Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Some Thoughts About Keeping God Small

In doing some reading both in paper form and on the internet, I came across a wonderful phrase.  The idea is that for those whose relationship with God is essential a work of their own creation, and whose righteousness is a righteousness of their own creation, it is very important to make and keep God small and controllable.  I had not really thought about this phrase but I remember reading in a freshman religion class the J. B. Phillips classic Your God Is Too SmallPhillips proposed that we have not found a God big enough for our modern needs. Instead we have reduced God and limited our idea of God. Among others, he describes the flawed conceptions of God as "Resident Policeman," "Grand Old Man," "Meek-and-Mild," and "Managing Director." Instead of this small and rather predictable God, He would point us to the God who large enough to address the reality of our modern day lives.

In addition to keeping God manageable, it is also our great temptation to keep God distant.  If God is distant, then we are the ones who move closer or further away from Him through our faith, piety, and good works.  Lutherans are often the ones accused of image worship with our vibrant sacramentality and yet the places where God has attached Himself are not images at all but the means and vehicles of His own appointing, the places where He makes Himself known to us (in the breaking of the bread, for example).  Yet by keeping God distant, idolatry is precisely the problem for those who use faith, piety and works to grow near to Him.  Without the appointed means of grace by which God is near, the very works and actions of the faithful become the images and idols of those for whom self-justification is the path to God.

In the same way the religious leaders of Israel could not conceive of a God who looked and acted and spoke like Jesus.  He ate and drank with sinners.  He broke the Sabbath in order to bestow grace.  He insisted the Kingdom of God was near, present, and immanent.  So they could not abide Jesus claiming to be God and being and acting and speaking as Jesus did.  This is the generous and gracious God who gives every laborer the generous wage despite the hour they entered His vineyard.  This is the God who spread around His favor to those clearly unworthy of Him (a Samaritan woman, a centurian's child, a man blind from birth, etc.).  This is the God who sends out those to gather a new crowd for the wedding feast when the invited ones chose themselves over Him.  This is the God who clothes the guests and raises the lower to places of honor at His table.  He confounds us because He bridges the distance and insists that God is not where He was expected (or rather relegated) but near and accessible.

Lutheran sacramentality, rooted in Luther himself, continues this radical and shocking understanding of God's nearness and accessibility.  We are not just sacramental but "hyper-sacramental."  It is not that we put God into images but we see where God has placed Himself -- the presence that sin's blindness and darkness has kept us from.  Because we could not see God where He is, we have continued to construct images and places to place Him (or confine Him) in order to keep Him manageable, controllable, and predictable.  The scandal of grace is not that we have locked God up in water, bread, wine, and His Word but that by knowing God here, we see Him everywhere.  And this is something scary to a people whose natures bare the corruption of sin and the mark of its death.

Islam only magnifies this distant image of God so that God respects the privacy of the bedroom or bathroom.  In contrast Christians speak of God who sees and knows all, who will not abide any locked door to keep Him from where He desires to be -- not even death!  The God who comes to us in Jesus Christ is radical, shocking, and unsettling to us.  When we meet Him in the places where He has attached His promise and, indeed, Himself, our eyes are open to see Him everywhere.  Jesus does not bring the distant God near to us but opens our eyes to see Him where He is.  This does not mean that all things are sacramental or that the fruits of His presence are the same everywhere -- they are not.  But what it does mean is that when the scales of our eyes fall away, we see what we could not and cannot see apart from His revelation and Spirit.

Think of how this ties in with the reading from John we just heard -- the healing of the man born blind.  Our eyes are not opened that we might imitate Jesus but rather that He might heal us so that we see Him clearly with eyes of faith and know Him as the gracious Redeemer who suffers for our sins, dies our death, and rises to bestow upon His life -- in all its fullness.  Ahhh, so much there to think about... 


Anonymous said...

The prophet Isaiah helps us keep our
relationship with God in proper
perspective: " To whom, then, will
you compare God? He sits enthroned
above the circle of the earth and
its people are like grasshoppers."
(Isaiah 40:18,22)

Sue said...

That reminds me of a line in a book by my favorite author - one of the characters said, "I would not want to believe in a God small enough for me to understand."

Anonymous said...

Great post

May God preserve us from trying to put Him on a box of our manufacture.

Anonymous said...

Many Christians today want a God
who will make their life comfortable.
They are looking for a God who will
eliminate the hardships of life,
like job loss, divorce, or cancer.
If God can wipe out suffering from
their daily existence and answer all
their "gimme" prayers, then God has
done his job.