Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon: God's Inner Turmoil

Hosea 11:1-11
God’s Inner Turmoil
James Sledge                                                                                       July 31, 2016

Church hymnals are usually organized into sections that cover topics, themes, special seasons, and so on. It’s helpful for people who plan worship services. If there is a baptism that Sunday, you can go to the section on baptism and look at the different hymns. Same with the Lord’s Supper.
When the Presbyterian Church came out with a new hymnal in the early 1970s, someone had the bright idea simply to put all the hymns in alphabetical order. Predictably, most people hated it. When you’re using the hymnal to plan the Christmas Eve service, no one wants “Angels We Have Heard on High” at the very front of the hymnal, “What Child Is This” at the very end, and other carols scattered throughout. You want to open to the Christmas section and find all of them in one spot.
The Presbyterian Hymnal in our sanctuary came out in 1990, once again featuring sections for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and so on. There are section for baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a section of Psalms. Right after the Psalms are about sixty hymns organized around the persons of the Trinity. That makes some sense. If you want to find a hymn about the Holy Spirit, you can turn to that section and see what’s there. Or you can find hymns about Jesus.
But I’ve always had a problem with how they labeled the Trinity sections. As I mentioned, there’s “Holy Spirit” and “Jesus Christ.” No problem with those. But then there’s a section simply labeled “God.” God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; but that’s not the Trinity. The Trinity is God the Father (or Mother perhaps), God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It’s not God and then something else called Jesus and the Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is truly God.
This idea that Jesus and the Spirit are somehow subordinate to God is probably the most common version of something called “functional Unitarianism.” It’s not true Unitarianism because we say that we believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in practice, functionally, we often speak of God and then, on a slightly lower level, there’s Jesus and the Spirit, important but not really God.
I blame Greek philosophy for this problem. That may be overstating things, but Greek, philosophical notions of God predominated in much of the Greco-Roman world before Christianity ever showed up. And these Western ways of thinking didn’t always fit easily alongside the non-Western understanding of God from Judaism and most of the Bible, the understanding shared by Jesus and his followers.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about our own notions of God, our understanding of what God is like. If we starting listing attributes of God, what things would make the list?
The list describing God would likely be quite long. God is good, God is loving, God is powerful, God is merciful, God is everywhere, and so on. One item that almost always makes the list: God is perfect. Now who would argue with that? But when it comes to Greek philosophy, this is precisely where the problem starts.
Think about it. Perfection, by definition, means it cannot be improved on and cannot change. If it changed it would either get better or worse, which means it either wasn’t perfect or isn’t now. In a Greek, philosophical understanding, God is impassive, unable to change, unable to suffer, unable to know inner turmoil. But of course Jesus grows and changes. He suffers. And he struggles with the thought of his impending death, praying not to die.
One way to deal with this problem is to see Jesus as something less than God. Yes, Jesus can suffer, can experience excruciating inner turmoil over going to the cross, but he’s different from God somehow. Our theology may say God the Father, God the Son, but it’s easier if it’s God, and then Jesus, just like those categories in our hymnal.
At least it’s easier if you don’t read the Bible very carefully. But when you do, you discover that it’s not so easy to maintain a neat, conceptual understanding of God who is changeless and impassive.
Our reading from Hosea is but one example of Israel’s experience of a passionate, even earthy God. In the verses we read, God laments the state of Israel. God speaks of Israel as a child, like a mother recalling a son or daughter when they were toddlers.  It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
Like a mother, God has love Israel, raised them right, and brought them up to be an upstanding people, but they’ve gone their own way. And God experiences something that most parents eventually do, at least to some extent, anguish over a child’s foolish and self-destructive behavior, behavior that seems impervious to any and all efforts to change it.
God is beside herself and reacts angrily. “I’ve done all I can and they won’t listen. There’s nothing more I can do. They will suffer the consequences, and I won’t bail them out again.”
But the very thought of this tears God apart inside. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? …My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…  for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
Surely there is as much pathos here as there is when Jesus prays from the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. This is no philosophical concept of God, no impassive notion of perfection. This is a living God who loves, who knows the joy of love, but who also experiences terrible pain because of that love, and who longs for healing and reconciliation.
The cross emerges out of such longing, and it is a part of God’s pain. The cross is no formula to appease a perfect God who cannot love imperfect humanity. The cross is the pain and suffering of God poured out in hopes of calling back foolish, self-destructive humans who have broken God’s heart.
The cross is the roar the prophet speaks of, Yahweh’s roar that is like a lion. When God roars, says the prophet, God’s children shall come trembling from the west… They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says Yahweh.

All praise and glory to the broken-hearted God, who simply will not leave us to our own foolishness. Thanks be to God!

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