Discovering the God Who Is

A sermon for Ash Wednesday by Christopher L. Webber.

Four thousand years ago the Hebrews were a nomadic tribe wandering in the deserts of the middle east. Around them were people who were learning to be farmers: Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites, who raised wheat and barley and melons and other good things to eat. And because they depended on the sun and the rain and the rivers, the soil and the seasons, and because these were not always favorable, these agricultural people prayed to the powers that they thought determined success or failure, abundance or hunger, and they made statues and images as a focus for their prayers.

The Hebrews, however, were nomads. They had no crops to raise and so no need for gods of that sort. So when the Hebrews came into the promised land and tried to learn farming themselves, they looked to the Canaanites for advice and were told, “Well, here’s what you do: you set up a pillar and you make offerings; you carve some wood or stone and you cry out to Baal.” Some of the Hebrews tried it out and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but they thought it was better to do it than not do it. Hey, you never know. But others resisted and said, “No, the God of our ancestors commanded us to make no statues, because our God is beyond all possibility of representation. And our God also cannot be influenced by the size of our offerings or anything like that. We can try to line up with God but no way we can get God to line up with us.”

That was a conflict that went on for centuries. The Hebrews were divided, with prophets and their visions on one side and the practical people on the other. The prophets said, “It doesn’t matter where you are or what the agenda is; there is one God, no other. You can serve God, but God can’t be bribed to serve you.” But the practical people said, “Look, the Canaanites have the experience and the smart thing is to hedge your bets, not put all your eggs in one basket, always backup your computer.”

When the Jews finally finished conquering Canaan and built a capital in Jerusalem, David wanted to build a temple for God – something symbolic, something concrete and visible – but God said “No.” Solomon built one anyway, and at last the people had at least some place to locate God and a tangible symbol as a center for their worship. But the prophets didn’t give up; still there were prophets who insisted God is beyond all this and if this becomes an idol, God can and will destroy it and God can even destroy you, the chosen people, if you turn to your own ways, because God is always beyond, always greater than we can imagine and God asks us to respond in a freedom that lacks the apparent security of walls and borders and images and festivals and buildings and laws. God is not limited by our constructions. God is free. And God calls us to respond in freedom giving ourselves without limit to the God who loves us without limit.

That’s what Lent is all about: a reminder that we are by origin a desert people with a desert God: a God who is free and calls us to freedom. Lent summons us to remember who we are and respond to that challenge. For forty days every year we are challenged to follow Jesus back out into the desert of our nomadic ancestors where there is none of the security of plowed land and settlements and walls and well-traveled roads. The Prayer Book speaks of Lent as a time of “special acts of discipline and self-denial.” It asks whether we can get along without the images and the idols – the things, the possessions – that give us a feeling of security. Can we put them aside, and learn to live with God alone?

All the old traditional disciplines of Lent, giving up candy and movies and television – the images of Canaan and Babylon – are basically about that: how addicted are you to the local idols? how dependent on material things? One of the old mystics used to say, “This too is not God.” It’s a good line to remember. “This too is not God.”

Lent is a time to turn away from the things that are not God and discover again, or perhaps for the first time, the God who is.

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