25 Jan 2009
“When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, He repented of the evil that He had threatened to do to them. He did not carry it out.” (Jonah 3:10) In the name …
Fr. Randy Calvo
I took a day off from my Epiphany home visitations this past Tuesday purposely so that I could stay at the rectory and watch President Barack Obama’s inauguration. While I’m sitting there listening to Aretha Franklin sing “My Country Tis of Thee,” a news anchor announces after the fact that since it was just past 12:00 noon Barack Obama had already become our new President because this is what the Constitution mandates. Well, that sure wasn’t up to all the hype of the day. Then Barack Obama, already as our new President, stands up and faces Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court. The Washington Mall explodes with applause when they see him. The excitement and enthusiasm must have flustered the Chief Justice because he flubbed the words of the Oath, words that are also exactly mandated by the Constitution. Because of this mistake Chief Justice Roberts had to make an unexpected visit to the White House on Wednesday evening to administer the Oath of Office a second time and this time for real. So while I’m sitting there on Tuesday thinking I’m watching history-in-the-making I come to discover that because of the Constitution Barack Obama had already become our new President while I was paying more attention to Aretha Franklin’s singing, and then again because of the Constitution Barack Obama finally took the oath of office in front of maybe two people rather than two million people and me who were watching at noon. Well, again, not very exciting.
Important things like the Constitution don’t change easily. Even if the whole world is trying to watch you become President, it doesn’t matter as much as keeping to the Constitution. Your favourite ice cream flavour can change, your toothpaste preference, whether you choose to eat a meal at Burger King or McDonalds, these kinds of things can change because they’re not all that important. We tend to associate changelessness, however, with profound significance. Change belongs to fluffier matters. The same thing happened in the early history of the church. The great thinkers of early Christianity wanted to show the world that this new religion was more than Israel’s story, more than that of a carpenter’s son. They started to tell the story of our faith in the words of the most respected minds of that day, and those great thinkers were the Greek philosophers. One concept that these philosophers owned was the idea that if something were perfect, then it had to be unchangeable. They figured that if something could change then it could change for the better which meant that it wasn’t perfect before, or that it could change for the worse which meant that it was no longer perfect. When early Christian theologians wanted to present our God as perfect, they insisted that God could not change – just like the great Greek philosophers of their day, and just like we do today even if subconsciously.
But God doesn’t seem to have as much trouble with change as do the people who think about God. In the Old Testament, God is described as jealous, loving, angry, and even in today’s reading as repentant – He changes His mind, we are told explicitly. And there is simply no way to get around the reality of change in God when we talk about the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. We’re still in the Christmas-Epiphany Season. We’re still speaking of the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation, that God has entered our world as one of us. To insist on the changelessness of God is to trivialize the birth of Jesus. How could God not be changed by Christmas? The laudable efforts of the earliest Christian thinkers to present God as perfect are what we should hold on to. This is an undeniable and timeless part of the biblical revelation, but that perfect entails changelessness, I think, has run its course. As a matter of fact, I think it detracts from the revelation of a God who is not distant and unconcerned, but who is rather very much involved with us, our lives and our world, who is very much a personal God, a God who knows me as a person, a God who knows all of us as individuals.
In Massachusetts our unemployment rate went up another percentage point to 7%. We’re being told that our recession is going to get worse before it gets better. This is another reason why next Sunday’s Souper Bowl of Caring food drive is so important. There are a great many families who simply cannot afford to put food on the table any longer. As people who believe in a God who is affected by our lives, we also must be affected by the situations of the lives of those around us. If we can do something, even if it’s a couple of cans of food, then we must. Trying times like this make the discussion of God’s ability to change much more than a discussion among theologians. It’s not only an academic exercise among experts about the nature of God. It’s about how we relate to God, and how He relates to us. How do you build a personal relationship with a god who doesn’t change, who is impersonal, who acts no differently when times are great or terrible, when we come to him in sorrow or joy? This changeless god may be good for philosophers, but it undermines everything God has revealed of Himself as intimately concerned about who we are and what we do.
A God who can change means that we can turn to a God who cares about our situation. If we teach and preach an unchanging God, then the God on the other end of our prayers cannot appreciate the anxiety of worrying about credit card bills, mortgages and job security, never mind our prayers for health in times of sickness, safety in times of war, or for that matter our feelings of joy and words of thanks when a baby is born, a promotion earned, a medical test comes back with good news. A God like our God in the story of Jonah, or a God who comes to us as one of us in the birth of Jesus is not afraid to change when we change. This is how God has revealed His perfection because we and our relationship with Him are all-important, and it is to this God that we speak this morning in Jesus’ name, and it is this God who loves us enough to be changed by us. Amen. (+)