This week, a friend nominated me to update my facebook status with three things I love about Jesus. I decided that I couldn’t really talk about why I love Jesus without talking about why I love God the Father and the Holy Spirit as well, so I thought I’d write down three things I love about each of the three persons of God. I suppose that’s what my friend gets for nominating a recent seminary grad for something like that. Anyway, I sat down to do it and realized it was really hard. At first I felt guilty, like I don’t love God enough, I can’t even think of 9 things I love about God. Then it occurred to me. . . how in the heck do you narrow down everything God has done into a list of a few things?
Both the Psalmist and Paul in his letter to the Romans seem to be up against that same problem. They are trying to talk about how great God is, but they just can’t seem to grab ahold of anything that seems big enough. They are trying to describe God, but even the biggest words like unsearchable aren’t quite enough. Think about it, though. It’s hard enough to describe a person. There are people who have multiple biographies written about them and it still doesn’t seem to do them justice. Now magnify that infinitely and try to write down everything about God!
It’s nice to know that we’re not alone, though – that others have realized the weight of this problem and have tackled it too.
Like many of the Psalms, Psalm 138 talks about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. The words used in the Hebrew are descriptive of action, they aren’t passive emotions. And they are part of the foundational passage of the Torah called the “Shemah.” This is a passage that starts off with the word “Shemah” for “Hear.” “Hear, O Israel.” It goes on to talk about God’s love and faithfulness. Psalm 138 is recalling that important passage that the Hebrew people are told to write on their hearts and bind to their fingers and pass on to all the generations.
The Shemah was a cultural binder. It held the people together. It was their common core belief and what they returned to when they were in good times and bad to celebrate or comfort as needed. Everything they said and did was supposed to backtrack back to the Shemah because it was the beginning – the cornerstone of their knowledge of God. This Psalm starts with reference to a creed – much like we say the Apostle’s creed in our service as a reminder of what we collectively believe. It’s our recitation of our collective knowledge of God.
Psalm 138 maintains a great sense of mystery and wonder. It’s something we see in the passage from Romans as well. God is “unsearchable,” “deep,” “inscrutable.” It’s language of awe and wonder, and it leaves so much room. In fact, it opens up more space than was there in the first place. Rather than narrowing down the definition of God, these passages open up an even broader discussion.
I suppose it’s about time that you all learned this about me, so it’s true confession time: I’m a big geek. I love science fiction and today is not the first time I’m going to use a sci-fi reference as a sermon illustration. I apologize in advance to those of you who aren’t sci-fi fans and promise to keep geeky references to a minimum. But I just can’t help it today. Are there any other Doctor Who fans out there? Doctor Who is an alien – specifically, a Timelord. He travels through time and space having great adventures and saving worlds. His spaceship – the Tardis - is a blue box. It looks like a British police phone box. It’s about the same size as a regular phone booth, but when you open the door and walk in, it’s absolutely cavernous with halls and passageways and many many rooms, and even a swimming pool. These words are like the Tardis – they are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside. They just open the door to something even bigger than was there before the words were spoken.
It is because we simply cannot define God with any of our words. None of the words we have can do justice to describing God. We can try and we can scratch the surface, but that’s about it. A pastor friend of mine has a sweet little boy who is just a little bit younger than my Levi. When his little guy was about 3, he said something that I just love. “My God is a big, heavy God.” One of my professors at the seminary is notorious for saying, “God is not a sentence.” Another gets so excited when he’s talking about God that he will bang his cane on the desks in front of him, scaring the daylights out of all the students who have never taken a class with him before. Paul and the Psalmist are excitedly talking about God in much the same way, even though they know they won’t be able to get it all down.
You see, the more we try to figure God out, the more we realize we can’t begin to contain God with our words. It’s just like when we tried to fit a whole kid into a little box during the children’s sermon. He/she could sort of fit. We could get some of the kid in the box, but not all of the kid. Our words can start to help us understand and describe God, but when it comes down to it, the box is never big enough. Our words just open up more and more.
So why bother trying at all? If we can’t adequately describe God, if all of our words and memories and clever songs and poetry just don’t do justice to the God we’re praising, why don’t we just say, “God is too big for me to talk about?”
Athanasius, one of the early fathers of the Christian Church back in the 300’s says that our existence has purpose because we know God. “For what use is existence to the creature if it cannot know its Maker?” Knowing God is what gives us a reason to be. All other reasons we can come up with for our purpose are incomplete, they give but a false sense of purpose. Athanasius goes on to say there are three ways that God reveals the truth to people: creation, law, and other people. All three of these are important.
Creation tells us about the Creator. We learn about God’s vastness, provision, and beauty through it. We could wander creation for our entire lives and still not learn everything it has to say about God, but creation continues to tell us about our Maker.
God’s law isn’t the means to our salvation, but through learning and practicing it, we learn about God. The problem is that we are all human and not a single one of us can get it all right. That’s why Jesus came as a fulfillment of the law. We can never ever get it all right, but God still gave it to us and it still offers today a way to get to know God.
It’s the same with our words, our stories, the ways we tell other people. Even though we can never begin to scratch the surface of who God is, we still praise God. We still offer up our thanks for the wonders that we’ve seen in our lives and we still share our stories of forgiveness and salvation and transformation with the people around us because through it we know God and in knowing God we have purpose. If our purpose is to know God, then no matter how pale our pictures are, no matter how small our words, and no matter how faint our descriptions, we still must try.
Like the Psalmist, we recount out of our gratefulness for what God has done and for all of the great things that we’ve seen. We recount what God has done because knowing at least the little bit that we can muster words for gives us purpose and, as the Psalmist says, “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for (us).”
Just like Paul in his letter to the Romans, we say that God is so big, we can only scratch the surface, but we try because “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”
Though we can’t begin to fully describe God, we do what we can because that is what we’re here for. To God be the glory forever and ever.