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How are you experiencing God these days? Are you experiencing God these days at all?

These are not trick questions and I’d like you to seriously consider them. Your response to these questions will, on the one hand, be very personal but, on the other hand, they are of primary concern to me, especially at Christmas, especially in these increasingly difficult days.

How are you experiencing God these days? Are you experiencing God these days at all?

These are not universal primary concerns. Only recently, an Op-Ed appeared in the New York Times expressing the concerns of Pope Benedict XVI, in agreement with but on the other end of the spectrum from the American Evangelical Right. Their primary concern was neatly summed up neatly by the President of the Southern Baptist Seminary, Albert Mohler, who is quoted as saying: “My first concern is not with the God we are looking for, but the God who is?”

That Op-Ed appeared on Friday morning, December 14. Since that horrific morning – and frankly, for some time before – the concerns
I’ve heard most consistently are concerns that God would simply show up. And so my questions:

How are you experiencing God these days? Are you experiencing God these days at all?

I can hardly believe I’m going to say this, but we have just lived through one of the most horrendous years in our life-times. I won’t offend you with the details, but if you tally up all of this past year’s mass killings, all of this year’s natural disasters, all of this year’s economic casualties, all of this year’s interminable waiting for political action; if you add to these all of the burdens each one of us personally bear and even consider factoring in the chaos and crises, which increasingly affect us from all over the globe, you will see that my characterization of this as “one of the most horrendous years” is exactly right.

How are you experiencing God these days? Are you experiencing God these days at all?

An increasing number of people — 1 in 6 worldwide, 1 in 5 in the USA, and my guess is a much closer ratio here in New York —
will honestly answer that they are not experiencing God at all and no emphasis on biblical accuracy about “the God who is” is going to help that situation at all.

Another number of people, also increasing, have some very specific and very dangerous characteristics for the God they are looking for and sometimes, especially some times like these, we share in those expectations. We want a god who will fix things. We want a god who will kick some butt and take out the bad guys. More benignly, but no less dangerously, we want a god who will intervene before some tyrant or fanatics or disturbed individual exercises their free will and does more damage. In the absence of a god that will do that, it’s often easier to opt for no experience of God at all.
How are you experiencing God these days? Are you experiencing God these days at all?

I may be hopelessly naïve, but I still believe that when people show up in church, they are hoping for an experience of God. Not a history lesson. Not a moral lecture. Not marching orders. Not one person’s deeply rooted opinion about who’s right and who’s wrong, but
an experience of God; an experience that affirms them, encourages them and empowers them to live — maybe even live for others — in our increasingly and unpredictably chaotic world. In other words, not an experience of someone yammering about God to us, but an experience of God with us and for us; a God we can confidently call “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.” I believe we are all here tonight, not to hear a bunch of debatable answers, but to meet an affirming and loving Presence.

That makes us no different than Mary, Joseph and the shepherds who came to Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago. Like us today, they were living in an equally horrendous time. They were being bombarded with a seemingly endless string of debatable and debated answers, moral lectures, marching orders —mostly suicidal — and reminders of their former glory. They lived in a global economy directed by faceless, imperious manipulators from far away. They weren’t anxious to hear more advice, guidance or answers. They were looking for the presence of God. It took some effort. It took some believing. It took some outside-the-box thinking that there is
something outside the oppressive structures and that there can be a world where love not law keeps order, that there is an alternative to their experience of life lived with constant doubt about their future and constant fear. And so they came to Bethlehem, the most unlikely of places, and found a newborn baby, the most helpless of all creatures and they believed themselves divinely gathered to experience the presence of God and to experience that better world for which they looked and longed and hoped. If, sometime later, you asked them what had happened that night, they’d likely forget all that business of taxes and angels and donkeys and innkeepers and simply report their experience with God.

I am naïve enough to believe that that’s what you want — that’s what we all want— too.

I can tell you about God as a newborn baby, born in a stable, lying in manger. I can tell you about him grown-up, condemned as a criminal, dying on a cross. I can tell you of his empty tomb and of the consistent presence of angels and I can tell you that those who believed their experience of God in him changed the world.
But that would be history and what we need is an experience.

I am no angel, but I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: God is here to affirm you and love you. God is here to use you, just as you are, to shape that better world. God is here and this can be your experience: you will find your God wrapped in wine and bread, lying in the palm of your hand and you will experience God.