Summit Presbyterian Church
October 24, 2010
People are theological creatures. Whatever our beliefs, whether we're Christians or Atheists, Hindu or Bahai, we're built to ask questions about God. Is there one God, or many or none? Who is God and what is God like? What does God do? Atheists may ask: why do people believe in a God that doesn't exist? These questions lead to other questions, and books and pamphlets and tomes have been written to try and answer them. The most learned theologians tell us that the immortal, invisible God only wise cannot be fully captured in words, even when they're words from the Bible. But words point to God, they illumine, they reveal, especially - we believe - when they're words from scripture. So people of all faiths and beliefs read their sacred books, think, write, and talk about God.
Two things seem to happen when we do this. The first and perhaps the most common is that we argue: Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Christians with other Christians, Muslims with other Muslims; and so on. Now theological discussion, even argument, is holy work. It helps us better understand and honor God - we hope. It's important that we testify to what we believe and that we're not afraid to disagree. Jesus had lots of theological discussions that got very heated, even among friends. The trouble comes when we're tempted to condemn those who disagree with us. We may do out of loyalty to God or from a desire to protect others. Speaking falsely about God can lead people astray and even hurt them -- blasphemy is a real sin, one we doubtless commit more often than we know. And sometimes heresies have to be named: when the Evangelical German Church in Nazi Germany criticized the so-called "German Christians" who were following Hitler, they did the right thing. But more often, our righteous condemnations don't honor God. They divide rather than unite us. At their worst they lead to violence.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) - our denomination - has book called the Book of Confessions. It's a collection of creeds and statements of faith, from the Apostles Creed of the early church to the 1985 Brief Statement of Faith that we often read in worship. These confessions are meant to be guides for our faith and life, interpreted carefully in the context of their time and place. I"m going to read from the Second Helvetic Confession, written for the church by a Swiss pastor named Heinrich Bullinger in 1561. He's just written a statement on God, His Unity and Trinity, and has this to say about those who disagree (5.019):
Heresies. Therefore we condemn the Jews and Mohammedans, and all those who blaspheme that sacred and adorable Trinity. We also condemn all heresies and heretics who teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are God in name only, and also that there is something created and subservient, or subordinate to another in the Trinity, and that there is something unequal in it, a greater or a less, something corporeal or corporeally conceived, something different with respect to character or will, something mixed or solitary, as if the son and Holy Spirit were the affectations and properties of one God the Father, as the Monarchians, Novatians, Praxeas, Patripassions, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, Aetius, Macedonius, Anthropomorphites, Arius, and such like, have thought. (If you have no idea who or what he's talking about, don't worry. The point he's making is those folks are wrong, and we condemn them!)
There are other passages like that in the confessions, and, indeed, when we start talking about God it's easy to go down that road of passionate condemnation. But something else can also happen. Something wonderful. We fall into praise, in spite of ourselves. This is also from the Helvetic Confession, just a few lines earlier:
God is one. We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the greatest good, living, quickening and preserving all things, omnipotent and supremely wise, kind and merciful, just and true. (5.0105). Yes, when we talk about God, how can we keep from singing?
Our scripture this morning, Psalm 65 is a song of pure praise. It's sung to God, but it also answers the question: who is God? much like a formal confession or statement of faith would do. Remember what the psalmist says: God is the one:
-who answers prayer
-who forgives our transgressions, when deeds of iniquity threaten to overwhelm us
-who chooses us and brings us near
-who delivers us with awesome deeds
-who is the hope of all the ends of the earth and the farthest seas
-who established the mountains and is girded with might
-who silences the roaring of seas and waves, and the tumult of the peoples
-who gives signs to those who live at the earth's farthest bounds.
-who makes the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy
-who visits the earth and waters it, greatly enriching it
-who provides the people with grain
-who waters the earth's furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers.
-who blesses growth and crowns the year with bounty; God's wagon tracks overflow with riches.
This is our God; to whom all praise is due. And as the psalmist praises God, and calls us to praise, he notes that we aren't the only ones singing. The pastures of the wilderness overflow; the hills gird themselves with joy. The meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain. The hills and the pasture, the meadow and the flocks can't explain the trinity; they can't expound on scripture. But the pasture also doesn't argue with the meadow. The hill does not condemn the valley; the flocks don't criticize the pasture. Instead, they do what God has made all creatures to do: they shout and sing together for joy.
We can learn from the rest of God's creation. As we continue to wrestle with theological questions, as we listen and speak, debate and even argue, let's remember what all that talk is ultimately for: to praise God. Let's not forget our ultimate calling, a calling we share with those near to us and those at the ends of the earth, with those who share our faith and those who do not; with those who think like us and those we may be tempted to condemn. A calling with share with all of creation, the creation that speaks without words but whose praise resounds throughout the earth. So that all things now living, may unite in thanksgiving, to God in the highest, hosanna and praise. Amen.