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A Manageable Deity

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ — Isaiah 6:1-8

When our two sons were young, and we were looking for a family pet, I asked a dog trainer what would be the best dog for us. Without a moment’s hesitation she replied, “You need to get a beagle! Beagles are the sweetest, the most easily trained, and least demanding dog.”

Not fully convinced, I went home, got out our old encyclopedia, and looked up “Beagle.” And sure enough, it described beagles as “cheery,” “low maintenance,” require little grooming,” and “easily housetrained.” That did it for me!

Straight to the breeder we went, where we selected a beagle that had the warmest, biggest brown eyes, melting our hearts while wagging his whole body and tail. Immediately we named the dog ‘Barney’ after the children’s book series, “Barney the Beagle.” I smile even now, as I tell you about Barney, because he proved to be as cheery, affectionate, and low maintenance as promised. We loved Barney, and Barney loved us. He was a wonderful pet, exactly what we were looking for!

I sometimes think of Barney as I track our culture’s quest for a deity that is also cheery, low maintenance, and not demanding. Our consumer culture has demonstrated a decided preference for a god who exists to please us, serve us, and come to us whenever we call.

But Rev. Dr. Donald McCullough, writing in The Trivialization of God, begins his book with a sober description of this culture’s peculiar bent:

Visit a church on Sunday morning–almost any will do–and you will likely find a congregation comfortably relating to a deity who fits nicely within precise doctrinal positions, or who lends almighty support to social crusades, or who conforms to individual spiritual experiences. But you will not likely find much awe or sense of mystery. The only sweaty palms will be those of the preacher unsure whether the sermon will go over; the only shaking knees will be those of the soloist about to sing the offertory.

Whatever happened to the Holy One before whom saints fall silent, and in whose presence burning seraphs sing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” How is that we have tamed and put on a leash the mystery we call God!

The eminent German theologian, Rudolph Otto, described humanity’s genuine experience of the living God as always one of mysterium tremendum, or “overwhelming mystery.” Otto did extensive research into people’s experience of God throughout world history, as well as in the Bible, and concluded that people in the presence of God experience three things:

  • Awefulness (stirring awe and a profound unease)
  • Overpoweringness (inspiring a sense of humility)
  • Energy (creating immense vigor).

This is exactly what we see the prophet Isaiah undergoing in today’s text as he awakened to the presence of the Holy One. He cannot manage or contain God. He is overcome by that same stirring awe, profound unease, and humility, while at the same time animated by an energy that moves him to say, “Here am I; send me.”

This is what we also see in the followers of Jesus on the first Easter, as they are overcome with unease and awe in the presence of holy mystery, and yet propelled into the world with the news, “He is risen!”

In C. S. Lewis’s book, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” he portrays Jesus Christ as the great lion Aslan. When the children first hear about Aslan they are afraid and ask Mr. Beaver about the great lion. Mr. Beaver laughs and says, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most, or else just silly.” Lucy replies, “Then Aslan isn’t safe?” Mr. Beaver laughs, “Safe? Who said anything about being safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Perhaps we need some more knees knocking in our churches this Sunday, before a Lord who is neither safe, nor manageable. No more than death or an empty tomb contain him, can Jesus be contained by our feeble concepts and thoughts about him. He will forever surprise us and amaze us, for he is the mysterium tremendum, who rocks us, unsettles us, and sends us out with the news, “He is risen!”

Let Him easter in you! Tim Smith

photo by Arno & Louise


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