These first three weeks of November we’ve been exploring the the Mission Statement for Ormewood Church: welcoming everyone to explore the living God in our neighborhoods. This statement came out of many Wednesday night conversations and prayers this past spring and summer with our leadership team. It is our best articulation of what we’re doing here as a church--why we’ve started, what our priorities are, what we feel like God is asking us to do, at least for this first year.
The first week we explored what it means to welcome everyone. Last week we talked about that one hinge-word in the middle: to explore! This week we’re wrapping up this short series by talking about the end of our mission statement--what does it mean that we have a “living God in our very neighborhoods?” That God is both in here and out there?
And next week? Advent, waiting, and preparation for baby Jesus.
Let’s start this morning’s sermon by reading our scripture for today. I’m going to read Isaiah 46:3-7 and 12-13. Then we have some special folks reading our Acts passage for us.
Listen now for a Word from God.
Isaiah 46:3-7, 12-13
Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am,
even when you turn grey I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.
To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, as though we were alike?
Those who lavish gold from the purse,
and weigh out silver in the scales—
they hire a goldsmith, who makes it into a god;
then they fall down and worship!
They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it,
they set it in its place, and it stands there;
it cannot move from its place.
If one cries out to it, it does not answer
or save anyone from trouble.
Listen to me, you stubborn of heart,
you who are far from deliverance:
I bring near my deliverance, it is not far off,
and my salvation will not tarry;
I will put salvation in Zion,
for Israel my glory.
And now, Acts 17.
Acts 17 Reading--Drama
Narrator, Stoic, Epicurean, Paul
Narrator: While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said,
Stoic: What does this babbler want to say?
Narrator: Others said,
Epicurean: He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.
Narrator: This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him,
Stoic: May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.
Narrator: Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said,
Paul: Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ 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.
What does it mean that we have a living God, a living God that is among us, even among us in our neighborhoods here in Atlanta? Does it mean we can touch God whenever we want--I wish. Does it mean we can see God whenever we want? Again, I wish. Does it mean that death will never touch us with or living God by our side, unfortunately not. There are so many things I wish I could promise up here, but I can’t.
And yet our faith has endured through thousands of years--and we’ve visited some of the responses our faith community has had today in our old and new testament readings. We will look to them for wisdom--Isaiah and Paul and the community in Athens from the book of Acts. We will see how they wrestled with the idea of a living God in a world as mysterious as ours is sometimes.
Isaiah sees the gods his neighbors make--they are made of the same things that his fire is made of--wood. They are made of the same things they wear as jewelery--metal. These gods are made of things, but life is about more than just things. Isaiah knows this. His community knows this.
At the time of this prophet Isaiah, the people of Israel are spread about almost anywhere except where they want to be--Jerusalem. They have been conquered and displaced. Whether they are in Babylon or some other conquering city, their new neighbors have idols, have gods that they create with metal and wood. But Isaiah’s people are hungry for something more than this.
And Isaiah reminds them that beyond mere trinkets and wealth and conquest, they believe in a God that deals in deliverance and salvation and bearing people up when they are down. They need and believe in a God that deals in the ultimates and not the extras, the existential and not the accessory. For Isaiah, God is a real God because she cares about the living and moving pieces of their lives, not the shapes of stone and metal that sit still on the shelf. A living God moves with them and acts for them, wherever they are.
What does it mean to encounter a living God?
In our new Testament text today we hear about Paul. Poor Paul has been kicked out of quite a few cities as he’s traveled farther and farther from Jerusalem sharing his thoughts on Jesus. He arrives in Athens and is alone, taking stock.
There are lots of people in Athens--and they are alive!--Alive with curiosity and a thirst for the spiritual. They are so thirsty for it they have created idols to all the gods they’ve ever heard of. They’ve even created an altar for an unknown god--just in case they’ve missed out on someone or maybe out of fear or maybe because they know there is something out there bigger than their philosophical debates and statue collecting. They are alive and engaged, but it seems like they haven’t found a god who is; they are curious. They want more.
And Paul is trying to figure out how to tell them about Jesus--a living, breathing, embodiment of God. As full of life as they are. He is trying to tell them about a God who came, who died, and then rose to life--more powerful than the linear arguments of their daily debates. He is trying to tell them about a God who cares for them so much that the pain of being human wasn’t off the table.
He is trying to tell them about a living God.
This is what we are trying to do here as well--welcoming everyone to explore the living God in our neighborhoods. We are not the prophet Isaiah nor are we in exile as his community was. We are not Paul in Athens. But we are people who are in situations and predicaments where an idol of gold, or bronze, or time, or money, or power or politics is just not going to cut it.
Like the people in Isaiah we’ve found that we can fashion really amazing art, or technology, or political systems, or what have you, but they are at the end of the day not giving us what Isaiah says a living God gives: salvation, deliverance, someone to bear us and carry us and love us.
Like the people in Acts we’ve found that we can fashion statues of gods--maybe leaders (political or in Hollywood), maybe our bank accounts or our retirement plans, maybe it’s good schools for our kids. We can fashion many good and beautiful things, but those do not satiate the fact that we long for something more--something alive and bigger--something beyond the institutions that seem to keep crumbling around us.
We come to this place, to this community because we want to know and be reminded of and even encounter something living and life-giving--some divine spark or life that calls us beyond stationary idols and powerless gods into the real and lasting work of a living God. That’s what we want to welcome everyone to explore.
And what is that work of a living God? How can we recognize the living God when God draws near? I think as a community we’re going to experience this in a million different ways on a million different occasions in the path ahead of us. God’s ways can be so mysterious.
But we get clues from the community of Isaiah on how to recognize the living God. Isaiah reminded Israel that we won’t see God in the man-made idols, but in the moments of salvation. We will not see God in the things we create to replace god, but we will see the living God in the work of deliverance. In the work of creation and creativity. In the work of relief and carrying folks who cannot carry themselves. The living God is among us and active not in the little gods that we make, but in the bigger stuff of our lives that makes us and makes our community and neighborhoods come alive with love and peace and patience and kindness, goodness, gentleness, joy, and faithfulness--the fruits of the Spirit of our God. When we see these things, we see the living God. We recognize God by the work that God is doing among us.
I led a funeral yesterday for a woman, Susie, who actually attended Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church in the 1960s. I was talking with the family before the funeral about Psalm 121, the passage they had selected for her service. It’s the familiar Psalm, I look the hills, from where does my help come? It dawned on me while we were talking about Susie and about her life that when others looked to the hills for their help from God, Susie was that hill, she was God’s answer for so many. At the drop of a hat she traveled, with her kids, to visit family--to offer deliverance from grief or company for those who needed to be carried. She volunteered for all the youth mission trips, bless--there is no greater work of the fruits of the spirit than those who show up for sweaty, drama-filled, funky food youth mission trips. People caught a glimpse of the living God in Susie.
We’ll recognize the living God when we witness the work of a living God. We will explore and find God when we uncover and experience the good work of our God.
Yet sometimes, sometimes the living God is not so easy to spot--perhaps our pain is too much. Perhaps our busy lives distracts us from seeing the good and faithful work of the divine. Perhaps the news cycle drowns out any news of salvation. Or perhaps our grief and the chasm it has created is still too great for us to cross. Sometimes God’s presence is such a mystery--but we are called to explore even that. We are a faith community called to explore the living God in the mystery, in the mundane and sometimes even the terrifying places of pain.
We are called as a community to explore the living God--to search, to see, and to remember the salvation, deliverance, creation, and care that follows us as it followed Isaiah’s community from life to death and to resurrection some day. The living God is among us.
The place where I have encountered the living God most faithfully has been in poetry. It has saved my own life and faith on multiple occasions. I’ve seen the living God come off of the pages--I’ve been comforted, convicted, and transformed. One of my favorite poets is Rainier Maria Rilke--we ended worship with a poem of his last week. I want to share another one this week because I think it grasps this elusive, but steadfastly loving presence of our divine Shepherd.
I have hymns you haven’t heard.
There is an upward soaring in which I bend close.
You can barely distinguish me from the things that kneel before me.
They are like sheep, they are grazing.
I am the shepherd on the brow of the hill.
When evening draws them home I follow after, the dark bridge thudding.
And the vapor rising from their backs
Hides my own homecoming.
The living God is among us, arising with the sun in the morning above our tree canopy and walking alongside when evening draws us home. We are here this morning because we feel called or maybe curious or maybe thirsty to explore what the living God is up to--and that is what we’re welcoming everyone to explore. Amen.