What If God Was One of Us?

Scripture can be found here...

Is God close at hand, or is God impossibly far away?

Imagine this: Imagine you wake up from a fitful sleep, a sleep with unsettling dreams, even scary ones. And then you look out your window to see an unfamiliar person—no one special, not particularly remarkable in any way—standing in the yard, watching your house. You run outside to confront this person, because, it turns out, you’re brave like that. And when you stand face to face with him, he begins to tell you a story. In fact, it’s the story of your life. Some things he could have found out with a little sleuthing, like your birthday, and the names and occupations of your immediate family members. Other things… well, they’re the kinds of things you’re pretty sure you’ve never told a single soul. And yet he recites them to you, your private, inner biography, the things that make you, you. And when you ask him who he is, he replies, “I’m God, Pat.”

Would you do what the teen-aged title character in a TV show did? She pointed her finger in that guy’s face and say, “Don’t ever talk to me again.”

If we are spending some time today with the beautiful psalm of praise that is number 146, and if we are pairing it with the mid-90’s hit song, “What if God Was One of Us,” it’s sort of mandatory that we also talk about that TV show, “Joan of Arcadia.” That lovely show, which, sadly, lasted only two seasons, explores some of the very same themes as this beautiful hymn of praise. And one of them mulls over that question…

Is God close at hand, or is God impossibly far away?

The book of Psalms, which we have been delving into and reveling in all summer long, ends with a week’s worth of songs of praise. These last seven psalms grow more and more ecstatic. They invite the pray-ers—that’s us—to join in true celebration. They invite us to revel in the astounding goodness of God! Our psalm—the second in this series of seven—begins with words of high praise:

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!

I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

~Psalm 146:1-2

The dictionary definition of praise speaks of “expressing approval or admiration,” or using words of “grateful homage” as “an act of worship.” The origins of our English word “praise” go back to Old French, a word meaning “to prize or to value.” When we praise someone, we elevate them—we recognize that they are greatly valued, they are precious and prized, they are in some way worthy of great honor. When we speak these words about God, we mean specifically that God is greater than we are.

Words of praise, in a psalm, can drive home the notion that God is above us—so very far above us, that we begin to wonder whether God is, in fact, unreachable.

At one point in Joan of Arcadia, God tries to explain how unreachable God ordinarily is:

“Let me explain something to you, Joan. It goes like this: I don't look like this. I don't look like anything you'd recognize. You can't see me. I don't sound like this. I don't sound like anything you'd recognize. You see, I'm beyond your experience.”

The psalm continues in this way, with a comparison between God our King and the princes of men, and the vast superiority of God is simply and directly stated. Talking of the princes, 

“When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” ~Psalm 146:4.

Princes die; God does not. If there was any doubt as to whether God is high above us, superior to us in every way, this seals the deal. We are mortal. God is eternal.

But then, suddenly, the attributes of God start to be described in a way that is more down to earth, that beautiful blue ball spinning in space that God actually created to be our island home. Granted, this is still the action of an eternal being of unimaginable power, but… it does show concern, at the very least. Right? The earth: God bothered to make it. God bothered to make us.

God bothers to do a lot more than that. God, the psalm tells us, keeps faith forever. And here is how God does it:

[God] executes justice for the oppressed… gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow…

~ Psalm 146:7-9a

It’s almost as if God is spying on us. It’s almost like God is watching us, like God moves quietly and comfortably through the crowded city streets and the quiet country roads, seeing the pain, understanding the suffering.

Is God close at hand, or is God impossibly far away?

When we read the description of the human concerns that are also God’s concerns, God starts to feel close. Very close. It’s almost as if God is with us, here, among us. It’s almost as if God saw that picture that none of us can get out of our heads this week, the photograph of the Syrian toddler face down on a Turkish beach after he drowned in the Aegean Sea. The little boy, whose name, we learned, was Aylan Kurdi, and he died because he and his family were refugees fleeing a civil war that has killed upwards of 100,000 Syrians in the last 3 years. And he and his family are named, specifically, in our psalm, though it’s easy to miss if you don’t understand the terminology. They fall under the category of “strangers,” or “aliens,” a class of people to whom God promises protection, along with orphans, widows, the blind, the hungry, and the oppressed.

If we start to believe that God is close, very close, what does that mean? What changes for us?

In the pilot for “Joan of Arcadia,” Joan’s first response to a stranger who identifies himself as God is, “Don’t ever talk to me again.” Which, if scripture is at all accurate when it comes to the affairs of God’s encounters with humans, is something that many of the people God speaks to say or feel. It’s almost the required first response of every prophet. Isaiah. Jeremiah. Jonah. No, Lord. Not me, Lord.

I think it would be good for us to acknowledge, to admit, that we don’t always enjoy it when God talks to us.

Most of us don’t have a Joan of Arcadia (or an Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Jonah) experience of God. We don’t see God as the lunch lady at school urging us to fulfill this or that errand. We don’t have to figure out which strangers we encounter are God in God’s new disguise du jour, and which are… well, strangers. Joan’s experience of God is more straightforward than most of us will tend to experience. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t talk to us, and if God is speaking, it stands to reason that we are capable of listening. If God is speaking to us, it makes sense that there must be work for us to do.

But it can be a very hard and complicated process to discern what our feelings, or our intuitions, or what feel like nudges are telling us about God’s plans for us. Does God have an errand for us to run? Or is that an undigested piece of beef? But there are a few questions we can ask ourselves, questions to help us discern.

1.     Is God telling us to help someone? This one’s easy. The answer is nearly always “Yep, that’s God.”

2.     Does whatever God is telling us stand up to the Biblical love test? In other words, do our instructions fall within the schema of “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself”? Instructions, nudges, and errands in this ballpark are usually of God. And Jesus—who, we have to admit, brings the closeness of God to a new level—tells a helpful story, which we know as “the Good Samaritan,” to help us remember who our neighbor is.

3.     Do people that we trust agree with us that this might be God’s nudging or message to us? One of the great gifts of life in community is that we have one another, and we can be there for one another. Other people of faith can listen closely to the stories of the various thoughts, feelings, and mental notes God drops into our mind’s and heart’s suggestion box, and help us sort it through.

Is God close at hand, or is God impossibly far away?

God may seem far away. But God is close, almost impossibly close. God is as close as a stranger on the bus or at the lunch counter. God is as close as the face that looks across the table at you at breakfast. God is as close as our own hearts. And that closeness? That loving care? That keeping-faith-forever? That is, indeed, worthy of praise.

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O people, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

~Psalm 146:10

Thanks be to God. Amen.