No Man Upstairs
Sermon preached November 27, 2011
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Tuesday evening Glen Avon Presbyterian Church, Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. It was our choir’s turn to sing – and people kept coming and coming up. A pastor colleague of mine whispered, “How do you get so many people to come out for this?” I just smiled with a deep sense of gratitude. The choir sang beautifully. I was busting my buttons and had not yet had one bite of turkey. Something seems to be happening here at First UMC.
Twice in recent weeks people have commented on worship, on the energy, on the attendance. Something good is happening here. To a few people I have been saying, “God is up to something here.”
You need to know I use that phrase cautiously, carefully and with a great deal of humility. I do that because a great deal of “God is up to something” talk is puzzling.
When our son David was born, he was six weeks premature and he spent the first three weeks of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit in St. Paul. I was a seminary student and Julie was working part-time. It was a scary, uncertain time for us. A year or so later, when things were better for us and I was in my first pastorate, a woman we knew came to tell us about her sister who had just had a baby and while there was some concern because the baby came early “God had answered her prayers and everything was just fine.” We were happy for this family, but couldn’t help wonder what had happened to us and our son a year or so earlier. Where was God then?
Then there are the parking spaces stories – you may have heard them. A person wants a parking spot in a busy mall near the door, offers a prayer to God and lo and behold a parking spot opens up. God is up to something, including finding convenient parking spaces if only you ask and believe.
I want to say this clearly. I believe God has something to do with human healing. I believe that God cares about every aspect of our lives. It was Jesus who said of God, “even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Matthew 10:30). I consider it one of my tasks in life to help make God’s job easier. I believe that God cares about every aspect of our lives, yet to claim too much about healing leaves others puzzled and confused, and why would my parking needs supersede the parking needs of others. I usually like to park a ways a way because I can use the walking.
We have a bit of a quandary. Some “God is up to something” talk creates problems, issues. One solution to this dilemma is to make God “the big guy in the sky,” “the man upstairs.” God is, in this view, mostly uninvolved in our lives, except for the occasional tearing open of the heavens in some miraculous way. The man upstairs God is a God who wound the clock of the universe and then pretty much leaves it alone, leaves us alone with some general directions for being nice. The man upstairs God got the ball rolling and now watches from afar with varying degrees of interest. We hear God talked about like this, don’t we?
But the man upstairs God, this is not the God of the Bible. When you read the Bible, God is active. One need not understand every biblical story literally as God acting in this way or that. Yet there seems something critically important in understanding God as an active and involved God, not the clockmaker God. Mark 13 presupposes a God who acts as it advises us to learn the lesson of the fig tree and keep alert and awake. Isaiah 64, read when we lighted the first Advent candle, speaks of God’s awesome deeds and hopes that God will “tear open the heavens.”
We believe in a God who cares and who acts, not in some semi-absent “man upstairs.” When I say that I think God is up to something here in our life together, I really believe that God is up to something in our life together here. Asking what it means to affirm that God is up to something is going to be our Advent focus, with two more sermons exploring different aspects of what it means to say that God is up to something.
After affirming that God acts in our lives and in our world, the question for me becomes, “how.” How does God act? If I believe God acts in the world, but am skeptical that one important activity of God in the world is finding me parking spaces, then how does God act?
Some attribute to God only the obviously miraculous or the utterly stupendous. There are some great production values in Mark 13 and Isaiah 64 – a darkened sun and moon, stars falling from the sky, the heavens shaken, the heavens torn open, quaking mountains. Insurers label things like hurricanes, tornados and other storms – acts of God. With our understandings of climate and weather, we know what causes stars to shoot across the sky or tornados to form or hurricanes to strengthen or the earth to quake. We don’t need God to explain how these happen, though when is still a bit of a mystery.
But Isaiah 64 has this other image in it of the God who acts. “As when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil.” I don’t know about you, but I have tried to light enough fires from kindling in my life to know that it is often a pretty slow and quiet process. If you have ever tried to heat one of those big kettles of water in our kitchen, you know that it is slow going. I believe these are better images for God’s action in our lives and the world – quiet, persistent, steady. I appreciate the words of Patrick Henry in his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, too quickly, to the grace of God…. I trust God’s grace but hesitate to identify it in particular cases. It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face. When I know the grace of God, it’s nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward (2).
God acts – but in the quiet manner of water boiling, in the manner of the gentle breeze creating small ripples in the pond, in the manner of the still, small voice. Yet such activity has a profound impact on our lives, if we let it. We do things like pray for healing because it can make a difference. God is not the only factor influencing health, but God is a factor. The analysis offered by Marjorie Suchocki, in her book on prayer that some of us read last spring is helpful. Suchocki begins by acknowledging that all prayers for healing occur in the context of human life, which will end. We cannot change that fact. She goes on to write: God wills the well-being of this world, even in the midst of its fragility and mortality, and not every illness is terminal. Prayers for healing make a difference in what kinds of resources God can use as God faithfully touches us with impulses toward our good, given our condition (In God’s Presence, 59). We should rejoice in every healing, in the normal course of healing in our lives and in those times when the healing seems remarkable – both are miraculous in that God is always sending impulses toward our good into the world. God creatively uses the resources of love we offer to increase the good that can be done in the world.
In another one of her books, Suchocki offers this image of God’s action in our lives. God’s creative word… is felt within the depths of the self… [it]comes to us as a whisper, it is not loud, like a clanging cymbal, nor is it boisterous, calling attention to itself and insisting on its own program. To the contrary, it is a quiet word, a suggestive word, , an inviting word, not always easily noticed. How awesome that the word of the living God should come to us quietly, like a whisper. (The Whispered Word, 4) Our God is an awesome God not because God’s activity is loud, raucous, overwhelming, stormy, but because God’s activity is quiet, creative, inviting, persistent. God’s grace is God’s persistent presence in our lives – a presence of creative-responsive love.
We people of God who follow Jesus don’t believe in a “man upstairs” God – a God who mostly leaves us alone but on occasion rips open the heavens to do incredible things – like finding us parking spaces close to the mall entrance. We believe in a God who cares about every aspect of our lives and is always active – the whispered voice of creative love. We believe in a God who comes into our lives again and again and again. That’s what Advent is all about, remembering this God who comes into our lives always, remembering that grace is God’s persistent presence.
God never leaves us alone. God is always up to something in our lives, yet we can affirm that there are special times and unique moments in our journey with God. For First United Methodist Church, we may be in the midst of such a special time. God is always up to something in our lives and in our life together as a church, yet there is a sense in which this may be a special time for us. But if it is a special time it is not God’s doing all alone. This is a special time for us because together we are opening ourselves to God in some deep and profound ways. We may be listening more intently to that whispered word of God. We may be offering God more of our prayer resources which is using in God’s creative love. We are connecting with each other in new ways. God is always up to something, and God seems up to something special here and now and we seem to be working with God’s creativity.
God is up to something in our church, and God is also always up to something in our lives. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to listen more carefully – keep awake. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to trust more profoundly – God is always working for our well-being. Our response to this God who is always whispering into our lives a word of creative love is to know deep in our hearts and souls that we are not alone. There is One with us to share our joys, to weep our tears, to calm our fears. Thanks be to God – not a man upstairs but a companion on the journey. Amen.