A God of Weakness
A sermon on Genesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:1-18 & Mark 1:9-15
by Nathan Nettleton, 19 March 2000
God will walk with us in suffering and work redemptively within it, but God is not powerful enough to just remove it.
Within the pages of the Bible there is an ongoing debate over the dominant images of God. Different books of the Bible and their different authors champion individual views of God and of the way God acts in the world. This should come as no surprise to us, since what ever else the Bible is, it began as a collection of peoples reflections on God and on how they perceived God to be interacting with them and with others. Im not saying that thats all the Bible is, because quite clearly over a period of centuries the church tossed out those writings which it didnt find to have ongoing power within their life, and so what we have now is a very special collection of writings, but they are still a collection which contain more than one viewpoint about God. Youve only got to ask yourself why weve got four gospels instead of one to see that thats true.
There are some issues that come up over and over throughout the Bible - big questions that different writers wrestled with in different ways. One of those questions is about the nature and extent of Gods power, and another is about how that power is to be understood in light of the prevalence of evil in the world. These are questions that are pushed a bit more into our consciousness during the season of Lent, because the stories we read at this time of year confront us with a God who doesnt simply obliterate evil, but becomes a victim of it. We see God the Son either choosing not to exercise power or being simply powerless in the face of evil. And we must ask, What kind of God is this?
This Sundays readings taken together really give us an opportunity to ask some tough questions about Gods power. The Genesis reading is the conclusion of the story of Noahs flood. The writer of this story attributes absolute power to God. God made the flood happen to deal with the problem of evil in the world. God responds to evil by wiping it out with a mighty act of power. But we may need to question the authors interpretation of Gods actions. You see in this part of the story, God is promising that there will never again be a flood that destroys the earth in such a way. And did God keep his promise? Well, if youre anxious to defend Gods honour you could argue that there has never been another flood like that one, but I bet youd have trouble saying that out loud in Mozambique at the moment. I dont think thats going to be to much comfort to the people there. Unless your theology is good news to a woman giving birth in a tree because her house just washed away, then you need to ask whether it is really good news at all.
If we take image of Gods power from this story and run with it on its own, we have a problem. God ends up looking like a classic abuser. If all floods and other natural catastrophes are truly acts of God then we are left with a God who perpetrates an enormous act of violence on the earth and its people, then in remorse promises never to do it again, but then, as the people of Mozambique or even at the moment Northern Australia, would tell you, does it again and again and again. Ask any social worker - thats the classic behaviour pattern of the violent abuser.
Now we cant escape the fact that there are parts of the Bible, some large parts, that push the view of God as one with absolute power who is the controller of everything that occurs in the world, floods and earthquakes included. That interpretation of God is one that exists within the tradition that we stand in. But it is not the only view in the Bible or in the history of Christian thinking. And I would argue that it is not a view that can go unchallenged in light of Gods self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
Jesus alone in the wilderness is not an image of God exercising control over the details of nature. Forty days, alone, feeling lost, hungry, tempted to give up or change track, struggling with questions like whether the way of power can ever be reconciled with the way of love. Turn this stone into bread.
Even when he emerges from the wilderness and begins his preaching ministry, the shadow of powerlessness, of the cross, hangs over him right from the start, because as mark points out he begins his preaching just after John the baptiser was arrested for doing exactly the same thing. Every time Jesus preaches everyone knows that the same forces that cut off John in his prime could rise up and do the same to Jesus at any moment. Its only a matter of time.
Where is the God of power in the face of this pervasive threat of violence and evil? Where is the God who sweeps evil into the abyss with the flood of his holy anger?
Well perhaps the absence of such a God is actually at the root of the costly challenge we face during this journey of Lent. We are having to choose between two images of God and theyre both flawed. We can choose to believe that God has absolute power and is in control of everything that goes on on earth, but if we do then we will have to face the charge that our God is an abuser. The people of Mozambique and Aushwicz and East Timor will not be forgotten in the question. There was no God of power acting to rescue them and our theology must answer to their experience.
Alternatively we can choose to believe in a God whose power is limited, a God who experiences powerlessness, a God who cannot respond to evil by just wiping it out with an act of power. Why Gods power is limited is not clear. Maybe there is a moral constraint that prevents God exercising an otherwise powerful strength, that is to say that to intervene in power would violate Gods nature as the ultimately loving one. Maybe on the other hand God just doesnt have the strength even if he wanted to exercise it. Maybe floods are natural accidents and God is no more able to change them than we are. If you choose to believe in the God of powerlessness, it makes no real difference which explanation you prefer; they are just speculations and either way, God does not have the power to intervene in everything to ensure that evil always loses and good always triumphs.
The struggle over the nature of Gods power is never simply resolved in the Bible. It continues in the New Testament and our reading from first Peter begins with the image of Jesus suffering and ends with an image of him seated in glory with all other powers made subject to him. And however we resolve the tensions, since God has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ, we have to come to terms somehow with a God who comes to us as a fellow victim of evil and suffering. No simple one sided God of power and might image is really available to us any more.
During Lent we have to wrestle with this painful dilemma for some weeks before we arrive at the revelation of how there is still extraordinarily good news in this. As we eventually move from the Friday of crucifixion to the Sunday of resurrection we will discover the powerlessness of evil power. We will see that even when evil and hatred do their worst, they are not capable of entombing forever love and hope. God may not have the power to prevent evil from doing its worst, but evil does not have the power to prevent Gods best. And for my vote, Id much sooner entrust myself to a God of suffering and resurrection than to a God of floods and earthquakes.
Questions for discussion.
What theories have you heard before that try to explain the failure of an all-powerful God to prevent evil?
How do these various theories accommodate the witness of Jesus apparent powerlessness?
Discuss the sorts of questions, fears and uncertainties raised by the possibility that God is not all-powerful. Do these feelings seem to be part of the story of Lent?
Do you hear some notes of good news in the view that God may be as powerless as us in the face of some things? What and how?