"Experience God "#88-16
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 20, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: John 1:1-18
What are your ideas about God? Maybe you have a lot of them. Maybe you haven't thought about God in years. But it's the holiday season, and you hear Christmas music and memories from your childhood and religious observances. They come flooding back into your mind and you find yourself occupied with these ideas about God. Ideas about God and the gods are as old as history. Even human posture seems to encourage ideas about God. We stand upright; we walk upright. And so that means we spend a fair amount of time looking up contemplating ideas about where all this came from and what's it all for. Of course, your ideas and my ideas are shaped by our unique personal experiences. But at the same time it seems like there's at least a hazy outline pre-printed on our minds just as powerfully as ideas about fairness and dignity and friendship. So what are your ideas about God?
According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 83 percent of Americans are certain or fairly certain about the idea of God. Roughly 8 in 10 Americans say they believe in God, although this may change in a generation. When the researchers asked younger United States Americans, those between the ages of 18 and 29, 67 percent of them said that they did not believe in God, or that they didn't know if they believed in God. A strong majority of young Americans apparently have no use for the idea of God. And I'm sure they've got their reasons. Maybe they've seen the way people use the idea of God. Some people use the idea of God like insect repellent. They spray their ideas of God around to repel ideas that they find to be a nuisance, or some people use the idea of God like a placeholder like when you put your coat down in the movie theater to reserve a seat. People put out the idea of God to reserve a place for other things they feel strongly about.
Some people feel strongly about the idea of authority and stability and purity, and they use the idea of God to hold a place for those values, or other people feel strongly about the idea of progress and justice and tolerance, and they use God as a placeholder for those values. And so perhaps that group of young people who said that they didn't believe in God have seen how God sometimes is just a word people use to repel or to protect other ideas they feel strongly about. And so maybe they think that the idea of God is an unnecessary step. Why not just leave God out of it? And yet ideas about God don't just go away. Even in societies, even in governments that have tried to uproot every idea of God, they keep growing back. Sometimes it starts with a single experience. The experience of seeing a flake of snow: intricate, delicate, profound beauty can bring an avalanche of ideas about God. Or the experience of a tragedy can darken those same thoughts with doubts. Why would God let this happen?
You and I each have unique personal experiences, and your experiences shape your ideas and your ideas continue to shape your experience. It's like the relationship between the idea of friendship and the experience of having a friend. Let's say you're talking with an old friend. You were close at once, but life took you in different directions and you haven't talked to him in a long time. And your friend tells you that he's starting to give up on the idea of friendship. And when you hear this, your heart goes out to him and you want to try to somehow restore in him the idea of friendship. So what do you do? You could talk to him about the necessity and the benefits of friendship, in general. And I'm sure some new ideas about friendship might help, but what does he need? He needs experience with real friends. So you could philosophize with him about friendship, or maybe you just be a friend.
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian American author, tells this story about his father. His father was born into a Catholic family living in Eastern Europe shortly before the outbreak of World War II. As a teenager, Miroslav's father began to give up on the idea of God. During the war, he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. And there, he began to hate the idea of God. "As for a being who would allow such suffering to befall human beings," he thought, "if God existed, He deserved to be cursed and spat upon."
In the concentration camp, Miroslav's father met a Christian man, a follower of Jesus, who lived out of a different experience with God. Miroslav writes about this man. Raging hunger, hard labor, and thousands of daily humiliations neither extinguished the sparkle in this man's eyes nor made his hands weary of helping others. And gradually, the two men became friends. And Miroslav's father started to believe the testimony of this strange man who dared to talk about God's power and love in the midst of this hell. That experience of God through his friend changed his ideas about God. "And from that point on until his dying day," Miroslav said of his father, "his faith in God was genuine, deep, and intense."
Maybe you've been around people who experienced life with God like that, but it doesn't seem possible to you. You have all these questions about God: "What was God doing before He created the universe? How can God listen to the prayers of everybody all around the world, all praying at the same time? If God is so powerful and so good, why doesn't He stop some of these things? Why doesn't He stop all of these evil things from happening?" I've got all these questions. I can't even grasp the idea of God. How am I supposed to experience God?
The good news is you don't need to grasp the idea of God in order to experience God. And in some cases, grasping for ideas about God can do more harm than good. Consider the experience of a man named John. John lived years ago. He was born into a Jewish family, in a small fishing village in northern Israel. Unlike most of us, John had ideas about God. Many of his ideas came from the lived experience of his people, the Jewish people, passed down through generations. The Jews knew God to be a personal being. They knew that God wasn't an idea; God wasn't a force; God wasn't a something; God was a someone. And they knew this from experience from the testimonials of others—testimonials from men like Abraham and Moses who spoke with God like a man talks with his friend.
John and his people knew that their God was one of a kind. God had no rivals. God was unlike anything else in all creation. And they knew this from the testimony of Moses in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. They knew how God had created everything out of nothing, how God had destroyed the so-called gods of Egypt in the Exodus, how God had called His own people to turn away from their false gods, that is, from their own ideas about what God should be. John and his people knew from experience that God, the true God, is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, full of steadfast love and faithfulness. Because in their Torah they carried the testimony about how God had stayed faithful to them, even when their own ideas brought out the worst in them. This was John's experience with God.
And then John met this Rabbi, Jesus from Nazareth. And for three years, John listened to Jesus teach. He followed Him around as His student. He watched Him work. He watched Him raise a man from the dead. John was there when Jesus was crucified. He saw Jesus bleed, pierced through the side with a spear, and he saw where they buried Him. And three days later, John saw Jesus alive again. And because of this experience, John had to rethink his ideas about God.
Jesus confirmed some of John's ideas, others He expanded, and others He turned on their head. Jesus confirmed that God isn't a something. He's not a force; He's not an idea. Jesus called God "Father," an idea that Jews were familiar with. But Jesus took it further. God's Fatherhood wasn't just an idea for Jesus. God's Fatherhood was His personal, eternal lived experience. Before creation, God wasn't alone. From eternity, God has a Son. From eternity, God is a Father. It's in His nature. Just like stars by nature give light, just like people by nature speak words, God by nature is a Father. And He has a Son. And they've been together forever in the power and love of His Spirit.
Jesus confirmed that God is the Creator, infinitely higher than all creation, but He also turned this idea on its head. And in the end, this is what got Jesus crucified. Jesus claimed that He is the Creator who became a creature. Jesus claimed that He is the immortal God who became a mortal man. He is the highest who became the lowest. Jesus said that God, His Father, sent Him into the world for us to save us from our ideas, even in some cases, our ideas about God, so that we might experience life with God.
John wrote down this testimony in a book after Jesus was risen from the dead. Listen to how he opens his book.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. And the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things came to be. And nothing came to be without Him. And what came to be in Him was life. And His life was the light of humankind. The light is shining in the darkness. And the darkness has not been able to grasp it. It came to be a man was sent from God. His name was John. (Side note: this is not John himself he's speaking of, but a different John. John from the hill country of Judea, John the Baptist.)
A man was sent from God. His name was John. John came as a witness to testify about the Light so that through Him, all people would believe. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the Light. The true Light, the Light that shines on all people was coming into the world. He was in the world. And though the world was made through Him, the world did not know Him. He came to His own people, but His own people did not receive Him. But to those who did receive Him, to those who are trusting in His Name, He gave them the power to become children of God. The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory. The glory of the only begotten Son sent from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John the Baptist testified about Him. He cried out, "This is the One about whom I spoke. The One who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me." From His fullness, we have all received grace upon grace, because the Torah was given through Moses. Grace and truth, steadfast love and faithfulness came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. But God, the only Son, who is at the Father's side, He has made Him known.
For as long as I can remember, I have liked the idea of friendship. But when I was in the second grade, I had a real friend. A flesh and bone friend who bled a lot when I accidentally hit him in the face with a golf club. His name was Chad. Chad had never golfed before, and so I wanted to show him how. I hadn't golfed much. I was only in the second grade, but I figured that I had the general idea of it. "Hey, Chad! Watch this!" I said, taking aim at the ball I had just teed up. Now, maybe he'd never seen anyone swing a golf club before. And so he didn't have a good idea about how far away you should stand so as not to catch the backswing with your face. And I really didn't have any idea what I was doing either or else I would've checked to see how close he was standing before I started my swing.
For two weeks, Chad had the worst black eye I'd ever seen. And in my second grade mental picture of ideal friendship, I never saw anything like that. A real friend. A friend who stayed my friend, even though I had wounded him. I had no idea a friend could be like that. My experience with real friends continues to shape my ideas about friendship. So also my experience with God shapes my ideas about God. I have yet to fully grasp the idea of God, and I'm not sure I ever will, but here's what I have experienced. I have a Friend in Jesus. People who follow Jesus baptized me. They testified to me. They told me that God had adopted me, and that I would always be one of God's children, and that God would always stand by me. And they have stood by me. Even though my ideas often bring out the worst in me. The ideas that still possess me are the same ideas that once cursed God, spit on God, and made God bleed.
But it was God's idea to raise Jesus from the dead. It was God's idea to give Jesus as a true Friend. It was God's idea to give life upon life and grace upon grace. This isn't just an idea. It's my experience, and it's for you as well.
Would you pray with me? Father God, You sent Your Son, Jesus so that we may have life to the full. Let me also experience this life because He lives and He reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
No Reflections for December 20, 2020
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" arr. Nathan Drake. From The Soul Felt Its Worth by Nathan Drake (© 2020 reawakenhymns.com) Used by permission.
"Oh, Be Joyful, Earth and Sky" arr. Jan Bender & Henry Gerike. From Magnificat by the Concordia Seminary Chorus (© 1994 Concordia Seminary Chorus)
"Infant Holy, Infant Lowly" arr. Mark Shepperd & Peter Reske. From Hymns for All Saints: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)
"Lift Up Your Heads, You Mighty Gates" arr. John Behnke. From For All Seasons, vol. 3 (© 2004 John Behnke)