Where is God?

*A homily, given at Midtown Christian Community, Feb. 2, 2008

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Exodus 24:12-18
Philippians 3:7-14
Matthew 17:1-9
Psalm 99

Our passages for this evening invite us to take up and consider the question, “where is God?”  This is not an apologetic question, but a geographical one.  That is, we’re not asking, “where is God because my life really hurts right now?”  An answer to that question might actually come as a result of our answering the other question that is ours for tonight.  We’re asking, “what is God’s location?”  If God were to come to earth and live somewhere, if he were to choose a neighborhood and a lifestyle, where would it be?

We might say that each of our lives, and the shape of our communities—in fact, the way of entire cultures—are all answers to this question.  We have all implicitly spoken about God’s location by the way we live, think, dress, and talk.

If we were to formulate a majority opinion about God’s location, at least among most Americans, I imagine that we would immediately think of an exclusive neighborhood.  God would live in a gated community in a ridiculously wealthy area of the country, and he’d be chauffeured around in a limo from important meeting to guest appearances on talk shows to charity banquets.  He’d probably have several locations, actually—a house in the Hamptons, stately but subdued, pointing to class and old money, along with a stylish apartment in the city and perhaps a home in the Caribbean.  He’d be very cheerful and positive—upbeat about life and his prospects, glad-handing his business associates, impressing people with how he blends sophistication with a subtle informality, putting both powerful people and his own servants at ease with his friendly banter.  Right now he’s on Oprah, but after that he’s flying to Washington to have lunch with the President. 

You see, God’s really important, so even though he’s really cordial, he doesn’t really have time for you or me, but he’ll have his people return your call or send you a form letter thanking you for your interest, but he’s quite busy, so thanks very much for understanding.  God is important, so he lives in important places . . . at least when he’s not in his private jet.

Well, that’s wrong, quite obviously.  But isn’t it the case that the way you and I live day in and day out very often displays a wrong and perhaps sinful notion of God’s location?  Let me give you just one example from among a wide range of possibilities: How often do we live, pray, and generally conduct our lives as if God lives in a huge austere gothic mansion that has threateningly dark storm clouds circling round it.  It’s at the end of a long winding driveway that is protected with dark imposing gates.  And are those guard dogs?  Here they come now, rushing up to the gate, barking loudly, teeth eager to tear into the flesh of sinners and other shady characters! 

We imagine that God is far off.  He’s severe.  Cold.  He is definitely awesome and amazing.  But he’s also really unpredictable, very powerful, and very likely will blast you if you step out of line.  He is distant and requires a long, wearying, and well-planned out approach.  After all, we’re sinners, and I think if you look closely through the bars of the gates you can make out the corpses of sinners who haven’t made it all the way up the long driveway, because it’s lined with traps and even more guard dogs.  It’s not easy getting to God . . . at least according to our common assumptions about where he’s located.

Well, again, we’re being very silly—no one really thinks that way, right?  Surely no one has that view of God and of where he might locate himself.

Our passages for tonight have a wonderful trajectory to them.  As I have already indicated, this trajectory—or, this storyline—has everything to do with God’s location.  It begins with a pivotal statement about God’s location in the Old Testament, his appearance on Sinai with Moses. 

It’s an awesome scene, truly mind-blowing, but it played an unfortunate role in the development of Israel’s convictions regarding God.  You see, God revealed himself throughout the Old Testament as the God who has a variety of locations.  He is indeed on Mt. Sinai, awesome in his holiness and power.  He is enthroned above the heavens, ruling all things from the highest heaven.  He’s in the overpowering thunderstorm that smashes down over the Sea and the lightning that shatters the great cedars in the north country.

But that wasn’t the entire story.  God had other locations, too.  He dwelled among the lowly; sought out and entered the home of the poor and needy; he made his home with the orphan and the widow, paid close attention to the barren woman who was shamed and rejected.  But Israel didn’t do well to pay attention to God’s many locations.  This singular instance—God on Mt. Sinai—defined God forever as the God who was austere and overpowering in his majesty.  This much was true, but it was also part of a bigger vision, one that Israel never fully captured.

Our Psalm text also gives us this very biblical vision of God and his greatness.  God is great, he is sovereign.  He is enthroned upon the fearsome warring angels who guard his holiness, the cherubim, and He is great in Zion.  Some very impressive locations.  The psalm ends with calls to praise God for his greatness, for he is indeed very great.

Again, this is an intensely biblical vision of God and it isn’t wrong—of course, it’s the Scriptural portrait of God and of his location.  Our God is indeed an awesome God!  The problem, however, is that we need to constantly pay attention to the whole story—we need to see the entire picture.  If we overdose on God’s majestic location, we will miss the fact that God reveals himself as the God of all locations, the God of every location.  We will miss how it is that God is also the God who bends down low to look into the face of the broken, who pays very close attention to the poor and needy, who speaks softly as he calls Samuel, who hears the prayer of Hannah.  We may capture one vision of God, but we miss the fact that there’s more to it.

And like I said, this is important for how we live day in and day out.  It’s great to praise God as the God who reigns supreme and who dwells on the mountain-top in storm clouds—our God is an awesome God!!  That’s great when we’re filling huge stadiums and singing praise songs . . . , but what do we do when our souls are tormented and in pain, and our hearts feel like they are literally breaking?  What do we have to say to a world of broken people?

When we turn to look at Jesus and how he truly reveals God and God’s location, we see that God comes to the lowly.  Actually, it’s more faithful to say that God comes as the lowly.  He comes to the broken and is himself broken.  Our God is an awesome God, for sure, but our God is a servant God.  Our God is a broken God.  Our God is a crushed God.

We see this very same theological real estate struggle going on in Paul in this intensely revealing passage in Philippians.  There was a time when Paul bought the lie that he learned from his incomplete reading of the Old Testament.  The lie was that God locates himself with powerful and important people.  Because he knew that God loves hanging out with people who have loads of credentials, he embarked on a personal mission of credential accumulation.  He was on a quest for more and greater status symbols.  He needed these so that he could buy property in God’s neighborhood.  That’s what God loves, he wants super-stars with lots of status symbols!

But Paul has had a revolution in his thinking and being.  He now sees that Jesus came as the humble and broken one, and triumphed through suffering and death.  Jesus had nothing but credentials—he was God!—but he gave up this heavenly location to locate himself as a servant—to locate himself on the cross.  Because he did this, God raised him from the dead and gave him a new location, reigning from God’s own throne as Lord over everything. 

Paul now sees that Jesus’ way of life says everything about God’s location and about how we must locate ourselves.

God is with the suffering, with the poor and needy.  We know this because when God came to earth, that’s where he went.  Paul wants desperately to fellowship with Christ, so he must go where Christ is located.  Paul is now involved in a pursuit of fellowshipping with Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death.  That’s the only place where resurrection power is located because that’s where God resides.  He’s with the suffering, the broken, the crushed, the needy.

Our gospel passage for tonight completes the trajectory.  Jesus takes his disciples up to a high mountain and reveals himself in all his splendor and glory, appearing alongside Moses and Elijah.  “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  You can imagine what the disciples are thinking—“finally, it’s here, it’s over and the glory of God has returned and we get in on it first!  This is awesome!”  Peter pleads with Jesus to allow him to capture that moment forever and not let it get away.  He wants to build some shelters to house the glory of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.

Then God speaks, declaring his delight in Jesus, commanding the disciples to “listen to him!”  Why does he say this?  Perhaps it’s because they don’t get it.  The glory isn’t the point, at least not for now.  The way of Jesus is indeed going to end in glory, but it must first go through the cross.  Like Israel, like you and me, the disciples want the one vision of God’s location but not the other.  So they need to listen to what Jesus is going to tell them.

What does Jesus tell them?  Does he rebuke them?  Does he mock them for their lack of divine real estate savvy?  No.  He does what God always does to those bent low.  Jesus touches them and says, “get up, don’t be afraid.”  Words and actions of life, of invitation, of grace from a gracious, life-giving, inviting God.  Then, surprisingly, Jesus says, don’t tell anyone about this.  You see, the mountain vision of the glory of Christ would play into all sorts of foolish perceptions of who Jesus is and what he’s about.  That’s a location that humans will be very eager to jump on board with.  But it’s an illusion when taken by itself.

Here’s the point: Jesus must go to the cross, a location that makes possible our location with Jesus in his glory.  But that happens in the future, when God comes to make all things new, to set right every injustice, and to vindicate his people.  That will indeed be an awesome location!

For now, however, we must locate ourselves with the suffering.  This is not because we have to do penance or suffer for our sins, but because that’s where Jesus is.  That’s where resurrection power is located. 

American culture, and our own intolerance to pain, tells us to orient our lives around comfort, to keep suffering at bay.  But that’s a location that is devoid of life.  Life is where God is, where Christ is.  He locates himself with the suffering, with the poor, with the broken, with the crushed.

God, give us wisdom and discernment; give us strength to locate ourselves where you are located.  Come and save; come and redeem; come and make all things new.  In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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