Thursday, December 4, 2014

The God You Expect

A number of studies in recent years have led to the conclusion that children are “intuitive theists.” That is, quite apart from religious instruction, children have an “innate concept of God” that doesn't involve merely imagining a super-parent in the sky. Kids understand that God has “characteristics, like immortality, creative power and omniscience...” They see the world as created by a “God-like designer” and that all things have a purpose. They also think about God differently than they think about human beings. They tend to hold these views up until the age of 11; then they tend to mirror what their community believes. Naturally, some scientists are calling for the suppression of these naturally occurring “promiscuous teleological ideas.” Children must be taught quite early that the marvelous interlocking nature of the universe, which makes the scientific study of it possible, is nevertheless anything other than intentional or planned. So the evolution of our atypically large and intelligent brains has caused this perception and in this instance the scientists must fight against evolution.

I'm not going to argue for intelligent design here. I just want to point out that it is natural to (a) posit that a creator God exists and (b) that he is not like us. As it says in Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my way, declares the Lord.” So how did the Jews get from the widespread idea of a God who is the ultimate Other to the idea that God cared about them.

A quick look at the mythologies of other peoples shows that, generally speaking, the gods don't care much about humanity. In the Babylonian version of the flood, the gods cause it because humanity is noisy and is keeping the gods from sleeping off their hangovers! Zeus and similar top-of-the-pantheon gods have no qualms about seducing or even raping attractive human females. The vast majority of gods seem to be either uninterested in humans or even antagonistic towards us.

Yet the Hebrews say God cares about us. He is angered by our violence toward one another. He very dramatically demonstrates to Abraham that he does not require human sacrifice. And he is opposed to people worshiping Moloch and other gods that do demand it. Far from being indifferent about us, God gives us laws that seek to establish justice and peace. Nor is he only going to address injustice in the afterlife but will one day send his anointed prophet, priest and king, his Messiah, to establish his true kingdom on earth. Where did they get such a crazy idea?

They would say they got it from the fact that God has done it before and it gave birth to their nation. They point to the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt under Moses and the covenant God made with them.

The God of the Bible is a God who makes covenants or agreements with his creatures. In return for their serving him and obeying his law, he will protect and prosper them. The problem is that human beings are very fickle and tend to stray from his laws at the drop of a hat. Consequently God sends his Holy Spirit to select individuals who relay his word to his people. His objections to their lifestyles revolve about the two main thrusts of his law: their relationship with God and their relationships with each other. The people fall short of God's law on both counts and so idolatry and injustice reign in their society.

Because his people have broken their vows to him, God invokes the penalty clause, so to speak. He withdraws his protection and allows his people, who seem to prefer living without reference to him, to see what that actually entails. They are conquered and oppressed. They are taken into exile. And yet God does not totally abandon them. Because of his steadfast love, he liberates his people once again. They come back from exile a chastened nation. They returned to a destroyed temple, to breached city walls, to a land stripped of the glory they once knew under King David. But God tells them that he will send his Anointed One to fulfill the promises he made.

How did we get from an innate concept of a creator to a God of justice and love who makes promises and fulfills them? Via experience. The Jews not only believed in this God, they experienced him doing these things. The prophets gave them warnings of punishment and promises of restoration and reconciliation. And they even widened the people's view of God. He is not only concerned with his people but with all people. He promises new and unprecedented things. And that's where we leave the people in the Old Testament: waiting for the Promised One.

Advent is about waiting. It is about being in the present and yet anticipating the changes God will bring. And realizing that we must change as well. How are we to greet the Promised One if we are not prepared for him? We have a bishop coming and I am sure we will go all out to greet him. We want to get cleaned up and put our best foot forward. How much more should we want to get ourselves ready for God's Anointed One?

That's why Advent is a minor penitential season. We realize that we fall short of the love and goodness of God and so we do a moral inventory and prepare a place for our Lord. As I was writing this at St. Francis, our piano was being tuned. It is painstaking and sometimes annoying to listen to but the end result is beautiful. So too is our preparation to meet the Messiah.

God's people thought they knew what to expect. Their God was not only creator and lawgiver but also the Lord of hosts, the leader of the army of angles and surely his Anointed would come ready for battle. They didn't anticipate what or who they got. We will look at the surprise God had in store for them at our next midweek service.    

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