November 10, 2013

His Greatness is Unsearchable

Passage: Haggai 1:15b-2:9, Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 20:27-38
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Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.

“How Much Should It Cost to Find God”, asks writer Natasha Scripture in a recent Atlantic magazine article. Her article chronicled the costs of what seekers are encouraged to invest in what she calls “the spirituality and well-being industry” and her firsthand experience in a workshop at a retreat centre that vowed to transform energy blockages.

She concluded asking, “But in the end, shouldn’t the cost of finding God be priceless? As in, free? Of course. But I’m not paying to find God. I’m paying to remove the obstacles to finding God, or universal energy, or however you define the thing we’re all seeking. I know I don’t need my Mastercard to find it, but it sure can open the doors to places and things that help me explore myself and the meaning of my existence. Or maybe I’m just a sucker.

1. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable,” writes the Psalmist. What is finding God like? And after you have done those things, how is it that you know it is God you have found? Is it like an exercise of removing obstacles that are in our way? And when I have removed those obstacles are the concepts of “God” or of “universal energy” interchangeable definitions of “the thing we’re all seeking?” N.T. Wright says that talking about God is akin to staring at the sun.

The Christian story claims to be the true story about God and the world. As such it offers a distinctive picture or image for how a person finds God. (In the gospel, the seeker is God; the good shepherd seeking his lost sheep; but more on that later.) In the sermons of the past two Sundays we have considered what N.T. Wright describes as echoes of a voice. We hear the echo is the search for justice, the quest for spirituality, the longing for relationship, and the yearning for beauty. None of these points directly to God; if they did would God not easily be found? At best, says Wright, they wave their arms in a rather general direction, like someone in a cave who hears an echoing voice but has no idea where it’s coming from.

So what is encountering God like? Is it like studying mathematics or geography or biology; we take a course of study and now we know our subject? Is it like attending a workshop on some area for personal improvement like mastering a time/life management system? I commend to you a wonderful illustration that N.T. Wright offers.

“Imagine being in a lonely house out in the country, away from streetlights. Late one wintry evening, the power goes off, leaving everything blackened out for miles around. You remember having left a box of matches on the coffee table and grope your way to them. Striking one match after another, you find your way to the pantry shelf that holds an assortment of candles. The candle you light keeps you going while you hunt for a flashlight.

All that makes sense. Matches, candles, and flashlights are things that can help us see in the dark. What makes no sense, when at last it’s nearly morning, is to go out with either matches, candles or flashlight to see if the sun has risen yet.

A great many arguments about God—God’s existence, God’s nature, God’s actions in the world—run the risk of being like the pointing a flashlight toward the sky to see if the sun is shining. It is all too easy to make the mistake of speaking and thinking as though God might be a being, an entity, within our world accessible to our interested study in the same sort of way we might study music or mathematics, open to our investigation by the same sort of techniques we use for objects and entities within our world. … The difficulty is that speaking of God in anything like the Christian sense is like staring into the sun. It’s dazzling. It’s easier, actually, to look away from the sun itself and to enjoy the fact that, once it’s well and truly risen, you can see everything else clearly.” (Simply Christian, p. 55-56)

Think of the surprise of the women who went to Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning. They had gone to do what was appropriate for a dead friend, leader, and would-be Messiah. But Jesus had left the tomb before they got there. Their actions were appropriate given where they started from, but his resurrection put everything in a new light resurrection. The light of the risen Saviour illuminates everything else about Jesus and, like the sun, everything else as well.

The point is that God is not an object within our world, or even an idea in our intellectual world, that we can probe in the way we investigate things that are within these worlds.

This point is captured by the Psalmist when he wrote: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.” “All language about God is ultimately mysterious,” notes N.T. Wright. The United Church doctrinal statement Song of Faith states, that God is “above perfect description.” You could say it this way—that human language can never fully describe God.

Take the story of Moses meeting God at the burning bush. “Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’” (Exodus 3:13-14) God’s answer could also be translated “I will be who I will be.” The name suggests that God “can’t be defined in terms of anything or anyone else. It isn’t the case that there is such a thing as “divinity” and that he’s simply another example, even the supreme one, of this category. … Rather, he is who he is. He is his own category, not part of a larger one.

To say that God’s greatness is unsearchable is not to say nothing of God can be known nor is it to say any definition of God will do. It is to say that we will come to know God is a way appropriate to who he is in relation to us. Yes, all of our human faculties are engaged in finding/knowing God—mind, heart, energy. But God is greater than them all.

The story of Christian faith—along with our Jewish ancestors—is that God has burst into our world and made himself known. First in the conversation with Israel and then in Jesus of Nazareth God has come among us. The logic of the gospel reorients us. Rather than asking how do I find God we find ourselves rejoicing that God has found me and called me to himself. We aren’t finders but the found!

I began this message sharing with you Natasha Scripture’s question: “shouldn’t the cost of finding God be priceless? As in, free?” Her intuition is correct. It is free for us, says the gospel, though it cost God everything. Not only is it free but he has come looking for us—simply open the door and let him in. Often our efforts to find God are the problem; we have defined in advance how God is to be found by the methodology of the search we choose. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, for example, declared he had disproved the existence of God; he said, after orbiting the earth a few times, he had seen no sign of God. Indeed, God’s greatness is unsearchable in this way of searching.

Our testimony to our neighbours about our Christian commitment isn’t that we have superior sleuthing skills or methodology for finding God. We aren’t saying that we have a better or more refined way of being spiritual. We aren’t selling add-ons to your life that increases your sense of personal well-being. We are saying that Jesus found me a sinner and called me to himself a call that is extended to everyone.

2. We have been thinking about the unsearchableness of God’s greatness. I invited you to think with me about God’s greatness. Take this phrase “his greatness is unsearchable” and on the touch-screen of your imagination underline or highlight “greatness”. Throughout the Psalms, including the 145th where our text is from, God’s people are called to praise God for his greatness. As you think about life what are the things we typically praise?

Well, we praise the things we enjoy or take delight in. Let's think for a minute about our attitude to anything we enjoy, anything at all. Someone asks how you like your new car. “It’s the best car I’ve ever owned!” If I asked some of you who are NFL fans—did you see the game a few weeks ago between Denver and Dallas? “It was one of the most entertaining football game I’ve ever seen.” Payton Manning is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. “Whatever you have to pay to see him play is worth the price of admission.”

You get the picture: anything we enjoy we praise. Enjoyment overflows spontaneously into praise.

What's more, whatever we praise we praise not simply because we happen to like it; whatever we praise we praise believing that praise is fitting. We praise the work of great writers, artists, and composers because we know that our praise is not misplaced. We are convinced that praise is a fitting response, an appropriate response, the only correct response.

Another aspect of praise: you must have noticed that the people who are unhappy, cranky, miserable, sour-puss spoilsports are invariably those who praise least. They find so little enjoyment in life, so little that delights them, so little they admire that they can't praise, since praise is the natural spillover of enjoyment and delight and admiration. On the other hand, those who praise most are always large-hearted people, profoundly contented, generous in their appreciation. In fact large-hearted, generous people can find something genuinely worthy of praise anywhere.

Another aspect of praise. What we praise ourselves we implicitly recommend; we urge others to taste, know, cherish—and therein come to praise themselves. When I tell you how much it makes my heart soar to hear the gospel band Third Day sing the Creed (Apostles’ Creed in song) I am urging you to listen and find this out for yourself. What is IMPOSSIBLE is to say to someone, "I read the most marvelous book last night and I trust that you will find it dreadful." We cannot praise something ourselves without urging others to find it worthy too.

With this in mind about praise let us return to the Psalm. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. Imagine the impact of our praise of Jesus Christ on the church’s witness. What we find in him is someone who is our delight. We have found that our delight well placed; he is fitting of our praise. Further, the riches we have found in Jesus Christ we anticipate others will find as well. Praise of God also promotes large-hearted people; it is a great deterrent to miserable attitudes towards life. Our praise and worship of Jesus Christ ought to lead naturally to us commending Jesus to others.

The praise of God’s greatness, says the Psalmist, takes the form of declaring God’s mighty acts; the giving of the Son on the cross as remedy for a sin-sick world the mightiest of these deeds. Clearly the greatness of God includes the fathomless love of God for people. In extolling God’s greatness this Psalm goes on to say (vs 9) The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he made.

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.