Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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 “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”  

This passage about Paul visiting the Athenians basically says that you can’t define God. You can’t describe God or what he is. You can’t put God in a box. He could be a she-bear for all we know. I must say, I don’t think there is one person in here who has never made an image of God in their mind—what he looks like, how he speaks. I’m sure we don’t (make voice high pitched) think God’s voice would be like this, (lower voice again) but we cannot be certain that it isn’t so. I’ve made an image of God before. I imagined him as a giant, with a chair the size of an apartment building, and he had a huge white fluffy beard. One Sunday when I was younger, maybe seven, it was No Shave November, which is this thing that some men do where you don’t shave for the entire month of November. That year Fred did it. For those who are rather new to this church, Fred Anderson used to be a minister here. So Fred, as all ministers in this church do, walked down the aisle at the end of the service, and he had this big fluffy white beard; he was exactly what I thought God looked like at the time. So, when he walked down the aisle I tugged my mom’s sleeve and said to her, “Mommy, look it’s God!”

Back then I imagined God exactly how he was told to us in preschool, which was that he was a God of love, and he loved every one of us. And I believed that, until 5th grade. Nothing really bad had happened to me before that except for the occasional “How is God made of love if he still makes me do homework?” kind of thing. But I remember this pretty well; it was one morning when my mom came to me after scrolling through Facebook. She and I were about to leave until she stopped and started getting teary-eyed. She was muttering, “Oh my gosh that’s so sad!” and things like that. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that Zander had died. Zander, short for Alexander, was a boy in my class who was friends with everyone. He was constantly blabbering on about baseball, and he liked school, and he played basketball with the other kids at recess. I asked her why he died, not actually feeling anything.  She replied by saying that he had a stroke and he wasn’t coming back. The words hadn’t really set in yet. I had learned about that once in science, but I wasn’t thinking about that, so I asked her what it was. She said it was bleeding in the brain, and that it’s really rare, especially in young children. He was only nine, but it happened. I almost didn’t believe her, like it was some cruel prank or something, and part of me knew she would never do that. So I went to school on a school bus and just sat there in silence. Everyone else was just wondering why Zander had been absent for so long. He was absent for the whole week. One person said that he had a cold, and another said he got bitten by a venomous spitting mosquito that shot lasers out of its eyes. That’s fifth grade for you.

When we got to school, everything was normal. Right after lunch, though, the principal, Dr. Koetke brought everyone to the art room--only our grade. Forty-eight kids wasn’t much if we squeezed together. The assistant principal of the school (I forget her name) sat down in a chair. We were all on the floor, and she told us that we had probably never gone through something like this. We all had, because another girl named Sophie died in first grade. But we were first graders. First graders are oblivious to everything. We just thought she moved to a new town. This time was different. She told us Alexander had a stroke. None of us, except the ones who actually remembered science outside science class, knew what a stroke was. When she saw our confused expressions, she said that he wasn’t coming back to school. We all knew what that meant. She said the art room would be open all day for those who were sad. Almost everyone stayed. My friend group went to one table, and there were twelve of us. I went under the table, because I do better in the dark. I was just thinking, if God is such a loving god, then why would he let that happen? I didn’t know. For my whole life before this I believed that God wouldn’t let bad things happen. For two years after that, I didn’t believe in God, because my view of God was too simple. And I know you may be thinking, “Well…then, why didn’t you just change your view of God?” And that’s actually not the right answer! We can only get so much about God from the Bible, but not enough to have a definite image.

So, there is no single image of God that captures him entirely. God is unpredictable in his ways, and yes, bad things happen. But God doesn’t stop bad things from happening. Instead, when bad things do happen he can help you through them. So sure, imagine God as a fully-loving being if you want to, but I find it helpful to think of him as a friend, because friends are unpredictable in their ways. You can never fully know someone, even a good friend, just like you can never fully know God. God operates in a way that just doesn’t make sense to us. God makes strange things happen, and sometimes it’s him trying to tell you something. I think about this quite often actually, how God can be using symbolism to try to communicate, to lead the way. Or maybe it’s just because English class has been permanently burned into my mind. God can’t be put in a box.

So, when Paul stood in front of the Athenians and spoke about their statue to an unknown God, it kind of got me thinking. It got me thinking about how big and incomprehensible our God really is. I mean, Paul is saying that even this strange statue can point to God, something that would never have been accepted by the Jews before. It makes me wonder how the ways that we think of God today are insufficient. The reason Paul was able to think outside the box is that he had actually encountered God. We learn earlier in the book that, when Paul was still a violent persecutor, he was walking along the road to Damascus. And then, Jesus started talking to him. This was the same Jesus Paul talks about when he tells the Athenians somebody rose up from the dead. This was God made flesh. This was God who showed love by healing people and eating with people and teaching people better ways to live. This was God who made the poor and outcast know that they mattered. This was God who gave his life for everybody, because he loved us so much. The interesting thing is that Paul didn’t get to see this God. He was blinded. But he got to know the character of God through Jesus. And this experience freed him. It’s because of this experience that he ended up there in Athens, thinking outside the box.

It didn’t matter what God looked like. It didn’t matter how people had always been describing God. What mattered was that Paul knew the character of God and Paul wanted these Athenians to know that character. By thinking of God as a friend, that character may be just a little easier to understand. Friends love you, and they comfort you, and they talk to you, and they think about you, and you think about them. Confirmation helped me realize that. Before confirmation, I still didn’t believe in God. Everything about God is so… royal. I’m not much for the idea of treating someone as royalty, so with him as a friend, I started to develop a better understanding of God and what he was trying to do and what he did do. And yes, I don’t believe in everything that happened in the Bible; but I do believe in the morals—love one another, don’t lie, respect your parents, don’t murder anyone. Those rules help us to live our lives in happiness, grace, and love. That’s what really matters. And I’ve learned that I don’t have to think about God in the way that I’ve always been told to. Like Paul, I can think outside the box. God is a friend who cares about each one of us, and wants us to live a happy and good life. He comforts you when you’re sad and helps you through bad things. God, as our friend, is not far from any one of us. So maybe, just maybe, if we search for him, we might find him, because he has already found us. Amen.