Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
April 17, 2016
Some of you will remember a couple of humorous films a few years ago in which the late comedian George Burns played God. Oh, God, parts I and II, were not great movies, but they did allow us to reflect on what God might really be like.
A pastor was trying to explain to a child about God. The pastor said, “God is everywhere!”
“Everywhere?” asked the little boy.
“Everywhere!” said the pastor.
The boy went home and told his mother, “God is everywhere! The pastor said so.”
“Yes, I know,” said the mother.
“You mean he is even in the cupboard?”
“Yes,” said the mother.
“In the refrigerator–even when we close the door and the light goes out?” the little boy asked in amazement.
“Yes,” said the mother
“Even in the sugar bowl?” the lad asked as he took the lid off.
“Yes,” said the mother, “even in the sugar bowl.”
The boy slammed down the lid to the sugar bowl and said, “Now I’ve got him.”
Silly little joke, but also thought-provoking. So often people think they have captured God. They believe they know exactly what God is like.
The Week magazine carried an interesting piece recently concerning people’s thoughts about God. It was based on a survey by the Gallup organization for Baylor University. Americans were asked to describe how they conceive of the deity. What they discovered is that Americans worship four distinct Gods.
The most popular God, backed by 31%, is an “authoritarian” father figure who takes a very hands-on approach to his domain. Like Yahweh in the Old Testament, he rewards the faithful with good fortune, and smites the sinful with tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and dread diseases.
Another 23% envision God as essentially “benevolent”–a loving Spirit who provides help and guidance when asked.
For 16%, God presides over the universe like a stern, unapproachable judge, letting events unfold without interference, tallying up sins and virtue, and rendering a verdict when people die.
Finally, 24% see God as a mysterious prime mover who engineered the Big Bang and evolution, wrote E=MC2 and all those other nifty cosmic laws, then backed off to watch how it would all come out.
Here’s what’s interesting: these differing conceptions of God, the pollsters found, are ultimately more important to people’s political and social views than their party registrations or church affiliations. How you think about God affects how you think about life. That explains a lot about our political environment today.
Where would you place yourself in this spectrum of ideas about God? Authoritarian, benevolent, Stern unapproachable judge or prime mover?
Truthfully, there are only a few things we can say for certain about God. We can’t capture God in the sugar bowl. God is beyond space and time, far beyond human understanding. If we could capture God with our tiny human brains, God would not be God. The only thing we can know about God for sure is what God chooses to reveal to us. And the way God chooses to reveal Himself to us is through a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Only Christ can show us what God is like. And what Christ tells us about God is something very extraordinary. But before I go there, I want to share with you a statement by a distinguished member of our judicial system.
A judge in Philadelphia, speaking of his experiences dealing with juveniles in trouble with the law, said that most of the young people who come before his court for discipline are hostile and aggressive. But their attitude doesn’t bother him nearly as much as the attitude of their parents. Often the child’s father is outraged! “Why do you do this to my boy?” he would ask. “Why bring him in here? Don’t you know who I am?”
“But,” said the judge, “never once did I see any of those fathers show any sign of affection for their teenagers.” Never once did a father put his arm around his son or daughter. Never once did he even touch his child. When a parent will show love, even by a simple act of touching, there is an opportunity for redemption. Otherwise, young people die emotionally, they die in their personalities because of a lack of love.
Now I want to turn to the last book in our Bible, the book of Revelation. Some people look at Revelation as the ultimate picture of an angry and vindictive God. But that is not what it says to me. It is speaking of the last days, and here’s what it says:
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
“And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
Can you get that final image in your mind’s eye? “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Here is the God Jesus showed us. A loving parent bending down and personally wiping the tears out of his child’s eyes. Here is comfort for the grieving, healing for the bruised and battered, hope for the despairing. There is a God who is aware of our heart aches, our frustrations, our fears–who personally longs to bow down before us and wipe the tears from our eyes. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like good news to me.
God is an intimate and loving God. That is what Christ taught us and even showed us. God is very close. God knows each of us better than our best friend knows us. And God cares about our problems.
A few Sundays ago, I mentioned a Bette Midler tune, “The Rose.” Do you remember another of her tunes, “From A Distance”? The chorus contains a phrase that is repeated over and over again, “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us … from a distance.”
The implication seems to be that God is a somewhat disinterested observer of our lives. God is watching us from a distance. That is not the picture of God that the New Testament teaches.
It’s like that story of a group of children lined up in the cafeteria of a religious school for lunch. At the head of the table is a large pile of apples. The teacher has made a note: “Take only one. God is watching.”
At the other end of the table is a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. Charlie, a young boy, looks back at the note by the apples and decides to write his own note to place by the cookies: “Take all you want, God is watching the apples.”
This is the picture of God that many people have. God is watching from a distance, probably trying to catch you doing something wrong. A more accurate picture of God is found in a story told by Leonard Sweet in his book, Soul Salsa:
A certain Native American tribe had a unique way of training young braves. On the night of a boy’s 13th birthday, he was led out into the wilderness to spend the night alone. Most young braves, at this time in their lives, had never been away from the security of their elders. Yet on this night, these young teenagers were blindfolded and taken miles away. When each one took off his blindfold, he found himself in the middle of the woods, alone, dependant on nothing but the goodwill of the Great Spirit–and his own survival training.
You can imagine what a terrifying night that was for these young boys. Imagination magnified every woodland sound, until it seemed like a fearsome monster.
But then, finally, each young brave managed to get to sleep–and when dawn broke, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around. What he saw was an amazing sight: a tall man, standing just a few feet away, armed with bow and arrow. It was his father. He had been there all night long, weapons at the ready–watching over his son as he slept.
This is the God that Jesus revealed to us. Abba–Daddy. Gracious, loving, always concerned about our best good. I know you’ve heard that thousands of times, but when will you embrace that truth and make it your own? You don’t need to be full of anxieties and insecurities, anger and fearfulness. The God who created the universe and everything in it is a God who kneels down and wipes the tears from his children’s eyes.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, when she was working with the dying, showed a group of seminary students a drawing that a child had made. The child had terminal cancer but refused to talk to anyone, withdrawing behind a wall of silence. The only communication offered by the child was through his drawings.
This particular drawing that she showed to the class had a beautiful little cottage set off to the side of the paper. Above the cottage was a bright, brilliant sun shining. Surrounding the cottage was a beautiful lawn with flowers and trees. In front of the cottage was a family of four: a mother, a father, and two children at play. In the center of the paper, however, stood a tiny figure facing a large army tank which was bearing down upon him–about to run him down. Obviously the tiny figure represented the dying child who saw himself helpless before a gigantic force which was about to destroy him.
Dr. Kubler-Ross asked the group of students, “How would you help this child communicate his fears? How could you offer him comfort?”
One student drew a picture of a figure holding a stop sign in front of the tank. But this did nothing to sooth the child when it was shown to him. However, a second seminarian then drew another person in the picture. And the person was doing nothing more, nor nothing less, than simply standing by the little child who was facing the gigantic force, holding the hand of the child. And that broke the wall of silence and enabled the child finally to pour out all of his pent-up feelings.
We have a God who stands beside us. We have a God who holds our hand. We have a God who gently wipes tears from our eyes.
John Claypool, one of America’s finest preachers, died in 2005. Over the course of his ministry he shared many stories from his own faith experience that have helped thousands of people. Many years ago John Claypool went through a terrifying experience. And he had to decide who God was for him. Listen to what he writes, “I had occasion to remember this experience some years ago when a close friend asked me abruptly, ‘Does God really help a person in time of trouble?’ At that moment, I myself was coming out of one of the most trying experiences of my whole existence. Some nine months before, my little daughter had been diagnosed with acute leukemia, but very quickly she had been given a medicine that enabled her to go into a remission, and for some time she had been almost perfectly normal. Naturally this created many distant hopes in my mind.
“All these hopes came to an abrupt end, ironically, on Easter Sunday morning, when the old pains reappeared and she went into a severe relapse that involved hospitalization for some two weeks. Part of the time both of her eyes were swollen shut, and pain wracked every part of her body. Moving with her through those two weeks was an unspeakably draining experience. I found myself stretched in every way–physically exhausted, emotionally dissipated, my faith itself challenged as never before … and it was just at this moment that my friend thrust his question before me. He was full of intensity as he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Give it to me straight. I am not asking you this as a preacher. I am asking you as an honest human being. Was there Anybody or Anything down there at the bottom? When the chips are really down, does this “thing” we call God really make any difference?’
“He was too good a friend, and the situation was far too serious for me to attempt to put up a front or to trot out a pat answer. The only thing appropriate for that moment was honest reporting. I thought for a long time, and then said quietly, ‘Yes, I can honestly say there was Something down there in the darkness. The ministry of Godness was present. I was given help. No ecstasy. No great energy. Just the gift of endurance–that was all that met me in the depths of darkness. By the grace of God, somehow I stayed on my feet! I did not blow up in presumptive bitterness; neither did I give up in hopeless despair. I was given the gift just to stand and hold on.’”
This is not a Pollyanna faith we are espousing. It does not say that we will avoid tears. Far from it. What it says is this: there is One who wipes tears from his children’s eyes. We can stand and hold on. Someone stands beside us. Someone holds our hand.