Your God is too small

September 22, 2019

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using Acts 9.18b-34 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 22nd September 2019, the Fourteenth after Trinity.

Welcome again today to Canon Andy as the Cathedral’s Precentor. But I wonder how many people, on first hearing he was to be ‘Precentor’ misheard, and thought the title was ‘Presenter’.  Perhaps some may even have thought that Andy was going to succeed the BBC’s longest serving presenter, John Humphrys, on the Today programme.  I’m sure Andy would have risen to the challenge.  He’d probably have enjoyed the salary, too!

It’s so easy to misunderstand words, and have all sorts of false expectations.  So how about the word ‘God’?

There was a significant little book by J B Phillips published years ago called ‘Your God is Too Small’.  It’s the title I want to dwell on, as often our ideas of God can be, if not small, then at least (as Basil Fawlty might have said) small-ish. We tend to tailor God to our own needs at particular times. For instance, a grandfatherly or grandmotherly sort of figure when we’re needing comfort.  Or, by contrast, when we’ve just won a job or a prize or things are going well, a kind of divine, personal sponsor who is on our side.

And that’s fine, so long as we don’t limit God to the supplier of our needs of the moment. We say that God’s nature is personal, and describe God traditionally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, personal as God may be, a Person he is not.  That would be to limit God very severely. I suspect that many people reject the idea of God because they have too narrow an idea of God, or because of the naïve view of God that they believe Christians hold. They misunderstand the word.

One of the fundamental misunderstandings is that God sometimes over-rules the laws of nature to intervene in natural events or human lives.  I know some people believe he does. I don’t believe so – rather, I believe he uses the mechanisms of the physical world, some of them clear, some of them scarcely understood, to bring about changes. And often those mechanisms involve other human beings.

There was once an elderly lady, a very bold Christian, who used to open her front door and shout ‘Praise the Lord’.  This intensely annoyed her atheist next-door neighbour.  One day, the lady added to her cry: ‘Praise the Lord.  But I’ve run out of money, so please send some food, Lord.’ The atheist neighbour decided to teach her an atheist lesson.  He went off to the supermarket, bought some groceries and left them on her doorstep.  Next time the lady went outside, she found them, and with delight shouted again, ‘Praise the Lord’. Whereupon the neighbour, who was watching for her, shouted: ‘There, I told you there was no God.  I brought you the food, not God.’  But the elderly lady was not to be outdone.  Clapping her hands, she replied: ‘Praise the Lord.  He’s sent me food, and he’s even got the devil to pay for it!’

At least she understood that God, as often as not, works through other human beings.

Names can be indicative. We are all familiar with the Muslim name for God, Allah, which some Arabic-speaking Christian communities also use. The name ‘Allah’ shares a Semitic origin with a common Old Testament name for God, ‘El’.  It’s easy to see the connection, back in the mists of time, between ‘El’ and ‘Allah’. ‘El’ usually appears in the plural, ‘Elohim’.  So it represents the sum of all previous gods that people may have honoured. It symbolises the multiplicity that is at the heart of God, the multiplicity within God’s nature and the multiplicity of God’s relevance and appeal to everyone.

Even more prominent in the Old Testament is the four-letter name for God, ‘Y.H.W.H.’, which actually appears in one of the windows in our south aisle along with the star of David. (Have a look over coffee.) These four consonants represent the word ‘Yahweh’, which is so sacred a name that it is never pronounced in Jewish circles. In speech, Jews substitute another Hebrew name for God, ‘Adonai’, meaning ‘Lord’. The meaning of ‘Yahweh’ is probably the mysterious ‘I am who I am’. So it has existentialist overtones, talking about the very nature of existence and being. A modern theologian, Paul Tillich, described God as ‘the ground of all being’.

The Greek New Testament word for God is ‘theos’.  Like ‘el’ in the Old Testament, ‘theos’ is used as God’s name, but also sometimes is a simple word for a god, any god.  And it’s used in both ways in this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  St Paul is visiting Athens, a city of much sophistication, where the worthy denizens, as well as having altars to particular gods around the city, had erected one ‘To an unknown god’.  How very prudent of them, to hedge their bets in case they’d missed a god out who might penalise them for being left out.

Paul skilfully capitalises on this altar. He announces: ‘What . . . you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he . . . is Lord of heaven and earth . . . .’ Thus Paul proclaims the God of Judaism and Christianity. Then Paul goes on evocatively to speak of how the people of the earth might, he says, ‘search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being”’.

What a great expression, ‘in him we live and move and have our being’!  When we grasp this, we are widening our concept of God, and moving beyond our God being too small.  God was a word before it was a name, and it sums up all that is most truly dear to us and to humanity, the summation of all our widest and deepest aspirations. And not mine or yours individually, but all those aspirations that are common to humanity at its best. These are summed up not just in words, but in music and art of all the cultures of the world. And not just in high culture, but in the truest and simplest dreams and longings in the hearts of all people of goodwill.

And there is God, in his depth and breadth and height.  Indefinable, but imaginable and accessible to us human beings. We ‘search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him’: God, the ground of all being.