Higher Power Isaiah 7:10-14 March 24, 2019 Rev. Kristin Stoneking Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley, CA
Signs and symbols are everywhere in our world. There are emojis, and the often very useful “thumbs up” symbol, there are signs that indicate gender and gender equality. Flags are signs that designate identity and boundaries and purpose. There’s one sign that has become close to ubiquitous and I wonder if you can guess what it is. It’s a circle image in rich green with white. There’s a female figure in the middle and at first glance she may be a queen because of the crown on her head, but on closer look, she is likely a mermaid due to the fish tails on either side of her. She has long flowing hair and on top of the crown is a star. Anyone guessed what this is? Right! Starbucks. Now look at this symbol. In the early 2000s, a Chinese company used this character and two others in a green hued circle logo and began to sell coffee. This character is “xing” which means “star” and was accompanied by the characters “ba” and “ke” which phonetically sound like “bucks.” So, the Starbucks company went to court to get the Chinese company to stop from using the symbol and the very similar name, and the court came down in favor of the original Starbucks.
For Starbucks and so many other companies, businesses and organizations, a tight control on their name is considered necessary to maintain brand, to make money, and to continue to exist into the future. As the United Methodist Church recognizes that the members of our own global body have irreconcilable differences, the question of who gets to keep the name “United Methodist” has been part of the debate. It’s as if only one name can carry what our hopes for the world are, and describe the path and community we have found to be life giving. Of course that isn’t true.
All of this defending of one name stands in stark contrast with the infinite names for God. Christians call God Immanuel—God with us,Gracious and Loving, Holy One, Father, Mother and a host of other names. We know God in the trinity of Creator God, Redeemer Jesus and Sustainer Holy Spirit. Jews name God and their relationship with God in the ancient prayer of the Shema, “Hear o Israel the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” And Muslims speak of the 99 names for Allah, for God and are called to memorize and recite these: the beneficent, the merciful, the eternal lord, the most sacred, the embodiment of peace and so on.
In spite of a lack of brand consistency, God’s efficacy is not diminished, God sustains, God continues, God loves, God is. We name God because we need to be close to this holy one and have a way to express our experience of this sacred power, but we also know that God is beyond our full knowing. God is infinite and eternal, yet changing and manifesting always anew.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, we have evidence in our scriptures of both how important a name is as well as the reality that a name can change. Consider the story of Jacob, born of Isaac and Rebekah with his twin brother Esau. His given name Jacob means “he supplants” and was a reflection of his early life of stealing the birthright from his brother Esau and the supplanting of himself as the patriarch in his father-in-law Laban’s line. But then, on the way back home at mid-life, on his way to reconnect and reconcile with Esau whom he had betrayed many years before, he meets someone—angel, human or God—in a dream. He wrestles with this being and is changed. As he goes to face his adult responsibilities as a father in faith, his name changes to Israel, which means “I have striven with God and have prevailed.” He was wrestling with his own pride, his own rebellion, his own fear, and the way he was able to understand God deepens. In our tradition, names are important, but they are merely a reflection of reality and relationship rather than the definer and controller of that reality and relationship. Steps 2 and 3 in the 12 step program name the importance of coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and turning our will over to God as we understand God. It’s important to hear 2 things in these steps in relation to God: First, There is radical generosity in the particularity of how we name and experience God and Second, A relationship with the all-powerful God is a necessity if we are to find our way out of lostness and into wholeness.
When I was a campus minister, it was not uncommon for me to engage with students around the question of God’s existence or in some cases, their insistence that God didn’t exist. I remember one young woman who came to me, low and discouraged though she was trying to keep up a good front. She shared that Sunday school, youth group and church had been the center of her life growing up. Then something happened and where she needed the church to be a strong and loving and compassionate, a wise body of faithful adults for her. Instead she found what she described as “a big bunch of hypocrites.” “Well, the church isn’t God,” I said. “It’s just a bunch of flawed people, trying to be faithful.” And we talked more about how she had felt betrayed by the church family she loved and trusted, as well as about her ongoing experience of goodness in the world and of wanting to believe in God even as she resisted it out of her hurt. After awhile she said, “Ok, I do believe in God and I do believe in Jesus, but I would like them both to save me from their followers.”
When we were talking, she told me that after her break from the church and God, she kept asking for a sign from God, wanting to believe but wanting some kind of recompense and assurance for what she had experienced. “What if asking for a sign is the sign?” I said.
Our scripture for today comes from the book of Isaiah and recounts the story of the prophet in conversation with King Ahaz. Ahaz was King of the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah and found himself immobilized with fear and indecision as he and his people were threatened by invaders from all sides. He didn’t know what to do. Isaiah says that God told Ahaz to ask for a sign about how to proceed. Ahaz refuses to ask for the sign, even though we know he must have really wanted guidance! But God gives Ahaz a sign anyway in the form of a son with a very intentional name. And that name? Immanuel. The name Immanuel means of course, God with us. In the darkest of times for Ahaz and his people, God reminds them that God is a God of love and that God will not leave them to fend for themselves.
What’s so interesting about Ahaz in this story is that though he needed to know that God was with him, he also didn’t want to know! Why when given the direct invitation from God to ask for a sign did he refuse to do so? This was an invitation to turn toward God, because asking for a sign can be a sign. It is an acknowledgment at some level that we believe, even a little bit, in God’s power. But Ahaz refused and remained lost, locked in his fear and indecision. This is not unlike many of us who, prefer to push ahead to our own destruction rather than kneel down for our own salvation. In our hour of trial, we repel God rather than repent, turning around and seeing the millions of signs all around us: in the bloom of spring, in the sweet fresh air that rises when the sun hits wet ground, in the raising of a candle in the darkest hour, in the smile of a stranger, in the mystery of love.
In what is known as the Big Book in Alcoholics Anonymous, AA founder Bill W. tells his own story of being lost in alcoholism and encountering an old friend who was in recovery. “My friend sat before me and made the point blank declaration that God had done for him what he couldn’t do for himself.” Bill said. “ But despite the living example of my friend, there remained in me the vestiges of my old prejudice. When the thought was expressed that there might be a God who was personal to me the feeling intensified.” Then his friend said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”
Then Bill W. goes on to say, “That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.”
What barriers are we putting up to allowing God to be God? How do we resist acknowledging that God has the power to restore us to sanity, to find us in our lostness and restore us to wholeness? Do we say, “Ok God, if you’ll do this or show me this sign, then and only then will I give my will over to you”? Can we imagine instead a release, a release of pain and resentment and resistance to the one who continually calls us by name and calls us home? God is showing up all of the time, always and eternally, and God’s signs of forgiveness, grace and mercy are all around us. God shows up in the trivial and the mundane as well as the courageous and miraculous. Just look at the person next to you, behind you, the rainbow displays when you came in the church, the laughter and voices of the children this morning. This community is one of God’s signs in the world that God is and God will ever be. And whatever we fear, whatever we hope for, whatever we need, God’s got it. Let go and let God. Amen.