Listen to the sermon from Sunday, July 30, 2017 titled “Too Deep for Words” by the Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
This may surprise you, but lately I find myself at a loss for words. Losing my Mom, leaving you, cleaning out thirty years of memories, playing with my granddaughter…. I am a man of many words, as you well know, but some things simply can’t be reduced to speech. Academics strive for precision of language and grow verbose explicating their ideas. Poets come closer with intense compact imagery, but we lack the vocabulary let alone the grammar for expressing the intimate, the infinite, and the profound. As the hymn queries, “What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?”
We are well aware of the power of words to bless, to curse, to build up or tear down, to make peace or incite violence.
And more than ever these days we know the power of words to obfuscate, to misdirect, to falsify, and flat out lie. Such speech renders all speech suspect, whether from the politicians, the pundits, or the preachers. The average American is subjected to 6,000 messages a day. In all that verbiage, how do you take out the garbage?
In a recent book Richard Lischer says “Our setting is marked by white noise… The very language that informs (the preacher’s) message is undergoing a kind of death and refiguration. Every week the preacher must begin from the end of words…” Lischer notes: “The post-modernists have an expression: ‘To speak is to fight’… Language is less a process of transmitting information than ‘taking of tricks’ and trumping the adversary… Violence puts an end to words except as instruments of domination and difference. But, Lischer insists, the Christian community has a different goal: “We seek the true end of words, which is that one mighty truth for which Jesus prayed in the upper room and Paul proclaimed to Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman. “ That all may be one. That all may be reconciled to God and to one another – even our enemies.
This is the core message of our sacred story, which we call the Word of God. But even the Bible is filled with words, which at the end of the day cannot contain or finally restrain the Ultimate Infinite we call “God.”
The Bible says as much. God is both infinite and infinitesimal, beyond all human understanding. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,” God says through Isaiah, “nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9).
The danger of theology and orthodoxy, of Bible study and church is that we would consider ourselves “experts on God,” think we comprehend the Divine, even deign to speak for God. That’s when the Word of God gets weaponized and religion turns violent.We need to recover the first hand experience of the people of the Bible, surprised over and again when their working hypotheses about the Deity were shattered by the love that knows no bounds. We need to think less of the church as the protector of settled orthodoxy and more as a spiritual laboratory where we continue to experiment firsthand with the Mystery too deep for words. Like Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (1 Cor. 5:17). But we have stopped seeking God, because we think we know. We have trapped God in our words.
The place to begin that experimental theology is prayer. In Romans 8 Paul sounds less certain and dogmatic than we usually think of him. The questions his converts ask are his questions, too. Why does our suffering continue? When will God intervene? Of what can we be sure?
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;” he says, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). The God we seek is the cosmic sovereign of the universe, the power above all powers, yet also the God who is with us, closer than the air we breathe. Rather than heaping up words to describe and define and control God, Paul points us to the silence of the spiritual depths, to inexpressible longings. Seek that God who is beyond all language. Seek that God who is too deep for words. Where will we meet that God?
Look inward to the abiding presence who is “with you always.” “Listen to your life,” writes Frederich Buechner. “See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
Look inward. Look upward to a universe so vast and a creation so beautiful, nothing can compete with God’s majesty, glory, and power.
Look inward. Look upward. And look outward to the others God has placed in your life who reveal to you daily the image of the God who made us all. Look to the love you are given and the love you return for “God is love” as Elder John reminds us (1 John 4:7-8).
Words matter. Words can connect. Words can bless. But in a time when words can’t be trusted, when people use even the Word of God to abuse, when we reach the end of words, stand before God in silence and let the Spirit do the talking for you. Let the Spirit reassure you that God loves you more than words can say. When you can no longer trust the words of those around you, trust yourself to the other Reality we call the Word of God, the Word made flesh, the living Word embodied in Christ.
An early church father, St. Chrysostom, said “Prayer is a longing for God, love too deep for words.” When words fail us, God does not fail us. We have to move beyond words to embodiment, beyond speaking of love to loving, beyond speaking of God to seeking God, to being God’s hands and feet and hearts loving a fractured world.
Do not be troubled by the end of words.