July 16, 2016
Texts: Psalm 24, Matthew 5:8, 2 Chronicles 28, Matthew 15:1-20, John 1:18; 1 John 4:12
I was working on today’s sermon at Starbucks in Enumclaw. Sitting on a bench outside. I heard people asking and giving directions. I noticed the license plate of the car was from out of state. I listened more closely. They were asking for directions to Mt. Rainier. I heard references to Highway 410 and Crystal Mountain. I joined the conversation.
“You’re wanting to see Mt. Rainier, right?”
“Listen, follow the directions these people gave you BUT ADD THIS BIT: A few miles after you enter the park you will see a big sign for a place called Sunrise. It won’t say anything about Mt. Rainier, but take that road. You have to go to Sunrise to see the mountain.”
They thanked me and headed off.
Often when Karin and I have been up at Chinook Pass at the northeast corner of the park or near Stevens Canyon Road which is the turn off for Paradise on the east side of the park, people have stopped and asked us, “Where is Mt. Rainier?”
They have driven out from Seattle. They have a map and figure if you go to the place on the map called Mt. Rainier National Park, the mountain will be kind of obvious. Except that it isn’t. Highway 410 crosses the north side of the park. You cross the entire park and go another couple of hours to Yakima and in that entire distance there are only a couple of turn outs where you can pull off the road and get a glimpse of the mountain in the distance. People who have driven out from Seattle rightly expect better views of the mountain than that. And better views are available. But you have to turn off at Sunrise. It is your only option on the north side of the park. If you don’t take that road, you won’t get satisfying views. That’s just the way it is.
If you do take the Sunrise turnoff and drive ten miles up the road, you reach the Sunrise parking lot and stunning, breathtaking views of Mt. Rainier. From there you can head up on the Burroughs Mountain Trail and get so close to the north face of the mountain you can hear rocks and avalanches falling. You can feel the mountain’s immensity.
It’s quite curious to me. From downtown Seattle, the mountain dominates the sky. You drive south on I-5 and the mountain looms. You head east on Highway 164 toward Enumclaw, the mountain fills your vision. You leave Enumclaw on Highway 410 and the mountain disappears. In the 40 miles from Enumclaw to Chinook Pass, there are only occasional glimpses, tantalizing glimpses. The mountain, all 14,000 feet of it, seems to hide.
Unless you turn off Highway 410 onto the Sunrise Road.
Blessed are those who turn, they will see the mountain.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Most people who drive two hours from Seattle to Mt. Rainier National Park want to see the mountain. And most people who come to church want to see God.
If you want to see the mountain, you have to make the turn and the drive. If you want to see God you have to practice purity. This is not some arbitrary rule. It’s just the way the universe works.
Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God. Cursed are the impure in heart. Their vision of God will be hindered, obscured, distorted. People with impure hearts can go all the way to church and discover God is curiously invisible.
I was visiting with an old man. He was really old–approaching one hundred years old. We talked church. He lamented the way the church has departed from its original vision. I asked what that original vision was. When he told me, I laughed a bit. His version of “original” was a bit idiosyncratic. He lamented cultural changes that were contrary to his tastes. And he confused those cultural tastes with original, essential Adventism. As a point of historical fact, the church he was describing was the church of the 1950s and 1960s, not the 1800s. Then he became quite explicit. The people who were participating in these changes were going to be lost. God was going to kill them.
I protested that God is a father and a father who kills most of his kids would not be a very good father. Yes, he acknowledged, God is a loving, generous father. But, he insisted, we need to remember God has two natures. There is the kind God and then there is the God who kills people. Think of all the people he killed in the Flood, my friend said. Remember Jericho. And God is going to kill a bunch more, too, at the end. Remember the Adventist prophet, Ellen White, said not one in twenty church members had a saving relationship with God. That’s a 95 percent failure rate. And that was back in her day before things got bad. God is going to have to kill all those messed up church people. I said I disagreed. The old man acknowledged our disagreement. He wished he could share my optimism, but he was pretty sure God was going to kill a whole lot of people. That was God’s job. That’s what God is like. My question: is it really?
Did my friend have a clear vision of God? Did he have an accurate vision of God?
Does God have two natures—kind and generous father one day, merciless executioner the next?
Most people reject the notion of two natures. One person said to me, this idea of two natures makes it sound like God is schizo. But if God does not have multiple personalities, we are left with the live question: what is God really like? There are a lot of different versions of God espoused by people. Which is more accurate? Which description comes closer to the real thing?
If we get a clear vision of God, what will we see? Answering this question can get quite complicated, even if we ask the Bible prophets. Consider this story from 2 Chronicles 28.
Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. He did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the LORD, as his ancestor David had done.
Instead, he followed the example of the kings of Israel. He cast metal images for the worship of Baal. He offered sacrifices in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, even sacrificing his own sons in the fire. In this way, he followed the detestable practices of the pagan nations the LORD had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the pagan shrines and on the hills and under every green tree.
Because of all this, the LORD his God allowed the king of Aram to defeat Ahaz and to exile large numbers of his people to Damascus. The armies of the king of Israel also defeated Ahaz and inflicted many casualties on his army.
In a single day Pekah son of Remaliah, Israel’s king, killed 120,000 of Judah’s troops, all of them experienced warriors, because they had abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors.
Then Zicri, a warrior from Ephraim, killed Maaseiah, the king’s son; Azrikam, the king’s palace commander; and Elkanah, the king’s second-in-command. The armies of Israel captured 200,000 women and children from Judah and seized tremendous amounts of plunder, which they took back to Samaria.
If you were going to explain to someone what God is like based on this story, what would you say? This sounds like the version of God preached by people like Pat Robertson or Doug Bachelor. God punishes people by causing really bad stuff to happen. God causes people to be slaughtered in war as punishment for their sins.
This is an especially attractive idea when other people are losers. They were bad people any way. We don’t have to worry about them. In fact, we can be happy for their loss and suffering. We are insulated against empathy because we know we would never be evil like those people. But this story has a curious twist in it.
When the army of Israel arrived back home full of exultation over their victory and proud of the huge amount of loot and captives (who would become slaves) a prophet shows up.
A prophet of the LORD named Oded was there in Samaria when the army of Israel returned home. He went out to meet them and said, “The LORD, the God of your ancestors, was angry with Judah and let you defeat them. But you have gone too far, killing them without mercy, and all heaven is disturbed. And now you are planning to make slaves of these people from Judah and Jerusalem. What about your own sins against the LORD your God? Listen to me and return these prisoners you have taken, for they are your own relatives. Watch out, because now the LORD’s fierce anger has been turned against you!”
Then some of the leaders of Israel–Azariah son of Jehohanan, Berekiah son of Meshillemoth, Jehizkiah son of Shallum, and Amasa son of Hadlai–agreed with this and confronted the men returning from battle. “You must not bring the prisoners here!” they declared. “We cannot afford to add to our sins and guilt. Our guilt is already great, and the LORD’s fierce anger is already turned against Israel.” So the warriors released the prisoners and handed over the plunder in the sight of the leaders and all the people. Then the four men just mentioned by name came forward and distributed clothes from the plunder to the prisoners who were naked. They provided clothing and sandals to wear, gave them enough food and drink, and dressed their wounds with olive oil. They put those who were weak on donkeys and took all the prisoners back to their own people in Jericho, the city of palms. Then they returned to Samaria.
Mercy triumphs over vengeance. Justice is not punishment but healing. The Bible has lots of stories that make God appear vindictive, severe, murderous, even. Then there is this other theme—mercy. Frequently, mercy is presented as a contradiction of God—a contradiction that God himself approves.
When something bad happens and people cheer the misfortune of the cursed, a prophet, a righteous hero, will stand and shout, No. Mercy! And God bends to the cry for mercy. Over and over again.
What is God really like? When we get a clear, unobstructed view of God what do we see? Mercy.
This appears most vividly when we come to the Gospel, the story of Jesus. We believe God has engaged with humanity throughout history and that the Bible is a record of God’s dealings with humanity. God was revealed through the ancient temple services and through the words of the prophets, but as Christians we regard the teachings of Jesus as the highest, clearest revelation of God.
In the words of the Gospel of John,
No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, who is near to the Father’s heart: He has revealed God to us. John 1:18
What is God like in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus uses various metaphors to picture God: judge, employer, master, king, shepherd. His favorite picture of God is as a provident, attentive father. In Matthew 6, Jesus repeatedly assures us the heavenly father is watching and will provide for us. In Matthew 7, Jesus says God is more generous than our highest idealization of the perfect earthly parent.
In the Old Testament, the vision of God is frequently terrifying, intimidating. When people see God it is like finding yourself on top Mt. Rainier when the wind is blowing fifty or sixty miles an hour with ten feet of visibility. You know you’re going to die.
In the teachings of Jesus, the vision of God is beckoning, inspiring. Like finding yourself on top of Third Burroughs on a perfect day in August, thrilled with the immensity of the mountain, the ruggedness of the rock, the dazzling glorious white of the snow.
Which vision is more authoritative? We unabashedly stand with Jesus.
How does this beautiful vision of God come to fill our vision? How does this glory displace the notions of doom and threat?
According to Jesus: Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God. The path to this exalted vision of God is through the practice of purity of heart.
First, let’s consider what Jesus meant by a pure heart. This is a no easy path.
Being pure in heart is more than being religious. In fact, Jesus specifically challenges the notion of religious purity. While the forms of religion can be helpful they can also be used to obscure the vision of God. Jesus was quite pointed about this.
Once, the religious rulers scolded Jesus for failing to follow a traditional washing practice before eating. Jesus pushed back hard. According to the Gospel Jesus turned from the religious leaders and spoke directly to the crowd:
Listen. It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes them “unclean.” It’s what comes out! What you eat passes through the body and out. But what comes out of the mouth is actually coming from the heart. Evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are the things that make a person unclean or impure. Matthew 15
When we practice impurity, we obscure our vision of God. We diminish our capacity to see God. Sometimes religion itself can make our spiritual glasses opaque. Our religion can blind us to God. In my life time, devotion to the King James Bible has played that role. The King James translation is a wonderful translation. But some people turned it into an idol and worshiped the book instead of God. Some translation reformers have worshiped the notion of “the newest and latest translation.” In both cases advocates have imagined that God was contained exclusively in their particular box. People have done the same thing with music. We have imagined that “our music,” the music that is most helpful to our own hearts and souls, is the only musical language acceptable to God. And we have turned our critical ear against those who speak a different musical language. And in the process we have hidden God behind a cloud bank.
We prepare ourselves to see God by pursuing purity of heart. By pursuing moral, spiritual vitality. I suppose we could define this purity as the virtues that contrast with the vices Jesus listed. Instead of evil thoughts, we practice good thoughts. Instead of murder, we practice nourishing and protecting life—the unborn, the foreign born, the poor born, those of different races. Instead of adultery, we practice faithfulness. Instead of thieving, we practice generosity. Instead of lying and slander, we practice honesty and kind words. Practicing these habits enhances our capacity to see God.
In the First Epistle of John, we read these words.
No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. 1 John 4:12
Remember the passage from the Gospel of John we read earlier? “No one has seen God, but Jesus has made him known.” Now, here we read no one has seen God, BUT God’s love is brought to full expression–is made visible—when we love one another. When we practice purity of heart, not only do we find ourselves in the light of God’s presence, we bring God to light for those around us.
Let’s go back to my old friend. His vision of God—the idea that God will kill a lot of people—is rooted in the religious culture of the church he grew up in. It is the same vision I grew up with, as did many of you.
It is a vision of God that is very much alive in the world. I had posted a note about my conversation with the old man on Facebook. I received this response from a young friend, someone about thirty years old:
As much as I hate to admit it, this centenarian fellow is probably right to some degree. The Bible is rife with examples of a violent God. . . . I wish God was like you describe. Let’s hope Centenarian is missing something.
I believe the Centenarian is missing something: Actually, he is missing two things.
He is missing the minority report found all through the Bible that mercy is the last, best, final word of God. He has not noticed that God regards mercy as the highest form of justice. Retribution and punishment can be successfully challenged.
There is one other reason my old friend cannot see clearly the triumph of mercy. He needs God to remain his partner in despising people who are wrong.
My old friend was quite emphatic. He disdained all these people who don’t practice religion just the way he prefers. He wanted me to explain why so many people—even in church—refused to do things the way “we have always done them.” Those people—the ones who had tinkered with his religion, the ones who had failed to keep all the traditions just the way my old friend remembered—those people needed to be punished. Part of my friend’s insistence on the deadliness of God is his own severe judgment on people he disagrees with. His heart is dirtied with religious animosity and that hostility obscures his vision of God.
The news is constantly reminding us that evil is afoot in the world. We are daily confronted with stories about people that awaken our sense of outrage and horror. We naturally want to smash the evil. We want to bomb, shoot, kill the bad people who cause such horror. These reactions are natural.
Jesus calls us higher. Jesus calls us to practice purity, to deliberately fill our hearts with goodness, faithfulness, generosity. Let us practice the bold mercy of the prophet Obed: Let’s push back against the natural hunger for vengeance and murderous victories. Let’s join Jesus in pursuing mercy. Let’s join Jesus in practicing divine purity.
Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God.