"The Strangest Thing about God"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts February 12, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Today we continue our preaching series called Finding God When Life is Hard. Last week, you may recall, I preached a sermon on "The Hardest Thing About God." In that sermon, I suggested that the hardest thing about God is the fact that, though He is compassionate and kind, God sometimes allows His people to suffer pain and injustice. Though He ultimately acts for our good, along the way it can seem as if God is doing nothing. Given His tender heart, this if very hard to understand, let alone to experience.
Today's sermon is really Part 2 of last week's message. It's called "The Strangest Thing About God." I want to reflect with you on what I find to be the most unexpected, unpredictable, and, indeed, the most wonderful thing about God. It has to do with how God has chosen to deal with the hardness and pain of this life.
Our Scripture reading for today comes from the second chapter of Hebrews. In this chapter the author is explaining God's work through Christ and the nature of salvation. Our reading today comes from Hebrews 2:14-18. Listen to God's Word.
Scripture: Hebrews 2:14-18
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
The Strangest Thing About People
Have you ever had your expectations about somebody turned upside down, much to your amazement? Have you ever learned something about someone and thought, "This is really strange!"
For years I had known of the Presbyterian theologian Shirley Guthrie, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. I knew that she had written many books and articles, some technical, some for a lay audience. Though I didn't always agree with her ideas, which were more liberal than my own, I respected Shirley as a theologian and a woman of faith.
Thus, when Shirley Guthrie was coming to our Presbytery meeting to speak, I was pleased . . . and curious. I was eager to see what she was like in person. Perhaps I'd even get to meet her. But when Shirley walked up to the pulpit, I had a giant shock. Shirley Guthrie wasn't a woman . . . but a man! No, no, there hadn't been any sex-change operation or anything like that. Shirley was born a male, and his parents named him Shirley.
I know this sounds a little strange today. You may be questioning the sanity of Shirley Guthrie's parents, remembering the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue." But, in fact, Shirley used to be a common name for a boy. According to the Social Security Administration, in 1927, the year of Shirley Guthrie's birth, 240 baby boys in America were named Shirley, giving it the rank of 380 on the list of the top 1000 male names. Shirley, by the way, reached its pinnacle in 1935, when it was ranked #259 among male names, with 431 baby boys in America given that name. In 1935, there were more baby boys named Shirley than all of the Jasons (84 boys), Joshuas (80 boys), Justins (69 boys), Kirks (60 boys), Matts (59 boys), and Jeffreys (47 names) put together. The problem with Shirley, however, was that it had become a very popular girl's name. In 1935, there were 42,331 baby girls named Shirley. That's about a hundred times as many girl Shirleys as boy Shirleys. In fact, it was the second most popular girl's name that year. So, beginning in 1936, Shirley fell into disfavor as a boy's name. From 1958 onward, it didn't even make the top 1000.
At any rate, until I got used to it, the strangest thing for me about Shirley Guthrie was the fact that "she" was a man.
The Strangest Thing About God
Most of us have similar experiences when it comes to God. There are certain aspects of God's character and activity, which, if we're honest, seem truly strange to us. They overturn our expectations. They shock our sensibilities.
I asked folks at the Pastor's Study on Thursday morning to weigh in on this question: "What do you find to be the strangest thing about God?" Their answers made sense. One woman shared that she finds it strange to think that God can hear all the prayers of all people in the world at once. Another man offered that he finds it odd that God is willing to put up with all the imperfections in the world, and in us. Another person added that it's strange that God allows such theological disagreement among religious people. Along those same lines, I said that I find it strange that God hasn't been more obvious in His revelation of Himself to us. He's left so much room for confusion, even for unbelief. If I were God - which, by the way, we should all be grateful is not the case - I'd leave much less room for conjecture.
I agree that there are many strange things about God, strange in the sense that they don't match our expectations, or that they're hard for us to comprehend. But for me, one thing is the strangest of all. I don't mean this negatively, by the way. What I find strangest about God is wonderfully strange; it's marvelous beyond anything I could imagine. It's not only the strangest thing about God, but, possibly, the most magnificent.
The Strange Truth of Hebrews 2:14-18
This aspect of God's character and activity can be found in many passages of Scripture. But the second chapter of Hebrews, in a few short verses, highlights this strange but wonderful thing about God. It has to do with God's response to the hardness and suffering of life. What I find so strange is God's way of dealing with the problem of the brokenness of creation and the pain associated with this brokenness. It's God's peculiar way of restoring His world, and delivering us from the agonies and uncertainties of life in a fallen world.
Let's look once again at the text of Hebrews 2:14-18. It begins: "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things." "The children," in context, are human beings. "He himself" is Jesus, who "shared in the same things," namely, "flesh and blood." This verse refers to the Incarnation of Christ, to the fact that the divine Word of God became human. And, just to be sure there's no confusion, Hebrews adds in verse 17: "Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect." In other words, the Incarnate Son of God wasn't partly human, or human in appearance alone. He was fully human, like us in every way, except, as we learn from Hebrew 4:15, without sin.
Now this is the first part of the strangest thing about God. God, the Holy One in whom there is no hint of imperfection or evil, entered into this imperfect and evil world. God, the all-powerful and all-knowing, entered our world as a helpless, unknowing baby. God, the Creator who transcends His creation, nevertheless became a part of it:
• the Unlimited taking on limitation;
• the Solid Rock becoming vulnerable;
• the King of kings becoming a slave.
This, of course, is the good news we celebrate at Christmas, and it is strangely marvelous beyond anything our words can express.
But this isn't the end of God's strangeness. Rather, it's just the beginning. Salvation didn't occur simply because God entered our world as a human being. The Incarnation, as wonderful and necessary as it is, was only the beginning of God's incredible action.
Let's look again at Hebrews 2. It reads, "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared in the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." The ultimate reason for the Incarnation was more than that we might see God in the person of Jesus. Jesus came so that He might die, and thereby break the power of Satan, sin, and death.
Hebrews is assuming a lot of theology here. It's assuming that our sin has separated us from God and His life. It's assuming that death -- eternal separation from God and His life -- comes as a necessary result of sin. And it assumes that the sacrifice of One who is sinless, pure, and righteous will erase the stain of sin and destroy the domain of death.
Verse 17 explains, "Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people." Jesus is able to represent us as our priest before God because He is one of us, like us "in every respect." Moreover, as we'll learn later in Hebrews, Jesus was not only the priest who offered the sacrifice, but also He was Himself the spotless, once-for-all sacrifice.
So the strange wonder of the Incarnation is the prerequisite to something even stranger and more wonderful. God became fully human in Jesus so that, by dying, He might give us life. God came in Jesus, to offer the perfect and final sacrifice as both priest and offering.
This means that God responds to the problem of life's hardness, not at first by making it better, but rather by entering into the hardness. God responds to life's suffering, not by taking away the pain, but by suffering. God has defeated the power of death, not by abolishing it through royal decree, but by experiencing death, by dying in our place so that we might enjoy God's life forever.
This, I would argue, is the strangest thing about God. It's not what we would expect of an all-powerful, all-holy, all-perfect, all-transcendent Being. And so it is very strange, and very wonderful. In fact, it's the core of the gospel, the good news of God's salvation in Christ.
The Example of Aslan
Because God's entry into our brokenness, even into our death, is so strange, it's hard to grasp its truth or to feel its reality. If you've been a Christian for a while, like me, you can easily hear this odd but wonderful news as if it were commonplace and, indeed, yesterday's news. Yet God gives us many ways to feel the mystery and the marvel of His gracious entry into the hardness of life. One of these ways is through the familiar story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
I expect that most of you have either read the book, or seen the movie, or both. If you haven't seen the film yet, you still have a chance to catch it on the big screen, and I'd highly recommend it. At any rate, part of what I love about C.S. Lewis's story is the way it portrays what I might call "the strangest part of Aslan." Though he is more powerful than any other being, though he could surely have killed the White Witch at any time, and though he was unworthy of the sentence of death that rightfully belonged to Edmund, nevertheless, Aslan chose to die in Edmund's place. He allowed himself to be beaten, shorn, and dishonored by the foulest creatures. As onlookers, we sense that this is horrible. It just feels wrong. Aslan should not be going through such an undeserved ordeal. Yet, as the story unfolds, we realize that it was both necessary and profoundly right for Aslan to do what seemed to be so nonsensical. He freely chose to undergo the suffering that should have been Edmund's in order to set him free, and to defeat the tyranny of the White Witch, and to restore all of Narnia.
And so it is with God, who chose to suffer on our behalf, so that we would be set free from sin and death, and so that creation might be renewed.
No Quick Fix
One of the reasons I find God's entering into human suffering so strange is that I'm not inclined to do this sort of thing myself. I don't mean to say that I'm hardhearted. In fact, I tend to feel people's pain fairly easily and deeply. But my first response to learning of someone suffering is to want to make it better. I want to remove the cause of suffering. I want to fix things, the sooner the better.
This isn't all bad, of course. When my son Nathan got stung by a bee and was in lots of pain, my job as his dad wasn't to be empathetic and share in his throbbing. My job was to remove the stinger and apply a compress of baking soda to reduce the pain. So there are times when fixing things is the right approach.
But there are times when this is wrong, and compounds the problem. Sometimes parents are so quick to fix everything in their children's lives, for example, that their children never really experience the consequences of their mistakes. In time, their children aren't able to make right choices for their lives because they've never learned about the pain that comes from wrong choices. So there are times when parents need not to make things better for their children, but simply to "feel their pain," so to speak.
God's response to human suffering is complex. On the one hand, God does have a grand plan to renew creation, defeat death, and restore all things to His original intention. This is fixing things in the biggest possible way. But it's no quick fix. God has been working out his plan for more than 4,000 years, and we have no idea how much longer it will be before God restores all things in Christ.
When that happens, it will be truly glorious, with a new heaven and a new earth, and God dwelling fully among us, and no more death, mourning, crying, or pain. That's what it says in Revelation 21. Yet, as we have seen today, God's way to the ultimate banishment of death, mourning, crying, and pain was to enter into our reality, and to experience death, mourning, crying, and pain from the inside. As a result, God shattered the yoke of sin and nullified the sentence of eternal death.
Jesus is Able to Help
Yet there is another result as well. Let's go back to Hebrews 2 once more. Verse 18 reads, "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested." How does Jesus help us? Partly, by being able to understand what our suffering is all about because He's been there. Jesus knows what it's like to stub a toe, or to hit his thumb with a hammer, or to grieve over the death of a loved one, or to be hungry, or to feel discouraged, or to be betrayed by a friend, or even to question God's will. Of course Jesus also knows what it's like to feel extreme physical pain, and because of His experience on the cross, what it's like to experience separation from the love of God. When we know that Jesus understands, this helps us to sense His compassionate presence in the midst of our suffering.
Jesus helps us in other ways as well. Sometimes He intervenes dramatically to take away our suffering. I know people who have experienced miraculous, immediate physical healing as a result of prayer. But, of course, often Jesus doesn't immediately take away the source of our suffering. Yet He gives peace, the peace that passes understanding. I've been with many people in the hours before their death. Some of these folks have known an otherworldly confidence and joy, even in the midst of physical suffering.
Often the comfort of Jesus comes wrapped up in flesh and blood, not the literal body of Jesus, of course, but His metaphorical body, the church. I can't tell you how many times I've seen this played out in our fellowship at IPC, when you've wept with those who weep, when you've shared your sorrows, when you've carried one another's burdens. I had a wonderful experience of this very thing recently when I was going through a discouraging time in my own life and God sent members of Christ's body here to care for me.
Today I've alluded briefly to some of the ways God, through Christ, is able to help us when life is hard. But there's much more to say about this. Next week I'll address the question of where we should start if we want to find God when life is hard.
But for now, sisters and brothers, believe the good news. If you're feeling the hardness of life today, if you're suffering physical, mental, relational, or spiritual pain, God has suffered in Jesus Christ so that, in time, suffering itself will be abolished. The broken world will be restored, and we will be made perfect in Christ. This is our ultimate hope, our confidence in God's future.
In the meanwhile, however, God doesn't stand far off when we suffer. He understands. He draws near. He feels along with us. He helps us. Sometimes His help comes through miracle of healing and deliverance. Sometimes it comes through the miracle of the Spirit's comfort. Sometimes it comes through the miracle of the loving care of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The strangest and most wonderful thing about God is that He is there with us in the midst of life's struggles, that He has entered into the hardness of life in order to make all things right again. Jesus Christ, who God the Son Incarnate, is One whom Isaiah described as a "man of suffering" who "bore our infirmities and carried our diseases" (Isaiah 53:3-4). The great news is that Jesus, as Isaiah said, "was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed" (53:5). This is truly strange, and marvelous, and gracious. It fills our hearts with wonder, and sends us to our knees in grateful worship.