Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
When we speak to children about this God character we talk so much about here at church, we have to explain that God isn’t like other characters we know. God’s not visible, not audible… at least not in the ways other people are. Granted as Christians we believe God was revealed to us in Jesus, a real live person in 1st century Palestine who was at the same time the Son of God. In his life, death, and resurrection, those around him at the time could see and hear God in the flesh. But we who live many centuries later don’t have his physical presence with us either. So the challenge of invisibility remains.
It’s hard to get a handle on a God we can’t see, but at the same time we want our little church friends to be comforted in the knowledge that God is always with us. Heaven knows we struggle to wrap our minds around all this. So how do we convey it to kids?
One of the most common explanations is that God is like the air. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there. Or better still, God is like the wind. We can’t see it either, but we can see what it does, what it moves. The evidence is right in front of us that this invisible force is at work in the world: in the gentle rustling of leaves, in kites flying in the wind and sailboats moving across the water.
The beauty of this explanation offered by faithful Sunday School teachers everywhere is that it doesn’t only help to explain a tricky concept. It’s also deeply biblical.
In fact, the very first time we are introduced to God in the Bible, in the first full sentence of Genesis, this wind from God is sweeping over the face of the waters. In Hebrew the same word (ruach) is used for wind, for spirit, and for breath. So it’s equally appropriate to read Genesis 1:2 as the breath of God or as the spirit (lower case s) or even the Spirit (upper case S) of God sweeping across those waters. You can imagine how it deepens our understanding of other Old Testament texts, too, to be able to translate the word ruach as any of these three things: wind, spirit, or breath. And it turns out that in New Testament Greek the word pneuma also holds within it these multiple layers of meaning.
Like all human words about God, these words have their limitations, certainly. As we’ve seen again recently, there are winds so severe that they bring more in the way of fear and destruction than anything else. That doesn’t appear to me to be the way our biblical God chooses to be known to us on the whole.
But what all those layers of meaning (spirit, breath, wind) share in common is that idea of a powerful invisible force. It’s essential to life (none of us can survive without breath). It can inspire us or in-spirit us. And it creates movement, whether as a gentle breeze or as that mighty wind blowing life into the early church on the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament book of Acts. All of these things are essential qualities of our biblical God. Our life-giving, spirit-lifting, always-on-the-move God, the God of all creation.
I find it helpful to return to Genesis 1 regularly, if only to be reminded that before any of us were around to lift a finger, before earthlings of any variety (scaly, feathery, furry, or human) even existed on this planet, God was already on the move. Breathing, blowing, sweeping across the face of those primordial waters. It’s both comforting and humbling to keep that sequence in mind. God is, then we are. God moves, then we move. In fact, we only move at all because God moves. In the words of a recent song, “it’s your breath in our lungs, so we call out our praise to you,” God. It’s God’s ruach, God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s wind, that makes anything and everything possible.
Among other things, this means it isn’t all up to us – the work of creating and sustaining and renewing life on this planet - and thank God for that! But we also find a wonderful biblical invitation running through both testaments to join God in the amazing work God is already doing in the world. As fun as it can be to kind of sit back and watch what God’s up to, to watch the Spirit blow where it will, we know God’s ruach moves through people, too, and sometimes those people are us. So we put up our sails, try our best to determine the direction of God’s movement, and then hop on board so we can move with God through the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit.
We read a second text this morning from the early part of Genesis too. It’s often preached with a focus on the human characters in the story – their temptation by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, their bad choices, their regret. There’s plenty there for us to relate to, certainly, but if you were hoping for a sermon on temptation and sin this morning, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Today I want to direct our focus instead to that God character we’ve been talking about. Sure, the serpent speaks craftily and questions Eve’s listening skills and debates God’s honesty about the tree. And admittedly Eve is taken in, desires the fruit of the tree, eats and shares it and Adam’s taken in by the serpent’s lies too. But what is Godup to here? After the narrator finishes relating their arguments about what God did or didn’t say or do … what does God say and do?
Let me read a couple verses for you again: “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’… (Genesis 3:8-9) I just love this picture of God spending time in the beauty of his creation, taking a stroll through his garden. Because God calls out for Adam and Eve as he walks it makes me wonder if it was his regular pattern to take a walk with his friends at that time of day, to shoot the breeze with them, if you will, at the time of the evening breeze.
The Hebrew word ruach makes an appearance again here by the way. The text literally says that God was walking “in the ruach of the day,” so in a windy or breezy time of day. The translators of our pew Bibles take that to mean an evening breeze. Apparently John Calvin went with morning breeze. The moment pictured here remains a tender one no matter the exact time of day.
At any rate, this time when God shows up for their stroll together through the garden, Adam and Eve are hiding from him because of the bad choices they’ve made and their embarrassment over it all. Isn’t it interesting that the God who already knows all that, and who would eventually address all that, begins by simply walking their way? The text says they heard God walking, inviting us to imagine divine footsteps in the garden. God on the move again, this time to seek out the very creatures who were so worried about disappointing him. Who felt they had to hide from him. He plays along and asks where they are, and when the whole story comes out rather than simply their coordinates in the garden, we realize they didn’t particularly enjoy trying to keep secrets from their Creator.
Again, there is so much more to this text and we’ll mine it for other insights another time, but today I invite you simply to notice God’s walk in the garden, those divine footsteps that indicate God’s seeking and finding his beloved creatures. They mess up, and God appears on the scene, strolling in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. They play hide and seek with God, and God calls out to them, and seeks, and finds.
If our first text reminded us that God always makes the first move and we’re invited to move in response, this second text shows us that God’s also paying close enough attention to our moves to step in when we’ve screwed up. God will seek and find us, call out to us as his friends and walking buddies, caution and challenge and redirect us as needed. If the first lesson is that we can be part of God’s team and follow where God leads us, the second lesson is that failure, sadly enough, is an option; it’ll happen; we’ll mess up. Sometimes God will zig and we’ll zag, heading off in entirely the wrong direction for a while. But that would never lead God to abandon us. Genesis 3 implies he’d miss us too much. He’d far rather call out to us, find us in our hiding spots, and offer us some midcourse correction.
In other words, we never make the first move – that’s God’s role, and it’s not up to us to make the last move either – that, too, belongs to God.
If you’ve ever wished God could be little more tangible, wished you could see God, or hear God’s voice in an audible way, look and listen to the movement of the air around you. Next time we feel a breeze, or hear the wind rustling in the branches of a nearby tree, or see a kite being flown, or watch a sailboat move across the face of the deep, the author of Genesis invites us to remember: that’s the God of creation out there on the move. It’s also God’s breath, God’s spirit, God’s ruachmoving in and out of our lungs right now. God inspires us, in-spirits us, enlivens and energizes us with every breath we take.
Your average Sunday School student will be happy to explain it to you, thanks to the good work of their teachers: you may not be able to see God, but God’s always there – just like the air, just like the wind. Has been since Day One of creation and long before that too. Always making the first move, then inviting us to join in. Always calling out to us in the hope that we’ll walk with him, both in our proudest moments and in those that make us want to hide behind the nearest tree.
We may not be able to see God, but if we look closely, can we see where God’s at work? Maybe it would help to spend less of our time listening to serpents, and more of our time walking in the garden in a gentle breeze, or watching the wind sweep over the face of the waters.
As we head into our prayer retreat on Saturday, let’s pray that God’s breath, God’s wind, God’s spirit will lead the way. Showing up in ways we can see and hear and feel. Showing us where God’s already on the move around us. Showing us where we’re invited to get moving too. Amen?