The Image of God or Comfort of Tradition?

“Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.”

-Psalm 139:7-12

Do we, like the psalmist, experience God in each moment? We may affirm God’s presence as our belief, but what does our experience tell us?   If we are honest, there are times that God feels far away, or we earnestly pray, but the answers we seek don’t come.

How do these times impact your image of God? If God is seen as distant, it is easier to assign God a place on the periphery of our lives. Sometimes we can easier relate to those Psalms that describe the absence of God, like Psalm 13:1 “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Psalm 30:7 phrases this pain most succinctly: “You hid your face; I was dismayed.

We would also do well to remember the story of the Exodus, when the children of Israel, unhappy with their leader’s absence, and impatient for a word from God, replaced the invisible God with a tangible image: the Golden Calf. The elevation of the calf is interesting. A calf would be a sign they would eat the next day (either through its meat or through its service if they used it to plow a field). They made this image of future security into an object of worship.

Jesus himself identifies this type of exchange in Mark 7:8-13: “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions. And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

In this way, the commands of God give way to the practicality of traditions until the traditions are assimilated into religion. It is a quick step to align the culture with God’s commands. In the United States, for example, our coins read, “in God we trust,” so it is easy to imbue our governmental structure with the righteousness that should be attributed to only God. We equate the symbol of economic security with the goodness of God and thus we risk becoming immune to the deeper truths of scripture.

As Christians, it is not enough to believe in God, we must truly believe God and we must follow God’s commands. Jesus helps us with this in Matthew 22:37-40:  Jesus replied: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

And if we wonder who our neighbor is, the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10 (27-35) shows us that our neighbor is the one whom we would not normally see as our neighbor. The one that society looks down upon (Samaritans were not accepted in Jewish society), and expects nothing from. Tradition and love of country had taught God’s children to shun Samaritans but Jesus sought to correct that belief, and that is part of the reason, the good religious people did not recognize Jesus as God’s Messiah.

Pay attention America.

-Rev. Lynn McLaughlin