On Questioning the Nature of God
October 1, 2023
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Today’s sermon is titled, On Questioning the Nature of God.
The reading we are offered today brings up very deep theological questions about the presence and absence of God, and the essential nature of God. In answering these questions, I think a good place to start is in hearing what children have to say about God.
Five year old Piper says, “God can grow you. God can dance but God cannot type.”. Eve, age 8, says, “I wish God had a phone ‘cause I don’t know if God hears me when I’m praying.”. 6 year old Rebecca says, “God walks me to school every day so that I will be protected.”. Maude Rose, age 9, says, “God cannot stop wars. God can’t stop people from dying because that’s the cycle of life. If God could, he would try to save all the people.”. In response to the question, “What does God do?” Solomon, age 4, said, “God makes light and dark. God makes people and animals. God makes stars shine and makes people do good things. Except the God in my head makes me do bad things. Maybe I should get a nicer God in my head.”
These responses are collected in a book by Monica Parker titled OMG: How Children See God. The idea for the book began when the author’s 5 year old son, Ben, asked his Mom the question, “Can we see God?” The author and her son went to their Rabbi to pose the question and the Rabbi answered, “I believe I can see God when I look into the eyes of other people.”
Children are so free in their creative thinking; when thinking about the nature of God, I think we should take a lesson from the children and think more creatively. Most of us have been taught that God is all-knowing and all-powerful. That sounds good and it sounds like something I want to believe and yet as I move through life and confront the suffering of the world I have to admit that my theology has changed over time. As I have been assured and encouraged by my mentors and professors, I hope to offer the same assurance and encouragement to you today. I have received some helpful advice and I share that advice with you. It can be summarized as follows: Do not put limits on your perception of God. Look for God everywhere, in all people and in all situations, and you will learn all you need to know.
I learn a great deal about God from the natural world that surrounds us. In it I find perfection, balance, life, death, and such unexpected and profound beauty that it often makes me cry. I learn the most about God in the deepest struggles in my own life, and in walking with others through theirs. Illness, suffering, death, and grief have been my greatest teachers and, in particular, parents who have survived the death of their children. I have been forced, by circumstances time and again, to question any theological construction that would not serve and comfort a grieving parent. It would be harmful and hurtful to tell anyone who is grieving that the death of their loved one is part of “God’s plan,” and yet many of us were spoonfed that theology from a very young age. For me, and for the situations I face in my ministry, I have found that to be a faulty theology. I am more aligned with the theology expressed by nine year old, Maude Rose, who said, “God cannot stop wars. God can’t stop people from dying because that’s the cycle of life. If God could, he would try to save all the people.”
Where is God in the tragedy? Where is God in our grief? Where is God in our struggle? Where is God in our hardship? These are questions that have been asked for millenia. These are the questions that Moses’s people are demanding to have answered in our scripture reading. The people are hungry and thirsty, they do not have what they need, they are tired and weary from always being on the move. They are suffering and in their suffering they question, “Where is Yahweh? Where is God? Is God with us or not?”
Theologian Matthew Bolton writes that questioning whether or not God is present is, “the ultimate question, the ultimate worry, the deep anxiety underneath much of our lives.” We have been led to believe that if God is with us then we will not suffer from harm and adversity. On the back of my business card, I printed a different way of thinking about God that was gifted to me by one of my professors, Rev. Dr. Wayne Gustafson, “God doesn’t protect us from adversity; God protects us in adversity.” This is the evolving theology that works in each and every circumstance and I am grateful for it. I hope it may be helpful to you, as well. God protects us in adversity. God is with us in all we face. We can see God in the eyes of another. We can experience God in the care and concern we give, and in the care and concern we receive. Look for God and we will find God, in our inevitable suffering and in our inevitable joy.
We have the life example of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, to guide us. He faced public ridicule and deep suffering that few of us will ever have to endure. We have the life example of Jesus’s mother, Mary. She, too, faced public ridicule and suffering of the greatest magnitude any of us could ever endure. Where was God in their suffering and pain? God was with them. The love that is God was with them, guiding them through.
In closing, I invite us all to question our assumptions about what God is and how God is or is not at work in our lives. I invite us all to think more creatively, like the children, so we are not placing limits on what is limitless. It is up to each one of us to create a theological perspective that is helpful to us in all the seasons of our lives. As we prepare to join in the ritual of Communion, may we imagine a love that is greater, wider, deeper and stronger than any love we have known before. In that love, God is with us, always and forever. So be it. Amen.
Holy Spirit of God, I thank you for this church community where we have freedom to worship as we choose. We pray for those communities of every faith, around the world, that are not so fortunate. On this World Communion Sunday, I offer a prayer for the children of the world…a prayer for their well being. May they know a love that is true and kind and protective and may that love be a guiding light for their young hearts and minds. Help us, Lord, to not lose touch with a love such as that, for regardless of age or position, we are all in need of something, some healing, some comfort, some assurance. Strengthen us to serve when we are called to serve, and soften us to receive when we are offered assistance. For those that are suffering, Lord, grant them peace; for those that are fearful, grant them assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God. May we use the power of prayer to ease our minds and hearts, and to offer ourselves in spiritual support of those in our prayers. This we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.
I leave you with these words of advice from the book of Proverbs, Chapter 3:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; on your own intelligence rely not; in all your ways be mindful and God will make straight your paths.”