The Sermon I Didn’t Preach

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell Uncategorized 4 Comments

We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God—

  • Eternal
  • Incomprehensible
  • Invisible
  • Unchangeable
  • Infinite
  • Almighty
  • Completely wise, just and good
  • And the overflowing source of all good.

Ten attributes for God. Five which take a human, limited term and negate it—comprehensible becomes incomprehensible. Finite becomes infinite. And five are human terms that are then maximized. Mighty becomes almighty. Good becomes completely good.

Certainly a few of you know where this statement is found.

I’m not overly fond of it myself. Not that I don’t accept it, of course, but personally I just wouldn’t put it that way. For me, at least, as each one of those terms is listed off—eternal, incomprehensible—God seems to become just a little bit more remote. Invisible, unchangeable—and this God becomes harder to relate to. Infinite, almighty, completely just—this God is getting more and more abstract, more detached and vaguer by the second.

It is Article One of The Belgic Confession, one of the Reformed Church’s four “Standards of Unity.” Can you name the other three? Never mind. Written in 1561 in the low countries, today’s Belgium, it was a Reformed explanation to the Catholic Spaniards who then controlled the land. My own quibbles and tweakings with Article One don’t really matter so much. It is a Standard of Unity, a confession of the church, and the wonderful thing about confessions is that they aren’t a pick-and-choose buffet.  Instead they are broad, unifying statements to which we submit—while always allowing for a little “loyal opposition” around the edges.

All of this is an approximation of my sermon on Palm Sunday, now several weeks ago. From there, I moved to Jesus’ words in Mark 11:4. Jesus sends off two disciples looking for a donkey. And he tells them, if anyone asks why you are untying it, simply respond, “The Lord needs it.”  The Lord needs it.

The eternal, incomprehensible, infinite, almighty God “needs it.” How can such a being—invisible, all just, all good ever need anything? This same God who even if there had never been creation, no universe, would have been perfectly content and complete simply dancing together eternally as the Trinity, now needs a donkey?

You may quibble with my exegesis. Maybe in this context “need” doesn’t carry such momentous freight. Maybe Jesus simply needed a donkey to ride. His “need” doesn’t necessitate altering the very way we understand God. But I would point out that Jesus also needed

the parental care of Mary and Joseph
the boat of Simon Peter
the bucket of the Samaritan women at the well
the loaves and fishes of the little boy on the hillside
the hospitality of Martha.

In other words, in Jesus Christ, the infinite, almighty God willingly becomes needy. God is so invested in creation, so bound by his covenants, he puts aside all that invisible, incomprehensible stuff and risks getting entangled. God makes that mistake that lovers often do and gets involved. It’s not far afield from the claim of the Philippian hymn, that Jesus “emptied himself” or as The Message puts it “set aside the privileges of deity.”

About now, I was in a place where desperate preachers often find themselves—looking for an illustration, something to make the abstract concrete. And here is what I came up with. In Jesus’ “need” we see a God who has become like a meth addict, out of love for us.  God is a meth addict and we are God’s meth.  This illustration of an addict was an attempt to convey the desperation, the entanglement, the unbreakable obsession God has willingly accepted with creation. God now needs donkeys and buckets and bread and people. Addiction and Incarnation are both dreadful journeys that end in death. Yet Incarnation has redeeming value in a way that addiction obviously doesn’t.

Ultimately, the illustration of God as meth addict ended up on the cutting room floor. I guess I chickened out. Of course, God as addict was an effort to jar, to provoke, to use a scandalous image to undo our impressions of a cool and detached God calmly calculating how to “fix” creation from a billion miles away. I’ve just finished reading Robert Farrar Capon’s Between Noon and Three, where Capon relishes using extramarital affairs and liquor as parables of outrageous grace.

Honestly, my reservations stemmed more from morality than theology. I thought my congregation might hear God as meth addict as signaling that addiction is not extremely serious; as using an unnecessarily unflattering illustration for God, as shock-for-shock’s sake.

My deeper concern, however, was theological. Can a God who is unchangeable, infinite, almighty, completely wise, just and good, also be sort of like a meth addict? Was this going too far? Obviously part of the issue is that any metaphor or language for God eventually breaks down (see the second commandment). Is there a significant distinction between a God who out of love and covenant faithfulness has willingly become needy and a God who is like a meth addict? And if there is, what or where is that distinction?

I’d welcome your wisdom, your responses, your ideas. Is God as meth addict prudently preachable?  Probably not.  Is it passable theology? You tell me.

Comments 4

  1. To be human is to be dependent, to draw life from without oneself. We are dependent upon our environment for air, water, food and shelter. We are dependent upon our communites for love and meaning. When we fulfill these needs we become more human not less. Addiction by contrast is a false "need." Meth is not necessary for life. Indeed to become addicted is to become less human. So to talk about God as a meth addict misses the point of our "neediness"

    God by contrast has life within himself. He is "self-sufficient" in that God does not draw life from his environment. God does not draw meaning or love from "others" since God is triune. The Trinity is a self-contained community of love. God does not create because God "needs" others to love. But out of triune love, love spills out to create an other who is dependent upon God.

    The mystery of the incarnation is that God becomes dependent. In Jesus, God like us, needs the same human things that we do:
    the parental care of Mary and Joseph
    the boat of Simon Peter
    the bucket of the Samaritan women at the well
    the loaves and fishes of the little boy on the hillside
    the hospitality of Martha.

    The mystery is that the one who has life in himself, now draws life from outside of himself. In doing so he transforms our humanity.

  2. This is a great post, Steve. Thank you.

    I work in a children's hospital and I spend chunks of every day moving from one existential crisis to another. Anytime a person's health (or the health of their child) is threatened, it becomes a crisis of identity & relationship with the world/the divine. Obviously this is true to greater & lesser degrees according to diagnosis and personal resources. My point is that the omni- descriptions of God you began with from BC1 doesn't satisfy me much in this context.

    I have come to attend much more to the other side of God's paradoxical identity (self-giving, sacrificially loving, suffering with us, etc). Toward that end I recommend this quote from Herdrikius Berkhof (who I know not all readers will honor as an esteemed reformed theologian, but nonetheless…), "I creating people, God as it were recedes to make room for another… In giving this room, with all the attendant consequences, God relinquishes some of his power and makes himself more or less dependent." [Christian Faith p. 142]

    I like this sense that the emptying of power that orthodoxy embraces in regard to Jesus' incarnation isn't just an anomaly in the Divine experience, but is a revelation of God's way of being in relationship with humanity. Not that God is powerless, but that God is self-limiting for the sake of God's love for us. This perception of God's posture is much more consistent with my own experience with the world, my reading of the broad witness of scripture and my need to make peace with the theodicy that regularly haunts me.

  3. The Belgic begins with the ontic rather than the epistemic; which is why folk much prefer the Heidelberg.

    K.H. Miskotte (a Barthian if there ever was one!) gave his inaugural lecture in Leiden on Belgic 1. His point was that it does not confess a general sort of God, a God who fits these attributes, but rather that it is a particular God, the God revealed to Israel and present in Jesus Christ who is one, simple, etc. Part of Miskotte's theology of the name was that one moved always from the particular to the general.

    So that one can never read Belgic 1 in isolation but must push through to the Trinity and then into to the economic activity of this God.

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