Do you know God?
There are a lot of different ways one might answer that question:
1. If you have been in this service today, you have at least heard the word a few times.
2. You probably have a general idea of the concept (i.e. “Supreme being, creator of the world, infinite in goodness, power, and knowledge.”)
3. If you come to church or read the Bible on a semi-regular basis, you probably know a lot about God. This is the knowledge that comes from religious observance. You can probably quote your favorite verses of the Bible (John 3:16, 1 John 4:16) and sing some of your favorite hymns (Amazing Grace) by heart. If you’re really savvy (and very Presbyterian), you might even be able to recite parts of the Westminster Shorter Catechism from memory (“The chief end of humankind is to glorify and enjoy God forever”). All of this is good stuff to know. It makes you a good theologian and knowing it means that you know a lot about God. But there’s a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about:
You can google my name or go down to the U.S. Census Bureau to learn a lot about me. You’ll learn that I’m 33 years old, married with kids, I have brown eyes, and I’m a Presbyterian minister. If you’re in the NSA, you might even know more about me than that…
If you know those things, then you know a lot about me, but you don’t really know me. Now, go ask my wife if she knows me, and you’ll get a different answer. She knows me. She loves me. We’ve spent a whole lot of time together. For almost nine years, we’ve made a life together. We trust each other, we’ve sacrificed for each other, we would die for each other. As partners, committed for life, we are on intimate terms with one another. That’s what it means to really know someone.
So, let me ask you again: do you know God? Do you trust God? Do you love God? Do you realize just how much God loves you? Do you make time in your life for growing your relationship with God? Are you and God on intimate terms? Do you know God?
Knowing God is so much more than mere religious observance. It’s deeper than just knowing about God. Those people who really know God, personally and intimately, are the ones who have taken their relationship with God beyond the practice of organized religion. Some traditions call them mystics or saints. To these folks, the boundaries, dogmas, and rituals of organized religion have ceased to be such a big deal. These things are only means to an end. The Bible and the Church are not God; they only point the way to God. Any leader that sets up an institution or a sacred text as an end in itself is guilty of idolatry (i.e. Worshiping something else in God’s place).
Real saints and mystics know this. These committed believers find violence committed in the name of God repulsive. These folks are often the first to make peace across the lines of race, language, culture, denomination, and religion. They give love to all freely because they know that God is love, that God’s love lives in them, and that the well of God’s love in them can never run dry. These people are my heroes. They are the ones I admire above and beyond every other form of human achievement. In their intimate knowledge of God, they represent the next stage in our evolution as spiritual beings.
In this morning’s Old Testament reading, the prophet Jeremiah has a lot to say about spiritual evolution and the knowledge of God.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about the Babylonian Exile, the period of history in which Jeremiah lived and wrote. It was during this time that Judaism, monotheism, and the Bible all began to take on the shape they hold today. The Babylonian Exile was a major catalyst that brought about the next stage in our ancestors’ spiritual evolution.
During this time, Jeremiah was thinking a lot about what that next stage might look like. He dreamed of a day when God would make a “new covenant” with the people of Israel. The word covenant can mean a lot of things. On one level, it means contract but on a deeper level, it means relationship. For example, a marriage is one kind of covenant. Jeremiah is envisioning what Israel’s new relationship with God might look like. In this new relationship, he thought, the commandments of God would be written, not on tablets of stone or in printed books, but in the human heart. Speaking in the name of God, Jeremiah says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Going on from there, he says, “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”
Here again we come across this idea of “knowing God”. In Hebrew, the word for ‘know’ (yada) has the same kind of intimate, personal connotations that it does for us in English, especially when it’s tied to the idea of a covenant relationship with God, as it is in this passage. Jeremiah envisioned a future for his people that involved a deep spirituality and a personal relationship with God.
Roughly six hundred years after Jeremiah lived, the early Christians went back and read his writings. They looked at what he had to say about the “new covenant” and thought to themselves, “Hey, this passage kind of reminds us of Jesus. It’s almost like God is forming a new covenant relationship with us.” So, they reinterpreted Jeremiah’s words and applied the idea of a new covenant to themselves. The idea stuck. In fact, there’s an old English word for ‘covenant’ that we don’t often use anymore: Testament. They referred to this ‘new covenant’ as the ‘New Testament’ and applied it over time to the collection of early writings about Jesus that came to be regarded as sacred scripture. This is just a fun fact, but it also demonstrates how the early Christians applied this ‘new covenant’ language to themselves.
As Christians in the 21st century, I think it’s okay for us to accept our ancestors’ appropriation of Jeremiah’s language. Just as the Babylonian Exile represents one significant stage in our spiritual evolution, the life of Jesus represents an even more significant stage. Through the person Jesus Christ, we have come to know God more personally and intimately than ever before. Jesus is, for Christians, the revelation of who God is.
This is one of the things that makes Christianity unique among the religions of the world: For us, the primary revelation of God is a person. In other religious traditions, there is often an important person who delivers a message (i.e. Moses → Torah; Muhammad → Qur’an; Buddha → Eight-fold Path), but in Christianity the person is the message. Jesus doesn’t just show us the way to God, Jesus is our way to God.
You follow a person very differently than you follow to a philosophy or a path. You follow a philosophy by either agreeing or disagreeing with it. You follow a spiritual path by either practicing its exercises or not practicing them. But you follow a person by being in relationship with that person. As Christians, we follow Jesus, not the metaphysical ideas of Jesus, not the moral code of Jesus, but the person himself. We have a relationship with God through Christ. We know God, intimately and personally. That’s the Christian way.
This relationship takes us beyond the institution of the Church, the text of the Bible, and the rituals of the sacraments (baptism and communion). These things exist only to point the way toward our relationship with God in Christ. They are means to an end. If we treat them as ends in themselves, we commit idolatry and end up worshiping something that is not God. But if we look through them to the larger reality they represent, the Church and the Bible can be useful tools for helping us grow in our personal relationship with God. They can help us to evolve spiritually, to know God in the intimate sense of the word.
So, let me ask you one more time: Do you know God? Do you want to? Do you want to want to?
Wherever you fall on that spectrum of desire, you can take clue about where to start from any teenager with a crush. If you don’t know one personally, I promise you there is no shortage of them on TV. They let themselves get carried away by their desire to be with and get to know another person. They’re preoccupied and distracted. They will do almost anything to spend more time with the object of their affection. They don’t mind looking ridiculous or getting razzed by their friends because they’re in LUUUV. It’s a great way to begin a relationship. If you have that desire to know God, indulge it and see where it takes you. Talk to God as often as you like (pretend you’re a teenager texting in class). Say whatever is on your mind at the moment. That’s all that prayer is. Even if what you say doesn’t sound particularly “spiritual” or theologically correct, even if you can’t bring yourself to use words like “God” or “Jesus”: the point is that you’re being honest and reaching out with your soul.
When you have a chance, stop and listen too. Learn how to relax into silence, feel the rhythm of your own breathing, and listen for that still small voice of the Spirit within you; that’s what meditation is. You don’t have to sit in awkward positions or chant in Sanskrit; you just have to slow down, be quiet, and pay attention. As it says in Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.”
However you do it, whatever techniques you use (e.g. prayer, meditation, church, the Bible), whatever language you use (e.g. God, Jesus, Father/Mother, Ground of Being, Eternal Light, etc.), the main thing is that you set aside some time and give yourself permission to get more intimately acquainted with that which is “greater than all, yet present in each” (in the words of the late Rev. Forrest Church). Indulge whatever desire you have to be close to God. Let your desire grow into a crush, your crush into a relationship, and that relationship into love: the kind of love that comes from a deep knowledge of God, written on your heart, that shines like a light for all the world to see.