What does God look like? Do you see a person, a concept, and idea? When you pray, who are you praying to anyway?
Today’s texts: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
A problem with asking members of our congregation to submit questions for me to reflect on during Lent is that I can get some really tough questions.
I’m not talking about intellectually tough. These are not vague, abstract questions. These are questions that come from the heart of people’s lives, their worries, their concerns.
This week’s questions are in that category. I grouped two of them together because I think today’s scripture readings at least open a window for consideration of them.
Here’s the first one:
“I am questioning why things no longer concern me as much as l get older. For instance, when I end my day with prayer, I always ask for peace in the world . Maybe this is wishful thinking, as there have been wars as long as history tells us. Will there always continue to be wars? Is peace within oneself the best we can ask for?”
And then there’s the second one:
“I would love to have a “picture” of God – to whom am I praying, giving thanks, asking for help? What is God really like? Who is he? Who am I talking to anyway?”
Let’s start with who God is, because I think that really affects both questions. And I’d ask you to take a moment now and think for yourself, what is your picture of God?
What does God look like?
Do you see a person, a concept, and idea?
When you pray, who are you praying to anyway?
The Bible is filled with a wide variety of images of God, with those pictures our question asker was seeking.
Right at the beginning, the writer of Genesis pictures God as a spirit, a mighty wind blowing over the waters, a creative force separating light from darkness.
Then there is the story of God creating humanity with that incredibly powerful phrase about us being made in the image of God. When Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, they heard the footsteps of God walking in the garden.
Noah and Abraham and Sarah heard God’s voice.
Jacob wrestled with God in the night.
Joseph encountered God in dreams.
For Moses, there was God in a burning bush, in a pillar of cloud, in fire on the top of a mountain, on a pavement made of sapphire.
Later, God tells Moses “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
But then in the Book of Numbers, God also tells Moses to give these words to his brother Aaron to use as a blessing: “The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his face to you and grant you peace.”
In the book of First Kings, Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel and is standing on a mountain waiting for God, only to discover that God not in wind or earthquake or fire but in the sheer silence.
In the Twenty Third Psalm we hear of God as shepherd. In other psalms, god is a shield or a warrior on our behalf, a rock, a light, a lover. Or in Psalm 19, we see God in the world around us: “The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.”
That’s not an exhaustive list of how the writers in the Hebrew Bible pictured God, but it gives you a sense of the wide variety of portraits. That’s because just like the person who posed the question today – “What is God really like? Who am I talking to anyway?” – people throughout history have struggled with that.
(I’m putting a link in the online version of this reflection to a site that goes into great detail on the titles and descriptions of God in the Bible.)
Jesus tried to make God more approachable. He talked about God in the most intimate terms, as a Father, sometimes as a hen looking after her chicks, sometimes as a king, sometimes – going back to the very beginning – as a spirit, a mighty wind.
And then Paul, in his letters, writes of the divinity of Jesus, with lines like the one we heard today: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”
But let’s stay with the father image for a moment, since that is so central to the reading we heard today from the Gospel according to Luke. There are great characters in this story of the son who squanders his inheritance and finally comes home hoping against hope that his father will take him in.
And the father, of course, comes running down the road to greet him – that wonderful image of God always reaching out to us and giving us a second chance and a third chance and a fourth chance – anyone here need a fifth chance? A sixth chance? You get the idea.
So I’m sorry to tell the person who posed the God question that I don’t think there is just one picture for God.
As some theologians say, once we think we have got God figured out, we are missing part of the picture.
If the God we picture hates all the same people we hate, we are missing part of the picture.
If the God we picture looks just like us, we are missing part of the picture.
Or as the hymn we’ll sing at the end of this reflection says, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.”
One of our members wrote this week that defining God “can’t be done for me or anyone by someone else. It develops during life experiences.” I suspect for many of us, our picture of God has changed over the years based on our life experiences.
Another person offered a classical image of God in a human form, above puffy white clouds, “always up to the right in my vision and never have I pictured Him looking directly at me, but more down to right as if to be addressing others.”
Yet another offered a popular picture of a laughing Jesus, head tilted upwards, a broad smile on his face, a picture so vivid you can almost her his laughter. This person wrote that she “mostly pictures God as this warm, wonderful spirit full of love, total joy and incredible happiness.”
And this person offered another image that sounds a lot like Psalm 19 – “As far as anyone asking the question about what God might look like: All they have to do is look outside today to see God in his glory. Oh, that heavenly white snow that twinkles like a million diamonds…And just when you think it can’t get any prettier…That glorious sun comes out and lifts your spirits like no other! That’s God.”
I’d invite you to close your eyes once more. Think of the image you had a few minutes ago. Think of all the images you have heard in the last few minutes. How many of them can you hold as you think about God?
If you think creating a picture of God is challenging, that other question is even tougher. When we can no longer summon up energy to tackle the hard things in our world, when something like world peace seems impossible, have we lost hope?
I don’t think it needs to be that way.
We all go through ebbs and flows in our lives, periods when we have the time and the energy to engage some of the challenges of our world, periods when demands of family, work, health take priority. That does not mean we don’t care about the challenges facing the world. It means that we have to rely on one another to carry things forward because we cannot all do it at the same time.
Yes, but the question was whether we can ever have a world with war? Extend that question a bit.
Can we ever have a world without hunger, without exploitation, without damage to our environment?
Can we ever be into that point where God’s will is done an earth as it is in heaven?
Can we make heaven a reality now?
Or as one person wrote this week: “I don’t much think about war, but I do find myself worrying about our population becoming infected with a disease – either planted here purposely (like war) – or an outbreak for which our medical experts cannot find a cure in time to save the planet. I also worry about global warming, factory farming and our deteriorating environment and how we are essentially killing ourselves.”
Her answer: “I pray for God to save us.” And another member wrote: “I pray for the peace of the world because the world needs to be prayed for. Period. Whether the world ever achieves peace isn’t in my hands, but my prayers are.”
Prayer is a good starting point and a good ending point.
Someone else saw some very specific, close to home things that could be done: “I think my role is to show peace in my thinking and actions among those I touch. Humans have an animal nature. Struggle and rivalry are built-in. If I can communicate quietness, mercy, concern for others’ needs and lives, and some of that ‘rubs off,’ that’s about all I can do.”
And actually, that’s quite a bit.
Not many of us are going to be in a position to single-handedly negotiate a peace treaty in the Middle East or end racial disparity in the United States. But there are bits and pieces that people here do every day that contribute to that patchwork quilt that offers the world alternative ways of shaping the future.
We each do what we can. And then we trust in that God in whose image we are made and whose image we hold in our minds. As one of the creeds we often say around puts it, “We are not alone, we live in God’s world.”
Let’s sing about that God with the very first hymn in our hymnals – “Immortal, Invisisble, God Only Wise.”