Sunday, September 10, 2017

“HOW BIG IS GOD?”

 A sermon based upon Acts 10: 34-48
Preached by Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, 
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
14th Sunday After Pentecost, September 10th, 2017,    (Series:  THE MISSIONARY CHURCH)


You’ve probably heard the joke about a kindergarten teacher who was observing her classroom while they drew pictures. Occasionally, she would walk around the room to see each child’s work.
“What are you drawing?” she asked one little girl, working diligently at her desk.
The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”
The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”
The little girl replied, “They will in a minute.” 

What does God look like?   How do, should you, should we, imagine God?   Way back in 1961, Anglican minister J.B. Philips wrote a book entitled, “Your God is Too Small.”
His point was simple, yet profound: Too many Christians have a view of God that is way ‘too small’.   Philips wrote about both ‘destructive’ and constructive ways to understand God.   Destructively, we limit God by imagining God like a ‘policeman’, a ‘grand old man’, someone who thinks like our ‘parents’, or some like a ‘pale’ wimpy Galilean.    These kinds of images make God more like our image, rather than our image like God’s image. 

The second part of Philip’s book points to more ‘adequate’ understandings of God.  He suggests we should imagine God by focusing on what God focuses on.  We should try to image, not what God looks like, but what God desires and does.  The primary focus of the biblical God, he suggests, is on the beauty that is more than skin deep, a goodness that is good for everybody, and the truth that is always rooted and grounded in love. (See “Your God is Too Small”, by J.B. Phillips, 1961). 

J.B. Philips insights about imagine the true God echoed what the great little prophet Micah once wrote: “He has told you, o mortal what is good and what the Lord requires: to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).   We best imagine God, by what he desires and what we should do.  But if we are not careful, we can still succumb to our very human tendency to ‘put God in a box’.  At time, Christians have mistakenly put God in a Catholic box, an Anglican box, a Methodist Box or a Baptist box.  Today some still put God into their own, non-denominational box, or even only in a Christian  or a merely ‘religious’ box, even though it was a non-Christian, Jewish prophet named Isaiah who told us that God’s way are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8).  It has always been an occupational hazard for humans to try to imagine God without limiting God. 

What we are given in our Bible is never an image, nor even one ‘picture’ of God.  Instead, we are given a story of how Israel’s God is at work in our world through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit and the Church.  In our text today from Acts 10, we see how God was at work stretching the spiritual imagination of Simon Peter.  The Holy Spirit led Peter to Joppa to an Italian soldier’s house, whose name was Cornelius.   Unbeknownst to Peter, God was already at work in this non-Jewish man’s life in ways that Peter would never have imagined on his own.  

What we see is this story is that Cornelius was a good,  God-fearing man, but he wasn’t Jewish and he knew little about being ‘Jewishly’ religious.   In short, Cornelius was a Gentile, a pagan, an outsider, one of ‘them’, or even as the man Jesus called them, he was another one of those Gentile ‘dogs’, just like the described to the Canaanite woman.  For the most part, Gentile dogs were ‘unclean’ and unworthy  to have God’s food, meant for his own children, thrown to them (Mark 15:27).   

But now, in this text, after the life of Jesus, but through the Spirit of Jesus, God is still at work, doing even ‘greater works’ based on what Jesus did.   Even Jesus himself didn’t show us ALL of God.  Some Christians may not want to imagine this, but God the Father, who ‘sent the Son’ is ‘one’ with the Son, but he is still to be distinguished from the Son.  As one of my teachers once taught me, “Jesus takes us right to the ‘heart’ of who God is, but even Jesus, as God’s Son, didn’t show us all there is to God. “ On the cross, Jesus finished what God sent him to do, but Jesus never finished what God has sent the Spirit to call and commission us to do.   With God there is always more.  Can you imagine that?

…THE MESSAGE HE SENT TO THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL…. (v. 36).
This story about God revealing himself as ‘more’ that who we imagine God to be, goes all the way back to one of the very first stories of the Bible.  It was when people were still living in small, family tribes, rather than in big people groups or nations.   Even way back then, the true God was a God who was bigger and larger than the people who was working with and working through. 

And this understanding of a God who always stretches the human imagination continues to haunt the Bible’s story, right up to the New Testament story of Jesus and the Birth of the Church.   If God’s people had ever settled on making God only ‘their God’, God would have become a ‘God too Small’ or only a ‘God in a certain kind of box’, as he still is in many minds today.   However, the biblical God, the true God, Israel’s God, and the God of Jesus Christ, has always been a God who is, as one philosopher has said,  is the one who is ‘greater than can be conceived.’ As I learned in Christian philosophy class, only when God is the one who is ‘greater than can be conceived”, God is and remains, God (based on Anselm). 

Turn to Genesis 12 and read in the first three verses how the true God is a God who is always more, always stretching the human imagination, and always taking God’s people on a journey to more, not less.  You remember the story.  It’s the story of the call of Abraham.   Read this brief word again and consider how God was leading Abraham to God’s more; more of God, more for Abraham, and more for the world. 
Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.
 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen. 12:1-3 NRS).

The message of ‘more’ in this text is not confusing.  It is the simple message of the God who calls Abram to ‘Go….to the land’ he will be shown, so that God can ‘bless’ Abraham, making Abraham a ‘great nation’ so that Abraham  can also ‘be a blessing.’  Those who ‘bless’ Abraham’s faith, will be ‘blessed’.  The goal is that ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.  Now, that’s a lot of ‘more’ for a little tribe given a desert land on the back side of nowhere.   How could something like this ever be possible?  How could the ‘faith’ of one person end up becoming a way to ‘bless’ ‘all the families of the earth?

Back in 1990, after I had decided to become a missionary to work with ‘The Foreign Mission Board’ (now International Mission Board) of the ‘Southern Baptist Convention,’ I felt I needed all the preparation I could get.  I knew that Southern Baptists could prepare we well, but I wanted to know what other mission groups were doing and had done.  I chose to go for a week of training at the “Overseas Mission Learning Center” located in New Haven, Connecticut.   It was located at Yale Divinity School and part of my time there was to do some mission research in the Yale Divinity Library, one of the largest missionary libraries in the United States. 

I’ll never forget my surprise, not only about being in that grand library, but about trying to find a book about on to be a faithful Missionary.  There were thousands of volumes of books by missionaries doing all kinds of scientific experiments, social work, and many other kinds of humanitarian work around the world.  But there was very little to be found about ‘how’ to do missionary work.   What was there, in tons of old books, was a record of how through the years, almost since the beginning of the United States, missionary after missionary, from almost every main denomination, had gone into the world, risking their lives and giving their lives, all in the name of Jesus, not to simply build churches or make the world more ‘religious’ (that too), but to ‘bless the world’ in whatever way they were gifted to do, all in Jesus’ name.   At first I was taken aback, thinking that this was all wrong.  But the more I read, the more I learned, the more I came to realize that this was exactly what Jesus would do.  Jesus would not have gone into the world to ‘make a name’ for himself, but Jesus would have gone into the world to be a blessing.  Jesus would have helped, have healed, and have rescued and saved people, by blessing them in the name of the one, true God.    That is what I learned that it meant to be a missionary.  It is the same now, as it was since Abraham; God calls his people to be ‘blessed’ and ‘to be a blessing’.   God’s people are always looking for how God is up to more; how they can ‘be blessed’ so that they can ‘be a blessing.’

“HOW GOD ANOINTED JESUS OF NAZARETH” (vs. 38)
The next great advancement in the human understanding of this God is ‘more’ and is always doing ‘more’, come from the writing of the greatest Hebrew Prophet, Isaiah.  Isaiah’s prophecies not only span the life of the prophet, they go beyond his life.   Even Jesus based his own calling and ministry on Isaiah’s words.

There are many important images of God, and the ‘more’ that God was up to, in the writings of Isaiah, but perhaps the first one was most important.   It was how the prophet came to understand God’s calling upon his own life.   In the year that his ‘King’ named Uzziah died,  Isaiah says that he ‘saw the Lord siting on a throne’.   In that vision he heard God’s declared to be, “Holy, Holy, Holy”.  He then realized that before God he was ‘lost’, being someone with ‘unclean lips’ living among people unclean ‘lips’ and lives.   Still, the next word he heard is most amazing.  This holy God does not destroy Isaiah, but he calls and commissions Isaiah, calling out with his own voice, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”   It was Isaiah who answered this call, saying, “Here am I, send me!”   (Isa. 6:1-8). 

My wife will tell you that this is one of my favorite texts in the Bible.  I preached from it in Revival meeting after Revival meeting, in the first years I was preaching.   The title of my message was, “Why God to Church?, which I picked up from a very great preacher. What this text taught me, and should teach us still, is all the right ingredients of true worship of God; including seeking God, confessing sin, answering God’s call to take God’s message to the world. 

But what is behind all that is going on in this text is not simply what God was asking Isaiah or us to do.  The main ‘message’ of this text is what God was doing when he called his prophet.   The kind of God that called and commissioned Isaiah is the same God who also sent his son Jesus.   This God is the God who is always moving forward, always calling people to more, always loving more people, and who is already at work to and ready to do more through those who will serve him, right now.   

This ‘more’ that God is ready to do is exactly why Jesus chose to read from a text from Isaiah, chapter 61, when he began his public ministry.   Turn in your Bible and you can read for yourself what this ‘more’ is, that Jesus came to do.  As you read it, let it surprise you a bit, just like I was ‘surprised’ when I went through Yale’s mission library.  Can you see or hear it?   According to Luke, Jesus read:  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,      19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."    20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.     21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."   (Lk. 4:18-21 NRS).

After Jesus announced to the people in his own ‘hometown’ that ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ was upon him to do ‘more’, do you know what happened next?   They ran him out of town and they even tried to kill him, their own home town boy.  When he read the Bible and said, “Let’s do this” more than God has called, not just me, but us to do, they would rather have murdered Jesus, then and there, than have answered God’s call in their lives, or even realized God’s call on his life.   In short, they preferred to have “God” in their box, than to have a God who was alive and well and at work in their midst, calling and having his “Spirit’ upon one of their own.

What about us?   Are we ready for the God who calls us to do ‘more’ and to ‘be more?’  Are we any more ready for the God who shows us the ‘more’ we can do and the ‘more’ we can be?   And this ‘more’, as we also see in Isaiah, and in Jesus too, more than anyone else, is not just a ‘more’ for us, but it is also a ‘more’ for others too.  The God who calls to ‘bless us’ is always about us being a ‘blessing’ to others too.  In the life of Jesus, as Luke continued to describe it, we see this ‘blessing’ only beginning to open up, as Jesus sent his own disciples, 70 of them on their very first mission task.  We call it ‘The Mission of the Seventy’, as told in Luke 10.   This was another one of my favorite texts to preach on, when the Seventy return to Jesus, rejoicing that ‘Lord, in your name, even the demons submit to us!”   Jesus then announces his own vision:  “I saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening” (10:18), affirming that he has given them ‘authority’ over ‘all the power of the enemy’

 But an even greater reason they should rejoice, Jesus adds, is because, by becoming God’s missionaries and doing God’s ‘more’, they ‘know that their names are written in heaven’ (10:20).   The only true affirmation or assurance of knowing the true God or of having the truth of God in us, is when we want the same ‘more’ that God wants.  Recently, I read that in the early church, after Easter, they used to have parties to celebrate the trick that God played on the devil, as God raised Jesus from the dead.  The joke was put on the devil because when the devil thought God’s work ended, it was really just started.  By raising Jesus, and sending Jesus’ disciples into the world to preach the ‘good news.’ God beat the devil at his own game.   This is a great trick, but the joke falls back on us, not just the devil, if we don’t keep taking this ‘good news’ to the world.    This brings us back finally, to our text in the book of Acts.  

"I …UNDERSTAND….GOD SHOWS NO PARTIALITY (vs. 34)
After doing this quick survey of the Bible’s story, which is also the gospel’s story,  we need to come to ‘understand’ exactly what Peter came to understand.   Our text explains that as Peter witnessed God as work in a stranger, an outsider, a Gentile and a pagan who ‘feared God’,  this is when Peter came to understand something more and most important about God.   Peter came to understand that among peoples of the world, God shows ‘no partiality’ (vs. 34).

Now, this new ‘understanding’ has big ramifications, both for Peter’s understanding of God and for Peter, and the rest of the disciples of Jesus too.   This means that God is not limited by one group of people, one religion, or one understanding of God.   The true God of the Bible is more than anyone humans have ever understood.  As Peter explained,  “in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable….”   This means that Jesus came ‘preaching peace’ not just among the nations, but also among the ‘religions’ and the ‘religious’.   This also means that Jesus is ‘Lord of all’, not because he is denouncing love found in anyone else, but because Jesus came to reveal a God who is love, and God’s kind of love is always more, never less.

But the most important ‘understanding’ of this God who is more is that “he commanded us to testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”   The point Peter is making is the point I want to make to us today.   The God who is always more, is a missionary God, who calls us to be a missionary people to people everywhere.   This does not mean that we are better than anyone else, or that Jesus puts down anyone who loves and fears God.  What it does mean is that if we want to be more, do more, we must understand, love, serve, and ‘testify about him’  and to envision and obey this God who is more, because he is a God who wants to do more through us.  

Our God is a missionary God.  If we are not on mission with him, then whose “Spirit’ do we have?   If our God is not at heart, a missionary God, then our God too, is a God who is too small.  This ‘too small God’ is never a Great God, because he is a ‘dead’ God.  He is a God who was dead, even before you ever tried to take him out of your box.  He was ‘dead’ because he is only in YOUR BOX.  


So, if you want a ‘living God’,  will you join Abraham, Isaiah, Jesus, and Peter, and Paul too, to follow the God who can take your out of your shell, and give you the more you could never have with a God in a box?   I hope you will.   No, I know you must.   Only a missionary God is the God of more, who can be ‘the judge of the living and the dead’ (v. 42).  Amen.

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