“God Is Sovereign…Or Not?”

 

~ Mark 9:30-37/1 Corinthians 1:19-31 ~

 

Flying across the country at 30,000 feet when suddenly the plane hits turbulence, jerks violently and drops precipitously. Spontaneously I pray, “God save us!” When the plane finally lands I heave a sigh of relief, thanking God for the protection. But then I stop to consider those whom God did not protect, those planes that did crash, killing everyone. Why didn’t God save them?

The survivors of the hurricane are interviewed, thanking God for sparing their homes and their lives. But then the camera pans out and we see total devastation all around and wonder, why didn’t God spare their homes and their lives?

A loved one has a cancerous brain tumor. Appeals for God’s people to pray go out on social media. The subsequent operation is a success and, praise God, she recovers. Yet we can’t quite bring ourselves to think about all those who don’t get healed and have to live and die with the invasive cancer.

Children are forcefully removed from their parents. Children are slaughtered in Rwanda and the Congo and Sierra Leone and we cry out, “How, God, can you allow these atrocities to happen to innocent children?”

We remember the Holocaust and think, “God has a lot to answer for that one!”

In our traditional understanding of God, possible explanations for God’s role in the travesties of life are offered. One is ‘there is no God’. Another is ‘God really isn’t good after all’. Or another: ‘For the sake of our personal freedom, God could have but didn’t’. Or, ‘it’s all Satan’s fault’. Or one that is often offered: ‘God’s ways are unfathomable, so just trust Him’. All pretty dubious, if you ask me.

Instead, I wonder if maybe our view of God is too big, that maybe God is not, after all, sovereign, in control of everything, the ‘Almighty’. Rather, I wonder if we should think of God as ‘small’. Indeed, maybe we should consider God as ‘weak’. Let’s explore.

Evidently Jesus preferred small things – a touch, a gesture, a simple “your sins are forgiven,” a parable about mustard seeds, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.”

His disciples didn’t care for small things. They liked big things. So, they were very impressed with the temple’s “large stones” and “large buildings.” And here, in Mark, we see them arguing amongst themselves as to who of them was “the greatest.” They were really into “big.”

Jesus? Not so much. He was into “small.” Like children. Now, usually when we encounter this passage where Jesus takes a small child into his arms, we focus on how we should welcome children. And that is a good emphasis. But today I want us to see something more. Notice how he compares himself to a child. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me…” He compares himself to a child. But he doesn’t stop there – “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” He compares God to a child! In some way children, Jesus and God are all similar – maybe even identical?

Instead of thinking of God as ‘almighty’ and ‘glorious’ and, well, big, Jesus seems to be saying, God is a ‘child’, God is ‘little’, God is a ‘servant’. ‘God is small’! Maybe our idea of God is too big!

There was a time in my life when I could have become a Lutheran. I read a lot of Martin Luther’s works. Lots! And, whereas I found some of his attitudes (very ugly anti-Semitism) and behaviors (supporting the princes over against the peasants) despicable, I found his theology to be quite compelling. This beer-drinking, uncouth German struggled with a super-sized, super-oppressive God much as I did. Throughout his life he felt the heavy burden of sinful unworthiness under the scorching gaze of a vindictive and wrathful judge.

In my reading of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, I came across an astounding idea: “You must not climb up to God, but begin where He began – in his mother’s womb, he became human.” “If you ask how God may be found…know that there is no other God besides this man Christ Jesus. Embrace Him, and forget about the nature of God.” In light of his own inner spiritual turmoil and self-condemnation, he wrote: “There is nothing more dangerous than to speculate about the incomprehensible power, wisdom, and majesty of God when the conscience is in turmoil over sin. To do so is to lose God altogether because God becomes intolerable when we seek to measure and to comprehend His infinite majesty.” In other words, don’t think God; think Jesus.

And, as the Apostle Paul might say, think ‘weak’! Now, I realize many of us have issues with Paul. Somewhat misogynistic, a little too full of himself, even self-righteous, quite critical of those who disagree with him – in short, a typical, even if former, Pharisee. We see some of that in the opening of his letter to the church in Corinth. There are issues at the church he will be addressing but here in the first chapter he sets out to establish his bona fides. But he does so in a surprising manner. Instead of the greatness of God he appeals to the foolishness of God. Instead of appealing to the almighty power of God, he appeals to the weakness of God. He says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” He says that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” It is an appeal to weakness, not strength. And he says this because “we proclaim Christ crucified,” which, it appears, was an issue for both Jews and Gentiles, who were, evidently, looking for an almighty, sovereign God. Paul’s message is a bit disarming.

Now, we could look at Paul’s rhetoric and conclude that he is just using hyperbole to make a point, that even if you could conceive of God as weak or foolish it would still be more than the strongest or wisest human. But I think more is going on here. I think Paul is actually saying that God’s dealings with us humans, as seen in the crucifixion itself, is, in some mysterious way, dealing from weakness. God comes to us out of weakness, not out of almighty strength.

For this perspective I am deeply indebted to two authors who have shaped my thinking on this perspective: Douglas Frank in A Gentler God and John Caputo in The Weakness of God.

Caputo declares that “one of the most fundamental and human, all too human fantasies – and certainly one of the most fundamental fantasies of religion – is the fantasy of power.” He goes on: “In this fantasy of divine omnipotence, God will (should, could) arrive on the scene and save us all – from murderous violence or from a killing disease, from invading armies or an invasive cancer.” He concludes: “Everything we know about nature and history teaches us that this is an illusion, a fantasy…”

So, Caputo says that instead of looking for a God of almighty power to save the day, we should look for a weak God, a God who really does not have the power to solve the world’s or our own individual problems by divine fiat. God is weak in the sense that the crucifixion, the death of Jesus, is the epitome of God’s interventional work. In that event we see God’s weakness at work.

Instead of almighty power, Caputo suggests that God’s power is in God’s unconditional promise of presence. God is present in the warp and woof of our daily lives, wooing us, luring us, cajoling us to Godself. God brings to us an unconditional promise of yes. It is a sovereign yes, a powerful yes, an unconditional yes. It is an answer to the evil of our world. Douglas Frank puts it this way:

In the most brutal episodes of human history, God has been present – not in power, the kind that we understand or reach for, but as the humble whisper of love into the hearts of butchers and the butchered. God cannot force us to listen to this “still, small voice” of love, this tender touch of love, much less to answer the call of love in our daily actions. When we ignore the call of love, God can do nothing at all about it – except, of course, continue to whisper, continue to call, continue to touch, continue to be present in the silence. This is the meaning of “God is love.”

Granted, this might not seem very satisfactory. What kind of God is that – a weak God? We want a strong God and we want this God to answer for all the evil God has allowed to run rampant. If we worship a God who can’t intervene in overtly powerful ways, what good is our faith? Lutheran theologian, Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way:

The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death in not worth to be called God at all. Where the suffering of the living in all its manifold forms pierces our consciousness with its pain, we lose our childish confidence and our trust in God.

Jewish writer Elie Wiesel, who survived the hell of Auschwitz as a teenage boy, speaks to the issue in his powerful memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea. Speaking of Auschwitz and Treblinka he says “the barbed-wire kingdom will forever remain an immense question mark on the scale of both humanity and its Creator. Faced with unprecedented suffering and agony, He should have intervened, or at least expressed Himself. Which side was He on?”

Instead of looking to the heavens for an almighty God, maybe we should look to the child. Elie Wiesel suggests as much. In his book Night he tells of the day he and thousands were made to watch two adults and a young boy get hanged. A man behind him cries out, “Where is God? Where is he?” as the boy’s chair is tipped over and he swings by the neck. The inmates were made to walk by the gallows. Wiesel writes (be aware of graphic language):

The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive… For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face.

He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red; his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows…”

Jesus, too, hung on a gallows, at the hands of evil doers. Everyone thought God should send angels to rescue him. Instead we only hear the whisper (the whisper of God?), “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

That is the way of the small, weak God. God acts, but only in the way of pure love: God is continually present in the world, a penetrating living spirit that invades our lives at every moment and at every place – whispering unceasingly into each and every human heart. May our hearts listen to the whispers of love.

Or to put it another way: God offers us the unconditional promise of yes. A covenant of yes. Our response is to answer back with yes. Sign on the dotted line: yes! True, it doesn’t rid ourselves of the evil we see and experience but it is God’s way, the way of weakness, because that is how love works. Amen.

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