There’s a new book making waves in Presbyterian leadership circles; Future Faith, by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson. It’s a mainline Protestant response to the precipitous decline in American and European mainline church membership. This decline has been going on since the 1960’s but has accelerated in recent years. Even the Pentecostal and Evangelical denominations are now seeing declines. Our Mainline Presbyterian Church USA, for example, used to be over 5 million members, but is now on the way to 1 million. Membership is ageing out. The drop is especially sharp among young people under thirty. But, in other countries on other continents, Catholic and Protestant churches are growing strongly. “Why?” is the question, and this book suggests some clear answers.
I want to focus on one of the main answers suggested by the author. I also feel it is one of the main reasons for the increasing decline of religion in America, but more important, it’s the lesson in our scriptures this morning. What is this human tendency so destructive to our faith in God? We create a box for God, and put God in it. And, since God does not fit in our box, the box is empty.
I don’t need to remind you that God is really big. God is so big we can’t calculate the height, depth, width or length of God. God is beyond human measurement or even human comprehension. Still, many otherwise very smart people are determined to whittle God down to human size. Put God in a manageable box. There’s nothing new in this. And, there is nothing new in the price it exacts. A small God can make us feel big —but only for a little while. I think much of the anxiety, anger and outright craziness we see affecting our country —and much of the Western world— comes from our ever-increasing efforts to stuff God into an ever smaller box. The news plays out the consequences of trying to put God into a small box. And, since kids are smart, they know there’s no God in that little box. The box is empty.
God warns us over and over through both Old Testament and New Testament. God is Holy, Incomprehensible, Loving and Real. Do not try to explain God in human terms. Do not try and reduce God or contain God in a space in which we allow him to exist. Do not try to make God over in your image. Our role as a human being is to allow God to transform us into his image.
Our Old Testament scripture this morning is about David. King David, the composer of Psalms, slayer of Goliath and all-round good-looking guy. David tried to put God in a box. He called it a house. In our reading today, David decides to build God a house. David’s prophet, Nathan, at first says, “Good.” But in a dream God speaks to Nathan, who relays God’s words to David.
...’Are you to build me a house to dwell in? Down to this day I have never dwelt in a house since I brought Israel up from Egypt; I lived in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I journeyed with Israel, did I ever ask any of the judges whom I appointed shepherds of my people Israel why they had not built me a cedar house?
David wants to build God a house to live in, to get him out of that tent and into something “truly worthy of God, that I David will build in order to give you, our homeless God a hand up.” Our arrogance and presumption is without boundary.
God also tells David through Nathan: ...‘The Lord has told you that he would build up your royal house. When your life ends and you rest with your forefathers, I shall set up one of your family, one of your own children, to succeed you, and I shall establish his kingdom. It is he who is to build a house in honour of my name, and I shall establish his royal throne for all time. I shall be a father to him, and he will be my son.’
In his time, too, David’s son Solomon decided to build God a house. Solomon’s Temple, as it is called, was just that. Solomon’s Temple. God did not ask Solomon to build it. But, God accommodated Solomon and let him build it. It’s humbling to realize that while our wisdom pales compared to Solomon, the wisest human being of all time, he made the same mistake as his father David. Solomon wanted to put God in a box. God let him build the temple. God also let Solomon acquire 1000 wives and concubines. God also let Solomon restore the pagan high places so his women, and Israel, could worship these fake gods. But, the result of Solomon’s actions, putting God safely in a box and in doing things his own way, led to the breakup of Israel and Judah, the civil war and the destruction and captivity of Israel and Judah that followed Solomon’s death.
But, God in his wisdom and mercy makes accommodation for our stupidity. He lets us do these things, but miraculously arranges for it to all work out. With the benefit of knowing how things turned out, we see of course, what God really meant by saying he would build David’s descendants into a house in which he would live. Jesus is David’s descendant.
Paul lays it out in his letter to the Ephesians; You were once separate from Christ, excluded from the community of Israel...but now in union with Christ Jesus...Gentiles and Jews, he has made the two one...so as to create out of the two a single new humanity in himself.. You are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the corner-stone. In him the whole building is bonded together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built with all the others into a spiritual dwelling for God.
God does not live on the earth. The earth, the heavens, the elements, the rules by which the physical world works, gravity, motion, heat, light, the nature of matter and energy, the soul, these are all creations of God. God does not need a home on earth. The earth lives in God. This is the hint in Jesus’ words to the religious teacher, Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. Hebrews 13 teaches: For here we have no lasting city, but we are seekers after the city which is to come.
This is the house God established for himself, built from and for David and Solomon’s posterity. And for us and for our posterity. This is the house that God wanted. And, he built it. It is made out of us, with Jesus as our cornerstone. So, knowing all this, why do we want to put God in a box? Why do we want to reduce God, define God in human terms?
Let me tell you a story about Punky, our English Bulldog. Punky was quite human in many ways. Our veterinarians’ office was only a few blocks away, and his staff loved Punky. They fussed over her, did her nails, trimmed her up, bathed her and anointed her with sweet-smelling ointments. Punky loved going to the vet’s. Punky had a good deal of freedom, but she also knew the laws we had laid down. Our commandments were few, but clear. Don’t gnaw on the furniture and don’t leave the yard unaccompanied.
Punky would occasionally be overcome with the desire for a spa treatment, and would set out on her own for the vet’s. She would scratch at the door and hope for the full treatment. Then I’d get the phone call from the office. Punky somehow believed that I would be glad she was not lost and instead of “bad-dogging” her, we would pick her up and welcome her home like the prodigal puppy.
But, once upon a time I surprised Punky. One bright summer morning I opened the front door just as she was crossing the sidewalk heading off for her spa. “Punky”, I shouted. Caught in flagrante delicto, Punky hid from me. This fifty-five pound bulldog ducked behind the No Parking sign at the curb. She turned her head sideways so both eyes were hidden behind the signpost. Her bulldog bulk stuck out before and behind and beside. But, since she couldn’t see me she assumed I couldn’t see her.
Punky was ashamed and afraid. As are we. Without faith, we are afraid, afraid and ashamed. We are afraid of a God who is powerful, powerful and uncontrollable, who is everywhere, who constantly sees and knows our every thought and action. Pretty uncomfortable. So we make our God small enough to put in a box where we can’t see him. If we don’t see him, he won’t see us. We can visit him in his house on Sunday and be on our best behavior.
But God doesn’t live in a box or a house. God is too big. Our human tendency, like David, and even like wise Solomon, is to think in human terms, not God’s terms. We humans are the best and smartest things on earth. There can’t be anyone above us. Someone looking over us. Humility is weakness, self-esteem must be nourished. Oh! our arrogance and presumption. And like David, we haven’t learned.
We in the West continue to try and make God small. It’s described differently, of course. Science minimizes and dismisses God by declaring man and matter as the totality of all things. All “real” things can be seen, touched, measured. At the bottom, there are quarks. If you can’t measure God and submit him to scientific test, God is of no consequence. We forget that science just tracks God’s footprints. The spiritual is dismissed as “unreal,” unworthy even of consideration, never mind belief. This is a way we make us larger and God small.
Or, we dismiss the idea of God as present in all relationships, as the Creator and Lover of all creation. Nah, that’s Tree-hugging. Soft-hearted. What counts is Personal salvation, me, I, the individual working out my own salvation in fear and trembling, and the other be damned to Hell if he has not listened to me—if he isn’t on the one true path, the path I have chosen. Our western cult of individualism over community is another way we make us larger and God small.
And we make God small by not worshiping and adoring him as Creator, but as only to be found in doing good deeds, works of our merit, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Good charitable deeds, but not proceeding from a loving and broken heart, not proceeding from faith in a God who made all things and is in all things and is in all people. This can be cold charity. This too is a way of making us larger and God small.
We have developed great skill at decreasing the size and so diminishing the adoration and worship of God. We’ve increased adoration and worship of the individual, the worship of human reason, and the pursuit of good works because we are good people. What to do? Despite the personal machismo we see acted out each day, we can remember that humility, meekness is the great Christian virtue. In recognizing the smallness of ourselves and the greatness of God, we can recover our sense of awe at the incomprehensibility, the glory of God. By letting God be great again, we will again see the greatness of all of creation.
How big is God? St. Bonaventure, a great early Christian described God this way... ”within all things but not enclosed; outside all things but not excluded; above all things but not aloof; below all things but not debased…Whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
May God add his blessing to these words...
Let's stand and join in our Hymn, "How Great Thou Art."