Sunday, October 15, 2023
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

There are many images of God

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Click here to watch the video

The Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures contains many images of God. I believe that one of the great treasures of the Hebrew Scriptures is that we get to see and experience a variety of images of God. Your image of God is important. Whenever I go to a new spiritual director they always get around to my image of God in the first session whether I’m on a retreat or working with someone over a long period of time. I find it important when meeting with someone for pastoral counseling that I need to find out what their image of God is.

Let me give you an example. I mentioned this a month or so ago but let me repeat for those who didn’t hear this. I met with a couple of women who were involved in leading a grief group for hospice in Sugarland. They want to expand into the Katy area and are looking for somewhere to host the meetings. Now grief work is very important but must be done right. Knowing they were working with material from hospice gave me some confidence, but I wanted to know where they were coming from theologically. A key piece of that is how do they view God and how God works in our world. For example, if they had an image of God as an angry God ready to punish (like we have in today’s passage) I would be very hesitant to allow them to work with people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. A focus on a loving God who can comfort them is key for this work

I want to take a moment and look at the image of God in today’s passage and unpack some of what we hear in this passage. Now it is important to know the author of this section of Exodus. Exodus as a book is made up of work by at least 3 different authors separated by hundreds of years. The J and E writer both contribute and were writing around 900 and 800 BCE respectively and writing of events that were 1000 and more years before they were writing. Several chapters of Exodus just before today’s passage do not belong to these two writers and are by the P or Priestly writer working during the Babylonian Captivity. Ultimately these three accounts are all put into one document by editors who we call redactors after the captivity ends and the Torah in its final form begins to take shape.

Three authors yield three very different images of God. The J writer tends to have an anthropomorphic God. A God with human attributes including anger, jealousy as well as love and interacts directly with people. You can probably assume that what we read today was from this source. This is the author who wrote the Garden of Eden story where God is walking around the garden looking for and interacting with Adam and Eve. The E writer has a transcendent God who works through messengers. Think Abraham and the three angels that come and talk to him and send him on his mission. This is a God up in heaven who does not directly visit earth. An image of great and transcendent power.

The J and the E writer are from very early civilizations writing accounts from the Bronze age. It seems logical to me that their image of God is a product of their time and their culture as influenced by cultures all around them. I have a book of parallel stories from many of the ancient cultures. What this tells me is that all of these cultures had some common understanding of basic truths about religion. But these are at least 5000 years old. There are many things from that period that we don’t accept as “true” given our knowledge today. The Hebrew scriptures are more about how the ancient Israelites understanding of God evolved over 3000 or so years until the time of Jesus.

We see in several places in the Torah, first five books of the Old Testament, especially in Genesis and Exodus which are mostly the J and E writers where humans debate with God and convince God to change God’s mind. Now that causes problems for some people. First of all we have a God that is very human, he is angry to the point of wanting to destroy the Israelites. The angry image of God is something that many people desire. That would be those who want to see people they don’t like punished for their sins. That’s retributive justice. However, if you are a person who wants to see restorative justice, you want a loving, forgiving God who ultimately desires that the relationship between a person or nation and God to be restored. Neither of these are right or wrong, but they are quite different.

If your image of God is one that requires God to be all powerful and unchanging, how do you account for the fact that Moses gets God to change God’s mind? If you believe that God has a plan that’s written in stone, this puts your image of God in a challenging place.

This brings to mind an incredibly important lecture I heard in the 90s by the Rev. Martin Smith. Fr. Smith presented this lecture while he was the abbot of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Boston. This was my first encounter with the brothers who have been important in my spiritual development. I have referenced this before, but it is worth mentioning again. The lecture was entitled Co-creators with God.

Martin said that we co-create with God the world we live in. He states that everybody wants a look in the holy filing cabinet in God’s office. The one where God keeps God’s plans for us. The thing is that he believes that if we were to open the cabinet and find our file, the plan ends at the moment we look at it. It isn’t preordained or predestined. I have a real problem with the idea that God would lay out a plan that leads to the type of destruction we have seen in the past week in the middle east or over the last year in Ukraine. I believe that it is perfectly ok in fact important that we argue with God at times. When life is hard, I think God expects us to argue with him. I’m sure God has heard it all. But then comes the what are we going to do phase.

I wonder if the scene with Moses arguing with God is more about God getting Moses to take action to address the situation than it is a promise that God will destroy the people. What if it isn’t really God who changes his mind, but Moses who figures out what God wants him to do? Is that the right answer? I have no idea but for some people that just might fit their image.

This lecture changed my image and understanding of God at a very important time in my spiritual life. Around this time my spiritual director had me read Marcus Borg’s “The God we never knew.” This short but powerful book is about how Marcus moved from an image of an angry finger shaking God that he learned as a child to a God of love which has been his experience as an adult theologian. I too had to make that journey from a Santa Claus image that I had as a child. He’s making a list, checking it twice. The good boys and girls get the toys and the bad ones get the coal. But as I grew up that simple almost economic relationship of quid pro quo didn’t work and I desperately needed something else to replace it.

So you may say, but Mark isn’t God well God? Well yes God is, but our understanding our image is something that can, and I believe must change and evolve as we grow spiritually. Marcus Borg wrote this in that book I mentioned, “Every time I think I have my image of God figured out, God blows it up and I start again. “ And I have found that so true. My image of God has grown and evolved over the years, and I am fairly sure, I’m not done yet. My ultimate point is not that God changes, but that we change how we view God and how God works. That change continues until as Paul writes in 1Corinthians “we see God face to face.”

So your homework this week is to go and think about your image of God now and maybe look at how it has changed. I’m happy to talk with any of you who have questions. I just really want you to think about this really important question.