Reading: Romans 11: 33 – 12: 2
It’s a question that’s asked quite frequently of people like me. ‘Do you not think, at the end of the day, we all worship the same God?’
The form might slightly vary. Sometimes it’s formed as a statement, or an assumption… ‘sure, we all worship the same God.’ But it’s the same kind of idea.
In my previous pastorate the ministers of our local churches used to lead some RE sessions with students at the local Comprehensive School. Each class would end with a ‘grill a Christian’ Question and Answer session. Every time I was asked some variation some variation on that question.
It sounds straightforward enough. But most of the time, I’ve found, that’s not what they’re really asking. There is another question behind the question. And it’s more about the next life than this one. What they really want to know is is if I believe people who belong to a different religious group are going burn in hell forever.
And those two questions are not the same.
So I would say something like this…
Say both of us have a best friend called Fred. But Fred, you and I have never all been in the same room. Are we talking about the same person? How would you know?
Well you might describe them. You tell me your friend Fred is a ginger-haired, vegetarian, teetotal, Man United fan. I say mine is bald, hates all sport and loves to wash down a Big Mac with a single malt whisky.
Now, I suppose it’s possible that Fred behaves very differently when he is with each of us. But do you think we’re talking about same guy? Would we assume we were talking about the same person just because they shared a name?
So why would we do it with God?
But notice something…
…My answer isn’t really about what religious grouping someone happens to belong to. I remember being asked this question about us all worshipping the same god, back when I was a student minister. This time it was by the lovely Sikh lady who ran the shop across the road from the manse. I said ‘I can’t say for sure that all the people in my church worship the same God…
….And there are only about 30 of us.
So I can hardly be expected to speak for 6 or 7 billion people in the world.’
If we want to know are we worshipping the same God, perhaps you should tell me what your God is like.
I was reminded of that this week when I came across a remark by another (Baptist) minister, with links to the US government, seemed to advocate using nuclear weapons. And I thought ‘I really doubt we’re talking about the same god.’
We’re continuing to explore different aspects or seasons in the spiritual life through the 12 words on the screen. A couple of weeks ago I started on our second word… O.
With this word, we’re thinking about that sense of awe, wonder, worship. It’s almost not a word at all, more like a sound we make or the shape our mouths form, when we see something the English would describe as ‘breathtaking’… O!
Over the next number of months I plan to talk about how all these words form part of a good, healthy, spirituality… even some of the tougher words we’ll reflect on later. But most people of faith would probably agree worship forms part of a healthy spirituality.
But what’s that got to do with how I started?
Well, if we’re going to worship, it’s worth considering why we should do it?
That’s tied in with another question.
What kind of God we’re worshipping?
What is this God like?
Is such a god worthy of worship?
Does he deserve it?
And given what we discover about him, or what he has revealed to us, how then should we worship?
Why worship in the first place?
Why does God want, or command our worship?
Is it because God really needs it?
Is God high-maintenance?
Is God insecure?
Is he constantly demanding our attention?
Does he need us to constantly tell him how much we love him, else he’ll get depressed or angry?
Or maybe God likes to dominate us?
To boss us around?
Is he never happier than when we are grovelling before him?
That’s certainly the impression you would get from some modern atheists. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins writes ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’ There’s lot of big words in there. Even if you don’t know what they all mean you get a sense of what he thinks. This God’s not very nice.
To be fair, Dawkins doesn’t extend that to Jesus. In fact, he quite likes Jesus. He’s impressed with his teaching. But, for Dawkins, the fact that Jesus believed in God is apparently the least interesting thing about him.
In his time, he says, ‘atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness.’
As I read about the God in whom Dawkins doesn’t believe, I find myself thinking ‘I don’t believe in that God either.’
And as for his view of Jesus, well, his only sources are the same ones you or I use. The Gospels. As I look at them I see no evidence of Jesus rebelling against this God. He quite simply doesn’t think God, or Yahweh is like that.
I very much doubt too many people who call themselves Christians would read about the god described in The God Delusion and say ‘yup, that is the God I believe in.’
But sometimes the way I’ve heard him described is a bit too close for comfort. God is all too often described as really angry, but Jesus calms God down. He says “I’ll take their punishment instead, God!” I’m sure it’s not really intended, but the message subtly delivered in such a Gospel is not that God loves us and wants to rescue us. It’s that God is someone we need to be saved from. Jesus somehow saves us from that God.
A Catholic priest was once asked what was the most common problem he encountered in 20 years of hearing confession and without hesitation he replied ‘God.’ He added that very few people, and it’s not just Catholics behave as if God is a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, not as someone worthy of our trust.
I’ve found myself saying this a few times in different setting recently, but for most of human history, gods haven’t been considered nice, good, loving. It’s not been good news when they show up. And 2000 years after Jesus, that sense remains, even amongst those who claim to follow him.
From the Christian perspective, Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. As the letter to Hebrews says at its very start, God has been trying to reach out to us in lots of different ways down through the ages, but finally he has chosen to speak to us through his Son, Jesus. Jesus acts like a lens through which we have to look at the rest of the Bible.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I too look at parts, say, of the Old Testament and think ‘you what?’
Nonetheless, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.
From the Christian viewpoint, if your God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not God.
And this matters. But I’m not thinking in terms of where you’re going in the next life. That’s a totally different question. The kind of God we worship affects the kind of people we become….
… here and now.
I don’t know if anyone bought or has read the book Naked Spirituality which I mentioned at the start of this series, but in it Brian McLaren mentions a study by a neuroscientist called Andrew Newberg and a therapist called Mark Robert Waldman called How God Changes Your Brain.
The parts of your brain which you exercise will come to dominate your thinking and shape the person you become. And Newman and Waldberg suggest that ‘Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain – particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate – where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system which is filled with aggression and fear. It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.’
Sometimes people blame lots of the problems of the world on religion. That’s not the conclusion Newberg and Waldman come to. They conclude ‘the enemy is not religion; the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism and prejudicial fear – be it secular, religious or political.’
But that does give us a hint as to why we worship in the first place.
God does not need our worship.
We do. Worship affects us.
Worship shapes us. And that’s why it’s important to get a right impression of the God we worship. For what we worship, or what our God is like shapes us.
What we truly worship affects how we live. Who we become.
That’s not just new, modern, scientific thinking. You can trace it all the way back to the scriptures. I John 4:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God… because God is love.
We’re loving because our God is like that, our God is shaping us, changing us into his image.
And what is our God like? God is love.
Last time out we looked at awe, wonder, worship, O through looking at creation or creativity. I encouraged you to take time to allow yourself to be wowed. To give space to allow yourself to be filled with awe and allow that to lead you to worship to the creator.
The problem with that is that really that’s a pretty spontaneous thing. We can create opportunities for it to happen, but you can’t really force it. Sometimes you just won’t feel it. And it can be pretty hard to make that space in our day to day, busy lives.
But are there things we can do, practices in our normal, routine of daily living that can help to nurture more awe and wonder in our daily living. I would say there are.
That is what Paul is suggesting we do in the reading we shared from Romans this morning.
Overall he theme of the letter can be summed up as everyone, no matter who they are, is invited into a new relationship with God. We erect all kinds of different barriers to divide us and say we’re not like them, we’re right they’re wrong, we’re good, they’re evil. And Paul says none of them matter to God whatsoever. God loves all of us and has invited all of us into relationship with Himself.
Paul spends the bulk of 11 chapters trying to explain that. He covers a huge amount of ground. He talks about God’s mercy, the ways in which God wants to put us in right relationship with himself, he speaks about the death and resurrection of Jesus, about the role of the Spirit, about God plans for his whole creation, and how even our sin and rejection of God doesn’t get in the way. In fact somehow or other God uses it as part of his rescue plan.
Romans has been interpreted lots of different ways. People have tried to follow some kind of logical flow to what Paul says. It’s not easy. I would suggest that because there isn’t one. It’s not really one big argument. It’s a series of short ones. He tries one analogy after another. One idea seems to work, then he runs into a problem, so he tries something else, but that doesn’t fully express what he’s trying to say either. He tries another idea but there’s a problem with that…
The he hits a sentence which doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well.
‘For God has bound everyone over to disobedience…’
What possible good can follow that?
But he’s not finished, because he adds ‘so that God can have mercy on them all!’
He’s spent 11 chapters trying to explain this stuff and every time he’s tried it’s broken down because every time he realises he’s not doing God’s goodness and mercy justice. It’s like he’s climbing and climbing and climbing and suddenly he reaches a summit, he looks over the edge and the view is far greater than he realised. However wide a picture he tries to create of God’s love and mercy, he just can’t fit it in. It’s wider than he can possible know.
And at this point it’s like he just says ‘I give up’.
It’s like God takes all his analysis, all his explanation, and says yup, that’s all well and good. But why don’t you just face it. You’ll never comprehend it all. As he says elsewhere, he’ll never grasp how high and wide and long and deep the love of Christ really is. So having done his best he gives up on the theology and turns to poetry.
And there it is… that little word… O
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counsellor?”
“Who has ever given to God that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
He realises he’s never going to get his head around it. However merciful he tries to make God, God will always be more merciful. However loving he tries to describe God, he will always be more loving. However good he makes the good news, it’ll always be better than that. All you can do is stop and be filled with awe and wonder and worship. It’s an O moment.
If your God is a tyrant always waiting to punish you that will affect how you worship.
But how should that worship of a God like this express itself?
He doesn’t say ‘in view of God’s mercy make sure you spend an hour a day reading your Bible’
Or in view of God’s mercy make sure you spend your time on your knees praying.’
It’s much more basic than that. Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.
Not offer your mind.
Not offer your spirit, even
Offer your bodies.
You can’t get more basic than that. But what does it mean?
It’s another one of those examples of how the Message puts it so well. Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.
One of the first theological battles that threatened the church in it’s early days was an idea call Gnosticism. I’m not going into it fully but their basic message was that spiritual stuff was good, the physical stuff was bad. This displayed itself in two ways. Some of them would treat their bodies really badly. They would hurt themselves, to show they saw the body as bad. Others thought that because the body was bad it didn’t matter what you do with your body. Anything goes. Christianity and Judaism before it didn’t like that approach. Physical stuff matters. God likes stuff. He made it.
The Gnostics lost the battle, but in some ways won the war. Because right down to the present there is still this divide between sacred and secular. Between spiritual stuff and the rest of life. But God is interested in what we do with our bodies.
I grew up in quite a legalist culture. People for example didn’t drink or didn’t smoke. If you asked people why, if they had a spiritual reason it was because the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. Which was fine. But oddly we never heard much about gluttony. How we treat our bodies matters.
As I prepared and wrote this I realised I need to be challenged on this as much as anyone. I’m not suggesting we return to the kind of legalism I grew up.
But how do we care for our bodies?
In what we eat?
In what we drink?
In exercise (where we can).
In our sleep patterns?
If we think of them as a gift from God, surely part of our acceptance of that gift is to look after ourselves.
Last time out I mentioned that a good definition of worship is ‘I am not in control… and it’s wonderful.’ Worshipping God with our bodies might involve thinking about how we go about our day. To recognise that all of life is lived in the presence of God.
One practice that might help us is to give God the first or at least an early word in the day. I’m not talking about hours of prayer at the start of the day. But I imagine we at least have those moments;
perhaps whilst waiting for the kettle to boil,
whilst we’re stood in the shower,
cleaning our teeth,
stuck in that traffic jam whatever.
Just take a moment to thank God for the gift of the new day.
Thing is that can all too quickly fade by coffee break. A practice that has always been part of the Christian tradition is the idea of fixed hour prayer. In the early years of the church it was encouraged to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, at fixed points. I know some people who set an alarm to remind them to say even just one or two sentences of praise and thanks to God.
If that seems a bit overzealous for you, what about meal times? Perhaps you might find the practice of saying grace at meal times helps to put you in touch with the one from who the good things in your life come.
It might be last thing at night, as your head flops onto the pillow and you offer to God what’s gone well, or not so well throughout the day. You say ‘I might fall asleep?’ Perhaps. But how many parents feel bothered about their child falling asleep in their arms? Why should God be any different?
None of this is prescriptive. I’m not saying you should and must do all or even some of them.
Really it’s something we need to figure out for ourselves. Patterns that suit me won’t suit you. Your routine is different to mine. But they’re all ways of acknowledging that there is a God and you’re not it.
One practice, and I realise that in many ways I’m preaching to the converted here, that is relevant here is Sabbath. You might expect a minister to say that, but it is true. Work and rest in balance makes us healthy. I’m not even saying it has to be a Sunday. Mine isn’t.
But the mere act of stopping can be an act of worship. Because it is a way of recognising that the whole world does not depend on you.
You stopped and the world kept spinning.
However the flip side of that is also important. Our work. Back when I worked in other non-church environments, one of the things I used to think did a lot of harm to people’s witness was when they didn’t put the effort into their work. When they made bad employees. Your work can also be an act of worship, if you do it as if you were doing it for God. Offer it up to him, saying what do you reckon? God isn’t one of those parents who, when you get 99% wants to know all about the one you got wrong. God takes delight in us, when we offer the best we can.
Whatever ways we choose, there will be times when it feels routine and ritualistic. That’s ok.
Sometimes you’ll wonder if it makes any difference whatsoever. That’s fine.
But trust me, over time it will start to make a difference to you. They create little windows which give you space for a bit of awe, wonder, worship. A bit of O.
And that is healthy. And if you stick with it, it will start to shape the person you’re becoming.