Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sermon for January 24, 2010: "Does God Change?"

Theme: God is passionate about fulfilling promises made out of love to the children of God. Our own anxiety about change does not alter (what Walter Brueggemann calls) God's "resolve" in fulfilling those promises.

I have been wrestling with the question, "does God change?" for years. I identified Bible passages connecting God and change that appear to fall into two types.

Text group #1 God DOESN'T change, because mere mortals change. And God is not like a mortal.

Numbers 23
1 Samuel 15: 24-31
Malachi 3

Text Group #2 God changes in order to address present realities.

Genesis 18: 16-33
Exodus 32: 9-14
Jeremiah 18
Jeremiah 26
Jonah 3

I don't know about your thoughts, but I have grown weary of party politics. One of my maddening experiences: Republicans, Democrats, and many political analysts like to call out a "flip-flopper" to be publicly ridiculed. A politician makes a statement at some point in their life or career about a particular subject or issue. Then, at a later date makes another statement or acts in a way that depicts a change in perspective or opinion. One might say that reveals a character flaw in that politician. One might also say that the leader who "flip-flopped" gained new information or perspective and is taking appropriate corresponding action. Why the negative connotation to changing perspective?

I think people like their leaders to be predictable. To be a "flip-flopper" tends to make people feel uncertain about their futures. Uncertainty often leads to peril in our society. Markets tend to go down in the midst of uncertainty. The stock market took quite a tumble as votes were counted in Florida for Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 as people waited months after election day to learn who won the election. People tend to hold on to what they have and seem less willing to let go of their time, resources, talents and energy if they're not feeling sure about the future. This kind of anxiety development has a way of snowballing and be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Increasing anxiety increases the demand for certainty.

This relationship between anxiety and demand for certainty is not only related to politics and economics, but also relationships. It's easy for one person to cling to a relationship or group in the midst of uncertainty. A person who has taken a hit to their self-confidence because of a life change might over-cling to a friend or significant other as a means to gain some certainty about their value when the life-change might call into question one's personal value. There is nothing wrong with looking for assurance from our loved ones and friends--but if we stay in that place of clinging, it can damage the relationship and become unhealthy.

The human demand for certainty in the midst of anxiety has carried significant consequences in the life of the Church. Pat Keifert of Luther Seminary often speaks about how the history of Lutheranism in the United States comes from hearty groups of immigrants from Northern Europe who were often literally starving. Coming to the United States represented an opportunity for survival and even prosperity. These immigrants faced all kinds of challenges and changes in their new life. They persevered, learning a new language, customs and ways of life. The one place where life didn't change was in the life of the Church and locally, in the life of a congregation. Well over 100 years sometimes passed before the language of the mother country was put aside for worship in English--and many Lutheran congregations still live (and die) as ethnic enclaves that change little, if any since the charter was established for that congregation. The Church for many Lutheran immigrants became a refuge from all the change going on in daily life--and that refuge from change became ascribed to God--for good or for ill. The Lutheran Church all over the Western world became a Church that was often more interested in how God didn't change than how God was changing in order to reveal the resolve necessary to fulfill God's promises.

Looking at the theme from the group of Bible passages from group #1, these passages state that God doesn't change as a mere mortal changes. Humans change in a variety of ways, but we change in contrast to God by how we struggle to keep our promises and often break them. We also often change our allegiances. We're often worse "flip-floppers" than the politicians whom we criticize. These ways that humans change are ways that God does not change. God goes literally goes through hell and high water to keep a covenant with Israel, and also to extend love to those who draw near to God who may be outside the nation of Israel--which would include us. Jesus literally goes through hell so that we may know that nothing will separate us from the love of God. We do not like this expansive love of God, especially when it applies to others, because we cannot predict God's action or affirm our own prejudices by the way that God does change. Walter Brueggemann states that God changes (particularly in 1 Samuel 15) to address the demands and realities of history. This dislike for God changing for present realities is the story of Jonah. Jonah does not like that God has spared the hated Ninevites, and spends a the last portion of the story pouting over the fact that God had changed. God becomes but another example of a leader who doesn't give us certainty. I tend to want change associated with God on my own terms, as does Jonah.

It is possible and even understandable to be shaken by the idea that God in some ways does change. For some, any notion that change can be linked to God shakes the foundation of faith. Considering what First Lutheran Community Church faces today in it's discussions about how to address resource struggles and their consequences might lead one to demand certainty on many fronts. Many heated debates in the Church and society reflect a demand for certainty and a demand for a statement that God does not change. These stories of the Bible about the relationship between God and change tell of a God who shows great resolve in fulfilling the promises of God to reach the world with God's mercy and love. God's faithfulness to God's promises does not change. God's resolve to keep those promises do not change. We are part of that resolve, and we are part of that change--Jesus changed the history of the world, and continues to change it. We can waste our energy demanding certainty and that others fall in line with the certainty we demand, or we can be a part of the resolve to serve God and bring the mercy and love of God to the world.


  1. Very intriguing thoughts. Perhaps it's not so much that God changes, but in our ever growing attempts to understand our Maker, we change. Consider the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament.

    Our understanding of the Holy Trinity has them being a mysterious three in one, IE the same. It's more our attempt to understand God, the parameters at which we look at God that evolve. Like the Bible, the words remain the same but the times around them and the way they resonate with us are what changes.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Kim.

    I think you've raised an important caveat that sometimes it may be tempting to ascribe the change that people experience to God. However, I don't think the words of the Bible necessarily remain the same--in the sense that different perspectives on the same events are in different places in the Bible. The Bible does not have a single perspective.

    I believe the primary, unchanging nature of God is faithfulness. I think the rest is up for debate.