The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 27, 2019
We say we want to know God in all His greatness. But do we?
A wag named Wilbur Rees makes fun of the spiritual attitude some bring to church. He imagines them saying what they’re actually thinking, namely: “I’d like to buy $3 worth of God, please – not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine. I don’t want enough of God to make me love a homeless person and to pick up other people’s trash. I want ecstasy, not humble service; contentment, not transformation; the comfort of the womb, not the challenge of a new birth. I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack, please. I’d like to buy $3 worth of God.”
A $3 dollar God is not the infinitely precious God of the Bible, a God whose riches in love, power and glory are worth more than all the money in the world.
God is in fact worth more than all the riches of the entire universe, though its rich greatness is beyond estimation.
On a YouTube video, astronomer Dr. Peter Edwards says it’s impossible to get our heads around how enormously rich in grandeur the universe is. It strains our brains to take in the magnificence of the ocean or of the star we call the sun, but it blows our brains apart to try to grasp the whole of which those two majestic things are but a miniscule part.
The most eye-opening telescope humans have devised is the Hubble. Scientists are now focusing it on one ordinary patch of outer space. If you imagine holding up at arm’s length a grain of sand on the tip of your finger and consider the tiny part of the entire sky that that one grain blocks out, you’ll have an idea of how much of the sky the Hubble enables us to see. Yet, through that little peephole, we see 10,000 galaxies – each of which galaxies contains about 100 billion stars.
Now, there are in the entire sky about 100 billion galaxies. That means there is out there billions upon billions upon billions of stars – more stars than grains of sand on the entire earth!
The Bible tells us that God created all of them and preserves each one in existence. That means that God is, for all the greatness of the universe, greater still. You wouldn’t think a God that great could be carried around in a paper sack, would you? You wouldn’t think you could have a God like that all figured out, would you? You wouldn’t think you’d ever come to the end of knowing Him and His ways, would you?
The God who created billions upon billions of stars is also the God who created billions upon billions of living creatures, some of them very small. I’d like to talk with you about one particular small creature: the hermit crab.
Though some hermit crabs can be over a foot long, most are only a couple of inches long. A hermit crab has claws to fight off animals that might attack it, but it has a soft, tender tummy with no shell to protect it from predators. That makes it easy prey. So hermit crabs find shells abandoned by other animals and crawl into them. In their requisitioned shell, they are safe; and, wearing it like a big overcoat, they can walk around without much worry. Inside their shell, predators can’t get to them, and they are free to grow! However, as they do, they get too big for the shell, and they have to find a new and bigger. They can in a lifetime go through several such mobile homes.
We people of faith are like hermit crabs, and our present understanding of God is like a hermit crab’s temporary mobile home. Our theological shell house keeps us spiritually alive and safe enough to grow; but, if such a home serves us well, it will facilitate our outgrowing it and feeling the need to move on to a new house – a bigger house that has all the best of the old one, but also a larger capacity to accommodate a larger understanding of God and His ways. The old theological house helps us to come to know God and His ways truly, but also to know that God is so great that we can use a greater grasp of His greatness. The old framework of understanding can, if we linger too long in it, end up restricting our appreciation of God’s full magnificence and our expanding imitation of God’s character.
You would have thought that, if anyone knew God as well as anyone could and had God’s ways all figured out, it would have been the Apostle Paul. Yet, in today’s scripture this giant of faith admits he needs to grow in the knowledge of God and in the imitation of Christ.
Paul admits he hasn’t yet reached his goal of experiencing all the wonders of Christ in their full magnificence. He’s still coming to know Him and to make all His blessings his own.
Thus, Paul who has already enjoyed a long and deep friendship with Christ says he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him.” For the sake of obtaining that goal, Paul “presses on”. He forgets what lies behind – abandoning the restrictive shell of his previous attainments – and “strains” forward to what lies ahead – entering more deeply the life that is the ultimate prize of “the heavenly call of God in Christ.”
The wise see that $3 or $3 billion billion billion buys but a small God compared to the one true God who always turns out bigger than we previously imagined, whom we could always know better, and whose grace and power we could always experience more deeply. Thus, He always keeps surprising us with new revelations of His greatness, especially in bringing amazingly good things out of horridly bad things.
Some have God boxed up in a shell house in which God is loving them only if He’s keeping their lives free of pain and full of what they’ve their hearts set on.
Missionary Gracia Burnham learned that God is too great to be limited in that way. She and her missionary husband Martin were held captive by terrorists for over a year and underwent terrible suffering. Then Martin was killed. At first Gracia could not see how God could be good and have let her undergo such hardship and loss. She had expected only good things to come upon good people such as Martin and herself. Then she learned that God is bigger than she thought, and that He employs the worst things to bring us the best things.
Gracia says, “I used to have this concept of what God is like, and how life’s supposed to be because of that. But in the jungle I learned I don’t know as much about God as I thought I did. I don’t have Him in a theological box anymore. What I do know is that God is God – and I am not. The world’s in a mess because of sin, not God. Some awful things may happen, but God does what is right. And He makes good out of bad.”
Gracia has abandoned the shell that proved too small to accommodate the greatness of God and the mysteries of His faithfulness, and she has met a God even bigger than the One whose greatness she praised before. Yet, she acknowledges she’s still learning how great He is – and she loves Him all the more for that.
May we follow her example and Paul’s. May we, in order to appreciate God’s greatness all the more, be ready to leave behind our first understandings and to press on to know Him better. Let us pray.