support masculine dominated language. Believe it or not, we've already begun. In our worship for the past three years, we have limited music that refers to God in the masculine. Our sermons, never refer to God as 'he,' 'him' or 'Father' (Dean Leonard and Dr. Tupper would be proud). From what I've heard, that has played a role in making our worship more vibrant, more essential and more inclusive and inviting than it has been in years.
The next morning, after tucking the kids in thinking about the paternal imaging of God, Kayli and I had a talked about who God is. We talked about God in the Bible, what God did, who God was, who God is. We talked about what moms and dads do for us and mean to us. We talked about how she felt about calling God “Father.” Every night now when I listen to Kayli pray the Lord's Prayer, I have to say I am hopeful for the future of the church. I can't help but smile just a little and give thanks to God as she prays the words she herself chose to pray, “Our Creator who art in heaven...Amen.”There is also a Children's Sermon to go with this message.