Sunday, July 6th, 2014 – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Hebrews 4:14-5:6
Hymns: “America the Beautiful”, “God of Our Fathers”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”
It’s funny how your memory works. You might have a difficult time, when you get up in the morning, remembering where you put your sunglasses, and yet the words from a horrendous One Direction song you heard emanating from a plastic doll the night before are inextricably stuck in your brain. You walk out of Arrowhead Stadium, and you’ll be darned if you can remember where you left your car, but you sure can remember every foul thing that irritating Raiders fan sitting three seats down from you said.
The other things your brain chooses to remember, though…
Like the days immediately after 9/11. It was almost thirteen years ago. I was a sophomore at Northern Arizona University when it happened, woken up before dawn by a friend at the gym who had seen the news pop up on CNN. I still vividly remember detail after detail about 9/11 itself, and then the days that followed – the outpouring of sorrow, the bloodthirsty cries for vengeance, the sheer confusion about who had perpetrated this evil.
One thing, though, that I remember very vividly, one thing that disturbed me, was the people who steadfastly said that the acts of terror were God’s will, or even worse, God’s punishment against America. I remember hearing that and thinking to myself, “How could God ever will for the people on those planes to live out their last moments in sheer terror, knowing that their deaths would be part of a wicked act that would kill many of their fellow Americans? How could God ever will for something that had largely been used for good since its invention – the jet airplane – to be used for such vast evil? How could God ever will that 3,000 people who were just going about their days should suddenly see their lives snuffed out, the good and the bad alike?”
I remember sitting in the TV room in Cowden Hall at Northern Arizona University several days after the attacks. A few of my friends and I had been watching a news report wherein Jerry Falwell had been quoted as saying that the events of 9/11 were God’s judgment upon America. One of my friends had turned the TV off in disgust, but another had said, “You know, it might not be our punishment, but it had to have been within God’s will.” And he said it with such certainty, and I was so repulsed by his statement, that I stood up, said, “You are incredibly full of BS” – although I didn’t say BS – and marched out of the room.
Now, I know that there are some people who truly and steadfastly believe that everything is part of God’s will, that all things are ordained by God, but the idea that God would ordain such an act of unspeakable evil? The idea that God would ordain every occurrence of the mass death of innocent people, of genocides and hurricanes, terror attacks and tsunamis? No way. Not the God I believe in. Not the God of mercy, grace, and compassion of whom we are told by the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
In today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the author tells us of the human nature of Jesus. Jesus, the author says, was just as human as any other one of us. He was given the free will of humanity, and likewise experienced the weaknesses of the human flesh caused by that free will. He resisted the weaknesses, but nonetheless experienced them. God, incarnate in the human flesh of Jesus, has been through every trial and temptation which we as human beings experience. God understands our weaknesses.
Now, this is not to say that God did not understand human weakness before experiencing it in human flesh. The immortal, invisible God only wise that we learn of in the Old Testament was, of course, the creator of human flesh. God would know of each of the tiny details of the human experience. Human beings were, after all, created in the image of God. God understands the way we work, the ways in which we are weak, the ways in which we are strong.
But prior to the time spent on earth by Jesus, God had not personally EXPERIENCED the weaknesses of human flesh, had not experienced the human suffering of a cruel and torturous death, had not experienced the human broken heart of being betrayed and abandoned by one’s closest friends. All these EXPERIENCES would have been something new to God through the earthly incarnation in the person of Jesus, and likely would have changed God in being and in mind.
Oh yes. Definitely changed God.
Now I know that we have long held the belief that God is eternal and unchanging. And in terms of power, in terms of wisdom, in terms of grace, that is all well and good. But in terms of compassion and caring – well, all you need do is look at the God of the Old Testament to see a vengeful, almighty deity whose wrath was poured out on many different peoples for transgressions far surpassed by what we see around the world today.
How could God then experience the weaknesses, the suffering, the broken heart that would’ve accompanied Jesus’ human flesh, and not be changed? Surely not. If God’s only Son would be sent into the world to preach the gospel of the love of God and to lose His own life for the sake of that message, then God could not possibly be so cruel, so cold-hearted as to be unchanged by the human experiences learned through the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.
There are those who would say that to suggest that God would change would be to suggest that God is not perfect. I disagree. Does not our idea of perfection change? Even when something is considered “perfect”, do we not strive for it to be more “perfect”? So too would a perfect God, upon knowing new experiences, adjust in order to continue to be perfect.
Yes, surely God must change. The experiences of Jesus on earth demand it.
And that change is why I cannot imagine that God would mete out such horrific punishments upon God’s own people as a tragedy such as 9/11. If God understands and has experienced the suffering of pain and death, then for God to visit that upon creation would be an act of malice, of evil – of sin.
God doesn’t sin.
But then, of course, we have the flip side of the coin. If these horrific events are not the punishment, not the will of God, then why does God allow them to happen? Why does God not take action to stop them? Why did God not still the storm over New Orleans, why did God not quench the fires in the furnaces of Auschwitz, why did God not smite the terrorists as they charged the cockpit of United flight 93?
Because God must limit God’s own self.
Now I know some of you might be saying, “What? But that makes no sense!” And a lot of the time, it doesn’t seem like it makes sense.
But think about it. In creating us as human beings in God’s own image, God gave us the ability, the mental power, to make our own choices, to decide for ourselves. God has given us free will to live our lives as we see fit. God sent the Son to earth to teach us a way to live our lives that would be pleasing to God and that would lead us into eternal life, but it is our choice to make whether or not to follow Jesus.
And through the human experience of Jesus on earth, God understands that free will. God experienced the anguished thought process that goes along with free will as Jesus agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane over the path He traveled. God saw first hand the choices made by human beings, in choosing to follow or abandon, love or crucify Jesus.
For God to stop these disastrous events that I mentioned would be for God to change the will of God’s own creation. Every action of human beings is the result of a choice made by them. Every event of the earth is the result of natural forces set in motion by God millennia ago. To interfere with those is to interfere with the very nature of God’s own image.
It’s a confusing concept sometimes, and a very difficult one to swallow, but every evil that we experience in this world – it’s not the will of God, it’s the will of man. The will of men who have made horrible, horrible decisions, the will of men who have willfully sinned, the will of men who have decided that they are greater than God.
But God knows. God understands, for God has experienced the weaknesses and suffering of human flesh. That is why, as Hebrews 5:2 says, God deals gently with sinful men and women, because God understands and has experienced the very forces that have led them to sin.
To turn away from the image of a God who commands each thing to happen on earth and recognize a God who allows humanity to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows through the free will that comes of being made in God’s own image – it’s a difficult step to take. But it becomes so much easier when you recognize that God knows your struggles, understands your weaknesses, suffers and grieves alongside you, and rejoices with you in the greatest of times.
Know the God who understands human weakness. See the God who experiences all things with you. Be freed from your bonds of fear, and feel God’s revolutionary love. Let that be your independence day.