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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

“Seeking the Unknowable God” (Isaiah 55:6-9)

New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017

            My New Year’s goal: I am going to go up to Greenland or somewhere north of there, and I am going to swim under an iceberg.  If above the water is 50 feet high and 200 or 300 hundred feet in width and length, then under the water it is much, much bigger, running hundreds of feet deep.  Swimming under that, what will kill me first, the hypothermia, or the drowning? 
            Before we think about getting a pastor search committee ready, I have already thought this out and I’ve decided to tackle something bigger than this, but less fatal.   And you’re coming with me. 
            I actually Googled it and found a guy who does explore icebergs by swimming under them.  So, yes, I know it can be done.  I also know I would die in under a minute if I tried.  What I am attempting – what we will attempt – in 2017 is more unreachable than the iceberg-swim, but the attempt itself, is life-changing.  In a good way.
            I think God is like an iceberg.  In photos of icebergs – photos that show both above and below the water’s surface, it is clear how much more is under the water; this is what we don’t see – except in those special photos.  There literally is a lot more than meets the eye.  We see less of the iceberg than the submerged portion we can’t see.  And there is more of God we do not know and cannot know than what we do know – immeasurably more. 
            That word, ‘immeasurable,’ is often used as hyperbole, to express how big something is.  In this case, I am using the word literally.  God’s expanse goes beyond our physical universe and when God so pleases, he occupies space in our universe.  God operates within the bounds of the laws of nature, but God can at times, God can defy the laws of nature.  Furthermore, God cannot be measured.
We want to try to see more God knowing that we can never see all of God and in all likelihood there will always be more of God that we cannot see than what we can see.  There will always be more of God we do not know.  In our quest we will use logic and rational thought.  We will appeal to experience – the experience of people in the Bible, of the great theologians in history, and the experience of everyday believers.  Our quest is rooted scripture, yet our individual stories are extremely important as we try to grow our God knowledge.  Your sense of God and your understanding within the arc of your own life matters in this quest to see God because the Bible repeatedly shows that God revealed God’s self to everyday people at least as often as to religious scholars.  Moses was a shepherd.  Joseph, the son of Jacob, was a slave.  The prophet Amos was a farmer.  Mary was a peasant.  Matthew a tax collector.  The experiences everyday people have with God have a privileged place at the table of theological discussion.  However, even as we seek God by way study of scripture, by prayer, by means of sophisticated inquiry, and by hearing one another’s stories, even as we together attempt to swim under the iceberg just to see what it’s like down there, we accept at the beginning that God cannot be known.
            So why do it at all?  Our scripture reading for this morning might discourage us.  The latter two verses, Isaiah 55:8-9, say,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Additional scripture passages deepen this sense of Holiness and otherness of God. 
Romans 11:33 says, “O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable are his ways.”
And in Deuteronomy, the people of Israel were so aware of God’s holiness, they felt themselves unworthy to even exist in God’s presence.  The text of Deuteronomy is a recounting of the journey of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Moses reiterates the entire law for the people before they prepare to crossover into the land and live as God’s people.  In Deuteronomy 5, the people tell Moses, “If the Lord our God speaks to us again, we will certainly die and be consumed by his awesome fire.”  Then they tell Moses, you be the one to risk death by continuing to speak to God.  Then you come out and tell us what God says.  They had no desire to get any closer to God.  They wanted a safe distance.
Those Israelites on the banks of the Jordan River had experiences with God we never will.  They saw the Red Sea parted and walked through it.  They saw the ground open up and swallow groups of people.  They saw these and many other works of wonder, and they wanted no part of God.  Moses, you be the one who knows God more deeply, sees more of God.  We’ll keep our distance.  Would we be wiser to follow their lead and keep our distance?  Why seek the one whose judgments are unsearchable?  Why try to know the God whose ways are higher than ours, whose own chosen people feared Him? 
The reason seeking God is of enormous importance to us is our context - America, Chapel Hill, the year 2017.  Many – I believe – most people have lost a sense of the fear of God.  We feel free to be casual when we talk about.  On a popular TV show, one of the characters rejected the idea that God is all powerful and that God has authority over our lives.  Instead, using her own ideas as her source of authority, she said, “I like to think that God is love and that all who love are close to God.”  Of course she had no real sense of the Biblical understanding of love, and she had no interest in the Bible as an authority.  But in the show, she was the hero and her view was the one celebrated: a vague notion that love, undefined, is the supreme value, so God, whatever God is, must be love.  I have heard that sentiment from that TV show over and over in casual conversation. 
In our cultural landscape, I sense a lack of real knowledge of God, and a lack of reverence.  People don’t really know God and don’t feel the strong need to know God.  God is a luxury or an interest, but not a necessity.  Why, in our worship, would we try to do what our Hebrew ancestors in faith feared to do and what the prophet said was impossible?  Why try to know God? 
First, we reach to the unreachable God because we claim to be his church.  We claim this God is the only God and we claim to know this God by way of His revelation in Jesus Christ.  If we are going to be emissaries of God and if we want to show the world that worshiping this God matters, we have to know the God we’re representing.  We have to be able to talk about God knowledgeably and convincingly in a cultural climate where a lot of people think knowledge of God is impossible and unnecessary.  We have to be able to tell what we know and why knowing it is important.  We develop knowledge and articulation as we seek God.
Second, the Bible bids us invitation to seek God.  Our text for today is Isaiah 55.   We’ve already seen that this passage declares God’s ways are higher than our ways.  And yet, here is what it says in verses 6 & 7.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
God wants us to seek him because God is relational.  “Seek the Lord,” Isaiah says.  “Call upon him.”  The next instruction has to do with how we live and think.  “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts.”  We proceed in life, in the decisions we make, based on our thoughts, on our view of the world.  We act out of our perception of reality.  What if our perception of reality is based on a sense that God is always present, all powerful, and all loving?  In Isaiah’s view, to intentionally, proactively seek God is to change one’s outlook.  The Biblical word is repent.  Turn around, away from immorality and sin, turn away from destructive thoughts and harmful activities and life-destroying words, and turn toward God. 
Isaiah says this is possible because God is merciful and will abundantly pardon.  Even as we talk about seeking God, we learn something about God.  It’s not something we can weigh or describe in visual terms or affix to a law.  Rather we learn that God is relational and is willing to forgive for the sake of relationship.  
A third reason to attempt to know God is preparation.  A major piece of our Christian belief is that when we die if we are in relationship with God in Jesus Christ, we will spend eternity as a son or daughter of God, in God’s presence, and in resurrected bodies.  That eternity is spent in God’s kingdom.  We prepare for life in God’s presence by growing in knowledge of and relationship with God now.  Dallas Williard has suggested that some believers never grow in their lives as Jesus-followers.  They never grow spiritually, so when they enter resurrection, they find the Kingdom of God very unfamiliar.  Conversely, if we spend our lives seeking God, expanding our knowledge of God, and growing in relationship with God, when we enter the Kingdom in resurrection, it will feel like going home.  It will be entirely new and entirely familiar.  It will be both. 
We seek God to know God because as Christians we need to be prepared to talk about God.
We seek God because Isaiah tells us to and tells us God will welcome us. 
We seek God in order to prepare to spend eternity with God. 

As we enter 2017, our worship at HillSong will be about the quest.  We’re exploring the portion of the iceberg that’s beneath the surface.  I read an article in which the author was eager to bid farewell to 2016.  She cited all the beloved celebrities who died this past year – and many more died in the week after she wrote that article.  She cited the acrimony over the election.  It is hard to find people who are happy with the direction of our nation.  She cited the rise in shootings, often leading to heightened racial tension.  She pointed to the seemingly endless war in Syria that has created a refugee crisis felt all across the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.  For these and numerous other reasons, she was eager to bid 2016 adieu.
I see her points, but I don’t want to overlook the positives.  We saw new life – new babies born in 2016.  We had new members come into our church family.  We participated in some beautiful ministries, the mission trip to Kombolcha and the Vacation Bible School in June to mention a few.  Our church welcomed a new youth pastor onto our staff.  While I acknowledge the rough patches in 2016, there were things to celebrate too.
However, I also know that a lot people feel the way author of the article feels.  It was a rough year. That feeling and the malaise that comes with it, is a final reason I want us to begin 2017 earnestly seeking God.  Our ability to talk about God will increase.  We will meet the God Isaiah introduces, a merciful, forgiving, loving God.  We will grow in relationship and thus be prepared to spend eternity in the resurrection in God’s presence.  And, we can shift our focus from the pain and tension in our own lives and in the world around us.  We are all small before the Holy God.  In that way, all people are the same.  And all need God.  We can unite in our quest to meet this God.  In Him, we can be one people. 
So, we enter 2017 with the words of Isaiah.
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

It’s something we do together. 
This morning we close with the promise that comes at the end of the chapter – the end goal of seeking God.
[We] shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before [us]
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

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