Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sometimes Words Aren't Enough

May 22, 2016 – The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Although I am convinced that that truly glorious hymn “I bind unto myself today” is appropriate for any occasion, I don’t often recommend it for funerals (though I hope you’ll remember to sing it at mine). Instead, when I meet with a family to pick out funeral hymns, I try to steer them in three separate directions. First, to open the service, I suggest a strong, confident hymn like “A mighty fortress is our God” or “Holy, Holy Holy! Lord God Almighty.” Hymns like those remind us of the awesome power of God, and that gives us strength in our time of need. Then, in the middle of the service, I suggest a sweet, comforting hymn like “The King of love my shepherd is” or “Lord of all hopefulness.” Hymns like those wrap their arms around us and remind us that we are not alone in our suffering. Then, at the end of the service, I suggest a hopeful, forward-looking hymn like “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee” or “Lead on, O King Eternal,” which reflect our belief that God has given us a hope that is stronger than death.

As with many aspects of our worship, hymns often tell us more about who God is and who we are than even the most carefully crafted sermon. Without a word of explanation, three deliberately chosen hymns can fill the hearts and minds of a congregation with a sense of God’s greatness, God’s tenderness, and God’s hopefulness. It’s hard for me to imagine all three of those things all at once. It is impossible for me to find words that can convey a God who is all of those things and more, yet I experience all of them together all of the time.

What about you? What sort of God do you worship? Which God do you serve? When you come to church, what God do you expect to meet here? When you kneel beside your bed to say your prayers, what sort of God is listening? When you lie awake at night, alone with your worries and your tears, which God is there with you in the silence?

It has always helped me to think of God as the strong, powerful king of the Old Testament. I need to know, in those moments when I’ve gotten myself into some trouble, that God is bigger and stronger than any mess I might find myself in. For others, tenderness and compassion are most important. Indeed, for some the incomparable power and uncompromising holiness of a God who would strike Uzzah dead on the spot for reaching out his hand to catch the Ark of the Covenant when the oxen stumbled is problematic while, for me, that same story is oddly comforting. Which God is your God? Which God is our God?

Have you ever heard someone say, “You know, I like Jesus just fine, but I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell just because they don’t believe the right thing?” Or how about a Christian who says, “We don’t believe in that Old-Testament God any more. Jesus came and changed all of that?” They’ve got a good point. There is a lot to like about a savior who teaches us to love everyone and welcome everyone and forgive everyone. And we should be skeptical of a God who would tell us to kill everyone. But the really strange thing is that we believe that they are one and the same—that the God who ordered the army of Israel to spare not a single life is the same God who sent his Son to die so that the whole world might be saved. But how can we make sense of that? How can we even find the words to begin to explain it?

On the night before he died, Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Even Jesus couldn’t find the words to say it. Some things cannot be said. How do you explain to someone that the death you are about to die at the hands of your enemies is actually part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world? Even now, two thousand years later, how do we explain it? We don’t. No one can. Instead, we watch what happens, and we wait for the Holy Spirit to guide us--lead us, pull us by the hand--into the truth.

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes we must see in order to believe. And sometimes not even seeing is believing. For thousands of years, God’s people spoke of God as one who loved the world. The promise God made to Abraham was that, through him, all the nations of the earth would come to know God’s saving love. But words weren’t enough, so God sent his Son. But not even Jesus could find the words to express the fullness of God’s love. And so he died and rose again. But those who saw him laid in the tomb and then, three days later, saw him alive again still could not understand the magnitude of God’s love. And so the Spirit came and revealed that God’s saving work could not be confined to the people of Israel. And so the Holy Spirit continues to guide us, pull us, leading us by the hand, always toward the truth that God’s love has no limits. And still we do not understand.

I don’t know what God you worship. I don’t know which God dwells in your heart. But all of human history has shown us that God is leading us further and further into the truth that God is love. In each generation, we discover in new ways how limitless God’s love really is. And still the journey continues. What will God show us next?

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