By Bruce G. Epperly
Today’s scriptures embrace the contrast of intimacy and ultimacy in describing God’s nature. God is, as Charles Hartshorne asserted, the most moved mover, involved as receptive and creative in every moment of existence as well as the arc of planetary and cosmic history. God is also the great beyond, indescribable and untamed by human desire or institutional control.
Jeremiah 1:4-10 is a testimony to divine intimacy. God has the beginning, middle, and end of Jeremiah’s life in God’s care. God imagines great things for Jeremiah, and constantly fills the young prophet with energy and inspiration. God is surely omnipresent and omniactive in Jeremiah’s life. God imagines possibilities, provides encounters, and gives guidance that will help Jeremiah embody God’s vision in a time of national challenge.
Jeremiah experiences himself as “chosen” by God, that is, he intuits a divinely envisaged purpose for his life. Taken with a degree of flexibility in interpretation, this story is congruent with the insights of process theology. God’s aim is intimate and personal, providing possibilities, energy, and inspiration. God knows our every step and provides guidance throughout our lives, not only because of God’s ongoing omniscience but because of God’s ubiquitous purposes. The moment of our birth is filled with divine purposes which may emerge in the call and response of divine, human, and environmental decision-making. Chosenness is a gift, not a demand. It is an invitation not a unilateral action. God works with and through Jeremiah’s gifts, respecting his life situation and agency.
The process-oriented preacher can universalize Jeremiah’s experience, reminding the congregation that God is at work in each life and that God’s vision is concrete and not abstract. God addresses particular persons in particular settings at particular times. The divine aim involves God’s choices and our responses and always pushes us beyond our initial plans moment by moment and over the long haul. God’s vision is not limited by our sense of inadequacy but can use small beginnings – young people and small churches – to do great things.
No one is left out of God’s possibility-rich realm. The smallest infant and the oldest adult alike receive divine visions for each moment. Each moment has its own particular vocation, each encounter leans toward actualizing certain divine possibilities, and each person has gifts to be realized for the well-being of the whole. The church is challenged to be a place where gifts, possibilities, and vocations are to be intentionally nurtured as our contribution to actualizing God’s vision “on earth as it is in heaven.” Still, God’s vision can never be reduced to our plans; it is always more than we can ask or imagine.
Psalm 71 continues the theme of divine intimacy and protection. We are in the circle of God’s care and while this does not guarantee smooth sailing, it promises fidelity each moment of our lives. God’s fidelity is present in the gift of an open future and the assurance that God never gives up, but provides energy and possibility appropriate to our life situation.
Hebrews 12 joins both intimacy and majesty. God is concerned with individual lives, but God is also a consuming fire that none can fully fathom or claim to own. As we ponder the big bang, black holes, the continuing evolution of the universe, the emergence of galaxies, and the infinity of the intergalactic world, awe and reverence are appropriate virtues. Don’t try to own God or determine God’s vision. While God interacts with us and the world, God is not our possession; God is free to respond in novel and unsettling, as well as healing and comforting ways. The intimacy of God made flesh is appropriately balanced by the mystery and unfathomability of the cosmic divinity. While not at our beck and call, the power of the universe that moves stars, planets, and cells is loving in nature; it reflects the personality and character of the Galilean teacher and healer. Christ centers the universe and the God we affirm – even the dazzling darkness and consuming fire – is the God revealed in the healing, hospitality, and prophetic of Jesus of Nazareth.
Luke continues the theme of the intimate and uncontrollable God. Our religious systems, rules, and doctrines only point to the divine; they cannot contain God’s energy of love. Sabbath keeping is good, but not restrictive. Love trumps order and rule. God’s freely healing love bursts through our ritual and theological limits. In the vocation of the moment, Jesus heals a woman with serious back problems. This might have been the “kairos” moment, the only moment in which she could have found relief, and her healing, more than ritual piety or liturgical order, is what God’s vision demanded.
God’s intimacy and ultimacy are interdependent. God’s ultimate glory is embodied in each moment’s vision of possibility and the divine care that each creature be given the opportunity for its appropriate greatness. Divine intimacy, however, finds its inspiration in a grand vision, far beyond human understanding, that places each moment in a larger context in which the realization of this moment contributes to the future evolving of a family, community, and planet. Divine intimacy always seeks to maximize the interplay of beauty, creativity, and freedom, healing cells and souls, even which it must break through tradition and ritual. The divine iconoclasm, reflected in the healing of the woman who was “bent over,” lures us beyond structure while using structures as the spring boards for new possibilities.
Bruce Epperly, Ph.D. is Pastor of South Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod. A United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, Dr. Epperly is the author of twenty-five books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed,Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel, Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a Twenty-first Century Gospel, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, and Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. His latest book, to be released in August, is Letters to My Grandson. Over the past thirty years, Dr. Epperly has served as a seminary and university professor, university chaplain, congregational pastor, and seminary administrator.