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A God so Near
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 1, 2013
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Psalm 15
In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses says a touching line to the Israelites. He says, “What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him” (Deuteronomy 4:7). God is intimately present when we call upon God’s name. This idea can lead us into a theological tangle that we should sort out before going any further with this doctrine. The complication I’m thinking of is God’s omnipresence. The word “omnipresence” means that God is present everywhere. This means that God is always present to us, whether we are calling on God or not.
But the notion that God is always present can be understood as presence from God’s point of view. From God’s point of view, God is always present. But there is also our point of view. For our relationship with God is two-way. There is God’s relationship with us, and there is our relationship with God. In the depths of our souls, and wherever we are, God is present. That is the matter from God’s point of view. But where are we in relation to how we see God? Is our mind centered on God? Are we approaching God? In order for there to be a genuine relationship, there is movement from both parties. There is movement of God to us and there is movement of us to God.
While God is ever present with us, we may be distant in our own minds and hearts. There are things that come between us and God. When we are obsessed with control and the pursuit of wealth we may not have a love for our neighbor in our hearts. We may thus not have a feeling of love for God, either. If we are not filled with love for God, how can we say we are near God? God is always coming to us, but it is we who can turn away. Jesus says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). Jesus is knocking at the door, but He doesn’t come and eat with us unless we hear His voice and open the door. Likewise in John, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (15:10); and also “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (15:14). To be in God’s love, we need to do the things God asks. That constitutes our movement to God.
When we call upon God, and God comes near, it is not so much God coming near us, as it is us coming near to God. When we read the Bible especially, God comes near us. But this too, is a matter of us bringing our hearts and minds to and toward God. So Moses is right when he says that God is near to us when we call on Him. On God’s part, God is always near. But on our part, we need to come to God in prayer and by doing the things God asks.
There are some historical considerations that make this passage from Deuteronomy especially interesting. All around Israel at this time were religions of the Ancient Near East. They shared some similar components of worship. First of all, the gods for them were actually distant. The gods lived in the sky, and did not care much about the race of humans. In fact, in the Babylonian flood story, the gods flood the earth because humans are making too much noise and we are disturbing the peace of the high, sky gods. Second, people did not have direct access to the gods. The king was the intermediary between the gods and humans. In fact, the king was semi-divine. It was up to the king to perform certain rituals and sacrifices in order to ensure peace in the land and prosperity in the field. So the people followed the laws of the king and the king followed the laws of the gods. The gods were very distant to the average person in the Ancient Near East.
Consider how different things were for the ancient Israelites. Consider the tabernacle that the Israelites carried with them as they wandered in the desert. This was a simple tent–not a magnificent temple. Actually, it was a pretty elaborate tent–but a tent nevertheless. God actually lived in the tent, and so travelled in the very heart of the Israelite community wherever they went. And God was with every Israelite personally, even those low on the social scale. For instance, God hears the cry of poor people. In Exodus 22, we read,
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him. If you ever take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his only covering, it is his mantle for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate (25-27).
Not only does God hear each individual when we call to God, but God even hears the poor when they call out to God. This is not a God of kings and nobles only. Yahweh is a God of even the poor, of widows, and of foreigners.
The idea that God hears everyone, and that God is compassionate is at the heart of the Old Testament. It is this picture of God that Jesus seeks to revive. I say that Jesus seeks to revive this image of God because I think that this image of God had been lost in Roman times. The many rules and rituals of the Pharisees and rabbis of the first century AD buried the teachings about God’s love and compassion. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it” (Deuteronomy 4:2). Yet it appears that the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had done just that. Our story begins with a challenge to Jesus. The Pharisees ask him why his disciples do not wash their hands according to the ceremonial purity rituals of the ancient Jews. There is a very important line here. The Pharisees call this “the tradition of the elders.” That is, the ceremonial washing was a tradition, not God’s law. Jesus accuses them on this very issue. He accuses them by saying, “You leave the commandment of God and hold fast to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8). He also, among many other issues, declares all food to be ritually clean. In doing this, Jesus lifts the rules about keeping kosher.
Jesus declares all food clean by pointing to personal morality. He says that what comes out from a person’s heart is what renders a person unclean, not what goes into a person’s stomach. Since the issue is eating with ritually impure hands, Jesus counters with what makes a person morally impure. That occasions the list of personal evils,
What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within, and they defile a man (Mark 7:20-23).
I don’t think that even the worst of people could be all these things. But think of being caught up in a few of them. Does it make sense to say that God is near to one who se heart is obsessed with, say, theft, murder, envy and pride? Yes, we can say that God is always near a person. But is such a person near God in his or her heart and mind? A love relationship is always two-way. And I would suggest that such a person is turning away from God, who is approaching this fictional person. In Deuteronomy, we read that God is near to those who call upon Him. I doubt that our fictional wicked person is calling upon God.
On the flip side, let’s consider a person who is chaste, generous, loving, honest, affirming of others, humble, and wise. I would venture to say that such a person approaches God and the relationship is mutual. God comes to such a person and the person comes to God. This is the relationship we hear of in Deuteronomy. This is a relationship in which God is near to those who call upon God. This person is calling on God, and God hears and the two mutually approach each other.
One final note. God is always approaching everyone. God is always acting to turn individuals toward God and away from selfish and worldly obsessions. This is to say that God is drawing everyone to heaven and to eternal happiness. Even in the case of our fictional wicked person, God would continually try to lead this individual from their evils toward good feelings and acts.
God is always present in the depths of our souls. The real issue for us, is where we are in relation to God where our mind and heart is in the present moment. God is a God who hears and is near to those who call on Him. Let us be those who call upon God and who complete the circle of love.
Lord, we know that you are always with us. You are with us when we are happy. And you are with us when we are sad. You are with us when we wander away from your holy ways. And you always seek to bring us back to you, and you are with us when we return. Lord, you have said that you stand at the door and knock. May our ears be open to hear you, and may we open the door to let you in and eat with us. Lord, you are truly a God who is near to us. May we direct our steps so that we may come near to you.
And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. Lord, we especially ask that you be with the people of Egypt and of Syria. Comfort those who have been harmed, and pacify the hard hearts of those who use violence to obtain their own will. M may all warring factions find their way to peace.
Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.
10-Week On-Line Course in Paul taught by Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
September 30-December 8: Tuition only $55!
The Apostle Paul isn’t all that bad! In fact, he’s fantastic! Some of the things he says you wouldn’t believe. I think Swedenborgians are prejudiced against Paul. I was. But with an open mind, we will find Paul’s letters inspiring, beautiful, and in places quite in accord with Swedenborg. This 10-week course is a topical survey of Paul’s letters in the light of Swedenborg’s theology, as Protestant Christianity sees him, and as we find him in the letters themselves. For more information, or to enroll, please email Rev. Dr. Fekete at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Deadline for enrollment is September 25. The course is limited to 15 students.