“The God I Know”
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, January 23, 2022
Reading: Joshua 1:1-2; 6-9
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us….
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 5:8 & 1
I love being a Christian minster, and I love being a minister in the United Church of Canada. Later This year I’ll pass the 44th anniversary of my ordination.
While I’ve preached here four or five times, it was always in the summer. So, it feels like I need to share some bits of my story, and my experiences in the faith adventure in the hope of connecting a wee bit for our time ahead. Let me start with this thought:
This God stuff can be a challenge, confusing, hard. So many versions of God are out there, so many barriers to healthy faith can block us. Can we even know God exists? And What kind of God are we talking about.
So let me begin with the story of the atheist who was determined to demonstrate once and for all that God does not exist.
He struck a match in a public place and called upon God, if God existed, to prove the Divine existence to all the spectators by striking him dead before the match went out. When the flame died away, and the man did not, any hope of his ever believing in God died with it.
Now I suspect many of us think the story is a little silly, yet it is worth looking at for a moment to notice just where it goes wrong. In our story, the confident atheist concluded that because the Almighty did not strike him dead when challenged to do so, God does not exist, but there are other ways to explain the man’s survival. It may be, for example, that God does exist but has no wish to play silly games with foolish atheists, or by their fabricated rules. Or God may feel under no obligation to react just because those who do not believe in Her decide to put Her to the test.
Or again, it may not be part of the divine nature to wipe people out even when they are silly enough to invite it upon themselves. For that matter it might be that the divine refusal to do so is a demonstration, not of God’s nonexistence, but of God’s patience and mercy and sense of Holy humour. It may even be that God has other plans for the atheist because God loves him and is not yet finished with him.
So, what can I tell you I believe, and as a United Church minister what do I suggest you believe and live by?
I’ve had several experiences, that have clarified my understanding of God; one of them in a university laboratory: Histology 101. I was 20 years old, looking down a microscope, at a slide of the Islets of Langerhans. They’re tiny secreting cells in the pancreas that are crucial for the metabolism of glucose. They’re working on the muffin you had for breakfast.
Looking at that, I was awed by the complexity and intricacy of human physiology. And the more we know, the more it points me to wonder, awe and worship. We’re making incredible progress in medicine, cosmic physics, and plotting the adaptation of the species (which Darwin first documented). For me, that all leads to knowing God as an awesome, brilliant, Creator of so much with intricate complexity.
Dr. Paul Brand has worked for years on leprosy patients, trying to surgically repair the damage to limbs and joints from the disease. He says, “I know of no procedure that succeeds in improving a normal hand …After operating on thousands of hands, I must agree with Isaac Newton (the English scientist who discovered gravity and detailed the laws of thermodynamics): “In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.”
Let me give you one more example: Do you know about the ductus arteriosus? A bypass vessel, it routes blood directly to a developing fetus’s extremities, instead of to the lungs. At the moment of birth, suddenly all blood must pass through the lungs to receive oxygen because now the baby loses the oxygen it has been receiving from mother, through the umbilical cord. In a flash, a flap descends like a curtain, deflecting the blood flow, and a muscle constricts the ductus arteriosus. After performing that one act, the muscle gradually dissolves and gets absorbed by the rest of the body. Without this split-second adjustment, the baby could never survive outside the womb.
That kind of scientific knowledge points me to a supreme creator. Knowing about THAT God fills you with wonder, gratitude and awe.
“In the stars His handiwork I see,
On the wind He speaks with majesty,
Sure He ruleth over land & sea,
What is that to me?
‘Til by Faith I met Him face to face,
And I felt the wonder of His grace,
Then I knew that He was more than just
a God who didn’t care, who lived away out there and –
Now He walks beside me day by day,
Ever watching o’er me lest I stray,
Helping me to find that narrow way,
He’s Everything to me.”
I knew there was a God who was a magnificent, brilliant creator – a master designer.
It’s that second part… the God who is more than a force ‘away out there, who didn’t care’ – No. I came to experience much more. This happened in several incidents but the one that cemented it was a spiritual experience, one of those life ‘marker moments’; an event or moment you remember for decades, which shapes your core faith.
It happened some 35 years ago. I was alone in New Jersey, I’d driven far from home, and was about to begin a university program that I felt I didn’t deserve to be in. I was feeling intimidated and isolated and scared, so on Sunday morning I took my nervous spirit to the Presbyterian church on the edge of the campus. I sat alone. My back and shirt stuck to the pew; I was dreading next morning when I would have to present myself and try not to make a fool of myself for the weeks ahead.
In the service, they read a scripture story and my mild interest grew, first to curiosity, and then to eager listening. I heard about a youthful Joshua, courageous and confident. When he was barely out of his teens he was sent out on a scouting mission into enemy territory. He came back with a bold challenge that went against most of the other spies. And God recognized and built on his courage, and his trusting faith; repeatedly Joshua heard the Lord say: “Be strong and of good courage; do not fear or be in dread, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you, He will not fail you or forsake you.
For me on that hot summer morning in Jersey, it was just what I needed to hear. Our God goes with us.
It helped me to understand the significance of the Joshua story, by knowing the background situation. At that time, and still today, many people saw God as fixed, static, immobile. The Canaanite tribes had statues in their homes, and small temples on their hilltops, where they believed their god resided. But Joshua and the Hebrew people came to see that their God moved through time and space and steps into history and circumstances with a guiding fortifying presence.
Our God goes with us, they said.
That’s what came clear to me, in my situation. Our lives are not fixed and static, are they? We need a God who will go with us. Many of us are going all the time!
To “go” can be a lot of things; to move to a new community, to start at a new school, to begin a new career, or to have an old job end. To “go” is also to be wheeled into an operating room, or enter a retirement residence, ALONE, after many years together. This is why we need a God who goes with us.
For me, that sticky summer morning, something changed. As the preacher told us of Joshua, a Presence came around me; a reassurance that I, far from home, was not alone. I went into that seminar room the next morning with anticipation, and a quiet hum of enthusiasm. I was excited and curious but no longer afraid!
I’d always known there was a God around out there. Now I knew that God was right here.
‘Til… I met Him face to face,
And I felt the wonder of His grace,
Then I knew that He was more than just
a God who didn’t care, who lived away out there and – Now He walks beside me day by day,
Okay, so those experiences in science labs, and journeying far into unknown territory gave me an awesome God who I could lean into in every life situation. But not everyone sees it that way or has those experiences. In fact, sometimes, some of us can have a completely different understanding of the Almighty.
What can interfere with our Knowing God?
What might block our experiencing God’s intimate gracious presence and power?
When God is Unknown… What causes that?
Compassion Fatigue. Mother Teresa
Mother Teresa experienced doubts and struggle in her religious beliefs, which lasted nearly 50 years until the end of her life. Teresa expressed grave doubts about God's existence and emotional pain over her lack of faith:
Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. ... If there be God – please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.
She saw so much pain and suffering in the crowded streets that she was overwhelmed by Compassion Fatigue.
What else can interfere with our experiencing and knowing God? I’ll suggest secondly: Loneliness and isolation.
Two years ago, I was in Norwich, England, and spent some time alone in a cloistered cell, attached to a small church. Nearly 700 years ago, a nun named Julian, spent the better part of adult life alone in that private place. She wrote, she prayed, she leaned her life toward God. It was hard. She persevered, and her writings have strengthened many:
"Pray, even if you feel nothing, see nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to God, even though you may find little joy in it. This is true of all believing prayer."
So, compassion fatigue; loneliness and isolation…
What else can interfere with our knowing God? Grief.
C.S Lewis was a bachelor for decades, taught at Cambridge and Oxford, wrote some brilliant books, both novels and theology. In his 50’s he finally married, but his wife Joy was diagnosed with cancer, and he lost her after a painful battle. His faith was jolted. Listen:
“When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels— welcomed with open arms. But go to God when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”
Because C.S. Lewis did not give up, in time he was able to say, “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted.”2
He came to see that God’s silence during his grief was not a sign of indifference, cruelty, or abandonment. Rather, God had been at work for good in his life in ways he could not anticipate or imagine—bringing him into a deeper experience of the Lord than he had ever known before.
Here’s the thing: There are a lot of versions of God out there; many of which you need to NOT believe in. There are a lot of life events that can block our experience of God. Compassion fatigue, loneliness, grief. The truth is faith leaks.
I believe you and I need to know the Living God shown in Jesus, through the presence of His Holy Spirit. There are a lot of events, distractions, and hardships in life that could separate us from the God who wants to know and love us and go with us. We can’t learn enough or work enough or serve enough to earn that God’s presence and love. It’s a gift. Freely given, constantly available.
Now, there is an important distinction to emphasize that makes all the difference in making faith fun, freeing and joyful, as opposed to a duty. The difference is grace. Listen:
“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… Romans 5:8 & 1
There is a great gulf between the understanding that God accepts us because of our efforts, and the understanding that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done.
Legalistic Religion operates on the principle “I obey – therefore I am accepted by God.” But when I’m honest, when we’re all honest, we know deep down that we are not fully living up to the standards. We are not praying as often as we should. We are not loving and serving our neighbour as much as we should. We are not keeping our inner thoughts as gracious, or as pure as we should. The result can be a lot of internal guilt and anxiety; but the operating principle of the Christian gospel is “I am accepted by God through what Christ has done.”
What’s fascinating is, two people living their lives based on these two different principles may sit next to each other in the church pew. They both pray, give money generously, and are loyal and faithful to their family and church, trying to live decent lives. However, they do so out of two different motivations, in two different spiritual mindsets, and the result is two different kinds of lives.
My suggestion is that you: Open your life to the God seen in Jesus, and to the Grace He offers, and everything changes. Freedom – Joy.
The founders of every other major religion essentially came as teachers. They came to say: “Do this and you will find the divine.” But Jesus came essentially as a saviour, rather than just a teacher (though he was a brilliant teacher as well). Jesus says: “I am the divine come to you, to do what you could not do for yourselves.”
The Christian message is that we are saved not by our record, but by Christ’s record. The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus has to save me, yet I am so loved and valued, that Jesus is glad to give his life to rescue me. This leads to deep humility, and deep confidence at the same time. It undermines both swaggering and sniveling.
I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less. I don’t need to notice myself –how I’m doing, how I’m being regarded.
The only opinion that matters is God’s, and God has already accepted me. Jesus is the only lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and if you fail him, will forgive you eternally.”
That my friends, is the God we know, we proclaim, we worship, and we Joyfully serve. Amen.