A basic tenet of the Christian faith is God’s transcendence. God is utterly different from creation, a truth attested in many great hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.”
But we should never confuse transcendence with distance, a point Paul tries to make when preaching to the Athenians. Here, in the birthplace of the western philosophical tradition, the residents likely are not surprised to learn that the Divine is transcendent. But it may come as a shock to hear a preacher say that a transcendent God is not far away and desires to be known. Like skeptics and seekers today, the Athenians are searchers for wisdom and truth, seekers of the Divine. But they have not imagined that what they are searching for—the one idea that holds everything together—isn’t an idea at all, but a divine Love, closer than their very breath, the nearness of which impels their very search. The point Paul makes is captured well by theologian Richard Lischer, who writes, “God is so transcendently close we cannot see [God], and so woven into the fiber of things that [God] remains hidden, like the key ‘lost’ in plain view.”* Thus we need preachers like Paul to point out the truth of God’s nearness.
I remember a conversation with my spiritual director not long ago. I was talking about my longing for God, my desire to become united with God’s love, which at the moment seemed far away. She said, “You can’t long for something you haven’t already tasted, at least a little.” We search for God because God has already come so near. Like the Athenians, we might find ourselves groping for God. But Paul assures us that our desire for God is driven by the sweet nearness of God’s presence.
*Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 230.
Ever-near God, help us to sense your presence, closer to us than we can ever imagine. Amen.
In Acts, Paul visits Athens and finds the people worshiping various deities. He attempts to show them the one true God not by open confrontation but by understanding where they are in their own thinking and then engaging in conversation. This model is confirmed in First Peter: We should always be prepared to give reasons for our faith, but this should be done with gentleness and respect, not confrontation. The psalmist promises to make offerings in the Temple to the Lord because God has brought the people through a period of testing. The psalm thus also ties into First Peter, where the believers are being tested. Jesus tells his disciples in John that God will send the Spirit to empower them to demonstrate their faith by keeping his commands.
Read Acts 17:22-31. When have you searched for God? How did God’s nearness surprise you?
Read Psalm 66:8-20. What tests have you endured? How have you known God’s presence through times of difficulty?
Read 1 Peter 3:13-22. How does your faith help you determine what is right? How does it give you courage when doing what is right brings you suffering?
Read John 14:15-21. When have you felt encompassed by the Trinity? When has your identity as part of this family felt fragile?
Respond by posting a prayer.
This season, Whitney R. Simpson has given us the gift we must open: a clear, accessible invitation to connect with the divine spark that is within us. This is the best present: being present for Jesus’ birth, God made human.”
Learn more about our newest Advent resource, Fully Human, Fully Divine here.