September 24: How Has Your Image of God Changed?

How Has Your Image of God Changed?

Luke 15: 1-11

September 24, 2023

          How has your image of God changed over the years?

          That’s the question I’d like us to ponder today.

          How have you changed the way you understand who God is?

          This is the third message in a series on the Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Our Faith.

          I’ve been using two analogies to talk about our spiritual journey. They each involve three stages and the use of these boxes.

The first stage is Construction. It’s one of simplicity and order. It’s a time to stack up the boxes. (stack the three boxes)

The second stage is Deconstruction. It involves words that start with “D”. Doubt, dissent, disorder, disorientation, disarray and darkness. It means knocking down these carefully constructed boxes. (knock down the stack)

The question we’re pondering during this series is this: After doubt, should you return to your original construction or should you move on to some new construction?

I’m suggesting the latter. The third stage is Reconstruction. The boxes come back together, but they are constructed differently than what you started. (Show this new construction)

I’m going to adapt a second analogy to our message today. The second analogy imagines that the smallest box represents our image of God when we are young. This is our earliest image of God.

Who was God for you as a child? Think about your answer to that question. I’ll ask you to share aloud in just a minute.

I think our early images of God relate to how we viewed our parents. And of course, they also correspond to what our parents and teachers were teaching us about God. We internalized what we saw and what we were taught.

My parents had high expectations for me as the first-born son. They expected only the best from me. They were also more distant and less connected emotionally to me.

I saw God as someone who had high expectations for me. He was an old, white, man who lived far away in heaven. He didn’t interact much with me. I didn’t think about him very often.

What about you?

What were some of your early images of God?

(Get out the box)

Eventually, that box for God is too small for us. God yearns to get out of the box. How does that happen, when does that happen and what is your new image of God?

For me, it happened when I was a sophomore in high school. I was at a church retreat. Our youth group visited a charismatic church where they raised hands, spoke in tongues, and shared testimonies to God’s power. It was a strange and wonderful experience for me. I sensed God’s presence in a way I never had before or since. That night as I went to sleep on my bunkbed I prayed, “God I really do believe in you. I’m going to follow you and serve you the rest of my life.”

That experience led me to some totally new images of God. God was no longer distant, but close to me, almost like a friend. I started talking to God all the time as if he were right next to me.

I started listening to some preachers on the radio who taught that God is both Judge and Savior. I felt like God was judging me for every little thing. But God in the form of Jesus died for me on the cross so my sins could be forgiven and washed clean.

So, I had three new images of God during that time of my life: Friend, Judge and Savior.  

  What about you? What were some of your images of God during your youth or young adult years?

(get out the box)

Once again, that box for God is too small for us. God yearns to get out of the box. How does that happen, when does that happen and what is your new image of God?

I can imagine the conversation that Jesus had with a young man who followed the Pharisee teachings.

The young man says, “Jesus, how can you call yourself a man of God when you eat with sinners?”

“I’m just following God’s way.”

“But Jesus, you know that God is holy.”

“Yes, I agree that God is holy, but what does that mean?”

“I’ll tell you, Jesus, what that means. It means that God is totally separate from all that is bad in this world. Our God is transcendent, living in heaven. Our God does not dirty himself with the sin of our world. He is clean and pure. And he expects us to do the same – staying clean and pure and separate.”

“I follow a different image of God.”

“Who do you see God like?”

“I see God is a shepherd, who seeks after any lost sheep and persistently looks for them until he finds them. God, the good shepherd, moves toward us in love to help us.”

“Jesus, do you think God really cares that much about us?”

“I do. I think God is like a woman…”

“What? God is like a woman. Are you kidding me, Jesus?”

“No, I’m not kidding you. I believe God is like a woman who loses one of her coins in her house. She’ll light a lamp. She’ll sweep the floor. She’ll look carefully until she eventually finds it. Then she’ll celebrate with her friends.”

“God is like that?”

“Yes, God is like a persistent woman looking for a coin or a faithful father who won’t ever give up on his child. Always hoping, always working, always loving until every last child of his is in a good place. That’s why I eat with people you consider sinners because God is reaching out in love to each and every one of them.”

(Get out that box)

Once again, that box for God is too small for us. God yearns to get out of the box. How does that happen, when does that happen and what is your new image of God?

In the fifty years since that experience with God as a youth, I’ve deconstructed and reconstructed my image of God many times.

One of the ways my image of God has changed is moving toward more use of feminine images. I remember an older man from one of my first churches I pastored. Cabe Davies taught the middle school Sunday School class. He said to me, “Mike, one of the most important things I teach the kids is that God is not male. It may seem obvious, but most kids still use masculine images to describe God. So, I like to challenge them. I ask them, “Is God really just male, a man?” Cabe made me start thinking about my images for God and the language I used to talk about God.

If God is exclusively male, then male is more divine. That would mean that God has created women as a female as inferior in some way to males. I don’t believe that’s true.

These days I like the image of God as a Caring Mother. We find some references in Scripture to this: Isaiah 66:13 has God saying, “I will comfort you there like a mother comforting her child.” Psalm 131:2 has the Psalmist praying to God, “I have learned to feel safe and satisfied, just like a young child on its mother’s lap.”

John chapter 3 has Jesus talking about how we need to be born again. If we look closer at that familiar passage, we see a feminine image of God. That metaphor intimates that the Spirit of God is our Mother, giving birth to new life. We are born again of our Divine Mother, the Holy Spirit.

 I also like the image of God as a Lover instead of the more common image we have of God being the all-powerful puppet master who controls everything that happens. I believe God is with us through our hard times even though God is unable to change our circumstances. God is a lover, by our side and on our side.

Recently, I’ve come to see God as and in the Universe. That the world is God’s body. God is not a supernatural being up in heaven. But God is in all that is. God is in the universe, right here, right now.

What do you think these days? After your construction, deconstruction and reconstruction…after God has broken out of your boxes…What are the images of God that you find more helpful and true these days?

God keeps getting out of the box I put God in. More helpful images of God come after I’ve done some doubting deconstruction and growing reconstruction. As I’ve come to find new images more helpful than some of the ones I had as a child, I realize that my language needs to be deconstructed and reconstructed as well.

As a child, I always referred to God using male pronouns. With my new understandings about who God is and more helpful images of God, I’ve started using non-gendered language for God. The term used to describe that is: inclusive language.

I try to use that language in worship, in the prayers we say, the liturgy we share, and the hymns we sing. I try to refer to God in inclusive, non-gendered ways or use a variety of images and expressions to refer to God. Our hymnal moves us in that direction by altering some of the traditional words without altering the meaning or the tune. It’s why we use the word “Creator” in the first line of our Lord’s Prayer rather than “Father”.

May God guide us on this journey of understanding them better and better.

As Alexander plays, let’s continue to ponder about the images we have for God these days. Imagine God with you using one of those images.

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