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Who Is Your God?
September 23, 2012
09-23-2012 Sermon Mark 9:30-37 30They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Who is your God?
Jesus plops down in a chair and rubs his tired eyes. Unlacing his sandals, he stretches out his legs as the dull stiffness in his back eases. He and his disciples had been out on the road for days, walking through Galilee to the small, sea side village of Capernaum, and after hours and hours pounding the dusty roads, his feet are killing him. Yet his tired feet aren’t the only thing giving him grief this evening. Jesus looks around at the hustle and bustle inside the small home: disciples setting down their bags, children running about fetching water and refreshments, a woman stoking a small coal fire as a pot of fish is brought to her side.
It’s as good a time as any, thinks Jesus. “Hey uh, disciples – could you all come here for a minute?” The disciples look at one another. You could never quite be sure what Jesus had up his sleeve whenever he had that tone in his voice. Gathering around their teacher, the disciples sat and waited for him to speak. “So… how was the trip for everybody?” Good, good they reply. “Any interesting discussions along the way?” Brief moments of eye contact between the disciples flutter amongst the silence. “What do you mean Jesus?” Asks one of the twelve. “I heard you all having a bit of an argument back there. Anything I should know about?” James clears his throat. Thaddeus coughs nervously. Peter fidgets with the WWJD bracelet around his wrist. The silence stretches. Jesus, knowing this could very well take all evening, offers “Were you all perhaps arguing about who would be the greatest?” The disciples, knowing the jig was up, begin to nod like school children being caught passing notes behind the teacher’s back. A muffled “Peter started it” issued from some invisible source within the group. Jesus sighs and rubs his eyes again. “So, we are still having this conversation are we? Even after I told you all that stuff about me being betrayed, killed, and me rising again? Who do you think that I am?”
Who do you think that I am? The question causes us to sit up a little straighter in our pew. It is a question that is asked throughout scripture of those who claim to serve and follow God, and it is a question that is still asked of us today. Who is your God? On the surface, the question seems a bit silly. Who is my God? Well, God is my God. You know, that big Bible God who does the miracles and stuff. Fair enough. But if we really push the question, who is your God, our answers may be more surprising that we may have thought. Our text this morning comes in a series of stories in Mark where the question of “Who is this Jesus” seems to be at the forefront of the writer’s agenda. Earlier in Mark 8, we hear Jesus ask the disciples” Who do people say that I am?” The disciples answer “You are John the Baptist” while another answers “You are the prophet Elijah” while still others call out the names of other prophets. Jesus then asks “Who do you say that I am?” It is Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah.” Then in the 9th chapter of Mark, we arrive at the story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus and three disciples ascend a mountain to witness Jesus being illuminated in brilliant white light and the figures of Moses and Elijah descend to stand next to Jesus. Later we overhear Jesus explaining to the disciples that the Son of Man will be betrayed, will suffer and die, and will rise again from the dead.
It is as though Jesus is working overtime to explain to his disciples who he really is and what he has come to this earth to do. But the disciples have their own ideas about who this Jesus really is. For these disciples, their understanding of Jesus as the Messiah was one they had learned from the parents and from their parent’s parents. The promised Messiah, this anointed one of God, would be sent to this world to overthrow the Roman occupying government and to restore the rule of the Kingdom of Israel back to the land. This warrior Messiah would then in turn become the ruler of this new earthly order and they, his closest and most trusted disciples, would be his princes. Visions of power, glory, and fame must have followed the disciples around like shadows as they accompanied Jesus in his travels. Despite Jesus repeatedly explaining his true purpose on this earth to them, the disciples were unwilling or unable to lay aside their preconceived notions of this Messianic Jesus and to accept the hard to hear truth. After all, isn’t it just easier that way?
Isn’t it easier to mold the image of God into something that fits our purposes and goals? After all, we were created in the image of God, so why shouldn’t God look and behave just like us?
In a 2005 survey conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion, it was revealed that American teenagers espouse an understanding of God that is very different than the understanding proclaimed in the history of the Christian Church. In fact, this study revealed that modern American teenagers hold a view of God that is strikingly similar to that held by 18th century philosophers. After interviewing 3,000 teenagers, the study concluded that the most commonly held view of God could be summed up as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Like any theology, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has a few essential beliefs. 1 – A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life. 2 – God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3 – The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4 – God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. And 5 – Good people go to heaven when they die. As the researchers explained, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera.
Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.” This is not the God who thunders from the mountain, nor a God who will serve as judge. This undemanding deity is more interested in solving our problems and in making people happy. “In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: God is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps the people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.” While this study was conducted on the views of teenagers, we can also safely assume that these youth were not born with this understanding of their maker. As we all know, children are like sponges, absorbing the messages that surround them until they are full of the stuff. Our youth and children are keen observers of culture, of their teachers and parents, and of the church. We are all products of what we have been taught and what we have experienced -as were the disciples. Just as the disciples had been taught that the Messiah would be a conquering earthly king, we have allowed ourselves to be taught that Jesus is our homeboy.
But that is not the Jesus that told his disciples that anyone who would follow me must take up their cross and die. That is not a Jesus who over turns the tables of those committing economic injustice. That is not a Jesus who touches lepers, openly defies the ruling powers of the day, and welcomes those with no social status. That is not a Jesus who is so well versed in Scripture that he can confound the religious experts and who is so steeped in prayer that he regularly retreats into lonely or deserted places to be with his Father. So again, we ask the question “Who is your God?”
The disciples look to one another with confused expressions. “What does Jesus mean “Who do you think that I am?” Jesus, recognizing the need for an illustration of his point calls one of the children over to his side. “Okay, let me put it this way. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Overturning years of assumptions, the disciples sit stunned, yet again, at this Messiah who consistently surprises them. How would welcoming a child, a being with no social status and no ability to work for a family, be like welcoming the Messiah? And more importantly, how would welcoming a child be like welcoming God?
While this illustration of welcoming a child would have been a startling one to first century disciples, for us in the pews it is an example we have heard told many times over. We know by heart that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. We know that Jesus welcomes those with no social status and those of every race, class, ethnicity, gender, and life circumstance. So when we look around in our church, at all the children and youth among us, we take comfort in knowing that we are doing as Jesus did. When we look at the wide range of social outreach programs and of our inclusiveness of people that are different than us, we can assume that we as a collective body are on the right track. But what if Jesus’ example of welcoming the child extended beyond the things that we do? What if this example was offered to help us understand the very nature of God? You see, when you accept a child into the life of the community, you accept that child on their own terms. Children are full of surprises, are wily and creative, and are constantly teaching us new things about life. After years of working with youth, I can safely say that as soon as you think you have a teenager figured out, a new facet of their life or personality is revealed that leaves you amazed. Likewise, it is easy for us to slip into thinking that we have God figured out.
We overlay our preconceived ideas, our assumptions, and expectations on God in the full expectation that God will live up to what we want God to be. But if welcoming God is anything like welcoming a child, perhaps we need to reform these assumptions. Jesus calls us to lay aside our preconceived ideas about who God is and what God is doing in this world. We are called to look to God with new eyes, eyes that are open to new possibilities, to surprising new vistas, to starting revelations as to whom this God really is.
This week, I would challenge you to ask yourself the question “Who is my God?” and to take stock of what you know and believe about God. As you examine your beliefs, ask yourself when the last time was that God surprised you or that you learned something new about God. I would challenge you to constantly seek to deepen your relationship with God, to get to know this unpredictable and surprising Creator. Perhaps this could take the form of trying out a new Bible study, adult education class, or Sunday School group. Perhaps pick up a new book on Christianity or read the newspaper through the eyes of faith. Try talking to our children or youth about what they believe about God.
Take a look at the ways you help others, the way you give of your time and money, and the way you treat others during your day and see if those behaviors reveal some of your beliefs about who God is. Reclaim a sense of wonder and awe as you observe the changing of the season or as you take a walk down your street. Strike up a conversation with God as you go about your day – not in a formal way, rather as a way of bringing God into the fold of your daily routine. Read a Bible story to your children before bed. Say grace before a meal. If you keep a journal, add entries about your experiences of God. Sit in silence and listen for a few minutes each morning. Whatever you end up doing, allow yourself to wander into uncharted, disorienting, territory as you explore your faith. It may be a greater effort to camp out for a while in the vast and dangerous wilderness of God’s nature, but I promise, you can see a lot more from the top of a mountain than you can in the safety of a cubicle.
So this week, as you go about answering the question “Who is my God”, push yourself to dig deeper into this relationship. Allow God to surprise you. For just like it is when we welcome a child; when we welcome God on God’s own terms, we welcome God to be an authentic part of our lives. Amen.