No one has ever seen God.
From the very beginning, human people have tried making idols and images so that we’d have something to see.
We’ve tried coming up with names and metaphors. We say God is a father. God is Spirit. God is like a cosmic electrical current charged with love. God is the driver of your getaway car. God is a multitude. All of these are a little bit right. None of them are all the way right.
The fullness of the LORD our God cannot be seen, or comprehended, or captured. God is always more than our idols and images, more than our names and metaphors…
Back when Moses was preparing to lead the people out of the land of Sinai, he had to appeal to the LORD to go with them. Do not send us on this journey unless you will come too! And when Moses made this case to God, her heart was moved.
Then Moses said to the LORD: Let me see you. And God told him No. No one can see my face and live. So God had Moses hide in the cleft of a rock, and Moses got just a glimpse of the back of the Holy One passing by. No matter how well we know the LORD, there’s always something of God we can’t see.
And probably, this does not come as a surprise to anybody here.
What gets me is this God whom we can’t fully understand, this Immortal, Invisible God-Only Wise— *wants* something for us. The Holy Spirit has a dream for your life and for mine. They hold a yearning in their heart for each of us. And if that doesn’t blow your mind, yeah, I don’t know what will.
I know that God wants us to live. I know the Holy Spirit can see possibilities for our future we haven’t begun to imagine. But what if we can’t? What good is knowing there’s a dream out there for us if we can’t even see the path ahead… I know.
The story Karen read unfolds in the meantime. What happened was that Paul had been smuggled into Athens where he’s waiting for Silas and Timothy to arrive. It’s kind of like he’s there on a layover. See, days earlier, Paul and Silas had been preaching the Gospel in Thessalonica when a riot broke out over the idea that Jesus is the Messiah.
Without looking back, Paul and Silas got out of town as quick as they could and went on to Beroea, but wouldn’t you know, a contingent from Thessalonica followed them and tried to incite a new riot. This is when a group of early Christians spirited Paul to Athens for his own protection. Silas and Timothy are coming to meet up with him soon.
Now it’s the meantime, and Paul is stuck here waiting. He begins wandering around the city, and he discovers the idols, and well, you know Paul. You know this triggers his fury. Paul takes it upon himself to begin arguing in the synagogue and the marketplace, and really, this is no big surprise. But here’s what is…
The Greeks who hear Paul become intrigued. It has been said that the natural opposite of judgement is curiosity, and Wow, do the Greeks prove this to be true! Instead of driving Paul away or having him arrested, they get him to go and speak at the Areopagus. Here’s what they say: “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” That’s amazing! How often do you hear that in our world!
Now you and I know Paul, so this is when I start to worry. Here the Greek teachers are receiving him with openness and wonder, but you know Paul doesn’t care who he offends. You can guess he’s going to charge right in, launch into a tirade, smash their idols… It’s really too bad! Why bother reading the rest…
Like those Greek teachers, these days, all of us are having to choose whether to interpret things with judgement or with curiosity. Some of us are grieving or graduating. Some of us are getting ready for surgery or getting ready for a wedding. Some of us are moving into a new home. For all of us, in our own lives, this is a season of transition.
It’s also a season of change for Church of Peace. And here in this place, in this holy meantime, we cannot know what is next for us any more than we can see the LORD.
Right now our Presbyterian neighbors are dissolving four Rock Island congregations and forming a brand new church, and I have heard you. Some of us are wondering whether something like this is in store for Church of Peace. Some of us know of churches that are closing, so we hear ourselves wondering if that is our fate. The truth is, all of these avenues are possible, but here’s what you’ve got to notice.
We might be interested in what other churches are doing for the same reason we’re drawn to remembering what we have done in years past. Especially in a time of uncertainty, there’s something seductively tantalizing about any clear path. The temptation is to choose a course that’s easy to see, solely because it’s easy to see. That impulse makes sense. It’s just…
What if God is calling us to try something we cannot yet imagine?
That’s really hard to explain to the well-meaning people who want to know your plans.
All of us here are entering an intentional season of discernment, so I’d like to conspire with you for a minute. When we get those questions: What kind of pastor are you going to find? What are you going to do next?
Maybe we’re all allowed to say: I don’t know.
Maybe we’re all allowed to say: I don’t know, but I want to. You’ll have to check back with us later. This is the meantime.
I know, God has a dream for Church of Peace; God has a dream for each of our lives. What blows me away is there’s something in each of us that compels us to show up and look even though we’re not sure what we’re going to find.
There’s something in each of us that longs to be close to God. And what if it’s the mystery of the Holy Spirit that’s laid a claim on our souls? What if in the deep place of your heart and mine, we are drawn to exactly what we’ll never get— but what we’ve somehow always known.
All I can tell you is sometimes you’ll hear a story about a person who’s in need. You’ll feel the compassion rising up in your being; it will bring you to tears. And you’ll know. This is the LORD.
Sometimes an unexpected act of beauty will bring your heart to thrill, then something of the imagining of the Holy Spirit will spill into your own imagination, and you’ll know. That’s it. This is the Hallelujah of the Holy Spirit. Once you hear it you can’t unhear it, but we’ve got to give ourselves this chance. And maybe, this is going to take a minute. Maybe it’s going to take the someday search committee a minute, it’s going to take the Council a minute. And that’s okay. This is the meantime.
It’s just too bad those poor Greek philosophers were willing to listen to Paul, and you know Paul. You know he’s going to charge in all swagger and confidence. He’s probably going to shame their idols and condemn their beliefs, and what’s that now… You’re saying that’s not what he does? What?
As it turns out, when Paul was wandering around the city, he came upon an empty altar dedicated to the unknown god. Now it could be when Paul saw that, he remembered Moses who was not allowed to see the face of the LORD. Paul remembered, there’s something in God that keeps us searching for her even though we know her. There’s always some part of the Holy Spirit that we don’t understand, and we can’t see. God can’t be captured by shrines or idols; God is always More. God is always Mystery.
Now as Paul gets into his sermon, after the part Karen read, I should mention he does call on the crowds to repent and believe in the resurrection of Jesus. It wouldn’t be a Paul sermon without that. But the response of the crowd is extraordinary. A couple of people are convinced by the Gospel and decide to follow Paul. A few others scoff.
Others issue this response: Yeah, what you’re saying about the resurrection? We’re not so sure. We’re going to have to listen to you some more!
And isn’t that just the best threat?
Oh yeah?! We’re not done listening! We have more to learn from you!
I love that. The natural opposite of judgement is curiosity.
Back when Moses was getting ready to lead the people out of Sinai, he couldn’t even see the face of God, he could barely see the back of God! How is he supposed to trust the LORD he can’t even see! That’s when the Holy Spirit heard his longing and showed up to help.
God came to the people in the cloud by day and in the fire by night, so even though they could not see God, they could see where to go.
In these days, when we cannot see God, when we can’t even see what God is dreaming for our church or for our lives, when all we have is the longing to be close to God, maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s everything.
Maybe we will start out into this mean time, and our hearts will be moved by compassion and our voices will sound the Hallelujah, and that’s when we’ll know. The Holy Spirit is going with us. Just like the people who saw the cloud, or the fire, or the star in the dark, make no mistake. We will know. What we are doing is following God.
May it be so.