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In Which Direction is God?
April 22, 1979

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

LUKE 9:57-62

In which direction is God? Perhaps part of the problem in developing a meaningful relationship with God, in feeling close to God is that we often look in the wrong direction. The other day,  a fellow came into the office (we have three offices over there with a little hallway in which there's a sink) to have a drink of water. I hollered, “Hello, how are you?” He answered and we carried on a conversation. Then he looked into my office and about dropped his teeth because I was in the other one. Where he expected me to be I wasn't there! What a funny feeling he had when he realized he was talking to an empty room. 

Perhaps sometimes we feel like we're talking to an empty room when we're trying to find God. My grandfather once said that when he prayed, he felt as if his prayers didn't leave the room. Do you ever have the feeling that God is not there? Perhaps part of the problem in developing a dynamic, vital, loving experience with God is that we are looking in the wrong places. I'm talking about our image, our picture, for we are human beings. We have finite, limited minds and perceptions. We experience life through our own filter systems, our own eyes, and our five senses, so we are limited. When we talk of relating with Almighty God, with the Creative Force, with Spirit, we filter that through our own images and our own pictures. When I visualize God, I can’t visualize spirit, or a force, or creativity, or power so I picture Jesus. I come to God through Jesus Christ—being a Christian. So I picture Jesus in my mind, or what I think Jesus looked like. 

But where do you picture Jesus or God? In which direction do you look? Where do you image? What's happening in our world today is that some of those images that worked well in the past aren't that real and alive to us anymore. For example, perhaps you answer that God is everywhere. Of course, God is everywhere. But to say God is everywhere, it’s very hard to find God anywhere. It's very hard to particularize everywhere. Is God in this pulpit? Is God in the pews? Is God in the flowers like the pantheists say? Of course, God is everywhere. 

But where is he in particular? How do you relate to “everywhereness”? Throughout history, people have particularized God in a particular location, in a particular direction. Usually in the past, that was up.They said God is up. A lady sat in my office the other day and said, “Well, I believe there's a God up there somewhere.” Up there. We build our churches that way. We have a rectangular church. We have steps that ascend. We have the altar at the highest point, the cross higher yet and the windows above that. Your eyes are automatically lifted up as if God is up. But the trouble with that image is that how many hours from now up is down. The earth keeps turning. So where is up? There is no up. There is no down. 

The trouble with that image, the reason that image has failed us through history is that we have tended to place God so far up that God is removed out of our existence. Towards the end of the Old Testament they had God so far up, so far removed, so far separated from us, they had to invent angels as intermediaries to go between people and God. The medieval church had God so far up they didn't think they could pray to God directly, so they prayed through saints, through dead people and asked them to approach God and intercede on their behalf. They prayed to the mother of Jesus on their behalf. 

The danger and the fallacy of placing God up is the tendency to remove God from our existence. That is certainly true with modern people for modern people have God removed. They have God compartmentalized—separate from daily life, separate from their work, separate from their home, separate from their family, separate from the daily struggle. God has become something we look up to on Sundays, irrelevant to the rest of our lives. Therefore, to look in the direction of up to find God is fruitless. 

Others have said that God is in us and that the direction to find God is to look within, inside ourselves, inside where the struggles are, where the hurts and the sorrows are, or within groups of people. The development of this idea coincided with the small group movement, with the human potential movement, with sensitivity training, with a lot of emphasis on small groups who shared with each other, shared their problems and their concerns. Churches during that era a few years ago were built in the round with the altar in the middle, and with the people all in a circle, symbolizing that they believe God was found in the midst, and God was found within. 

Of course, God is everywhere. Of course, God is up and of course, God is within us. But it seems to me that image fails us when we push it too far. Prayer then becomes a sharing or a meditation rather than communication. Redemption becomes more incestuous as people feed each other and feed on each other rather than as an event from outside to lift us out of our existence. To look constantly within us to find God is to study the navel, but I don't have too much success finding God in me. There's too much other stuff in there that I have to sort through and to ask the question, “Who am I?” and in trying to discover my best self, my real self, my inmost self, I don't know if the answer to that is in me. That image fails after awhile. 

Some people have answered this question by looking in the direction of behind. God is behind us in the past. The best days are back there—the good old days when life was calm and peaceful,  (nostalgic), back in the days when the church was strong, back in the days when I was young, when I was youthful, back in those days I find God. That puts a real limit on the future when one stands with one's back to the future and one’ s face to the back. A guy said to me once, “In this day and age, it's so hard to raise children. I just hope that they turn out as good as I did.” That's quite a low ceiling he put on expectations for his children, that they couldn't have any hope of being any better. But there are a lot of people looking for God behind, putting limitations on God as if the best work that God has ever done is behind us. 

To me the best direction to look for God, to look for Jesus, is not up although he's there, is not within although he’s there, is not behind although he’s there. He’s in our history, he's in our heritage, he’s in all those things we've learned. But, the most fruitful direction to look for God is ahead of us in the future. That's true to the Bible. God called Abraham, the first person of our faith, and said, “Get out of that comfortable Ur. Leave your nice, comfortable, serene existence and follow me to the land of Canaan”. And Abraham set out with no idea where he was going. He followed. 

And God said to Moses, “Lead those people out of Egypt to the promised land.” None of them had ever been there. They didn't know where they were going and it took them 40 years to get there as they wandered through the wilderness. God led them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, always ahead of them. Do you know what they carried with them? They carried the bones of Joseph. Joseph was the one who went down to Egypt 400 years before, and led the people down there. They carried his bones. They dug them up and carried his bones with them on that journey. That's quite a symbolism. In other words, they took their past, lifted it up and carried it with them. They didn't leave the bones in some cemetery somewhere that they had to constantly go back to. They took them with them. Those past experiences, all that history, all that heritage, they picked them up and carried them as they went ahead. 

Jesus faced the future. When he decided he had to go to Jerusalem and meet the establishment, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. A few years ago, there was a movie called “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”. It portrayed Jesus quite differently from the traditional. Many people didn't like it. They were offended by it, but I liked it. It pictured Jesus as being very restless, as being very much on the move. It pictured Jesus moving. Usually, we picture Jesus sitting on a hillside teaching the Sermon on the Mount with people gathered around him. And we picture Jesus and his disciples walking from town to town. But this movie portrayed Jesus at about five paces ahead of the disciples. They were always panting to keep up with him. As he walked, he was constantly looking over his shoulder. And as he walked along, he taught and said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are you when men persecute you.” On and on he walked with intensity, with restlessness and with energy. I like that image because that's where Jesus is—always ahead of us, looking back over his shoulder and saying, “Come on, follow me. Get with it. Come on you guys, move.” That's what he's saying and that's where he is. He's ahead of us. 

We read in the scripture lesson you can't go back to bury your dead, let the dead bury the dead. Once you put your hand to the plow, you can't go back. He said, “Follow me. A person who puts his hand to the plow and then turns around is not fit for the kingdom of God.” That stance is a forward facing stance with our face to the future, with our calling to go, with the best days ahead. Do you believe that? Do you believe that your best days are yet to come, that the best part of your life is yet to happen? Do you believe that? Even when you're on your deathbed, will you believe that the best is in the future? “What no eye has seen nor ear heard nor the heart of man conceive what God has prepared for those who love him.” The best is yet to come. 

There's no fear in following Christ for he's already there. There is no need to fear these days. There's no need to fear inflation. There's no need to fear the bomb. There's no need to fear the future for Christ is already there, and we go to be with him wherever he is. That's where we belong. That's home. There's no fear with God ahead. There's not much peace, there’s not much serenity for there's too much hurt, too many people struggling. There's too much evil to contend with. Too many people are hungry, too many people lonely and discouraged. There's too much wrong in this world to be at peace. it's a restlessness Christ calls us to. A religion that promises peace of mind is a religion that is leaving out the world. Christ calls us to come, struggle, fight and contend with what's going on. There's not much peace. As we heard in the New Testament lesson, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has no place to rest.” There's no place to lie down, he’s on the move. 

There's no fear. There's not much peace, but there's a lot of joy because we have the confidence of victory. In the face of all evil, in the face of all the opposition, we have the confidence of victory. God will ultimately triumph. As Jesus was raised from the dead, he will ultimately triumph and the Kingdom of God will be the victor. That gives us a tremendous sense of joy. What greater joy is there than to be in the will of God following Christ who is ahead. The mood and the stance is dance. As we sang this morning, we dance in life, we dance through life and we dance over life triumphantly in the hope and the promise of victory. That's where Christ is. He’s ahead. 

Of course, God is everywhere, of course God is up, of course God is in us and behind us, but the place to really see God and to really be with God is ahead of us.

© 1979 Douglas I. Norris