GENESIS 12:1-2; MARK 1:14-20p>We’ve been working with the phrase in the Benediction song, “God is watching from above.” I’ve had responses to my challenge. One of our Bible scholars pointed out that the Bible says God watches from above! For example, Psalm 33.13, “The Lord looks down from heaven.” Others have asked me to preach about God. This morning, let’s begin with the beginning. Back to basics. Bible 101. First question: where is God?
Of course, God is everywhere. God is spirit. God is not a person, place or thing. God is not a noun. God is spirit. God is energy, and of course, God the Spirit is everywhere—above, around, within. But, I find it difficult to relate to everywhere. Everywhere is too nebulous. I personally cannot get a handle on everywhere. The key question is: where is God primarily located?
We were created to be in relationship, in covenant, with God. We hunger and yearn for fellowship with God, but many don’t know where to look. Traditionally, people have looked above and within. The theological terms are immanence and transcendence. There have been debates for centuries. Is God primarily immanent—within us-- or is God primarily transcendent—outside, above and beyond. The preacher said, “Reaching God is like dialing a number on a telephone. The telephone is your heart and you dial God’s number.” An elderly woman interrupted, “Tell me, would that be long distance or a local call?” Of course, God is both transcendent and immanent, both out there and in here, both above and within.
Through much of history, the transcendence of God has been emphasized. For many people, God is located “up.” We point up to heaven. God looks down. People climb mountains to be closer to God. Churches and cemeteries were built on the highest hill in town or in the open country. Jerusalem is located in the mountains so there are many biblical passages urging worshipers to ascend the hill to reach the Lord. Church buildings, especially cathedrals with high ceilings, point up to God, and when they couldn’t afford a high ceiling, they attached a spire or steeple to point up and out to God.
But, science has taught us there is no “up.” What’s up is down in a few hours. I remember looking at slides of the sky made by an amateur astronomer preacher. He said that he had found heaven. There’s a gap in the sky, an absence of stars, near the North Star. I was quite impressed until I took astronomy in college, and discovered that the poor guy didn’t have a large enough telescope?
There have been times in history when God was thought to be so far above that intermediaries had to be used to communicate with God. They believed that angels were sent as messengers—as go-betweens—to intercede between God and humans. Others, believing God is in the distance, watching from above, pray to Mary, the mother of Jesus, or a dead saint, or they ask a priest to intercede for them.
The problem with believing that God is primarily way out there, watching from above, is that we then tend to feel that God is removed from us; that God is not involved in our daily struggles and pains; that God wouldn’t understand or doesn’t have time to relate to us. It is also tempting to believe that because God is way out there, above us, we don’t have to deal with God. Some try to live their lives as far removed from God as possible.
When God is above, prayer is difficult. Sometimes the believer feels that God is so far away his/her prayers never leave the room. When my grandpa was dying, he wanted me to pray with him because he felt that his prayers didn’t leave the room. I didn’t know enough at the time to tell him his prayers didn’t need to leave the room, because God is right here.
The other tradition emphasizes that God is “in”, within each person. The theological term is “immanence.” The Greeks used the word “soul,” and spoke of the “spark of divinity within each person.” Quakers speak of the “light of God” within each person. When you look for God within, prayer then is meditation rather than communication with a transcendent God.
The problem with believing that God is primarily within each of us is that God may become very subjective. The temptation is to identify God with our personal interests, desires, and conscience. The temptation is to look solely inside us, and become absorbed with ourselves. As a result, it is tempting to lose sight of God as judge. The thrust of biblical faith is lost. As I said last week, the heart of biblical faith is covenant. God enters into covenant with us where God offers unconditional love that is never canceled. Our response is to be faithful followers, to be God’s people, belonging wholly to God. The problem with believing that God is primarily within is that the covenantal dimension is often lost. It is difficult to establish a covenant with something inside you.
Now, let me make myself perfectly clear! I hope you are not misunderstanding me. Of course, God is above and around. Of course, God is transcendent, the Judge. God is far beyond our comprehension. God transcends our limited experience.
And, of course, God is within. Meditation is a very dynamic experience with God when we get in touch with the indwelling Spirit of God, and when we listen to the voice of God within us. But, is God primarily transcendent or immanent? Where you look to God is of critical importance to your understanding of God, your understanding of life, and your understanding of yourself.
May I suggest another image--an image which is very helpful to me and, I believe, an image that is true to the Bible. I encourage you to experiment with this image. Let it roll around in your head. I believe God is ahead of us. God is ahead of us, calling us to follow. In today’s scripture lesson, when Jesus began his ministry, his first act was to recruit disciples. And, what he said to them was, “Follow me.” Can you see Jesus walking through the Galilean countryside with the disciples behind him, talking as he walks, calling over his shoulder, “Come on, guys, follow me!
Paul wrote in Philippians 3.12-14, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” It’s like driving a car. Don’t spend most of your time looking in the rear view mirror. Enjoy the windshield with its panoramic view of what lies ahead. Don’t dwell on the past. Look ahead.
God called Abraham to leave his comfortable home in what is now Iraq, “Go from your country…to the land that I will show you.” God led Moses and the slaves from Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land, with the sign of the fire by night, and the cloud by day. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, facing the future undaunted and unafraid, even though he knew he would be put to death. The New Testament anticipates, looks ahead to the day of God’s victory, the coming of the kingdom.
Jesus is ahead of you, calling you, urging, “Come, follow me into the future. Follow me. I need to use your hands, your feet, your talents to do my work, to bring justice and peace.” God tugs and pulls on us. You’ve felt the tug. God doesn’t let us be satisfied with ourselves, for when we think we’ve finished, God opens up another whole arena of things to do. God won’t let me stay retired. Jesus says, “Come on, follow me to San Jose, and be the interim pastor of one of my favorite churches!”
On those mornings when you don’t want to get out of bed, Jesus says, “Come on, get up. I’ll go ahead of you. It will be a day filled with opportunity, a day filled with glory and joy.” Jesus goes ahead, preparing the way, pointing out the potholes; warning, “Don’t go there! Follow me!”
When you are told the dreaded word “cancer”, God is ahead, preparing the way, comforting, saying “Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” When you are near the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus goes ahead, preparing a place for you.
God is ahead, calling you to struggle with yourself and the world, not to escape into a peace of mind nirvana.
God is ahead, calling you to sing and dance, not to mope and feel sorry for yourself.
God is ahead, calling you to follow, not telling God what to do.
God is ahead, calling, leading.
First question: Where is God? Ahead. Second question: What is God doing? Calling you to follow.
© 2007 Douglas I. Norris