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May 13, 2018

“Developing Churches: The Evolution of Our Image of God”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Matthew 21.12-17

Isaiah 40.1-8

May 13, 2018

Our world is constantly changing and moving. We change, our friends change, and our faith changes. In a world of so many changes we have to learn how to be adaptive. Does God change? Does God adapt for us? Today is the first of a four-week series on evolution. Now, when people think of the word “evolution” many begin to think about science. While that will be covered in one of the sermons, not all are about the evolution versus creationism argument. This is an evolution, or progression of faith, the church, and how we look at God. The idea came from the Sunday morning class and each week before I preach the sermon they will discuss the scripture passages and deal with the difficult questions that arise. Then, I write the sermon using their comments and questions, knowing that God’s Spirit works through us all as a community.

So, today we ask whether or not God changes, and how do we view God in the Bible? Some would argue that the God in the Hebrew scriptures is not the same as that of the New Testament scriptures. Some might see the former as being angry and vengeful, and the latter as nice and comforting. To divide God into these two descriptions is problematic for many reasons.

First to say God is only angry and only comforting excludes the many different facets of God – that angry and nice are not the only emotions God feels. Second, I think it is important to recognize the difficulty of seeing God as being a certain way in the Hebrew scriptures and a completely different way in the New Testament. You might note that I choose to use the phrase “Hebrew scriptures” instead of “Old Testament.” In seminary I heard a professor talk about the dichotomy of “old” and “new.” In some cultures, the old is revered and the new or younger are considered inexperienced. Our culture is not like that, though. Our culture is one that tries to become younger and sees the “old” as useless, and the “young” or “new” as better. People don’t want old technology or old clothes or old anything – newer is always better.

In this context, to frame one set of scriptures as “old” and one as “new” immediately shows preference for the “new.” This may not be the intent, but it can be implied. For Jews, the “old” testament is their set of scriptures – it is not “old” to them because there is no “new.” Plus, if you look at scripture from a perspective of timing, both sets are old – one is just older. So, I became in the habit of referring to them as the Hebrew Scriptures instead of the “Old Testament.” We can also remember that the scriptures were written at different times and by different people. The views of God portrayed are, at times, reflective of the authors and how they see God.

So, to look at this view of God as wrathful in the Hebrew scripture and God as loving in the new, I chose two passages that flipped this assumption on its head. The Hebrew scripture is of a God who brings comfort and peace and the second is of Jesus showing anger and wrath to the people in the temple. One person in the Sunday school class clarified the difference in the scriptures as seeing the Hebrew scriptures as being God’s relation with people and navigating that dynamic, while the New Testament focuses mostly on God revealed in Jesus Christ. This is the same God, but the scripture has different focuses on God’s relationship with the world. God is angry in both, God is loving in both.

Seeing these two sides of God is less about God changing and more about our own description and perception of God. The end of the Isaiah passage tells us that: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” The world is transitory and we must adapt. Sometimes we adapt our faith and our relationships to navigate the world. God stays the same, but we must look at God differently in order to make sense of the world around us.

What shapes our view of the Creator? Is there a “right” way to view God? Sometimes we edit God and try to make God into something we want, rather than who God truly is. How do we know what is our own creation and what is truly of God?

There are various factors that inform our understanding of God. Scripture and tradition and confessions help us understand our Creator. We see God through reading about God’s interactions with humans and with God becoming human and dwelling with us on earth. We understand God through the lens of history and the stories we tell. In Matthew we see that God acts through Jesus Christ with judgment and anger, but that Jesus also heals and loves. In Isaiah we see God as comforting, but that God also punished the people. We see a complex picture of God and recognize that we do not have the total understanding of the Holy One.

We also gain our understanding of God through other people. This might be through conversations with family and friends, teachers and pastors. The Sunday morning group raised the issue of power and control that pastors have in churches. Many ministers control the thinking and theology of a church – especially for people who just want to be told what to believe rather than to think for themselves. I hope that is not the case here – because my goal with sermons is to challenge you and never give you the answer. In the Matthew passage Jesus is healing those who were powerless, and those who were in positions of control, like the priests and the scribes, were challenging him.[1] So, perhaps it needs to be said, that our perceptions of God come from various places, but we also need to think critically.

We also interpret God through the world around us, especially through nature. We sense God in the wind and the sun. We see birth and death in the plants and animals. Perhaps what can sum up these means of understanding God is through experience. Members of the Sunday school class said that they could see moments in their lives that were Divinely guided. We see God through our daily lives. Everyone has access to experience God, but perhaps what is most important is that we be open to those experiences. This is a very educated and questioning congregation. Not everyone has the space to ask questions of God. Some churches dissuade people from asking questions and trying to understand God. Thankfully this is a place where questioning is welcome, because God can handle our questions, and we learn through questions.

Perhaps our understandings of God are on a spectrum. As we experience God, our relationships change and our understanding of God changes. Just as our relationships change, we must navigate how to interact with people as we grow. A parent interacts differently with their child at age 5 than they do at age 25. The love remains but their understanding of their child changes as the child grows and changes. So it is with our own relationship with God. We read scripture, we paint a visual picture of God. We have an experience that goes against the grain of that scripture passage, and we adjust. We question, we wonder, we pray, we talk, yet we continue in faith. There is merely seeking to find who God is to us in those moments of change and chaos.

May you continue to seek God and seek experiences that inform your faith, shape your understanding of God, and draw you closer to your Creator. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

[1] Dale C. Allison, Junior, “Matthew” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, eds. John Barton and John Muddiman (Oxford: University Press, 2001), 872.