When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Does God change?
Everything we know in existence changes. Mountains rise up where once the terrain was level, then smooth off, wear down, and become plains again. Oh yes, it takes time, but those seemingly solid mountains are always either building themselves up or eroding themselves down. Every day we age and, with time, come changes in our appearance, in our fashions, in our abilities, in our personalities, in our understandings. Day by day, we don’t notice the physical changes but, if we look at ourselves in a family photo album it is great fun – and just a bit scary sometimes! – to notice how much we do change over the years. And, although it feels like humans are the norm on earth, in relative terms, the human species has been around only a sliver of time in the unfolding of the creation of the cosmos as a whole; and how different the human species has looked at various stages of our evolution, as archaeological evidence shows. Canada turns 150 this year and how much this country has changed over a century and a half. From largely virgin territory in its natural state and inhabited by its original peoples to a developed society populated by a mixture of almost every ethnic group in the world. From a largely rural-agricultural land to a predominately urban-industrial land. From zero to sixty over those 150 years, so far as technology is concerned. Everything is changing all the time.
But does God change? There could be an interesting discussion about that – maybe even a heated argument. It is hard to imagine anything living not changing. Life and change are pretty much two sides of the same coin in our experience. But, on the other hand, we look to God as a source of security and stability. The one constant in a sea of change. The one thing we can count on at the quiet centre to stop the swirling mass around it from flying off into pieces. “We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree, and wither and perish,” the hymn says, “but naught changes Thee.” “The same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” the letter to the Hebrews says, although technically that verse applies to Jesus. So let’s leave that topic open for discussion at some other time because that is not the primary focus of our reflections this morning.
But one thing is for sure. And that is that, whether or not God changes, our understanding of God definitely does. And that is where I want to focus my thoughts and our reflections this morning: on our evolving understanding of God.
There is not one constant image of God in the Bible, there are many. The Bible is a record, in some ways, of how our human understanding of the divine has grown and developed over the ages. And, hopefully, from lesser and more distorted images of God to a fuller and truer appreciation of the mystery of God. I won’t go into great detail about this but let me trace some of the major shifts in humanity’s understanding of God over time.
Perhaps the most obvious one that we see reflected in scripture is the movement from a belief in many gods to a belief in one God. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” the Bible begins. A bold assertion that there is but one God as the source of all existence. Not a god for the rivers, another for the trees, another for the flowers, another for the mountains, another for the wind, and so on, and so on. One God, not many gods.
But that was not a belief yet universally held in biblical times. “You shall have no other gods before me”, begins the Ten Commandments and then continues, “You shall not make for yourself an idol…. You shall not bow down to them and worship them.” As Israel moved into the Promised Land, surrounded by other cultures each with its own religious traditions, idol worship was still a common practice and one which Israel could easily slip back into because it wasn’t that distant in the experience of its own ancestors. So it was ingrained in Israel that there was but one living and legitimate God.
Yet, Israel understood that radical shift in thinking about God only in part. Yes, we have only one God but each tribe, each nation, each culture also has its own one God. It is as if Israelites were saying that Yahweh was their God, not Baal, the God of the Canaanites, for example. We have our one God while you have yours. So the movement away from many gods and the practice of idol worship evolved slowly. Maybe first, in the popular mind, to a rivalry between tribes, each with its own singular tribal God, each vying for supremacy over the other. Despite the urging of some of the more enlightened ones, such as the Prophets and the mind behind the Creation account, maybe it wasn’t until the time of Jesus and then Paul, especially Paul, that it really began to be understood that the one God was the God of all, not just of one’s own particular race or culture or in-group. Even today, we hold onto some of the remnants of that old tribal God mentality if we assert that our God, as Christians, is truer and more powerful than the God of any other culture or religious tradition.
When we think further into this business of tribal gods, we begin to move into our changing and evolving understanding of the character of God. And this takes us into a consideration of a very common human reaction that is offended by the God of the Old Testament. A conception of God that turns many people off religion entirely. A jealous, warlike, violent, judgemental, punishing, vengeful God. When civilization is divided up according to tribes, clans, nations, ideological blocs, even religions, there is inevitably at least competition if not downright warfare to assert the superiority and supremacy of one group over another. And hand-in-hand with that way of thinking and behaving is the assumption that God is on our side. Each side invoking the name of God as a justification for its aggression and as a guarantee of its victory. That is very much evident in the acts of terrorism that threaten our world these days. But before we get too self-righteous, it was also a theme running through the American and Allied counter-attacks in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is very important for us to understand that the God we see in the Old Testament is not always God as God truly is but God as humans then imagined God. And those images of God were in flux, growing and changing as human consciousness evolved and was able to receive more deeply the revelation of God’s truer and more constant nature. Once, humans thought of God as a fearsome God who needed to be appeased by human sacrifice – most often of a child or a virgin female. The story of Abraham ready to sacrifice his son Isaac marks a turning point in the human understanding of that barbaric practice. So the image of God was softened a bit but apparently God still needed the priestly sacrifice of an animal on an altar to appease an angry God and to wrest forgiveness from a righteous and judgemental God. Such a practice lasted a long time – in fact it is not completely out of our system yet – even though the Hebrew prophets railed against a society that would go through all their sacrificial rituals to the letter but still not “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Even today, such old thinking is present in our Christian theology when we imagine God returning to a more primitive conception of God in requiring the brutal and bloody sacrifice of the Son of God to win back God’s approval.
And then along came Jesus, who revealed the truest image of God the world had ever seen. Jesus did not reveal a new God or a different God, but the way God had always been, even if humans had not been capable of seeing or embracing that kind of God before. In the teachings and actions of Jesus, the world caught a glimpse of the true and everlasting God. In the very person of Jesus, we see God come to life as God had always been but as people had not been able to recognize or accept before. A God of love, not of domination. A God of mercy, not of vengeance. A serving God, not a dictatorial God. A peaceful God, not a God of violence. A vulnerable – even helpless – God, not a God of power and might.
Here was the everlasting God revealed for those whose imaginations were ready to see and accept God. The God who had loved the cosmos into existence. The God who waits patiently – even helplessly – through all the cruelty and suffering until humanity is able to live into the image of God implanted in us from the beginning. The God who loved Israel out of slavery and into freedom. The God who waited patiently – even helplessly – as Israel forgot its origins and became like the other nations in their desire for power at the expense of their most vulnerable citizens and in violent hostility against their enemies who should have been their neighbours. The God who cried out again and again through the prophets for an end to ritualistic lip-service, helplessly waiting for money-where-your-mouth-is gentleness, justice, and fairness in society. The God who loved the world so much that God risked exposure to the ignorance and brutality of humans by becoming human in Jesus, trying to win the hearts and blow open the minds of people who imagined God differently, if they thought about God at all: vulnerably, helplessly, submitting to ridicule and betrayal, then ending up framed, abandoned, denied, tortured, and executed – all without striking back because what else could a vulnerable God of love do?
It took a long time for that kind of a God to be imaginable by even a few so that Paul would write shortly after the lifetime of Jesus, hoping the image of God in Christ might break through: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who get it – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
I don’t know what image of God you might carry around with you. Perhaps a stern father, or a judge in robes. Maybe a God on a cloud throwing down thunderbolts, or a God on a mountaintop shouting orders. But try, if you can, to imagine this….
Look, there is a man sitting down on a rock on the side of a hill. Apparently he is a wandering beggar from up north somewhere. Rumour has it he was born in a wayside stable to a peasant couple, unmarried at that. People are gathering around him, finding a place to sit on the grass, or to stand in the shade of the few trees dotting the hillside. Some are standing back a little further, watching suspiciously, hoping he might say something so provocative they can turn him into the authorities as a rabble rouser, maybe even as a blasphemer against God. He looks tired and worn. His skin is toughened by exposure to the sun and the wind. His clothes are simple, stained by sweat. His sandals are shabby from countless miles of walking, and his feet within his sandals are calloused and rough. But there is something in his eyes. A light from within that somehow draws people towards him. A sadness even that feels like here might be someone who knows what life is really like. He is looking out over the crowd. He is looking into the eyes of each person there. There is such a composure about him. Such a gentleness. Empathy radiates from him. He spreads his arms wide, as if embracing the crowd and each one in it. He clears his throat. He opens his mouth. He speaks: “Blessed are you who are poor in spirit,” he begins, “for yours is the kingdom of heaven….”
The Rev. Ted Hicks