Questioning the Integrity of God
sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17 & John 3:1-17
by Nathan Nettleton, 11 June 2006
The God who we encounter in such different ways is, nevertheless, the one God, and we are called to share in the life of this one God.
It can be very annoying to deal with a person who has an unpredictable and inconsistent personality. You just think you are getting a feel for who they are and how to deal with them and all of a sudden they seem to switch. Suddenly it seems like you are dealing with a completely different person and everything you thought you had worked out about them is out the window. We sometimes call such people "two-faced", and I don't think I've ever heard it said as a compliment. If we get down to analysing what makes a person like this, we often begin to talk about integrity, or the lack of it. We do this especially if what is going on is that there seems to be a radical divide between what people say they are on about and what they actually do. People who talk the talk but never seem to back it up by walking the walk. But we also talk about integrity or a lack of integrity when a person seems to switch behaviours, or almost switch personalities from one minute to the next; when they seem to be driven by competing motivations. One minute they are being driven this way, and then suddenly they switch and something else takes over, driving them that way. Now we all have competing emotions and motivations, but healthy people have managed to integrate them into a more harmonious whole. That's where the word "integrity" comes from: integrating our various parts. When there doesn't seem to be much integration of the competing drives in a person, we find it hard to deal with them because we have trouble trusting them.
I don't know about you, but I've had times when I've wondered about God's integrity in this regard. There have been times when my experiences of God seem so different from each other that I feel like I'm dealing with a different God. There have also been times when the God I read about in one part of the Bible seems irreconcilable with what I read of God in another part, or with what I am experiencing of God in my own life. Is God being two-faced? Is God lacking in integrity?
Well, if you've had moments of wondering that too, let me reassure you that we are not the first people in history to ask such questions. Greater minds than ours have wondered the same thing. Is God being two-faced? Or even three-faced? And if you've never wondered about such things before, yourself, maybe you are after hearing tonight's scripture readings. How can we integrate these wildly different images of God?
In the first reading, we heard of Isaiah's vision in the temple. His vision is full of the imagery of awesome power and might. God is huge, imposing, intimidating even. The biggest and most awesome building Isaiah's world had seen is dwarfed by this God, and begins to shudder as though it might collapse before the presence of God. The Psalm fitted easily with this, with its images of the mountains shaking before the Lord and the voice of the Lord splintering giant trees. Confronted with the presence of this God, Isaiah screams and falls down and thinks he is going to die. And this isn't because Isaiah is especially sinful or godless; he thinks he is going to die because he is just like everybody else, but in the presence of this God, being normal feels like it is a recipe for a death sentence. "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Now such "God of power and might" imagery is by no means uncommon in the Bible, and for many of us, it is not uncommon to our experience of God either. Many of us have had times when we could relate to Isaiah's trembling fear before the Lord. Confronted by God we have felt like God could not possibly make any other response than to despise us and destroy us.
We know that the Apostle Paul was familiar with that experience too. The story of his conversion appears twice in his own writings and once in Luke's writings in our Bibles, and we know he was knocked off his horse and struck blind by a blazing light that left him a helpless quivering mess and totally turned his life upside down. But in the reading we heard from his letter to the Romans tonight, you could be excused for thinking he was talking about some completely different God altogether. He suggests that under the influence of the Spirit of God, rather than be fearful when encountering God, we will be like little children throwing ourselves into God's arms crying "Abba! Daddy! Mummy!" This image came to life for me some years ago when I was standing in a queue in a bank and there was an elderly Jewish gentleman in front of me. While we were waiting there, the doors opened again and a Jewish mother with two small children came in, and one of the children, recognising the elderly gentleman as her grandfather, came running up joyously shouting "Abba! Abba!" It was exactly the picture that Paul paints, and this joyous little kid certainly did not think she was about to fall down and die because of the presence of her beloved grandfather. How are we supposed to integrate this warm inviting image with the awesome frightening image?
And what about the image that Jesus points us to in the reading from the gospel according to John. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." And he ties this promise with the recollection of the story of Moses lifting up the bronze snake and says that the Son must also be lifted up so that the people might be saved. It is a clear pointer to the violent execution of Jesus, strung up on a cross to die. How are we supposed to integrate this image of a God who suffers and dies, apparently helpless before the violence and rage of hate-filled people, with the image of the God who sits inthroned as king forever and whose voice flashes forth flames of fire and thunders over the mighty ocean?
Perhaps the only image in our readings that seems to make sense is the one of the Spirit of God being like the wind - unpredictable, uncontrollable, and totally mysterious. But then this one too, takes us in different directions, because this one is used as an image of empowering us, and drawing us into the Spirit's unpredictable action in the world. So, instead of a God who reduces us to fearful jelly, or a God whose big warm arms have us responding like excited infants, now we have a God who empowers us and awakens us to all sorts of new possibilities.
No wonder we struggle to integrate these apparently conflicting images. And no wonder they have provoked all sorts of speculative solutions down through the years. Some early Christians concluded that they couldn't be reconciled, and that there must be a good God and a nasty God. Some tried to simplify it by saying that the god of the Old Testament was the nasty God, and the God of Jesus was the good God, but in truth the conflicting images appear in both parts of the Bible. Given that the early Christians were surrounded by Greek and Roman cultures with their pantheons of gods, the amazing thing is that they mostly held the line against going for this multiple-god theory. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the doctrine of the Trinity is that the early Church concluded that despite these radically differing experiences of God, there is in fact only one God. And still more amazing, perhaps, is that although they concluded that this one God did in fact exist as multiple personalities, they did not conclude that these three personalities were in conflict with one another or were evidence of a lack of integrity in God. But they didn't give us any easy explanations either. When the Church calls the Trinity a mystery, take it as a tip that you are not likely to solve all the riddles of it any time soon.
What our forebears in the faith did give us, in lieu of simple answers, were some creedal statements that set some boundaries on the discussion by cutting off some wrong ways of trying to think about the Trinity, and some poetic images to invite us into the experience of the Trinity. One of the main images is the image of a dance, a circle dance to be precise. God is a dance of three persons, each distinct, but all moving in beautiful harmony. Were they not dancing, or not relating to one another, the three would not be God. It is the flow and movement of the relationships between them that makes them to be God. Were they to stop relating, to stop dancing, God would collapse and cease to exist. Not that that's going to happen.
And when you combine this image with the call present in what Jesus says about the Spirit being like the wind — the call to us to be caught up and carried along in the wind, in the dance, in the flow of love and life in the Trinity —then you start to get some sense of why we experience God so differently at different points. For although the three are one, they are not identical to one another, and the relationships are different. The relationship of the Father to the Son is not the same as the relationship of the Spirit to the Father, or even of the Son to the Father. To push the dance imagery, if we respond to the invitation to be drawn into the dance, we will experience it very differently depending on where we enter. If we enter the dance in the midst of a movement of the Son towards the Father, we will have a quite different experience than if we enter in the midst of a movement of the Spirit towards the Son.
Or to change from the metaphor of the dance to the metaphor of our liturgy here, you can have a very different experience depending on where you enter it. If you walk in in the midst of the prayers of confession as we fall to our knees and wonder with Isaiah whether the Lord before whom we have sinned will ever let us get up again, you will experience it very differently than if you walk in during the benediction when God is blessing us and commissioning us to be heaven's ambassadors in the world. If you are just going under for the third time in baptism, and wondering whether you will ever come up alive, you will be experiencing it very differently than if the broken body of Christ is being placed into your hands, completely at your mercy. And those of you who have been here for any length of time will know that even if you are present for the whole of the liturgy every week, on any given week it can feel as though the whole liturgy took on the character of any one of those movements. And the person next to you can be experiencing quite the opposite. The movements of the liturgy intersect and overlap with the movements in the life of the Trinity, and what comes to life for you will depend on which movement of the dance you are currently being caught up in.
Christian faith is not about being able to intellectually solve the riddles of the Trinity, but it is about entering, in faith, into the life of the Trinity, into the constant flowing, loving and life-giving movements of the love dance that is our God. And for exactly the same reasons, the point of the liturgy is not getting your head around it, but entering into the experience of it, for somewhere, beyond understanding, these two overlap and the liturgy becomes one of the entry points into the love dance of God.