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Finding God

Christian Basics - finding God

Genesis 28:10-17, Psalm 139:1-10, Acts 9:1-15

Finding God seems an odd title, in that it suggests that maybe God is somehow lost (which is not what I intended!) but it does cover a multitude of possible alternatives which would have been a lot more wordy or "theological" in nature.

Early Christians sought out remote and sometimes fierce locations in order to establish their monastic communities - even, with the Desert Fathers, resorting to living atop a pillar or suchlike. The aim was, among other things to draw close to God. It is difficult for Christians today to emulate such dedication even if they wanted to, but is it necessary, this isolation? Do we have to be alone, in some remote desert place in order to find God?

What started this train of thought was the reading of a Philip Yancey book Finding God in unexpected places which, although an excellent read got me to thinking "Is it we that find God, or God that finds us?"

I could turn to a host of different Biblical references, but I want to begin at Genesis 28:10-17 and the story of Jacob's Ladder, for reasons that hopefully will become obvious later!

Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

Then God was right before him, saying, "I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I'm giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they'll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I'll stay with you, I'll protect you wherever you go, and I'll bring you back to this very ground. I'll stick with you until I've done everything I promised you."

Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, "God is in this place—truly. And I didn't even know it!" He was terrified. He whispered in awe, "Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God's House. This is the Gate of Heaven." (The Message)

I'd also like to point us to the Psalms and these wonderful words from Psalm 139:1-10
O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.
You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!
I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. (NIV)

The Bigger Picture

If I go on my computer I can go onto Google Earth and look at the small town in Wales where I live. I can zoom in to see my house and the roads nearby, and if I zoom out again the view expands to show the whole town, its castle, the meandering river, the nearby forest, beach and out to the sea. As I continue to zoom out the detail gets smaller as a larger land area fills my screen. Eventually I am left with an image of the United Kingdom on the screen. I can still see Wales, and I know more or less where I live, but there’s no detail, I can’t actually see the town.

Let’s expand the picture a little more. Imagine a dark but clear night sky, full of stars. Obviously we can’t see all the stars up there; some are way too faint, and positioned out of our viewpoint. It is estimated that there are around 500 million stars in the Milky Way, which is the band of stars that we look into. If I were to hold up a small coin at arms length toward that night sky, it would block something like 15 million stars from my view.

There’s only one other galaxy close or big enough to be seen by the naked eye and that’s Andromeda, about twice the size of the Milky Way and home to half a trillion stars. Put together, these two galaxies are two of 100 billion galaxies swarming with stars.

How big do you feel now?

This is the scale of the universe that God created. That was some "big bang!" But it also emphasises how small our world is, and by implication how tiny we are.
So, does God have some high tech version of Google Earth that he can use to home in on earth, and then zoom in to get a view of Wales, then Carmarthenshire, and eventually to my house? Can he then see through the roof to check who’s at home today?

With You Always

The Psalmist was in no doubt. There was no problem with the size of the universe because God is not like us, he does not exist in one place at any one time, he is everywhere. Those old religious paintings hanging in galleries around the world have a lot to answer for in putting that picture in our minds of a kindly (or sometimes stern) old man with flowing beard peeping out form behind a large cloud.

I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!
If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.
If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me.

The Psalmist was echoing the words that God said to Jacob in our first reading from Genesis, " I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go"

That of course could be either a cause for celebration or worry, depending on your point of view. What do we feel like about the idea of God being aware of what we’re doing or thinking at any moment of the day? Are you quite comfortable or maybe a little worried about that possibility?

In fact, is that your understanding of God, that he is not that old gent in the sky as depicted by the master painters of the past, but a presence around us wherever we are and wherever we go? In some ways it can be more difficult to imagine him like that than it is as a physical person.

But how else could God be God of the universe? How else could God be in all places at all times. We have to personalise God, as have all generations, in order to begin to understand his love, his majesty and his power, and because we already have an understanding of what he is like through the person of Jesus – we have first hand documentary evidence through the Gospels and Biblical writings; people who saw, heard and touched him, felt his power, authority and love whilst he was alive on earth!

‘I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go’

That was the great hope of the Psalmist. If you flip quickly through the book of Psalms you will find the writers one minute praising God for his majesty and power and the next complaining that they are being hemmed in on all sides by their enemies. But whether the mood was positive or negative, the glass half empty or half full, they remembered that their God was with them and that was more important to them than the fear of the moment. In their despair they cried out to God to save them, and in their joy they celebrated his salvation and the blessings that God brought to their daily lives.

Do we find God or does God find us? The evidence of those who were close to God in the Bible is that God doesn’t need to find us because he already knows where we are! It’s more of a problem for God in making himself known to us, because so often we’re looking in the wrong direction or we are spiritually asleep. Like Jacob in our first reading from Genesis there has to be a wake-up call.

What did Jacob say when he woke up?

‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!’

That's a phrase that I think is worthy of highlighting! How many times could that be said of our lives? How many times have we wandered through beautiful countryside without a thought for the creator? How many times have we been in the presence of a truly wonderful person who is the very essence of the word 'loving' and not thought about the very nature of love and its source? How many times have we taken part in a time of worship and failed to connect with either the singing or the message? Is it that God wasn't there, or simply that we failed to recognise his presence?

Let's put those two highlighted verses together and if you can, memorise them. The one is always true and the other you may need to bring to mind sometimes...

‘I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go’

‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!’

Jacob got a bit of a wakeup call from God, and it wasn't until his mind cleared that he realised the significance of the occasion. There are many other passages that we could look at where God surprised people by being with them in unlikely moments, but I want to just highlight one because it was to an unlikely person on a journey that had nothing to do with Christian qualities of love and tolerance, but rather to do with violence and oppression. This is the story of Saul's encounter with God, as retold in Acts 9:1-15

And the rest, as they say, is history – literally, because the spread of the church and indeed our understanding of the Christian faith is so much in debt to this one man, the most unlikely person for Jesus to connect with.

But it doesn’t stop there, because in order for Saul to become the person he was intended to be, it needed Jesus to find and connect with someone else, a Christian called Ananias, who was possibly asleep at the time.

Ananias was a bit like Jacob in our very first reading, surprised by a vision from God – but more importantly his ears were open to listen, and realising that it was actually God speaking he was able to put aside his fears because he know, like the Psalmist that ‘I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go!’

There was no hint of "God was in this place and I didn't realise it" with Ananias!

So what can we say about finding God based upon the readings we’ve heard? I think it’s not so much a case of us going out on a walk or seeking out the desert places trying to find God, but being aware, as the Psalmist was, that God is everywhere and at all times, a constant presence with us despite our often indifferent response to this fact - and that sometimes he wakes us up out of our daydreaming and prompts us into action.

To some people it might be that they suddenly feel a call to ministry or mission, to others it might simply be the feeling that they ought to do something– visit someone, make a phone call to ask how a friend is, volunteer to help out at a drop-in centre, offer to pray for a stranger, give money to an urgent appeal, make some form of sacrifice for the sake of someone’s wellbeing, be a shoulder for someone to lean on. If God needs us, he will find us and call us!

God breaks through into our everyday lives, maybe not in the spectacular way that he did with Paul, but think of the work that Ananias did after God’s prompting, and the lasting effect that action had on the future of this world.

Listen... listen to your conscience, it is a God-given gift to jog us out of our conplacency, to spur us into action.

Listen... as you read your Bible, because the words that seem to spring out of the page might be God's prompting for this day.

Listen... as you walk around this world, listen to the still small voice that whispers into your ear 'Though times might be tough at the moment, remember that I am with you always'

Listen... as you work or go about your daily life. Needs are revealed through conversations, moments created to pray for others.

God might be speaking to you, and it might not be now, it might not be at a convenient time for you, but listen – God is never more than a whisper away.

‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!’

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