I’m almost 80 years old and like most people my age I was taught by my church that I needed to fear God, in the usual meaning (as I interpreted it) of being scared of God. God was described as King, Judge, and living in Heaven which was far from me in some uncertain place and above and apart from the earth. God was surrounded by the “heavenly hosts” of angels who sang and worshipped him 24/7/365 and was often pictured as just waiting for someone like me to do something wrong so he could punish them. God was “up there watching me” to make sure I was a good boy. This entire picture reminds me of the song that was popular during the late 1900’s introduced by Stan Philips called “God is Watching You.” It goes through many of life’s situations, always followed by the refrain “God is Watching You, God is watching you! From a distance God is watching you.” It also reminds me of the Bette Midler song: From a Distance, God is watching you.”
How those who claim to follow Jesus have managed to twist and mangle the picture of God that Jesus brought! The picture of God we get through the life and teachings of Jesus in the gospels is not one of a wrathful, vengeful person just waiting to punish us in the fires of Hell if we don’t behave, but it is a picture of a loving father as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. God is like the father in that parable who rushes out to hug and kiss and welcome home the wayward son who is broken in spirit and body. God is a forgiving God. God is a loving God.
“In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love.” as Richard Rohr puts it in one of his daily devotions. God is one who desires relationship and to whom we can relate. And this God is not far away in some place called heaven, but is around us and within us and beside us all the time. We cannot, not live in the presence of God. But as Jesus shows, living in God’s presence is a good thing. And the Apostle Paul amplifies that in Romans when he says that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And Jesus declares in the Gospel of John that “God is love.”
We have today, too often domesticated the Gospel and made it into a means of keeping social order and control. A fear-inducing God is what is needed for control of society. But a God of love is who we need if we are to be transformed and rise above all the hate and greed and cruelty that we see all around us. Love is a greater motivator than fear any time.
The words I would give you today are these: Do not fear God! Love God! Seek God’s presence. Be aware that he is always there for you and will never abandon you.
So how do we love God? The only way we can love God is to love what God loves! And that is everything in creation; everyone, including you and me. It is as Jesus reminded the one who asked him how can I earn eternal life—-in the words of the Shema of ancient Israel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, body and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” We show our love for God as we show our love for others. When we love our neighbor we love God. Amen.