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innersanctum
the deepest recesses of the heart, the place where we seek solace
Sermon: The Power of God 8 February 2015 
8th-Feb-2015 01:55 pm [christianity, sermons]
The Power God
Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Rev Miak Siew
February 8, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31
40:21 Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
40:22 It is God who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;
40:23 who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
40:24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when God blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
40:25 To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
40:26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? God who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because God is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
40:27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"?
40:28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.
40:29 God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
40:30 Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
40:31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

147:1 Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
147:2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem; God gathers the outcasts of Israel.
147:3 God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
147:4 God determines the number of the stars; God gives to all of them their names.
147:5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; God’s understanding is beyond measure.
147:6 The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; God casts the wicked to the ground.
147:7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.
147:8 God covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.
147:9 God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.
147:10 God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor God’s pleasure in the speed of a runner;
147:11 but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear God, in those who hope in God’s steadfast love.
147:20c Praise the LORD!

I have used God instead of male pronouns as I see God more than just male and/or female – and being gender neutral is a more helpful way of understanding God.

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Last week, I heard from Rev Yap that a few folks went up to him with some questions after his sermon and were very concerned about him saying that God is not in control, God is not all-powerful.

It mattered enough to him that he called me to ask if we can set up a session to allow folks to engage with the preacher to clarify some points that were made. He sensed there was something to do pastorally – something my friends told me before – if we are to deconstruct the God we knew, then what God is left?

Today’s lectionary readings from the Hebrew Bible – the passage from Isaiah and the Psalm both talk about a God who “covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.” and says “To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.” and “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”

Yes, God is mystery, and we cannot know and fathom God completely. But there is a difference between acknowledging the limits of our understanding of the mystery of God, and laziness. I hear so often people say “God moves in mysterious ways,” “God’s understanding is unsearchable,” when they actually mean “I don’t want to think about that.”

Recently, UK comedian Stephen Fry, during an Irish TV programme, called God “evil, capricious, monstrous maniac.”

In his imaginary conversation with God, Fry says he would tell him: “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right.

“It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?”

Pressed by Byrne over how he would react if he was locked outside the pearly gates, Fry says: “I would say: ‘bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’

“Because the God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”

Did that make you uncomfortable? I hope it did. It has made people uncomfortable long ago, and it continues to make us uncomfortable. This is the basic question of theodicy that people have struggled with for ages.

Theodicy – how do we make sense of an omnipotent God who is good and benevolent who allows the existence of evil? Where is God when religious extremists are beheading people and setting people on fire? Where is God in people’s suffering and despair?

There are a few ways to wrestle with this – either we say God is not omnipotent – that is all-powerful, or we say God is not good and omnibenevolent, or we say evil is not really evil because somehow, beyond our understanding, that evil serves a higher purpose. And some people will add on – God is all-powerful, but God is not in control because God gave up control – like the driver leaving the driver’s seat.

I want to present how I understand things so far. I would like to invite you to think about it, take some time to mull over it. I did not arrive where I am overnight – I took a while to reflect and develop my ideas and my beliefs about God.

That God that Stephen Fry condemns? I don’t believe in that God either.

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. “

Look around in creation. I have always been fascinated with the stars, with the cosmos, with nature. I certainly do not agree with biblical literalists that the world was created in seven days. I see the universe unfolding in a scale I cannot comprehend – in the scale of billions and billions and billions of years. Even you and I – we were not created in an instant – we spent 9 months gestating in our mothers’ wombs. Even our planet, young in comparison with the age of the universe is billions of years old. The Grand Canyon, one of the most marvelous sights I have beheld, exposes two billion years of geological history of the earth.

God, the creator, is powerful. But all this takes time. God did not wave God’s finger and everything miraculously formed at an instant. When people say, “nothing is impossible with God,” I often wish they would qualify that and add “in God’s time.”

When we say power, we talk about the kind of power that reflects our innermost desires – the kind of power that gives us what we want, immediately. Power that is instant. Power that allows us to control other people to do what we want. Power to make things happen the way we want. When people say “nothing is impossible with God,” I also sometimes wish they would qualify “except the impossible.” God cannot make a circle square, or things to defy gravity.

These words of faith and encouragement can be great in some situations – for people who are feeling down and need a boost to work through their challenges in life. But these words can also be cutting and unsympathetic in some situations. I would not say, “nothing is impossible with God” to a couple who just lost a child. I would not say, “Nothing is impossible with God” to someone facing terminal illness. What do I say then? I sometimes would say “God is with you.” Sometimes I would stay silent – which is rather usual knowing my personality. Though I am silent, I am with folks in their pain and suffering.

Sometimes we wish that God can help us undo our mistakes. Just like gamers would know - restoring saved game when our characters get killed, or we lost the game. But God doesn’t carry us over our problems – God accompanies us through our problems and situations. The cup doesn’t get taken away from us, but God is with us as we take the cup.

Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, wrote an article in The Guardian “I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either” Fraser writes:

"Too many religious people actually worship power. They imagine the source of ultimate power, give it a name (God, Allah, Yahweh) etc, and then try and cosy up to it, aligning their interests with those of the boss. In this they are just the same as many non-religious people, except they believe that ultimate power is metaphysically situated. Whether it be a king or a prime minister or a CEO or God: the temptation is always to suck up to power.

This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby. God poor. God helpless on a cross. God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power. And so the question posed is: which one will you follow when push comes to shove? You can follow what is right and get strung up for it. Or you can cosy up to power and do as you are told. By saying that he will stare ultimate power in the face and, without fear, call it by its real name, Fry has indicated he is on the side of the angels (even though he does not believe in them). Indeed, Fry is following in a long tradition of religious polemic, from Job to Blake and beyond.

Furthermore, this powerless thing subverts Fry’s accusation of God’s iniquity. For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself – and yes, this means we will have to think metaphorically about a lot of the Bible – then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.”

God’s power is not in the power we desire - the kind of power that is power over someone or something. We desire power that provides instant solutions, certainties, absolutes. God’s power is power with, power through. God works through people who align themselves to God’s will. God works through us who seek to collaborate in the unfolding work of creation. God works through us doing ordinary miracles – not the extraordinary miracles like parting the sea.

I don’t see creation as an one-off event that happened a very, very long time ago. I don’t see creation as something that happened in Genesis. I see creation as a continuing process. We talk and sing about God as the potter and we are the clay. The question is – at which point does the moulding stop? At which point is the clay taken to the kiln to be fired? And the firing process – is God involved in that too?

God’s involvement in our lives does not stop. God’s involvement in the universe does not stop. But God’s involvement is not coercive but invitational. God prompts us, but never forces us to do.

God’s power – in my experience – comes through connection.
When we connect ourselves deeply with God – we participate in something larger and beyond ourselves.

Jesus said visit the sick. Last week, Gordon shared that he visited our friend Rose in the hospital – Rose is struggling with pain in her bones because of her leukemia. He noticed that she came alive when people visited her. Something happened when we are connected with each other.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” What he didn’t say, but lived out was to participate in that bending.

When he gave his famous “I have a dream” speech – I wondered if he dreamt that one day an African American would become president of his beloved country. Perhaps that would have been “impossible” in his generation. But he participated with God in the unfolding of God’s will, and sowed the seeds that lead us to this time in history.

We are not there yet. And we can choose to ignore the invitation to join with God in the continuing process of creating the universe. We can, like many people, yield to other temptations and seek out our own self- interest. Temptations that Jesus faced – to turn stone to bread – use our power and our gifts for our own benefit; to take the shortcut to get power and glory and control over the nations through the devil instead of taking the difficult path of the cross.

I believe that God builds up Jerusalem; gathers the outcasts of Israel, heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds, lifts up the downtrodden; and casts the wicked to the ground through our participation and connection in the work of love and justice – our connection to the work of God.

And when we do that, we are connected to something larger and bigger and beyond ourselves. This is the Kingdom of God that Jesus says is within us. God is with us, within us, as well as outside of us. God will give power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The late Rabbi Zalman said something very powerful in one of the many youtube videos – He described what is faith -

“I open myself up to the central intelligence of the universe so that I might live to the purpose for which I was made.”

I had to listen to that again when I watched the video – so I will repeat it again for you - “I open myself up to the central intelligence of the universe so that I might live to the purpose for which I was made.”

This is about surrendering to God, to trust and have faith that through God, we have the power to perform the ordinary miracles that transform the world.

I pray that we may all live to the purpose for which we are made.

147:1 Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
147:2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem; God gathers the outcasts of Israel.
147:3 God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
147:4 God determines the number of the stars; God gives to all of them their names.
147:5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; God’s understanding is beyond measure.
147:6 The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; God casts the wicked to the ground.
147:7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre.
147:8 God covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.
147:9 God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.
147:10 God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor God’s pleasure in the speed of a runner;
147:11 but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear God, in those who hope in God’s steadfast love.
147:20c Praise the LORD!
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