Thursday, January 10, 2008

Not Like Us

Let’s just face the facts: God is NOT like us. Truly, He became one of us, taking upon Himself our human flesh, in the incarnation of His Son, Jesus Christ, born of Mary, but He is not like us. His ways are not our ways; His wisdom seems like foolishness to us when, in truth, it is the other way around. We expect God to act in powerful, glorious ways: packed churches, incredible emotional experiences, voices, visions, and mysterious utterances, miraculous healings on the spot, “My God is an awesome God!” But He chooses to hide Himself in common, humble, ordinary things and people. He comes to us with His gifts of salvation and forgiveness through His Word, spoken, read, and preached. He comes to us in common and tasteless bread and inexpensive wine. He comes to us in plain, ordinary tap water that many of us refuse to drink. And through these ordinary, common means He does extraordinary and uncommon miracles. Stony hearts are plowed and broken by the power of His Word of Law and Gospel and the seed of faith is planted and nurtured. Our rebellious, sinful spirits are drowned, and a new holy spirit is given and raised in us. Common and ordinary bread and wine are also the true body and blood of Jesus that we may eat and drink and have a union with God that our human marriages are but a dim and broken reflection of. No, God is not like us; His ways are not our ways.

This paradox is a central tenant of our Lutheran confession of faith. Historically it is described in terms of the theology of the cross (God’s way) and the theology of glory (our way). One theologian has expressed the difference between these two theologies in this way:

The theology of glory seeks to know God directly in his obviously divine power, wisdom, and glory; whereas the theology of the cross paradoxically recognizes him precisely where he has hidden himself, in his sufferings and in all that which the theology of glory considers to be weakness and foolishness. The theology of glory leads humans to stand before God and strike a bargain on the basis of his or her ethical achievement in fulfilling the Law, whereas the theology of the cross views humans as being called to suffer. The cross of humans destroys their self-confidence so that now, instead of wanting to do something, they allow God to do everything for them. Such a person has been led from moralistic activism to pure receptivity.

Several questions are bound up in this distinction between the theology of the cross and a theology of glory: Where can I find God? How do I know if God is present and acting in my life? Why is there suffering in the world? Is God present and acting in my life even when I don’t feel that He is? My church doesn’t seem to be growing; are we doing something wrong, has God abandoned us? These are common questions, and perhaps you have asked them yourself. The theology of the cross assures us that God is present and acting for our good in the ways and places that He has promised to – in His Word, His Baptism, and His Supper. The efficacy of these means do not depend upon us: they do not depend upon how good or bad we have been, upon the strength of our faith, nor upon our emotions or how we feel. The Means of Grace (Word and Sacraments) depend upon God’s Word and promise alone; they accomplish that for which God instituted them and that which He promised because of Him and His promise alone, and that fully despite ourselves. The theology of the cross is an altogether different paradigm for how we view God and His work. It is altogether unlike that which we humans would think. The answer to these questions is always a paradox. God hides Himself in humble, common, weak, and foolish means and persons so that He might reveal Himself to us as a God of deep, profound and perfect sacrificial love, mercy, and forgiveness.

Christians are tempted to force God into compliance with our (fallen) expectations. In effect, we are guilty of the First Commandment, of setting up for ourselves (creating) an idol, a false god, whom we call the true God, a God that conforms to our expectations. We think that a church where God is present must be large and full and rich in programs and money and that a small, struggling church that remains steadfast to unpopular, but faithful, biblical doctrines (that homosexuality, abortion, sex outside of marriage, women’s ordination, works righteousness are sinful and wrong) is surely a church that God has abandoned. We think that we must experience and feel God present in us and in our worship in order to be certain that He is present, while God calls us to trust that He is present and working for our good, not because of our emotions, but because of His promise alone. We think that bread and wine, water, and word are nice traditions, if you like that sort of thing, but believe that God must be accessible in other, more impressive ways, and not confined to only these unimpressive and seemingly dead rites. Indeed, no man can confine God, but God confines Himself to Word and Sacraments, not to limit Himself, but to assure us, unconditionally, that He is truly present with His gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation that we may not search around aimlessly, but receive them in all confidence, boldness, and certainty. Repent. The attitudes and outlooks here described were the same held by those who rejected God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ so long ago, and they are held by those reject it still today.

In complete contrast to the theologian of Glory, the theologian of the Cross believes that:

1. God’s ways are paradoxical and hidden to human reason;

2. God’s favor is manifested in Jesus, in particular, His suffering, death and resurrection;

3. God is pleased only by Jesus.

The theology of Glory and the theology of the Cross are mutually exclusive. They are two completely different ways of understanding God. One is false, the other is true. One leads to death, the other to life. Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). Ultimately, the theology of the cross is about sacrifice, humility, and a complete emptying of one’s self. This is what God displayed in His sacrificial giving of Himself, the body and blood of His Son Jesus, on the cross. By losing His life, He saved it, for us. We, as God’s dear children, are called to sacrifice ourselves, our selfish wants and desires, and our self-righteousness – to crucify our selves and die, that we might receive God’s gift of life and salvation in Jesus Christ. It’s all about Him (theology of the cross). It’s not about us (theology of glory).

God is truly worshiped and praised when we receive, accept, and believe what He has done and is doing in His way, not our way, and empty ourselves, sacrifice ourselves for others, and therefore, for Him. We worship God in humble submission to His ways, confessing our sins and receiving His gifts in Word and Sacraments. We praise and glorify God, not in words and hymns that bespeak our expectation of how glorious, awesome, and mighty He is, but in words and songs that proclaim His glory in His ways, though humility, sacrifice, and self-giving love.

Indeed, our God is an awesome God – just, not in the way we sinful men would think. Let us take up our crosses and follow Him in His Way, which is also Life and Truth, His sacrificial, Suffering Servant and Son, Jesus Christ. To God alone be all glory, power, and honor in and through Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

Fr. J. Sollberger said...

This is one of the best articles on the theology of the cross that I have read. I am grateful to have been enlightened by it. Be encouraged, good Brother.