The Only True God
May 22, 2005
Do you know what sin is attacked more than any other in the Bible? I bet if I took a survey today, very few would get it right. It is the sin of idolatry. The very first of the Ten Commandments is “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have false gods (you shall have idols) before me.” It seems that in the long history between Israel and God, Israel was frequently tempted to turn away from the one true God, Yahweh, and to begin to worship the pagan gods of their neighbors. When things were going poorly, when the Jewish people could not understand what Yahweh was about, they were always tempted to believe that if they worshipped another god, if they worshipped one of the idols of stone or wood, their lives would be better. Perhaps the idol could provide something which Yahweh could not. Therefore, the Hebrew prophets were always railing against the worship of false gods. The pages of the Bible are filled with oracles that condemn idolatry.
Now, you might think that idolatry has very little to do with us today. After all we are not inclined to worship gods of wood or stone. Yet the temptation to idolatry remains a real threat to our lives, because at its heart, idolatry is accepting as God something that is not God. It is worshipping a false god, rather than the true God. Although we do not tend to worship idols of wood or stone, every time we accept a false idea of who God is, we create a false god and we engage in idolatry. Such a temptation is real. We are always inclined to create God according to our own image. We would like to believe that God thinks the way we think, that God would make the same choices that we would make, that God would view the issues of the world and evaluate them as we would evaluate them. But the truth is, God is different than us and greater than us. God is pure spirit. God is all-powerful. God is eternal. God does not think the way we think or make the choices that we make. God does not evaluate everything in the world the way we would evaluate it. Yet, every time we try to shrink the idea of God down to a size that we can understand or control, we create a false god and engage in idolatry.
The only way to prevent this tendency to create false gods is to constantly remind ourselves that God is transcendent, that God transcends us and the world in which we live. God is greater than anything we can think or imagine. Here is where the Feast that we celebrate today, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, proves so useful. At the heart of our faith, we believe that God is One. There is only one God. Yet at the same time, we believe that God is three divine persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. It is impossible for us to imagine how God is the way that God is. How is God one and three at the same time? I have no idea. What the Doctrine of the Trinity does is remind us that God is different than us, greater than us. In so doing, the Doctrine of the Trinity asserts the transcendence of God.
All this talk about idolatry and Trinity and transcendence can seem rather remote and heady. Yet believing in the transcendence of God has a number of practical and helpful consequences. Let me mention two. Those who believe in the transcendence of God know that they do not need to understand. They also know that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving.
Those who believe in the transcendence of God know that they do not need to understand. When something tragic happens in our lives, when we have a miscarriage, when we discover we have cancer, when thousands of people are killed in an earthquake, we want to understand. We want to try to explain how these evils are a part of our world. Yet every effort to explain runs the risk of creating a false god. In our efforts to explain, we say, “this happened because God was trying to punish me,” or “God was trying to teach a lesson,” or “God was angry.” All of these explanations do in some sense explain what happened, but they do so at the cost of creating an idol, a god who is different from the way that God is. Those who accept the transcendence of God understand that they do not need to understand. They continue to proclaim a good and saving God even though they do not understand how God can allow these evils to happen in our world. Knowing the transcendence of God, they are more comfortable in saying they do not understand than creating a false god. They accept transcendence over idolatry.
Those who believe in the transcendence of God also know that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving. God’s love is radically different than human love. We love other people because they are good and because they love us in return. God’s love is not limited to such categories. When people attack us, abuse us, or manipulate us, our love ceases. At times we must place boundaries so that we are not hurt again. But God’s love is different. God’s love does not have the limitations of human love. God can and does love everyone. God loves our enemies. God loves us, even when we are wrong and selfish. God can do this because God is different than us and greater than we are. Those who accept the transcendence of God understand that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us.
We believe in a transcendent God, in a God who is greater than any thing we can think or imagine. This is Good News, because we do not, after all, want a God who is just like us. We want a God who is so good and great that we cannot completely understand God. We want a God whose love is so free and powerful that nothing we can do can stop God from loving us. Such a God is beyond our comprehension. Such a God is no idol. Such a God is not the creation of our best intentions. Such a transcendent God is the only true God—the only God worthy of our love and adoration.
What God Is Not
May 18, 2008
John 3: 16-18
Fifteen centuries ago, St. Augustine, one of the great thinkers of our tradition, was grappling with the mystery of the Trinity. Augustine was trying to discover an idea or an image that would explain how there could be three persons in one God. As he strained to do this, he decided to take a break and walk along the beach of the city of Hippo where he was bishop. As he felt the warm sun and the cool ocean breeze, he noticed a young boy running back and forth on the beach. The boy had a small bucket and was filling the bucket from the ocean and running over and pouring it into a small hole which he had dug in the sand.
“What are you doing?” Augustine asked.
The boy stated proudly, “I’m taking all the water from the ocean and pouring it into this little hole.”
“That’s impossible,” said Augustine.
The boy shrugged and continued on with his play.
Then Augustine realized that he was that boy. He was trying to do the impossible. He was trying to take the infinite vastness of God and pour it into the small hole of his finite mind.
It is impossible for us to come up with an adequate image of who God is. Every attempt to do so will be inadequate. Every thing we say is but a glimpse of God’s real being. On the feast of the Trinity, I would like to explain to you how there can be one God in three divine persons, but I can’t. I would like to present you with a picture of what God looks like, but that is impossible. I would like to tell you who God is, but every effort I would make would be inadequate. So since I cannot do the impossible, I would like to offer you something else. Since I cannot explain to you what God is, I would like to preach on what God is not.
God is not anything which keeps you from God. Any image of God which alienates us from God is wrong. God is not like that.
We call God, Father. But if we think of God as a demanding father whom we cannot please, we are wrong. God is not like that. Or if we think of God as an indulgent father who places no responsibility on us, who never asks us to grow or change or serve, again we are wrong. God is not like that.
We call God, Son. But if we think that by calling God, Son, we are discovering a maleness within the Trinity, then we are wrong. Because God, Father, Son and Spirit is beyond any sexual differentiation or gender. God is not male or female. God does not have sexuality. God is not like that.
We call God Spirit. But if we think that by calling God Spirit discover that God is illusive or unable to touch us in our lives, then we are wrong. God has the power to move our souls in their concreteness, to move us with the beauty of a sunrise or the depths of human love. Although God is spirit, God is able to touch us concretely. God is not illusive or aloof. God is not like that.
We call God, Creator. But if we think that by being creator God is so preoccupied with the running of the cosmos that God has no time for us, we are wrong. The same God that makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine is interested in our every need and our every joy. God is not too busy for us. God is not like that.
We say that God is all good, all holy. But if we see God’s holiness as a means to keep us distant from God, we are wrong. Despite God’s supreme perfection, God, nevertheless, embraces us and calls us into union even with our flaws and sins. God is not too holy for us. God is not like that.
So every image of God which keeps us from coming to God is wrong. It is an illusion, an error resulting from our inability to see God as God really is. When we take away all of those obstacles and all of those errors, all that’s left is an invitation: Come to God. Come and share in the life of the Trinity. Come to a God who is beyond our ability to comprehend. Come to a love that is deeper than the ocean, a love beyond our ability to imagine.