What’s up, God?
In the past, when people tried to imagine what God is doing, they looked at the only thing that was visible to them: nature. The most dramatic displays of nature’s power caught their attention, including thunderstorms.
“God thunders across the waters,” said the writer of Psalm 29. Nothing could grab the attention of pre-scientific-minded people more than the roar of nature’s thunder. So it must be God up to something.
But on a typical day, when the sun is shining and all is calm, where is God to be found? What is God doing? What is God up to?
“We don’t hear anything,” they would say as they looked up to the sky, which is where they assumed God lived. And when one looks up to the sky for something that is alive what does one often observe?
Birds. Birds flying solo, birds flying in formation, birds chirping, birds nesting on branches. And yes, the ancient observers of the sky, folks who spent most of their time outdoors, were all too often the recipients of an occasional bird dropping. That’s just life.
Because the birds were the only observable living things in the sky, it was not too difficult to connect the hovering activity of birds to the question, “What is God up to?” We can see this question answered at the very beginning of the biblical story:
“First this: God created the Heavens (that is, the sky) and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”
As the writer says, everything is dark, so God creates light: “God spoke: ‘Light!’ And light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from darkness. God named the light Day, he named the dark Night. It was evening, it was morning—Day One.”
Did it really happen this way? No, and yet it’s not hard to imagine how the writer of Genesis 1 came to this conclusion. This is poetry. Beautiful, inspired, heart-felt poetry. It’s the mind of ancient writers at work, trying to make sense of the world, trying to answer the question, “What’s up, God?”
When people ask me what I think God is up to, I usually respond, “Read Genesis 1.” That’s a good place to start. If God has a job description, it probably begins like this: 1) create order out of chaos; 2) Bring good out of evil; and 3) separate light from darkness.
That’s what God is up to, whether the sun is shining or the storms are brewing. God is hovering over us, and if we are spiritually sensitive we might “feel” an occasional “drop” of God’s order, goodness, and light.
You never know when and where God might hover about like a bird. In Mark’s Gospel we are given the first recorded account of Jesus’ baptism. Because it’s Mark’s Gospel we don’t get a lot of details. Mark doesn’t add a lot of color commentary to the story; he just gives the bare essentials. Even here, at a relatively small river in an obscure outpost of the Roman Empire, God is up to something.
Mark writes, “At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.’”
Once again, it’s not hard to see the writer’s imagination at work here. If the Messiah of God is being baptized, then God must be up to something, and when God is up to something, look up. And when we look up, what do we see? Hovering birds. In this case, a dove.
What happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism, according to the Gospel accounts, is just as interesting. Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the same Spirit that was there at his baptism. Was the Spirit still “looking like a dove”? Why not? If so, what a great image! Jesus is following the flight of a dove out into the wilderness.
When Jesus arrives in the wilderness for a lengthy period of fasting and soul searching he encounters temptation, personified in the story as Satan. Satan is an ancient mythological being who seems to spend his time trying to get good people, like Job and now Jesus, to fail (or fall) in their humanity.
Like Job, Jesus successfully overcomes all the temptations thrown his way. The temptations apparently targeted his weak spot, his “dark side,” if that phrase can be applied to Jesus without sounding blasphemous. Jesus was tempted to use his power as the Messiah for personal gain, but he overcame them.
Just as at the beginning of creation, Jesus’ chaos was ordered and his light was separated from darkness. That’s God’s job description, and that’s what God is doing with us.
So here we are, comfortably nesting in this beautiful worship space. A place of order in the midst of the world’s chaos, goodness in the midst of the world’s evil, light in the midst of the world’s darkness. And we don’t even have to worry about bird droppings in here!
Still, don’t you think God is up to something, hovering over us like a bird, even if we can’t see what it is?
Because God is always up to something, and we can’t always see what it is, certainty is not a virtue. There is very little room for certainty in our spiritual journeys. Confidence, maybe, but not certainty. Certainty is not an exact science, much less an exact religion. Certainty needs to be replaced with curiosity and compassion--
--Curiosity, because we should always be looking up, metaphorically speaking, to see what God is up to. Compassion, because although we don’t always know what God is up to, we know what we should be up to.
So, what’s up, God? That’s a good question, but maybe the better question is, “What’s up, us?