A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on October 9, 2011
A few years ago I went to hear Professor Glenn Hinson speak. In his lecture, he made an intriguing statement and that’s continued to resonate in me as I’ve reflected further upon it. That night he observed simply, “God has a center but God has no circumference.” I took that to mean that the Holy One has a location out of which divine love and energy flows, but has no boundary marking the outer limits of that love. There is a center to God, but there are no boundaries.
God is so indescribable he simply transcends any limits we can imagine about space and time. In addition, there’s no shape into which this divine center can be poured. Knowing this, it would seem that trying to capture the Holy in any shape or form of our own making, admittedly an impossible task, would not be a goal we would attempt.
The second commandment is crystal clear about this: You shall not make for yourself any graven images. The language here is usually read, “shall not,” but it’s probably clearer to read it as we “cannot” construct an image of God that would be even remotely authentic and truthful. We’re prohibited from doing something that’s utterly impossible. But that hasn’t kept us from trying to do so, has it? We make images of God to our suiting in an attempt to control God, to put God on our side, or to make God a mascot for whatever cause, wherever God’s presence would give us power or advantage.
Carlyle Marney cautions us soberly that, “God is a wild bronco kicking the slats out of any corral we put him in.”
To be a person of faith, to have an adequate basis for our awe and worship, we’ve got to think BIG when we think of God. Our God is beyond what our brains can hold or hope to handle. Our God is a God of really big numbers! Think big, not small! Our God is a BIG God and we need a big faith to even begin to think of God in appreciable proportions. But there have always been some who want to contain God within a smaller, more confined space and time.
To put God’s grandeur in context, let’s consider how big the universe as God’s handiwork, is that’s been made by our Creator God. The Psalmist says God laid out the universe by the span of God’s fingers. Before our telescopic view of the universe was widened through the Hubble telescope, it was generally understood that based on the estimates of the world’s population, there were two galaxies for everyone alive. That may sound simplistic but toss alongside that number that in round numbers each galaxy harbors at least 100 billion suns.
But since the Hubble was unleashed in 1990 with its all-knowing eye, we’ve had to revise those numbers. It appears from all this research there are nine galaxies for every person – the result of calculating there are 80 billion galaxies (each on the average holding 100 billion suns).
But that’s not all. In the information gathered by Hubble we’ve also had to tinker with the age of the universe estimating the stars are not 12 but 13 billion years old and that the Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago with life appearing at least 2.5 billion years ago. In our galaxy alone, the one we affectionately call the Milky Way, there are estimates that range between 200 and 400 billion suns and the width of the Milky Way is estimated to be 100,000 light years across. For a sense of depth, understand the Milky Way’s an orbiting disc, and as such it’s about 3,000 light years in depth.
To unpack what that means, remember that a light-year is the distance light travels in a vacuum in one year’s time. To measure this distance we take the speed of light and calculate how far it would travel in a year’s time. From that calculation if we figure it right, light pops across the universe 6 trillion miles in a year. Now, you do the math as to how big the Milky Way really is to be 100,000 light years across. Then consider the Milky Way is merely one galaxy out of 80 billion galaxies even if it’s considered twice as big as the average galaxy. Annie Dillard’s tongue-in-cheek observation about such immense numbers is to think “these astronomers are nickel-and-diming us to death.”
This becomes the language and mathematics of the stargazers who look up into the night sky and wonder in awe, “When I look into the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established: What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4 NRSV).
We must push the boundaries of faith to see that the God of creation cannot be contained in a small-minded faith that can be contained in small numbers. Such parsing of the numbers diminishes God. God is no magician waving a magic wand of the moment creating an ancient world instantaneously. God has been at the universe’s beginning and has been involved in the tiniest of details throughout time that is nearly immeasurable. It takes a deep-rooted faith to see God working slowly, imperceptibly, creating and recreating the world over long spans of time.
Moses went up to the top of the mountain to meet with the God who created this world and all the worlds throughout the immeasurable universe. And while he was up there, the people of God were down below camped out, waiting for him to return. While Moses was absent all they could hear or see was thunder and lightning and they grew very anxious. Whenever we’re anxious, we’re capable of almost any mischief.
This is a story of ascents and descents. In reflecting upon this story where Moses left the people of God at the base of the mountain while he obeyed God, Miroslav Volf rightly named this as a story of ascents and returns. One man went up to meet God while the people of God remained below, camped out at the base of the great desert mountain.
It’s reminds us of what psychotherapist Carl Jung cautioned about human nature that where there is great light, there is also a great shadow. One necessarily follows the other and it’s our duty to be aware of our shadow. This is the time of testing for the people of God and despite being near the presence of God, they lost a memory of who they were and regressed back to an old idolatry.
Our idolatries are usually as multi-faceted as they are futile and we make god-substitutes out of money, sex, power, possessions, fame, self-righteousness. We narcissistically turn God into a valet who attends to our whims and desires like an errand boy. We turn God into our mascot, on our side, identified with our cause no matter how corrupt. We turn God into a totem, a magical power to invoke in time of need like rubbing a rabbit’s foot for good luck. Anytime we make God small and symbolic, as something we might carry around in our pocket, this small God needs to be replaced by the God who has no circumference.
In their anxiety about the wild God at the top of the mountain, Aaron had the people of God collect all their gold. They melted it down and sculpted a golden calf, a common sign of fertility in ancient times. Then they danced and drank and celebrated their new god claiming this was the deity that delivered them from slavery. Moses had met this God and experienced the awesome power from up close so to return to the camp where this god charade must have been more than he could bear. Aaron lamely explained that all he did was throw the gold into the fire and voile, out came the idol.
The Bible is discrete in explaining what happened next. Moses burned the idol in the fire then ground it all up until it was a fine, pulverized powder. He then scattered this powder on the water and commanded them to drink the water laced with the remains of the golden calf. That’s where the text stops, but “the rest of the story” is obvious. It was not long before those Israelites were pissing on the ground the god of their making as an act of indignity and humiliation. The point was not lost on them: The Holy One was not about to allow them to replace or define or order about or measure God because God is God is God; God has a center, but absolutely no circumference.
At the heart of this part of the story in Exodus, we can say with certainty, “Our God is a jealous God.” Jealousy is not normally considered a trait we should have: A jealous husband, a jealous wife, a jealous friend; so most often we’re cautious to think of jealousy in a positive light. But on occasion, jealousy is quite necessary to remind us whose we are.
A few years ago, Wanda and I were visiting her Mom in Hawai’i. It was a Friday evening and we were down in the lobby with the other residents where Wanda had given a musical recital for the residents. As was their tradition, a reception was offered and we were seated having pupus (Hawai’ian for hors d’oeuvres). There was wine and drinks and other refreshments that made the moment a pleasure and obviously Wanda had shined.
One of the residents, a man considered young for the typical age of the residents, was new and the scuttlebutt about him was that he had mysteriously never been able to make it in life on his own and had been remained in his parents’ care all his life. Most considered him socially inept for some unknown reason. So when his parents died they provided for him by placing him in this retirement center for the remainder of his life, as he could not manage for himself in life. He tried to fit in but the residents were understandably wary and stories of his true nature were spreading around.
While we enjoying the reception, the man walked over to where Wanda and I and her mother were seated and whispered not-too-softly over her shoulder that, “he knew of a wonderful Italian restaurant in Honolulu that had a wonderful wine cellar” where supposedly he would like to take Wanda on a date. To be honest, he reminded me of the suave character Bill Murray played in Caddy Shack, someone who was rough around the edges but who in his mind wanted badly to be cool.
My mother-in-law, alert and protective of your Pastor of Worship and Arts, cut me a look I had never seen before in all the years we’ve been married. It was a look I took to mean I needed to “do something.” The look was so severe I wasn’t quite sure what she meant but I figured the range of options was unlimited in her mind so long as I did something now. So I did. I stood up, put a firm grip of the man by his elbow, and told him firmly, “You need to move on.” He said something in polite defense of himself as though I had misunderstood his intentions, so I cut him off and said shooing him away, “Just move on.” I knew it was one of those moments when no matter what I did, in my mother-in-law’s eyes, it going to be either too much or too little if you know what I mean.
Does that help when I say, “Our God is a jealous God?” The second commandment could not be clearer and the futility of minimizing God into some less-than-adequate god of our making is obvious. The Creator of the vast universe that has not yet ever been measured with any sense of scale commands our worship in recognition of the simple fact that the God of creation wants us to love in return.
We’re to love God as purely and completely as God has loved us, the God that has a center where love and energy for life emanates, but as unlimited God, has no circumference to limit God’s unending grace.
 This reflection comes from Charlie Johnson’s sermon, “God Substitutes,” Second Baptist Church, Lubbock TX 1/31/93
 Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 73
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).