Rev. Eric Dillenbeck
 July 24, 2011

Based on Exodus 33:7-23
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Presbyterian 101: The Sovereign Love of God

Did you know the Presbyterian Church (USA), of which Fairmount is a member, consists of 2.1 million members? Those members belong to 10,700 congregations, found in every state plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Half of our congregations have 100 or fewer members. The largest PC (USA) congregation has over 8,800 members. Recent surveys have shown that 59% of the members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) grew up in another denomination.

This represents the reality that we now live in a post-denominational world, which means the lines between faith traditions, and specifically Christian denominations are growing ever more fluid.

This is because the beliefs of people seeking a church-home are more fluid and less bound by family or cultural tradition.

As a Presbyterian Minister, or as I am called now in our New Form of Government, a Teaching Elder, I get a lot of questions from those searching for a place about what it means to be a Presbyterian flavored Christian. This is what led us to begin a conversation with all of you about the basic theology and beliefs that shape us as Presbyterians in this place. We are calling it Presbyterians 101.

We begin our conversation with a conversation about God.

But first, let us listen for God’s Word, speaking to us this day from the Book of Exodus in the 33rd chapter, verses 7-23. You can find this story on page 79-80 of the OT in your pew Bible.

Here we find the ancient Hebrews wandering in the dessert, following the presence of God, symbolized by the pillar of cloud.

READ: Exodus 33:7-23

The week before last I was in Montreat, NC for a youth conference with a group from our Presbytery. This gave me plenty of time to spend with our young people. We spent a lot of time laughing, singing and discussing important questions of faith. One of the big questions that arose during our nightly conversations dealt with the nature of God. Who is God?

To some of these youth, God seems very selfish, only creating humanity so that we could boost God’s ego by our regular worship. This perception is nothing new. People of faith in all generations have struggled with this idea, which basically assumes God is like a great heavenly dictator, who is far removed and emotionless; who is not concerned with our lives beyond our ability to direct our praise toward the Holy One.

The other side of that coin is that some perceive God to be like a great heavenly grandparent who spoils us rotten, doing everything for us, making our lives smooth, painless and easy.

But as we see in today’s passage neither of these preconceptions is correct. We don’t see a far off distant God; in fact we see quite the opposite. We find a God who is quite involved, quite invested, very present. And at the same time we see a God who does not give Moses everything he wants, because God knows that God’s Holy Other-ness would be too much for human eyes to behold.

This is the God we experience in the text and this is the God we experience in our daily lives. A God who is powerfully other, Holy and eternal, but at the same time a God of personal relationships who comes to us like a loving parent.

I am keenly aware that many in this world struggle with the notion of God; that many struggle because they yearn to see and feel God’s presence through the big grand gestures; that many struggle because they see the suffering and famine in the world and wonder if God causes it or why God doesn’t stop it; they struggle because they do not feel a personal connection to God.

I will admit that I have shared those same struggles through the years. There have been times when I have wondered where God was when wars raged and people died; there have been times when I have wondered where God was when planes crashed and buildings fell; there have been times when I have wondered where God was when I discovered young people were starving themselves because they did not like the way they looked.

But in these times I have always been reminded by the stories of scripture that God is there in the midst of the grief, God in there in the midst of the wars, God is there in the midst of the pain, hurting with those affected and calling out to us for a response.

As Presbyterians we are guided by the stories of scripture, which tell God’s story to us. These stories tell us about our God of love who creates, cares for, and sustains all things; these stories tell us about our God of love who chose a covenant people that we might be a blessing to all people everywhere; these stories tell us about our God of love who sees our struggles and comes to bring a covenant and redemption over and over again; these stories tell us about our God who so loved the world that the Holy Son was sent to fully express God’s love for all people.

Last week we rested with Psalm 139, one of my absolute favorite psalms. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” – the text asks?

God is everywhere. When I first thought about joining a church in college, this idea was intimidating at the least and scary at the worst. I remember reading this psalm and thinking, “Is God spying on me, waiting for me to mess up?” God is everywhere. We learn this as children and feel it to be true as we watch the sun rise or set, as we witness childbirth or sit with someone in hospice. “God is everywhere is the greatest good news. It means there is no place where God’s love and justice cannot be; there is no place where God’s love and justice cannot be at worki.”

As Presbyterians we believe in Our Sovereign God, who is Holy Other, yet at the same time is also Holy relational. We believe in our God who is FOR us and not against us, whose reign will come and whose will for our good will be done. We believe in our God who is not imprisoned in heaven or inside the church, but rather is on the loose in the ordinary moments of each and every day, hallowing them for God’s purposes in the world.

In response to this Good News may we be open to the gracious love of God at work in our lives and in the world that we may participate in sharing the Sovereign Love of God through Christ with a world that is struggling to hear some Good News.



[1] Grateful thanks to Shirley Guthrie.  Christian Doctrine page 101 and 111