Sunday, June 25, 2023

What It Means to have a God

 Micah 7:18-20

Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love.  He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot.  Yes, Thou wilt cast all their sins Into the depths of the sea.  Thou wilt give truth to Jacob and unchanging love to Abraham, which Thou didst swear to our forefathers from the days of old.

Sermon for Third Sunday after Trinity                                              6/25/23

What It Means to Have a God

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The surveys in 2022 say that Eighty-one percent of Americans believe in God, down from 96% in the 1950's.  That single statistic underscores the problem in our world today.  Language, particularly religious language, has lost its meaning for most people.  When you look at our society, it is clear that no where near 81% of the people know God, let alone live in a relationship we might call "faith".  So, it seems obvious that whatever they are calling "believe" is significantly different from what the Church calls "believe", or what the Bible means when it uses the word.  Only 64% expressed a confidence that God really exists.  It also seems plain that we don't all mean the same thing by the word "God."  

Of course, we knew that.  Islam means "Allah."  Hindu's have a number of deities, prominent among them is Vishnu and Siva.  Buddhists don't believe in a deity of any sort, generally.  Jews worship a deity who is not the Trinity, although they use the Old Testament still.  Jehovah's Witnesses have their "Jehovah-God" who is also not of the Trinity, and Mormons have their gods who have bodies - each one - of their own.  The word "god", in fact, is generally used to refer to any one of a number of deities, and by some to refer to a metaphysically superior being of indeterminate nature and origin and power – meaning that they do not know who or what they refer to when they say "God", it is just a word that refers to "something".

In such a diverse context, we need to be careful to be clear about what we mean when we use this language.  We need to be clear about precisely who and what we mean by the word "God".  We need to be clear about what is true and what is not.  Theology is properly the task of making distinctions and definitions to help be clear, and communicate clearly.  Part of the question that needs to be answered in our culture today is addressed in our text.  That question is "What does it mean to ‘have a God'?".  Our theme this morning is the answer – what it means to have a God.

Now listen to the text again carefully.  "Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love.  He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot.  Yes, Thou wilt cast all their sins Into the depths of the sea.  Thou wilt give truth to Jacob and unchanging love to Abraham, which Thou didst swear to our forefathers from the days of old."

What was Micah talking about?  What was the focus of his description of God? —  —  He talked about God's forgiveness and His "unchanging love."

What distinguishes our God from all the other so-called God's?  Forgiveness and love.  And how does that make our God unique?  He is a God whose attitude toward His children is love and compassion, and whose will is to bless.  The other gods are terrifying.  Men sacrifice children and virgins to them.  People are terrified of them.  All they want to do is satisfy them and avoid their gaze.  Look at Islam.  The women are strictly controlled, covered and fearful, with good reason.  Their religion gives the men the authority to kill them for any perceived infraction of the will of Allah.  Children, particularly those of infidels (unbelievers) are sometimes chained to dungeon walls and beaten and forced to memorize the Koran word for word under the threat of further brutality or death.  Even the men live in fear of being found to be "not quite zealous enough."  Islam is so rigorous and inhibiting that the people who worship Allah can easily strap bombs to their bodies and die rather than continue life in this world.  This behavior isn't an aberration in Islam like the war in Ireland was for Christians, where two political faction divided on the lines of religion make war, this is Islam wherever it is practiced.

Other religions are no better.  Hindus are terrified of Siva.  Siva is the god - or goddess - of destruction.  Hindus believe they are caught up in a cruel and nearly endless cycle of re-incarnation, always seeking Nirvana - the state of perfection which allows them to stop reincarnating, to merge into the great cosmic unity and lose their individuality and consciousness.  They long to cease to exist, and they live in terror and in the depressing certainty that life is empty, painful, and meaningless.  

Modern Jews feel like perpetual victims, and their religion no longer looks forward to a real Messiah.  God is awesome and angry, in their religion, and many of them believe He is no longer paying attention.  The book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," was written by a Rabbi, and says that God doesn't want bad things to happen, but He doesn't have the power to stop them.  Every other religion has a god that is angry and punishing, or distracted and unconcerned.  Salvation, to most of them, is just unconsciousness.  No more fear, and no more pain, and no more thinking!

Our God is good.  His will is tender and gentle and saving.  He wants to bless us and strengthen us and help us.  And this God I describe is not merely the God of modern America; of the rich and pampered and comfortable.  The rich and the comfortable usually reject Him and walk in their own futility.  This is the God of the Apostles and of Luther – of times in human history as difficult and dangerous as any place in the Muslim world today.  This is the God whose people rejoiced in His goodness and delighted in His blessings.  Because of their faith in Him, Christians established (by His blessing) what we call modern science and developed all the technology we find so convenient and pleasant today.

What does it mean to have a God?  Luther said that it meant to look to Him for every good and blessing and only for good and blessing.  That is why the prophet celebrates God's forgiveness.  When our sins are forgiven, nothing stands in the way of God pouring out His abundant blessings on His people.  Forgiveness means good things, good times, great blessings.  It means that God's favor and love are focused on us.  When we believe we are forgiven, we expect God to be good.  We expect God to be on our side, fighting every battle for us.  We expect life to be the best that life can be because God loves us.  He is not angry with us.  He does not wish to see us suffer or be hurt.  He has no ill will or evil thoughts toward us at all.  That's what it means to have a God.

Sadly, even some who call themselves "Christians" don't really have a god.  They have an academic appreciation of the contents of Scriptures.  They have a faith in the history, that it is true.  They have a timorous assent to propositions of low probability, but they do not have a god – at least not our God.  They fear tomorrow.  They expect failure.  They worry about having enough or getting by, as though they must tiptoe past misfortune for fear that it might awaken and wreak havoc on us.  They await the dropping of the other shoe – God is going to punish them, they say.  Wealth and health and happiness are unnatural conditions they have enjoyed far too long, and now they are uneasily certain that their run of good "luck" is about to end and the roof will cave in on them and God will deal with them just as they deserve.

I suspect that some of you may think that way.  But what it means to have a God is to trust Him and expect His love and goodness.  It means to look to Him for blessing and good.  It means that we expect life to be more a delight than a problem – although, for reason of sin, we know that life will have pains and troubles.  But our sins have been forgiven because of Jesus and the cross, and so we expect God to be good – and when we need something, some good or blessing, the first and only place we look for it is God.  That is what it means to have a God.

And we have good reason to expect these wonderful things!  Micah said,   He will again have compassion on us; He will tread our iniquities under foot.  Well, our reason for such optimism is that He has had compassion on us and He has tread our iniquities under foot.  He did it in Jesus.

God sent His only Son into the flesh, and took on our human nature in every way, except sin.  He lived just as any one of us might, and He did it in one of the less advanced and comfortable times of human history.  He wrestled with the devil, both face to face in the wilderness and in daily life and temptation, and still kept the whole will and Law of God perfectly.  Then He claimed our sins and the judgment due to us for our sins and He died.  He took our sins on Himself, and allowed us to nail Him to the cross, and He died there as payment of the penalty we have earned for sin.

Then He rose from the grave.  He rose just as Scripture promised that He would.  His resurrection was God's public proclamation that Sin was settled, we have been redeemed and forgiven, and our iniquity has been "passed over".

The result is that we are forgiven.  He has compassion on us, and He has tread our iniquities under His feet.  Micah wrote, Who is a God like Thee, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?  He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love.   The answer, of course, is that there is no other God who pardons.  The anger of our God is trumped by His unchanging love.  He delights in loving us.  He calls us by name in Baptism and makes us His children.  He adopts us into His family!  You can search the literature of the world's religions and not find a God who makes His people His family, and claims them as His own children!

Then He nurtures us in the Word, and feeds us with heavenly food.  Here in this holy supper He fills us with Himself - the very body given for us, and the very blood shed for us.  He hides them beneath the form of bread and wine, to be sure, but they are there.  Faith takes God at His Word and knows what good things it receives in this Sacrament.  But make no mistake about this: whoever eats at this altar eats the body of the Lord and drinks His blood.  It does not require faith to do so at this altar – all it requires is participation.

Faith is required, however, to lay hold of the blessings of this holy meal.  Unbelief receives the precious gifts of Christ's body and blood, but it receives them blasphemously, receiving them without understanding, without appropriate thanksgiving, receiving them as though the gifts offered were merely cookies and Kool-Aid.  That is why we practice closed communion.  We do not wish to see anyone receive from our holy table the judgment of God in their ignorance where there should be blessing and health.  And God has promised that the one who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not discern the body present in the Sacrament.

It is all part of what it means to have a God.  It means to look to Him for every blessing, and to expect from Him only blessing.  When we have a God, we have peace, and confidence, and hope.  It means to take Him at His Word, and to trust Him to do precisely what He says that He will do, and to give us all that He has promised to give.  To have a God means to listen to Him, and not try to put our words into His mouth.  It means to trust Him no matter what it looks like or feels like.  It means that even death is not the final answer, for we, too, shall rise with Jesus Christ into everlasting life in glory!  It means that we don't necessarily have to understand the moment, but we are to be confident that God does, and that He is in control for our blessing and with the ultimate aim that His will be accomplished.

And what is His will for us?  (Our Salvation).

And that is what it means to have a God.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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