Sunday, September 09, 2001

"In Search of... God"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 9th, 2001
Text: Psalm CXII

I am sure most of you have what one would call a favourite place and many of you this summer will have had the opportunity to go and visit that favourite place whether it be your cottage, or a particular destination, or a return home. Well, this summer, I was afforded the opportunity of spending a day or two in my favourite place.

It's a favourite place that I have had for 21 years. Actually, I discovered it 21 years ago this very weekend. My favourite place is called Cape John, and it is situated on the north shore of Nova Scotia, about four miles from the village where I began my ministry 21 years ago in River John, in Pictou County.

Cape John is the place where I used to go every Saturday night for the three years when I ministered there, to prepare myself spiritually for the day to come. Every year I have gone back to this place, because it is a place for me to pray; it reminds me to be humble and it keeps me on a straight path.

I remember the first time I went to my favourite place. It was evening and the fishing boats were just tying up at the wharf. Many of the fishermen were getting out and placing their traps on the wharf and were ready to go home. Some of them were sitting down and having a last drink before the evening.

When I arrived on the scene, many of them invited me to join them for a drink. But thinking it would be prudent not to, especially as I would be preaching next day, I said 'No thanks,' but I sat and I talked to them. Even now, when I go back to Cape John, I run into some of those same fishermen whom I came to know when I was a minister in the community and we have a reunion. It's wonderful.

Well, this past summer, I went back to my favourite place. The sun was setting and the fishermen were gone and I sat on a breakwater that juts out into the Straits of Northumberland. On a clear day, one can see Prince Edward Island. As I sat there, the tide was going out and, as it came over the rocks, it left little pools of water. In these pools of water were tiny little fish that were left behind until the tide would come in the next day and sweep them out.

As I was meditating and praying, I looked at these little fish in the pool and I thought: "You know, I have tremendous power over these little fish. I could just grab any one of them and take it for myself." It was amazing. Here they were in this little world, right at my feet. For a moment, I felt like God. I had power over these fish. These fish were there on my very whim. I could deal with them as I pleased.

Just as I was getting full of power and wisdom, there was a sudden crashing wave behind me on the rocks and my back and head were completely immersed in water and in seaweed. I sat there and I looked at the pool of water and I swear those fish were laughing at me at that very moment. It reminded me: "Oh, Stirling, you are not God, despite what you might think of yourself sometimes."

It reminds me of a wonderful story - and one never knows whether this is true - of the great Danish king, Canute, who reigned in England from 1016 to 1035. King Canute had all the men in his court come to him and say: "Oh, King Canute, you are the greatest man in the universe. You are the master of the universe. We are terrified at your every word and whatever you say, we will do."

The fable goes that in 1032, King Canute went to the shore in Northampton, in England and he took his gold throne and he sat in the middle of the ocean and he invited all the men from the court to stand with him and he declared: "Oh mighty sea, stay where you are. The great King Canute has determined that you will come no further. I am the master of the universe."

Well, you all know what happened, don't you? The waves came in. King Canute was covered in water. All his men were covered in water and they all finally fled to the beach. When they did so, King Canute said to them: "Now I want you to understand. There is only one King of the Universe. There is only one Sovereign Lord that is worthy of our praise."

That very night, King Canute went to his home and took out his crown and went to a local church and hung it on the communion table as a reminder to all his servants of who ultimately is the King of the Universe.

You see, my friends, there are times when we human beings become rather uppity and when we think that somehow we are God, or that we are in control of our own lives or the lives of others.

The psalmist himself understood, though, as did King Canute, as did I in Cape John, that there is only one King of the Universe. The psalmist declared: "Oh Lord, You and You alone are the stronghold of my life."

But in our great psalm this morning, the psalmist goes beyond that. In many ways, if you look at the psalm, he goes through three stages in his understanding of God. These are stages that I think many of us go through and many people in society go through. Maybe not in nice neat little segments the way I'm going to outline them but, nevertheless, the principles are still the same.

The first of these is Stage I, and this was the first stage of the psalmist. It is in finding an impersonal God, an impersonal God.

The writer, Robert Fulghum, tells a story of being on a plane sitting next to an Australian carpenter. The Australian carpenter and he began to discuss God and the existence of God. The Australian said to him: "Well, I have a theory about God. It is called The Dog and Flea Theory."

Fulghum said: "The Dog and Flea Theory? Pray tell. What is The Dog and Flea Theory?"

He said: "It is as improbable for us to ask whether God exists as it is for a flea to ask whether a dog exists."

He is right. For many people do. They are what I call unbelieving theists. They believe in the existence of God as a flea believes in a dog, but they have no more conception of the Almighty than that. Indeed, many people have a dreadful and a negative view of this God. They see this God as a pernicious God, a God who is out to get them, a God who is out there to crush all joy, to destroy them whenever they make a mistake. Even the psalmist says: "Rebuke me not, Oh Lord, with Thy anger."

There is a sense in which many people look at God and look at the faith as if God is a destructive force within the universe.

I always find it most humourous, for example, that if you look at some insurance policies - I don't know if they still do this - but whenever they could not describe a disaster, or be able to give a reason for it, they always called it (this bugs me) an Act of God. So, in other words, if there is hail from the heavens, or if there is fire from the heavens, or if there are floods, these are called always, ipso facto, Acts of God. God is a pernicious God who is out to get us.

Now, not everybody feels this way. You can be a general theist and believe in the existence of God and see God as perfectly benevolent. You can see God, for example, as the God who is just there as your cheque book signer to make sure that you get everything that you want: a God that you can call on, but who really has no personal relationship with you, a God who is just there to make sure that all is well.

Albert Einstein once said: "I don't believe that God plays dice with the world." In other words, this is a fairly benevolent God, but a God who has no character, with whom you have no relationship, just a general belief, a theistic belief, in the existence of a God. The danger if you just stay in Stage I is you can actually try and tell this God what you want this God to do.

It reminds me of something I saw this week. On Tuesday, three little children who live next door to me on Southvale Drive went to a new school for the first time. I don't know about you, but every time school starts my heart sinks. I don't know whether we are all children inside, but it's a hollow and an empty day. You see these poor little darlings with their new sneakers and books under their arms, often bigger than they are, stumbling their way to school. Doesn't it remind you of your first day? It's terrifying. I'm just so sad for these little blighters.

Well, anyway, as I watched them go to school I was reminded of a story I heard about a school principal who received a telephone call, and the voice said: "Thomas Marsden will not be in school today."

The principal thought about this a moment and became a little suspicious. He had never heard this voice before. He said: "Who is it that's speaking?"
The voice said: "My father."

Well, my friends, sometimes general theists treat God in the way that little boy treated the principal. In other words, we can just say whatever we want to this God because this is an impersonal God, a God who is defined by us and with whom we have no relationship.

But there is a second stage. What I call 'In Finding a God of the Faith.' There is a wonderful Latin phrase that describes The Faith as the fides quae creditur and the fides quae creditur is the Faith in which I believe. It is the deposit of the Faith. It is the Faith that is revealed in time and place. And you see the psalmist talking in such terms. If you look at the Hebrew, you will find that he talks about God in the past tense. He talks about God, for example, as having been his salvation, being his light. Actually the word in Hebrew is shekinah, the revealing God, the God who has been there throughout time and place. He refers to God as his shelter, his tabernacle. He refers to God as his stronghold who has been able to oversee his enemies and has been there to help him in times of trouble. He talks about God, in other words, in the past tense.

Now, my friends, there is a need for all of us to have a creed. There is a need for us to have a content to our faith. In fact, I think it's fair enough to say I have spent a great deal of my time contending for The Faith: The Faith that has been revealed; The Faith that we find in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our Lord; The Faith that we find revealed in the Old Testament and God's covenant with Israel. There is a need for every one of us to know the content of our faith. There is a need for each one of us to have a creed, lest we become blown by the winds of change and whatever false doctrine might come along.

The problem is, however, that if we simply stay at that second stage of faith, if God is nothing more to us than a formula, if God is nothing more than a God who has acted in the past, if God is constrained by the limitations of time, then God to all intents and purposes is dead.

There is a need for a third stage and that is in finding a personal God. By a personal God, I don't mean your own little God. I mean: "The God who is personal, the God who has a relationship with us."

Allen Churchill, in his wonderful book Cultivating God's Presence, wrote these words:

Without a spiritual experience of God, doctrine remains no more than a mere framework for our faith. It leaves our worship without drama and without expectation. It provides us with no assurance of forgiveness. It supplies us with no lasting moral energy to face temptation or give up sin. It kills missions. It leaves us with no vibrant hope for the future. We are not speaking here of something we can take or leave. To experience the love and the holiness of God is essential. It is the essence of what it means to be a Christian. The framework of our creed is indisputably essential, but within this framework, so is our experience of God.

I couldn't agree with Allean Churchill more. There is a need in people's lives for them to have a living and a vibrant relationship with God; to have an experience of God; to know and appreciate the loving and vibrant power of God's Holy Spirit within our lives.

The psalmist put it this way: My heart says to me: 'Seek your face.'

God says to the psalmist: Seek my face.

God takes the initiative and says to the psalmist: Now, Oh Psalmist, now is the time for you to know Me, for you to experience Me, for you to open yourself and see My face.

I was reading a provocative article in the Toronto Star Religion Section a few weeks ago and it struck me because it had the picture of a minister with his two sons on the golf course. - I don't know if any of you saw this, but you can imagine, when I saw a minister playing golf, how excited I got and I thought: "Oh, how nice to know there are others who perform pagan rituals during the summer." Anyway, enough said. This is a minister who for a while practised law on Bay Street and received the call to the ministry.

He talked about what he is doing in his rural church; some of it I would like, some of it I probably wouldn't. I do agree with what he had to say in the article, and I quote him. He said: "Most people have written church and worship off. It's either fanatical, boring, sedate or irrelevant [clearly he has never been to Eaton Memorial!] and yet there appears to be a vacuum in many people's lives as evinced by the plethora of new self-help books that are widely available."

He goes on to talk about the many people in our city who, even if they are doing well in their lives, even if things are moving along well, if they are healthy, wealthy and wise, still have this vacuum in their lives, still are in need of one thing above all else: A relationship with a living and a vibrant God.

My friends, I believe that at the heart of a relationship with a living and a vibrant God is a commitment to worship.

The psalmist put it this way: One thing have I desired of the Lord and this that I seek after, that I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life; that I may enjoy the beauty of His sanctuary.

You see, the psalmist understood that, if you want to see the face of God, it is not a literal thing, for whoever sees God dies; but it is a spiritual thing. It is in opening oneself in worship to see God face to face, to hear God's word, to sing the magnificent Te Deum, to praise God from whom all blessings flow. At the heart of the psalmist, in all the things that were taking place in his life, and in Israel's life after the exile, there is one thing above all things: He wanted to worship his God.
My friends, as we begin a new church year at Eaton Memorial, it seems to me that at the centre of what we do, above all that we offer, we offer people an experience of God that we find in the worship of God in the beauty of this place.

Now, that does not mean that you can't worship God anywhere. You can. God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. But there is a need, my friends, to experience the beauty of the Lord in worship and to see His face.

While I was on my trip to Nova Scotia this summer, I was privileged, to celebrate my wedding anniversary. Now, this was a rather unique wedding anniversary, for Marial wasn't able to join me in Nova Scotia as she had commitments here in Toronto. So I spent my wedding anniversary, as anyone would, with my mother-in-law. So much for all the jokes!

My mother-in-law took me out for a meal. When we were in the restaurant, lo and behold! We ran into a man who had been at our wedding 18 years before and remembered the day. He looked over to me and he smiled with an impish grin. He said: "Well, Stirling, you've done all right. You get two for the price of one, don't you?" Now, for the record, I would rather have been with my wife. Let's be clear about this.

But on that day, the evening came and my mother-in-law wondered what I was going to do. I said: "You know, there is one thing, May, that I would really like to do. I would like to go and visit the seniors' home where my mother spent the last two years of her life, and I would like to go and visit her friends."

So, I hopped in a car and drove down to the senior citizens' home and I brought some flowers. I went in, room by room, and visited all the elderly people who had been my mother's friends. At the end of the evening, I went to my mother's dearest friend, called Marion, whom I have known for some twenty-odd years. Marion had just lost her husband a couple of weeks before.

When I went into the room and knocked on the door, her face absolutely lit up when she saw me. She said: "Andrew, I know. You told me last year when you left that you would return and I believed you would; but now that I have seen your face, it's made my day and made my year. You haven't forgotten me and you haven't forgotten us."

My friends, I think God is like that. Not like me but much greater than me, but like that. I think God says to the people that he created in His love: "You see, you can trust Me. Seek My face. Worship Me and when you experience Me and when you know Me and when you have found Me, then you will know that I love you and that you are Mine."

Then, my friends, you will have found God and when you have, your life will never ever be the same. Amen.