Seeing God

The Rev. Joseph Winston August 17, 2008

Grace and peace are gifts for you from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.1 The realities of this life shape and mold the way that we look at the world. We do not need an advanced degree to know this fact because we all have experienced this truth first hand. The food that comforts us during stressful times would be but one example of how life fashions us. Some of us might like to have a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows because this drink reminds us of less stressful times. Maybe your mother always made you a cup of cocoa before going to bed. This was one of the constants in your life. Day in and day out, you could always count on having a drink of hot chocolate just before turning in. For you, this drink became a symbol of how much she loved you. Every time you have cup of cocoa and marshmallows,
Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:3


you drift back to those days when your mother was alive. For others of us it might be a professional baseball game. It was a rare occasion when dad had enough time and money to take you to the game but whenever he had the chance to take you to the park you were treated like a king. You left early so you could watch the players warm up and if you were lucky, you just might get someone to autograph the ball you brought to the game. Once the game started, dad let you get settled into your seat and he gave you just enough money for a box of Crackerjacks and one hot dog. When you got hungry, which did not take very long, you motioned to the boys carrying the refreshments and shouted out your order, “One box of Crackerjacks and a hot dog all the way.” You once asked dad why he never ordered anything during the game and he replied that he was not hungry because he had already eaten at home. As you grew older, you finally realized the real reason. There was not enough money to go around. He gave up so that you could have a good time. Every time you see a ballgame, you get a little bit misty eyed because it reminds you of the old man and how he sacrificed so much for you. After a little thought, you probably can come up with other good examples of how our experiences make us who we are. Maybe it is the car you drive. A good review in an auto magazine might be the reason that one specific model sits in your garage. Perhaps it was the university you attended. In your family tradition states that everyone goes to this one specific school. That is why you went there and you expect that all of your children will do the same thing. It might even be that you live where you do because of a friend’s recommendation. 2

Each of these earlier examples had a reasonable explanation of why these forces influenced you. Your mother’s concern for you, made you associate hot chocolate with love. Your father’s devotion to you gave you the feeling of wellbeing. The same idea applies in all the shorter illustrations. Experts often influence the purchases of items such as cars. Families exert influence on the schools that their children attend. People trust their friends to give them good advice. Just like with everything else, the world that we live in also shapes the way we see God. While it is impossible to list every different way that this occurs, it seems that there are three reoccurring themes that could be given the titles of “Santa Claus,” “Watchmaker,” and “Grandfather.” There are some of us who see God as a great big Santa Claus. Maybe we think this way because our lives are so full of blessings. In our minds, God has two primary functions. First of all, He is a scorekeeper. As the song goes, He sees you when you’re sleeping He knows when you’re awake He knows if you’ve been bad or good So be good for goodness sake We all know what happens next and this is Santa’s other job. On Christmas morning, all the good little boys and girls will find candy in their stockings and presents underneath the tree. But those who have misbehaved will only have one small lump of coal in their stockings. The second way that many of us look at God could be given the name “watchmaker.” We are the ones who appreciate all the amazing order found in creation. 3

We believe that God has carefully planned out each and every action in the universe. It is as if God designed all the intricate parts needed to make a watch, assembled the watch, wound it up, and let it run. When the watch finally runs down, time is out and the world is over. Others of us would prefer our God to be like our “grandfathers.” In this way of thinking, sometime in the past, the old man was really up on it. Why, he even did some rather amazing things given the times. But all that he can do today is spoil us. Even though the labels of “Santa Claus,” “Watchmaker,” and “Grandfather” are new, the ideas that they represent are not. Rather than describing God as a “Santa Claus” that gives presents to all the good little boys and girls, the people during the time of today’s Gospel lesson would have used the label of emperor. In their view, this man brought health and wealth to his people. While we do not have a song that captures this attitude as nicely as the song for “Santa Claus,” we do have an official news release for the birthday of Caesar Augustus (Yes that Caesar from the Christmass account.) that reads in part, “the birthday of the god (that is the emperor) was for the world the beginning of joyful tidings which have been proclaimed on his account.”2 Contemporaries of Mary did not have to look far to find examples that would fit the model of a god who created the world and then left it alone to fend for itself. It has always been the case that powerful men take advantage of women.
S.J. John R. Donahue and S.J. Daniel J. Harrington; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Mark, Volume 2, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), p. 60.


Once the men tire of the women, they leave her and any children behind to fend for themselves. This very story can be heard in the accounts of the Greek gods. Instead of imagining god as a great grandfather who is slightly out of touch with reality, the people would have used the familiar image of paterfamilias or the father of the family. This leader of the family was celebrated because of the things he did sometime in the past. It is not hard to imagine that this man could be out of step with the rest of the world and still enjoy giving gifts to his children. Each of these human constructed gods built from our personal experiences have severe problems that can be best illustrated by looking at one simple example. What happens in an emergency situation? When something goes wrong in our life, a god modeled after “Santa Claus” has only one answer to give us. It is entirely your fault. Santa know this because he has carefully checked his list twice. You have done something naughty and you are being punished for your bad behavior. The problems become even worse when we give this hypothetical situation to the “watchmaker.” Because this god has predetermined every possible action, everything that occurs is god’s will. This emergency that you find yourself in has been already planned out and the “watchmaker” knows exactly how it will end. Nothing can change his mind because the result has already been decided through the application of hard logic. You also cannot ask for any comfort or consolation from the watchmaker. He is off doing other things since he literally has no time for you. The god that is based on our experiences with older men is not any better. 5

Maybe this god might be a bit more concerned because that is how grandfathers act. But we do not know if we can contact him with the bad news. First of all, we do not know if we can get hold of him. You know, his hearing is not what is should be and he just might miss the call. If it is late in the afternoon and he might already be asleep for the day. And if he happens to be out, we know for a fact that he we cannot contact him. He does not have a cell phone because he is so out of touch. Secondly, can he really do anything to help us? He is has gotten so weak in his old age. Finally, you know how is heart is. This bad news might just kill him. What happens next is not hard to imagine. In situations like this when we know that we need God, we become justifiably angry at these self-made gods because they have let us down. At the heart of the Magnificat is the Good News that God does not live up to our expectations. God is not “Santa Claus” that only rewards all the good boys and girls. In the “Santa Claus” model, god is clearly seen in the bottom line. If you have wealth and all that it can buy, then god loves you. But if you do not have what you need, then god must be punishing you. That is not what is seen in the Magnificat. Today’s Gospel lesson tells us that God helps those people who live outside of the normal power structures. When Mary sings that, “Mercy is for those who fear him” she informs us that God has compassion for everyone who respects God (Luke 1:50a). Lifting up the lowly means that God helps those people we normally do not see (Luke 1:52b). Regardless of tax bracket and despite political affiliation, God helps those people that most of us would rather avoid. Everyone 6

is fed in God’s world. The only requirement is that you are hungry (Luke 1:53a). God is not a “watchmaker” who leaves us alone in the world without any chance of change. The assertion behind the watchmaker model is that god has left the earth to take care of more important matters. That is not what the Magnificat says. Mary sings out for all to hear that, ”His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation (Luke 1:50).” God is here for you. He was also present for your ancestors and He will be with all your children and their descendants. Mary then tells us that God protects the weak with the “strength of His arm (Luke 1:51a).” This sentence tells us that God helped His people in the past and this action by God continues in every age.3 God is not an “indulgent grandfather” who is out of touch with the times. The image of god as a “grandfather” assumes that God cannot handle the issues of the day. That is not what the Magnificat tells us. Mary sings out that God gives mercy daily to those who honor Him. He con tines to show His power in this world. He even knows every arrogant thought that we have.4 Every day, God gives those that live on the margins what they need and nothing else is provided to those individuals that have already been blessed by God. All the different experiences that we have shape our lives in so many ways. Sometimes these incidents illustrate how people love us. At other times, our parLuke Timothy Johnson; S.J. Daniel J. Harrington, editor, The Gospel of Luke, Volume 3, Sacra Pagina, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991), p. 42. 4 Johnson suggest that περηφάνους διανοί καρδίας α τ ν be translated as “arrogant in their attitude.” Ibid..


ticipation in these activities gives us more information about the things that are important to us. No matter what happens, we need to be careful that we do not transfer our experiences onto God. This action on our part makes God in our image. This is wrong. We are created in God’s likeness. All throughout our lives, God dashes our incorrect expectations. But every once and awhile, God gives us the chance to have the blinders removed from our eyes so that we can catch a tiny glimpse of Him. Mary was given this opportunity when she went to her cousin Elizabeth. Their meeting almost two thousand years ago gave us this wonderful song that poetically describes God’s attributes to us. During the time that I have been with you, I have been blessed by God because you have shown me the face of Jesus. “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”5

John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.; Idem, editor, The Gospel of Mark, Volume 2, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002). Johnson, Luke Timothy; Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., editor, The Gospel of Luke, Volume 3, Sacra Pagina, (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991).

Philippians 4:7.