Can we talk about the actor Ben Affleck a minute? He’s been in the news this week. I used to really like this guy! I loved the friendship he and Matt Damon had and their success together in the movie Good Will Hunting. I loved him in the movie Armageddon. I thought it was neat when he and Jennifer Garner got married, and for a long time they seemed very happy and to have a good marriage. They have three adorable kids together. Then there was the rumor of their marriage falling apart, and finally their divorce and the news came out that he was perpetually unfaithful to her. Now he’s apparently dating a 20 something year old Playboy model and making statements like he “wants to date who he wants and not feel tied down.” Wow! So disillusioning, he just isn’t the person I thought he once was.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ followers have hit a similar wall of disillusionment. Jesus’ teaching that we talked about last week: “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and “eat my flesh, drink my blood,” has them all “grumbling.” They had been following him around for a while, and they thought they knew what he seemed to be about… he was healing the sick, and doing miracles like feeding 5000 people, a lot of them were beginning to think that he must be a pretty great prophet, maybe even the Messiah who was here to rescue Israel from the Roman oppression. And they had an image in their minds about what that kind of prophet/Messiah does.
“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
But then, then he just gets weird… talking about eating his flesh and blood and living forever. It just didn’t fit what they expected from Jesus, and so we have the line in the reading, “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
All through the Bible, God has to deal with this in his people. Right after he rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, while Moses is up on the mountain receiving the 10 commandments… God telling his people what it looks like to live in relationship with him, the people and Aaron make a golden calf to worship. It’s like all the gods of the nations around them, they want their God to be that type of God.
Now the people who have been following Jesus around do the same thing: they think they know what God should act like, should be like… and Jesus does not fit in their box.
And before we get too judgey, some of us who have followed Jesus for awhile have to admit, there have been times for us too, when following Jesus has not been what we thought it was going to look like. Times when we really have to take a step back and think, “wait a moment, this is not going where I thought this walk with God was going!”
The first time this happened for me, was when I was in my 30’s and my dad died in a surgical accident. I’ve talked about this before because it was a crisis, a turning point in my relationship with God. Before dad died, I just sort of assumed that God and I had a deal: I would be relatively good, I’d go to church, lead Bible studies, teach in Christian schools and God would make sure nothing too seriously bad would happen to anyone I loved. I never would have articulated it that way, but underneath everything that was an assumption I had. It was a magical bubble sort of place to live. We had our share of childhood ear infections, and broken bones, I’d had two miscarriages… but over all there was nothing too scary that happened. It was a very, very lovely and comfortable place to live. Good girl Gloria thought that God and I had a deal and nothing truly bad would happen. Underneath that veneer of goodness, think of how judgmental that is of all the people who experienced tragedies in their lives. Did they somehow deserve it?
And then suddenly, without any warning my magical little bubble burst: our daughter Sarah was running a 103* fever and becoming increasingly lethargic, we were talking to the doctor about bringing her in to the ER when the phone rang, Dad’s surgery hadn’t gone well, there was internal bleeding in his brain… later that day, we ended up taking Sarah to the hospital where she was admitted with a 105* fever and as we were getting her settled, the phone rang again: Dad was dead. His surgery was to remove polyps from his sinuses, and a sinus bone had broken, nicked an artery in his brain and he had died. I sank to the floor in the hospital hallway devastated. How could this have happened?
Suddenly, my whole expectation for how God was supposed to behave was completely destroyed. What kind of God lets stuff like this happen to good people? It didn’t make sense. The next few months were a blur of further health crisis for Sarah, a funeral in New Jersey for Dad, Ed losing his job, Melanie being born, and our decision to move from Iowa out to New Jersey to be closer to my mom… and in the middle of all of that were my questions about/to God: Who are you? Why did you let this happen? Where are you in the middle of all of this?
God seemed absent. I didn’t know how to talk with him. He seemed distant and uncaring.
Have you ever had a time in your life when God just didn’t behave the way you expected him to behave? Have you had times when God just doesn’t fit into the box you expect him to stay in? These can be very lonely, very scary, very dark times. The temptation in these times is to do what a lot of Jesus’ followers did: “turn back and no longer follow him.” We say things like, “well, if God is going to let this awful thing happen, then what kind of God is that? Forget it! He must not be real.”
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
It was a real temptation for me. For five years I struggled to find my way back to God. I couldn’t walk away, because like Peter, I had to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
I couldn’t walk away from God, because I had seen over and over in my life before this crisis, God’s provision, his very real care for Ed and me and for our family. I KNEW, that I knew, that I knew that God was real. I couldn’t pretend there was no God, I knew better… but I just couldn’t figure out how a God of LOVE could let such a terrible thing happen.
It seems kind of trite, and very self-centered to hear myself say those things now… But I think that when we find ourselves in these dark places where our concept of who God is no longer fits our experience of him, the challenge is for us to let go of our expectations of what God’s behavior must look like. Our temptation is always to reduce God to an image of God that we can be comfortable with. The people who were following Jesus left because Jesus’ behavior no longer matched their expectations of what a Savior looks like… and they missed the salvation he was actually offering them. We do not want to miss the salvation God is offering us!
For me this meant I had to let go of my notion that God is a safe God, a controllable God, a God I could make bargains with. When I read my Bible with newly opened eyes, I had to admit that the overall story of the Bible does not support that limited view of God. I needed to balance the psalms that promise, like Psalm 37 “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” With psalms that cry out in anguish like Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” The reality of who God is is contained in both those Scriptures: a God who promises blessings to his people, and a God who seems absent in our most trying moments.
Part of our walking with Jesus as his disciples means that we must not let our preconceptions of how God will act, our false images of God, shape our responses to him. We have a choice of relating to God as if he were only the God in the box we have put him in, or of letting him blow apart our boxes of expectations of how he behaves, and accept the new, revised, more complete, more real picture of who he actually is.
For me, this meant letting go of my idea that God is safe. After 5 years of struggling, I came to accept the truth that God does truly love me, and loves my mom… yet as Divine Mystery, he is not controllable. His ways are unfathomable. I believe that God’s love is always at work in our lives, and when we experience grief and hardships because of the sin-brokenness of this world, God’s heart aches for the pain and sadness we are experiencing. I found that His love for me burned away my false image of whom he is in order that I may more completely worship and adore who he actually is.
In the Oxford Book of Prayer, there is this prayer by a woman named Sister Ruth, which more and more echoes the desire of my heart:
“O God, let me rise to the edges of time and open my life to your eternity;
Let me run to the edges of space and gaze into your immensity;
Let me climb through the barriers of sound and pass into your silence;
And then, in stillness and silence let me adore you,
Who are Life—Light—Love—without beginning and without end,
The Source—the Sustainer—the Restorer—the Purifier—of all that is;
The Lover who has bound earth to heaven by the beams of a cross;
The Healer who has renewed a dying race by the blood of a chalice;
The God who has taken humans into your glory by the wounds of sacrifice;
Let me adore you.”
I don’t know where in your life you may be dealing with your disappointment in God. I don’t know where you are struggling with disillusionment. I don’t know where you are tempted to make up your own image of who God is, because that feels safer than opening yourself up to the reality of who God actually is. But I want to remind you, the real Lord Jesus Christ is offering you salvation today. You can trust in him. You can trust in his love for you. You can find in Jesus a hope that carries you through whatever struggles you may be experiencing. He is the real God. Let go of your image of God in order to, in increasing ways, learn to live in actual relationship with him. This week, let us worship and adore him!