This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on January 30, 2022. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.
Please pray with me.
Lord God, once again, Lord, thank you for your presence. Thank you for your patience and your peace, when it comes. Thank you for your grace and mercy. Thank you for the hope that we have in the work that is being done in the world. Thank you for the hope that we have for our own lives and the things that we can accomplish and the ways that we can participate with you.
We pray, Lord, that our worship would be more than just words — that it would be a healing balm for us, that it would be strength and comfort, that it would be transformation as the Spirit shapes us into the likeness of Christ.
We pray, Lord, that our worship reflects our lives — that it reflects the realities that we experience. We pray that our worship pushes us further into our relationship with you and our understanding of you. Let everything that we do be glory to you, Lord, not only in the things that we know but in the way that we live so that our lives might be part of new creation.
We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.
When I was younger, I wrote a lengthy post about the question “is it possible…” I remember one time in undergrad, my professor said, “If you ask me, ‘Is it possible,’ I will immediately cut you off and say yes so that we can just move on, because the answer to the question ‘is it possible’ is always yes,” and the point he was trying to make was that “is it possible” deals with things that could be. It’s an imaginative creative question. It’s not a pragmatic question. It doesn’t deal with “is it likely.” It doesn’t really deal with “is it plausible.” It doesn’t deal with “is it practical” or “does it make sense.”
Possibilities are infinite.You know, one student pushed back a little bit, and so [the professor] posed this question: if we leave the room so that there’s nobody in the room and nobody is watching and there’s no cameras and I told you that the trash can in the corner dances around the room when nobody’s watching, you know, would you believe me? And, of course, the kid said no, because trash cans don’t dance around the room. They’re not alive; they’re not living things.
[The professor] said, “But how do you know?” How do you know? Isn’t it possible that things are different when we aren’t aware of them in any way — no cameras, no listening, no witnesses. How do we know that things are what they are?
And so, I wrote this whole essay about this question, “is it possible,” and I said this is a useless question. It’s a useless question, because it doesn’t contribute to any practical forward movement in our knowledge, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized that kind of thinking — that position of saying that this question is useless — is born from the idea that only knowledge, only intellect, only facts are useful. It was born out of this conservative kind of Christianity that says our knowledge is what makes us righteous.
And the pushback was often that action makes us righteous. When we do things based on our knowledge, that’s what makes us righteous, right? A person who knows what’s right but doesn’t do it is not righteous, but it still came back to this idea that knowledge is what the core of righteousness was. You had to know what was right in order to do what was right and you had to do what was right in order to be righteous, so knowledge is where it’s at.
The problem with this is that I don’t believe that anymore. I grew up with the idea that only knowledge allowed a person to be righteous before God, and anybody who disagreed with you was therefore wrong, right — again: intellectual knowledge language — and everybody who was wrong was, therefore, not pleasing to God. It was the way that we justified speaking out against other Christians who were in denominations instead of non-denominational. It was the way that we spoke out against non-protestant Christians. It was the way that we spoke out against non-Christians. It was the way that we kept ourselves from having to engage in real, creative dialogue. We simply said righteousness is merely knowledge in action, and therefore, the question of possibilities is a useless and even dangerous question.
The problem is that God is a God of possibilities.
In two of the gospels, there’s a story about a rich man. [Jesus] says it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, and his disciples’ response is who then can enter heaven? If the rich people who, by their perception, are blessed by God and cared for by God can’t enter heaven, who can enter heaven? What hope is there for us?
Jesus’s response is not “here’s how it happens.” Jesus’s response is for man this is impossible, but for God all things are possible. Jesus didn’t say that rich people go to heaven. He said even the most impossible thing could be possible. It comes back to that question of “is it possible.” Jesus’s answer is yes, it is possible. It’s completely possible, because all things are possible with God.
Now, obviously there’s some hyperbole here the answer to “is it possible” is not always yes. We have to get really, really abstract in order to make that always true, and in a philosophy class, you can get that abstract, because philosophy is pretty abstract.
Jesus is not saying yes, we can make sure that all rich people get to heaven. What Jesus is saying is God is a God of possibilities. The future is not set in stone with God, which, again, is the opposite of what I grew up with. I was taught that the future is set in stone — that God is not a God of possibilities, that God is a God of predetermination, that your course is laid out for you because God already knows it. Again, back to the head knowledge: if God knows it, then it must be good, and it must be true, and, therefore, it must be set in stone. And yet, Jesus says possibilities are a part of how God operates.
We see this in Isaiah. Let’s turn over to Isaiah, chapter 43. Isaiah is a huge book. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it, but be careful. Be careful, because it’s complicated, and I want to caution you not to take it at face value, because it’s a major prophetic book, but in Isaiah 43, which I have finally found, Isaiah 43 and verse 18… Let me make sure I wrote down the right chapter. I did, but it’s verse 16 and not 18.
This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:Isaiah 43:16-17, NIV
He’s talking about the exodus, where the Egyptians have followed the Israelites into the Red Sea. God made a way for them, and then he destroyed their enemies to save them.
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.”Isaiah 43:18-21, NIV
This is not the only place where God says he is doing something new, but he points out through the prophet [that] their story as a people of God is born out of the creative possibilities of what God can do in the world. Their whole claim as the people of God is rooted in the exodus story — that they were enslaved in egypt, that God heard their cry and saved them, that he rained down plagues on [Egypt] so that they might be set free, that he led them through the wilderness, delivered them from their enemies, fed them, clothed them, guided them, provided heat and light for them, gave them the law, delivered their enemies unto them, gave them land… Their entire identity as God’s people is rooted in this mythos that God is a God of possibilities, because you know what possibility doesn’t exist for slaves? Freedom.
Freedom is not in the realm of possibilities for slaves, and yet we know from all of human history, and especially the last hundred years or so of human history in America, that that becomes a possibility when people begin to imagine it as a possibility. The truth is that theology — our understanding of God, our belief in what God can do — does not begin with knowledge. It begins with imagination. It begins with the creative ability to say, “Is it possible that what I experience now is not all there is?” That experience is one that is born out of an imagination that precedes headspace.
This is the issue that the disciples struggle with all throughout the new testament, and we see it played out in the book of Job. If we look over at Job — we’re not going to read a lot of this, but if you have a Bible, you can skim through it with me. Job opens with a man who has everything he could want, and he’s blessed, and then he loses all of it, except for his wife, and then she leaves him, too, and he sits with his friends, in chapter 3. He addresses his friends, and then in chapter 4, one of his friends, Eliphaz, responds to him, and his response to him is very pragmatic.
Job’s opening statement, in chapter 3, is not pragmatic. He’s lamenting the day he was born, and he’s asking why he was born. If all of this was going to come to pass, why didn’t God just have me be stillborn? Why didn’t God just kill me as a child or have me be born dead, and then they could bury me, and then right now, I would be at peace, because I’d be in the ground with the kings of old.
And his friend, Eliphaz, responds with a very pragmatic and definitive response and essentially tells him, “You should probably consider what it is you’ve done to offend God, because God wouldn’t have done this to you if you hadn’t offended him,” and Job’s response to him is similar to his opening statement in chapter 3.
In chapter 6, Job responds,
“If only my anguish could be weighed
and all my misery be placed on the scales!
It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas—
no wonder my words have been impetuous.
The arrows of the Almighty are in me,
my spirit drinks in their poison;
God’s terrors are marshaled against me.
Does a wild donkey bray when it has grass,
or an ox bellow when it has fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
or is there flavor in the sap of the mallow?
I refuse to touch it;
such food makes me ill.
“Oh, that I might have my request,
that God would grant what I hope for,
that God would be willing to crush me,
to let loose his hand and cut off my life!”Job 6:2-9, NIV
He’s lamenting, again, to his friend, but then at the end, in verse 24, he says, “Teach me, and I will be quiet.” He’s talking to his friend.
“Show me where I have been wrong.
How painful are honest words!
But what do your arguments prove?
Do you mean to correct what I say,
and treat my desperate words as wind?
You would even cast lots for the fatherless
and barter away your friend.
“But now be so kind as to look at me.
Would I lie to your face?
Relent, do not be unjust;
reconsider, for my integrity is at stake.
Is there any wickedness on my lips?
Can my mouth not discern malice?”Job 6:24b-30, NIV
He challenges his friend. “Your pragmatism says that I have offended God. Show me where I have offended God,” because Job and his friends are in two different places in their minds. Job is in a place where he is seeking creative understanding of what is happening in his life. Job is examining possibilities. “This extreme suffering that I am experiencing now, how could it be? How does it mesh that the God — my God, who I love and serve my whole life — could do this thing to me.” He is in a space of creative examination. He is asking what is possible.
His friends are not in that space. His friends are in the pragmatic, intellectual headspace. They’re saying, “Well, let’s examine it pragmatically. Let’s look for a cause and effect. Let’s see what it was that happened that caused this to happen to you,” and they’re rejecting possibilities, and every response that Job gives challenges them to be more creative, because what they’re saying doesn’t make sense, and so we come to the disciples in the new testament.
We come to places like Acts. In Acts chapter — oh, that’s the wrong chapter; I was going to say Acts, chapter 8, but that was not the one. It’s Acts, chapter 10. Acts, chapter 10, where we find Peter, in verse 9, and he’s on the roof, and he is having a vision.
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.Acts 10:9-17, NIV
And the story continues that the vision was actually a way of God trying to get Peter to understand that Gentiles were being accepted into the family of God. He shouldn’t call them unclean just because they were Gentiles, because God was accepting everybody into the kingdom. Peter is being challenged by God in the way that Job was challenging his friends.
God is in a creative headspace. God is saying, “Peter, I want you to imagine with me the possibilities. I want you to imagine with me a reality in which these unclean animals are actually not unclean, at all. I want you to imagine a reality where these things that you, by the law of Moses, cannot touch are actually edible, because the Lord has made them clean. Not only can you touch them but you can consume them, Peter. Imagine that reality.”
It’s the same challenge that God issues — that Jesus issues — to the disciples over and over again throughout his ministry. “Jesus, that town back there that rejected us, do you want us to call fire from heaven so it can consume them,” and Jesus says, “You’re imagining the wrong reality.”
“Jesus, are you going to come back now, and is this the time when you’re going to help us overthrow the Romans and become the nation of Israel again,” and Jesus says, “You’re imagining the wrong reality.”
“Jesus, look at how wonderful this temple is. Look at all the stones and the jewels and how our ancestors adorned this place for God,” and Jesus says, “All of this is coming down. The temple will no longer exist. The most high — the most holy place — will no longer exist. The curtain will be torn. Stone will be toppled over until everything is removed and some other banner flies in the grounds of this holy temple. You are imagining the wrong reality.”
Every time they imagine the future in light of the present, Jesus says, “You’re imagining the wrong possibilities.” The world is more than cause and effect. The world is more than linear stories, because God is a God of possibility, all of creation lives out of possibilities, and so we misunderstand Hebrews.
In Hebrews 11, we find a very popular verse — Hebrews 11 and verse 1.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.Hebrews 11:1-2, NIV
And we read this, and because we come from an intellectual headspace, it’s presented in conservative Christianity as the idea that hope is actually knowledge of the future, and it’s why we misunderstand prophecy. We believe that prophecy is when a person comes and tells you what’s going to happen, but prophecy is not fortune telling. Prophecy is not reading the future, and hope is not knowledge of what’s going to happen tomorrow, nor is it knowledge, in the intellectual sense, of what we cannot see.
Hope is the knowledge — hope is the living into — of the possibilities of the future, because God is a God of possibilities. Hope is what says tomorrow is not written in stone, and, therefore, does not have to look like today, and so when you have peoples who are oppressed — who are marginalized by society — they don’t hope in some miraculous reality that they’ll wake up tomorrow and they won’t be marginalized.
We don’t offer them a fruitless hope — an ungrounded hope — that says perhaps tomorrow you’ll wake up and miracles will rain from the sky. We don’t offer them that, because their reality doesn’t change moment to moment. What we offer them is the hope of the possibility of a future where society no longer has to marginalize them, where society is no longer afraid of them, where society is no longer so selfish that the status quo causes us to be violent toward people who challenge it.
We believe in the possibilities of the future, because the future is not written in stone, and because God is a God of possibilities, and so when the Jewish Christians come against the Gentiles about circumcision, in Galatians, Paul says a new thing is happening. Imagine the possibilities if you would just step away from your circumcisions, and in Romans he says imagine the possibilities if you would just set aside your expectations about food and your assumptions about the wealthy and the poor, and in Corinthians, he says imagine the possibilities of a new faith that doesn’t pour itself into political and social power and recognition, that doesn’t pour itself into influence and praise and who has the better spiritual gift, and when intellectual White Evangelicalism comes and says that nothing can be new because we have all the answers now, we begin to understand how dangerous that is — how toxic it can be to dismiss literally all the possibilities of anything new.
Intellectualism, knowledge equals righteousness — that kind of conservative Christianity cannot say, in all sincerity, “I don’t know,” because to say that you don’t know is to open yourself to sin and unrighteousness, and yeah, I heard it a lot growing up. I heard people say it’s okay to not know, but it was undercut. That message was undercut by the push to be right. It was undercut by the need to be right. It was undercut by the way that doubt was talked about as a sinful thing.
If I were that kind of a Christian this week, I wouldn’t be standing here right now. When your three-year-old gets COVID, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. When three out of the five members of your household had COVID and your kids don’t get to go to school and you don’t know what their assignments are or how they can turn them in and your wife doesn’t get to go to work and her team resents her for it and your family is racked with fear and guilt, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and for me to stand up here and say, “Everything’s going to work out fine because God isn’t going to let anything bad happen to our family,” is a disservice and an insult to everybody who has loved God and lost loved ones — to every parent who loves God and has lost children — because that kind of Christianity necessitates that they be sinful people, and we become like Job’s friends who look at people and blame them for their suffering, or we become like Job who turns and, in the end, blames God for his suffering, and so I don’t believe any of that, anymore.
I believe that God is a God of possibilities, and my hope is not that some miracle will come down and change our lives. My hope is that tomorrow and the day after and every day for the rest of my life will be a participation in a possibility of new creation — that there is a new future that waits for my children and my children’s children — that the world is not destined to destroy it itself but that there is possibility of salvation, possibility of regeneration and reconciliation, possibility of love becoming a dominant force in creation instead of violence and death, instead of fear and hatred. My hope is in the grace of God, that at the end of all things, love reigns and God is supreme, and my invitation to you is always into that kind of hope.
I invite you to hope with me in a God who says that death never has the final say, that whatever happens to my family or my children or myself or my friends and loved ones, it is never the end — that the story persists in new and creative ways, that we can overthrow our bonds, that we can be free, that we can create for ourselves, throughout human history, a world that does not marginalize people and oppress people and kill people just because it can. I invite you to hope in a God of possibilities.