By: Brian Harris
Have you ever sat through a sermon or a talk and heard the speaker express a view about God that made you think, “Well that makes God sound petty and small”?
Usually the speaker means well, but has not thought deeply. An advantage of being 65 and of having preached my first sermon when I was 15 is that I now have half a century of sermon “thou shalt not’s” to sift through. In their own way they each say something about what the speaker thought about God, or perhaps didn’t think, because sometimes we make God sound so very mean and so very trivial.
Thou Shalt Not Dance?
One that impacted me as a youngish Christian wondering if I should go to my school ball was “thou shalt not dance”. I had a drop dead gorgeous girlfriend and was keen to attend, but wanting to please God, decided against it. Fairly shortly afterwards my girlfriend decided against me, but I thought that was just part of the price of following Jesus. But what was it about dancing that seemed so recklessly dangerous back in the 1970’s? I turned 21 in 1978 and decided to celebrate the occasion with a barn dance, which I thought would be a suitable compromise. After all who would be offended by pretend dancing? I asked the church of my teenage years if I could have it hosted there (that was the done thing back in 1978) but they refused, anxious lest it release some evil force into their sacred space. Fortunately my childhood church had no such qualms, and so we happily barn danced there instead. It was interesting that the God of my childhood church was a little more permissive and welcoming – or did it have nothing to do with God and a great deal to do with how we viewed the world?
Thou Shalt Not Watch Movies?
One that surprised me a little was “thou shalt not go to the movies”. That one caught me off guard when I was preaching at a church I shall leave unnamed, and tried to make my sermon a little more interesting by quoting from a then current movie. It was as though a shock wave shot through the congregation. The warm affirming smiles froze into what looked like snarls, and I realised I had violated some unwritten code. While being escorted off the property by an elder (no honorarium provided) I commented that something seemed to have gone wrong during the sermon and naively asked what it was. He glared at me and said: “Real Christians don’t watch movies.” I was never invited back.
Thou Shalt Not Be Political?
More difficult was the “thou shalt not engage in politics” rule. Now that is often wise counsel but not when you are living (as I was then) in apartheid South Africa. When injustice is on every corner and silence is the required path – well, what view of God dominates? Another church I was banned from during that era was one where I suggested that apartheid worked more effectively on Sunday than any other day of the week – for our churches were more segregated than the roads we walked along during the week. It really didn’t go down very well – a great pity, because there were some genuinely nice people at that church and they deserved better than the portrayal of God they were getting. Actually God can handle it when we dance and watch movies, but is stunned by our indifference to injustice and unkindness. It is good to be able to recite the books of the Bible in order; it is yet better to live by what they teach.
But what do they teach? Even that was problematic.
There was an inherent tension between what I called Amos 5:24 Christians: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” and Romans 13:1 Christians: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Oh the atrocities Rom 13:1 has been used to justify – for at face value it says “don’t ever question your ruler. They have been put there by God.” That doesn’t lead to justice rolling on like a river, and sometimes you have to choose which to obey. Only a big enough view of God provides adequate guidance. We need to remember the self introduction of God in Exodus 3:7-8: “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come…’” Here is a God who sees, hears, is concerned and comes. This is a God of compassion. This is a God of justice. This is not a God of the status quo.
The examples I quote sound quaintly yesterday in our 2022 world – certainly the ones about dancing and watching movies – and I could have added drinking and smoking and swearing. The justice one remains as relevant as always – though perhaps we now fight over slightly different things – climate justice, justice for same sex attracted people, justice for migrants. Sadly it still gets as ugly as it did back in my South African days – and yes, it’s still easy enough to get yourself banned from multiple churches if you don’t toe the line – my own denomination being no exception.
God is Not So Trvial!
When teaching us to pray in Matt 6:9, Jesus instructs us to say “Hallowed be your name”. It’s an interesting request, probably best translated as, “May your name be considered holy” or “May your name be considered praise worthy” or “May people think you are amazing.” There are some parts of our prayers that we are meant to help answer. This is one of them. The simple reality is that what people think about God is often based on what we say about God and the view we have of God. Talk of God as one who buttresses the status quo (no matter how unjust) or who obsesses over who is dancing or who is watching a movie – well, you’ve just proclaimed a pretty trivial God. We should do better at guarding God’s reputation.
Let’s link God’s name to the things that it should be linked to… the things Micah 6:8 talks about: “God has shown you what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Justice, mercy, humility – it’s enough to make you dance with joy. And when we practice them, the resulting stories make great movies.
As always, nice chatting…
About the Author: Brian is a sought-after speaker, teacher, leader, writer and respected theologian who has authored 6 books. After 17 years as principal of Perth’s Vose Seminary, Brian is now founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.
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