What is God like? Or maybe, since this is an exploration of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a better question would be, “What is the God Jesus calls Father, like?”
Conceptions of God
This clarification is important because people have various conceptions of the divine. Alcoholics Anonymous is famous for inviting people to believe in the God of their understanding.
In my previous post I shared the results of a 2005 study by sociologists at the University of Baylor. Americans who believe in a deity hold four distinct and conflicting conceptions of God.
I have argued throughout this series that Jesus is inviting people to reimagine their understanding of the one he calls Father. The whole sermon is Jesus exploring the ramification of how he answers the question, “What is God like?”
The Popular Conception
In Jesus’ day, people thought the divine interacted with you based on your behavior.
We see this in John 9 where Jesus and his disciples come across a man born blind. The disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” They assumed the man’s blindness was a punishment. What they did not understand was why god punished the man.
As another example, in Luke 13, Jesus brings up a tower that fell over and killed eighteen people. Jesus asks if the tower fell on them because they did something wrong. Then he offers a very clear answer, “No!” He brought up the example to challenge the popular conception of the day.
This perception is popular in our day too. How often do people ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
In my work as a funeral officiant, I regularly conduct services for young adults. Just yesterday I buried a vibrant and active 34-year old. I even did a service for a five-week old once. Parents want to know why their child died. Some have openly wondered if it is a punishment from God.
These modern and ancient examples suggest that God interacts with people based on their individual performance. However, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says God is not like that.
In Matthew 5:44-45, Jesus says:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
The God Jesus calls Father gives good gift to everyone. The sun rises on the evil and the good. The rain waters the crops of both the righteous and the unrighteous. God does not distinguish between those who love God and those who do not. God loves all and works for the good of all.
So if that is true, how do we make sense of the bad things that happen? When preaching at a funeral on this topic I invite those gathered to reimagine where God stands in relationship to history.
God and History
Typically, if we think of history as a timeline, we imagine God standing above it. Almost as if God is the chess master looking down on the chess board. This deity chooses to make some moves while choosing not to make others. Whatever this case, there is a manipulation of history according to divine whims. No wonder we assume a cause and effect relationship between our behavior and God’s activity or non-activity.
But what if God sits at the end of the timeline. And before the time presences is a translucent image of what it looks like when everything is very good. Behind this image history unfolds. From here, God is not so much the one causing things to happen, but constantly responds to what happens and seeking, some how and some way, to take what is and guide it towards what should be.
In other words, God is not the cause but the cure, not the action but the reaction. From this place God does not initiate, but responds.
This idea fits well with Genesis 1 which starts with an introductory statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Those words are not about the creative act, rather they tell us what is coming. This means the actually story of God’s action begins with things as they were, “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” God looks at the formless void, the darkness, and the chaos and speaks into it. The first words, “Let their be light.” mark the first step of bringing order and peace into what is.
God already sees the end, and knows we will only get there if the sun rises for everyone. Getting to the end requires the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. We only get to what should be when we mirror our heavenly parent by loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.
Relentless love given to those who deserve it least is the weapon of the Jesus’ revolution.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.