God on Trial
By Rev. Dr. Stan Jewell
Today at Central in the Adult Education Class Erica introduced the book “Waking Up White”. It is the book that has been recommended by the Co- Moderators of the General Assembly as a book to read across the Presbyterian Church and of course beyond. I am about a third of the way through and I highly recommend it.
In the chapter entitled, “Seeing is believing or is it the other way ‘round?” the Author Debby Irving writes about how we tend to align what we hear, read or see with our underlying beliefs. She illustrated that by telling of watching an old episode of “I Love Lucy”. Lucy had gotten wrapped up in a Murder Mystery Book. In the midst of reading she overhears Ricky say to someone on the phone: “I’ve finally made up my mind. I am gonna get rid of her.” He was talking about one of the female performers in his act. But because of her submersion in the culture of the murder mystery, Lucy lets this comment fuel her suspicion. Lucy’s perception grows increasingly narrow as sees and hears everything Ricky does and says in ways that fit her distorted Storyline. You can imagine the humorous situations that ensued.
When I read about that episode I could not help but think about the interviews that I had heard that morning on NPR. It was just a few days after the inauguration of our President and they were interviewing those who were supporters and non-supporters of President Trump. As they described what they heard they shared such different takes on what had been said. The contrast was so stark that I had to wonder if they had heard the same speech. The culture and beliefs that they brought to their hearing had certainly shaped what they heard and understood. Irving’s chapter title, “Seeing is believing or is it the other way ‘round”, made perfect sense.
Now this is not a new phenomenon. Paul had to deal with the way that people in Corinth viewed the story of Jesus and the cross. The culture in which they were immersed, or as Paul names the culture, “the wisdom of the world”, could not make sense of it. So he had to provide another frame of reference.
Listen to his words from I Corinthians 1:18-31.
I love old fantasy movies. Especially the ones that have a trial in Heaven deciding whether a person should be allowed to return to earth or stay in heaven. Remember the movie “Heaven Can Wait” or there is a one from WWII where the trial takes place during the surgery of an American flyer who has fallen in love with an English nurse, or another one where the trial takes place, not in heaven but very near hell. It is the Devil and Daniel Webster.
As I was preparing the sermon for this Sunday all those memories of those old movies came flooding back and I imagined another courtroom scene. Only this time it wasn’t a human being on trial but God. God was in the dock and the prosecuting attorney was using all the “wisdom of the world” to declare God was senile. The charges were that God has messed up the world and done too many foolish things and could no longer stay in charge. I imagined it something like this:
The prosecuting attorney stepped forward looking handsome and confident as he addressed the world, which was the jury. “Ladies and Gentlemen this is a very difficult and sad case. We all have a certain respect for God. God has done many great and wonderful things. Who could possibly criticize God for this marvelous creation in which we live. The varieties of terrain, the multiple galaxies show a wonderful sense of balance and control. But not only the large things but the small and fragile things as well. Just consider the delicacy of a flower or the wonder of the human immune system. We are not arguing that God has done everything wrong. No to the contrary in many ways God has been good. But…there are many things that are a part of that creation and especially God’s relationship with humanity that reveal that God
is …well…slipping with old age and must be replaced. To illustrate my point, I would like you to consider four specific exhibits.
First, I would like to bring forward Adam and Eve as exhibit A. Here is where all the trouble began! God used poor judgement and went too far when he created human beings with the ability to reject God and to sin. Think about what a paradise we would be living in if Adam and Eve and all humans could not sin. This is the root of all war and murder and inhumanity. All the rest of God’s problems and misguided choices have stemmed from this original choice. Would Cain have killed Abel? Would there have been the need of a flood? Today, would there have to be police or laws or military might. God proclaims through the prophets a desire to have a world of peace, where the Lion can lay down with the lamb. Well…. God could have had that world if human being had not been created with that kind of free will.
Exhibit B are the poor choice of people and nations through whom God chose to work. What wise God would choose such an obscure little nation like Israel to try to bring people back into a right relationship with God. We applaud the desire to restore wayward humanity back to the fold, but through Israel? Why not through Rome or Greece or even the Moguls, they at least conquered more territory than Israel at its largest. Such a choice has made God a laughing stock. Then to call Israel the “promised land” and a “land flowing with milk and honey” is such an over statement. Have you ever seen this arid and forsaken place? No the choice of Israel was a mistake.
Just as the choice of people that were called to carry out God’s will. What self-respecting personnel person would choose Paul to be the advance man or salesman for the church. He was a small man with some kind of crippling illness and he was even halting in his speech. Or what about his choice of a thirteen year old girl, from a small insignificant family to bear the child of God. I ask you Ladies and Gentlemen could not even you have chosen better. Let’s face it, why not choose the United States as the promised land, or a strong handsome articulate person to be your emissary and a well-known, financially secure woman, to be the Mother of your son? I think it would have made more sense, and so do you.
The next exhibit is the content of the teaching that God gave Jesus to proclaim. Take for example the beatitudes. Why turn conventional wisdom on its head? Just contrast the beatitudes with the slogans of our world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know they haven’t got all the answers. Those who know they need help, versus Never let them see you sweat. Blessed are the meek and those who mourn versus “Look out for Number one” and “Nice Guys finish last.” On and on the comparisons, could be made. How can we appeal for belief in God when we are asked to spout such Pollyannaish and un-realistic beliefs? How are we to preach self-emptying behavior to an upwardly mobile generation?
Finally, ladies and Gentlemen the crowning foolishness, the cross. If you were God would you allow yourself to appear so weak? Would you stand by while your son was maliciously attacked and murdered? Why even the book of Deuteronomy claims that a person that is “hung on a cross bears the curse of God”. How could God possibly convince the Jews who studied the Old Testament to come to belief? They see the cross as the rejection of Jesus. If Jesus had only come to lead the Jews to a glorious victory over the Romans then we would have a leader we could look up to. We would have a God to follow. No ladies and gentlemen the cross was the final straw, the final absurdity.
God has been revealed as too foolish and weak. God has lost our respect. It is time for God to step down!” The prosecutor concluded and smiled confidently at the jury and returned to his seat, sure of an open and shut case.
The defense attorney, that looked in my imagination a lot like an unkempt Jimmy Stewart, stepped forward, not looking like much of a match for the smooth oily voices prosecutor. “The Prosecutor” he began, “has presented an excellent case. Let me take a moment and be sure of what you are charging God. First you are saying God created humans with the ability to sin. You are accusing God of choosing the weak and insignificant to work through. You said God has taken the wisdom of the world and turned it on its head. Finally, you accuse God of looking foolish because of the cross. Does that about cover it.” The prosecutor nodded in consent and smiled his condescension.
“Well then,” said the defense attorney, “to those charges God pleads guilty.”
The prosecutor jumped to his feet, “Your Honor I move for a directed verdict and that God be forced to step down.”
“Not so fast sir, I said that to those things God pleads guilty, yes… but I would never say that God was in error in those things. God through those very actions, actions that appear weak and foolish to the world, has proven worthy of our love, our devotion and our honor. The Prosecutor has set forth his case in an excellent and eloquent speech. I marvel and his ability. I wish I could speak like that, but I am just a humble man with average abilities. But there is one thing that I have that the prosecutor does not, and that is faith.
That’s right faith. We may agree on the facts and thus God can plead guilty of all that you have charged. But faith does something that you cannot understand. Faith lets a person see those same facts in a different light and with new understanding. Faith looks at the creation of human beings with the ability to sin and reject God not as a mistake, but as a great gift. If we were created as my learned colleague suggests, without free will, without the ability to sin, then we would not have the ability to enter into a genuine loving relationship with God. Sure, when we reject God, we suffer the consequences of our action. We end up doing all the horrible things of which we were accused. But because we have the ability to reject God, we also have the ability to truly love God. What a wonderful thing that we can be in relationship with God. That relationship is only a reality because, we have the ability to say no to that relationship, to sin? Would you want to give up that free will? I think not!
Now as for God choosing the weak and small to be partners in ministry. I thank God, every day for that sir and so does the jury. For that means I am acceptable to God. That even in all my failings God chooses to work through the likes of me. Just as God worked through Mary, Paul and the tiny nation of Israel with all their failings and weaknesses. The reality is that it is better that God work through such weakness. That’s right, it is better that way. Because that way it is clear that, success comes only by the power of God. Had God chosen to work though Rome or the United States, every one could say it was not God, but the power of force of arms. There is no mistake that when God works though the weak and small, that the power comes from God.
Then as far as teachings of Christ and specifically the beatitudes, there are people every day discovering that it is only through God’s Spirit that they can find a blessed life. The only way to live a peaceful life right here and now. Through faith people find a peace that passes all wisdom and human understanding. Sir, you quote the wisdom of the world. “Don’t let them see you sweat” and “Nice Guys finish last”. But I would suggest that if you adopt such attitudes that you never really do finish. You never find a quiet, peaceful, centered life. For it is always a tread mill or like the poor gunslinger of old, there is always another battle to fight, because somebody else wants to be top dog. The teaching of Christ may stand at odds with the world, but they do bring peace. Does the wisdom of the world bring peace?
Finally, the cross. If you look through the eyes of the world, then yes you see a failure. You see a defeated, weak-willed God. But when you look through the eyes of faith we see a God who willing to give all for us. That life was not taken from God, but it was a life given by God. Jesus died a death in a most humiliating way to prove to us the depth of God’s love and comment to bring us back into relationship. God who used the language of the sacrificial system that was universally understood at the time to show us that we are forgiven and can through the death of Christ come into God’s presence. We can come not groveling on the floor, but we come as God’s beloved children as a part of the family. That opportunity comes to us because of the very cross that seems foolish and seems a defeat. But that is the point ladies and gentlemen, God take the defeats of life and turns them into victories. God takes out crosses and turns them into resurrections. If that foolishness, then that is my kind of foolishness and I think you agree.
Ladies and Gentlemen the verdict is in your hands. God is on trial in your heart everyday of your life. The world will call you to reject God, to set God aside like an old security blanket that you have out grown. Why? Because from the wisdom of the world, God looks foolish. To that God pleads guilty. But God gives a higher wisdom. Through God’s Sprit foolishness is turned into wisdom and weakness into strength and victory. So, I leave the choice up to you, but remember this: The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world and the weakness of God is more powerful than any power the world has experienced. The defense rests.