May 23, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I want you to imagine for a minute that you are an artist and someone has hired you to paint a picture of God. Now, I know the Ten Commandments tell us not to make any images of God but I want you to imagine not only that you are an artist but that you are an artist who has no religious morals. The patron is willing to pay you a lot of money to violate the commandment against image making and so you have decided to accept this assignment. Moreover, in this imaginary assignment, whatever you produce will hang on the walls of a cathedral where it will influence the faith of millions of people so you will want to nail this image; you want to create a painting that will communicate the essence of the character of God. So get out your imaginary supplies and sit down at your imaginary easel and prepare to paint your picture of God. What are you going to put on that canvas?
Although the cartoon version of God usually shows God as an old bearded white man, I’m guessing that few of us are going to go that route. We will most likely choose to paint a more symbolic picture of God. If that’s the way you want to go, what symbols are you going to use? What colors and shapes come to mind when you think about the character of God?
Or maybe instead of painting God per se, you might decide to paint a scene conveying your experience of God. If so, what scene would capture the essence of God for you? Would it be a nature scene? A biblical story? A scene with Jesus in it and if so, which one? Which story of Jesus most conveys your understanding of how you experience God in him?
I want to give you a second to mull that over in your mind, and I know a second isn’t long enough for what is an extremely challenging task but I want you to pay attention to the first sorts of things that pop into your head when I ask you to imagine trying to capture the character of God on canvas.
Ok, time’s up. Put down your imaginary paints. Now, this was admittedly an impossible assignment but if we shared some of the things that popped into our minds as we considered trying to depict the character of God, we would see some common themes. I know this is the case because I googled “Images of God” and discovered that there are certain images that repeat themselves, certain things that bring God to mind for a lot of people. My google search, for example, brought up lots of pictures of clouds broken by rays of light, and mountains backlit by the brilliant orange of a setting sun, of sparkling light on the rippling water of a brook, and many paintings of Jesus with light spilling out all around him. For many people, God is light in our darkness and this theme of God as light has been repeated by artists throughout history as they tried to capture on canvas the essence of who God is. A google image search also turns up many familiar symbols and metaphors for God: artists have painted God as a shepherd, as a lighthouse over a stormy sea, as a compass, a guiding star, or a house standing stalwart against the rain. Those who choose to show God as Jesus often paint him welcoming the children, calming the waves, or holding out a hand in compassionate welcome.
If your imaginary painting of God, then, depicted God as light, love, peace, beauty, calm, gentleness, quiet, rest, and caring, you stand well within the tradition of Christian images of God. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” we sing trusting that God is the one who will protect us from the storms that rage; God will help us to stand when we are weak, heal us when we are broken, and comfort us when we mourn. These are all important ways we experience God and Christ, and it is no wonder that these themes find their way into our imagery of the divine.
Nowhere, however, in my google search for images did I see the God of Pentecost. In Acts 2, the Spirit of God descends upon the apostles in a rush of a violent wind filling the entire house. We are talking the howl of a hurricane rattling the windows and shaking the floorboards. And this gale force wind is followed by fire burning over the heads of the apostles, and striking their minds with such force that they break out in uncontrolled speech. Maybe Elijah had to wait out the wind, earthquake, and fire before he could hear the still small voice of God, but the apostles went in the opposite direction; they were quietly praying waiting for that still small voice to speak when suddenly wind and fire rushed upon them, and their lives were shaken to their core.
The God of Pentecost is not a fortress from the storm; the God of Pentecost is the storm.
Classic Christian doctrine describes the Holy Spirit as one of the aspects or manifestations of God, and I like to think of the Holy Spirit as God’s pushy side. Most of the time in our lives, we will experience God as that place of quiet rest where we can find the comfort and renewal we need for our weary souls, but the book of Acts reminds us that God is more than our personal therapist. God has a vision for the world and calls us to participate in making that vision into reality, which means that if we are to be faithful disciples, sometimes it is we who will have to conform to God’s needs rather than God conforming to our needs. On that first Pentecost, the disciples were gathered in prayer and most likely, their prayer was something like, “God, we feel so lost without Jesus. We are confused and frightened. Come and calm our fears. Come and soothe our troubled souls. Come so that we might feel Christ’s healing presence with us once again.” These are, after all, the kinds of things we most often say when we kneel together in prayer. But God didn’t need disciples with calm quiet souls that day; God needed men and women who were fired up, stirred up, shaken up, unable to rest because they were determined to get out into the world and turn it upside down with the amazing good news of grace. God knew that those men and women would need a lot of steel in their souls to survive the trials they would face; they would need a burning yearning in their hearts that would keep them going in spite of the obstacles they would encounter. And so God came to them as wind and fire to grab them by the lapels and sweep them up from their quiet prayers to drive them out into the world.
The Bible warns that there will be days when God comes to you not as as a comforting presence but as a pushy demanding Spirit saying, “Hey, there is work to do. Are you with me or against me?” The Holy Spirit is the God who doesn’t ask if you would like to change but insists that you must change; who doesn’t listen to your excuses but waves them aside saying, “You can do this.” The Holy Spirit is the God whose eyes gleam with excitement over some crazy idea and keeps assuring you it will all work out if you’ll just show a little trust. The Holy Spirit is the most demanding annoying alarmingly confident insistent persistent face of God who at this moment isn’t here to offer you peace but is here to use you to shake up the world.
And the Holy Spirit is the most neglected face of the Trinity in our mainline churches, probably because we would rather be comforted by our faith than changed by it. In the story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples, they suddenly are able to speak in languages they had not known before, and while we often focus on the miracle of this sudden ability, we miss the crucial point: it is the disciples who are changed by the Spirit, not the crowds. God doesn’t open the ears of the crowds so that they are able to understand the disciples’ message; God changes the disciples so that they are able to speak the languages of the people. And this is only the first change that they will have to accept as the Holy Spirit leads them in the work God has called them to do. The Holy Spirit pushes them further and further out of their comfort zone as it calls them to accept Roman centurions, eunuchs, women, and Gentiles into the church. And what is even harder, instead of telling these strangers that they need to conform to the ideas of the disciples, God demands that the church listen to the ideas and needs of the newcomers. The first century church was anything but orderly and peaceful — it was chaotic, argumentative, and undeniably stressful as this diverse group of Christians from across the ancient world tried to learn how to live with one another in faith. In order to bring the good news to the world, God needed men and women who were willing to let go of their assumptions, their prejudices, their ways of doing, and their ways of thinking in order to welcome others. The disciples had to first allow themselves to be changed if they were going to be able to change the world.
Change is hard and most of us resist it. I read recently of a company that decided it needed to be more reflective of the diversity of today’s society and so it created a cultural diversity program in its hiring practices. It went out of its way to interview people of color, people of a variety of sexual and gender identities, and people from other countries and cultures. Very soon, the company was able to proudly tout its diverse workforce as an example of their open welcoming attitude. Unfortunately, they discovered they had a new problem — their employee retention rate plummeted. Their new hires didn’t stay long, usually leaving of their own accord to seek other opportunities. As the company investigated the cause for the turnover, they learned that though they had hired a diverse workforce, they had insisted that the new employees conform to the already established culture of the company. New ideas and new ways of thinking were rejected out of hand and the new employees were simply expected to get on board with the way things had always been done. Eventually the new employees became frustrated with their lack of voice and sought employment elsewhere.
I don’t need to name this company because it could be any one of hundreds of companies today in America. It could be any of thousands of churches in America today. It could be any one of us right here in these pews today. We want to welcome new faces into our worlds as long as they are the ones who change to conform to our way of being and thinking. The Holy Spirit, however, demands that we be the ones willing to change; that we become new people so that we will be able to bring new life to others.
And in so doing, the Spirit promises, we will find new life for ourselves.
“Change is hard,” one author writes, “because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”
I’m going to read that again because this is the gospel in a nutshell.
“People overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.”
The Holy Spirit is the pushy face of God asking us to trust in God’s leading us in new directions, to trust that what God asks us to give up for the sake of others will bring new life not only to them but to us as well.
Our world is desperately in need of people who are willing to open our minds and our hearts to new ways of thinking. Our world is desperately in need of people who are willing to be changed in order to bring welcome and the possibility of new life to those who have been shunted aside by the conventional mores of our society. Our God needs disciples willing to fight for justice for all people, willing to listen to those who have been silenced, and willing to demonstrate the all-embracing love of Christ which is for every person. The God of Pentecost needs men and women who are fired up, stirred up, shaken up, and unable to rest because we are determined to get out into the world and turn it upside down with the amazing good news of grace.
May the God of Pentecost fall upon you this day and shake you to your core. May you be set aflame with the fire of the Spirit to do the work of the spirit in the world.