When I was a kid, I used to love watching Sesame Street. Every day after school I would park myself in front of the TV so I could watch Big Bird and Kermit and Oscar the Grouch. I learned to count with the Count-- one, two, three spiderwebs—ah, ah, ah! I learned who were the people in my neighborhood, in my neighborhood, in my neigh-bor-hood. And I learned from Grover about near and far. OK, boys and girls, Grover would say, today we are going to learn about near and far. And he would get very close to the TV screen and say near, then run with his little arms flailing to the back of the room and shout, Far! Then he would run up close to the screen again and say Near. Then run back to the back of the room again and shout Far! Back and forth he ran between near and far until he collapsed on the floor.
We understand near and far whether or not we had Grover’s lesson. Near is next to you. Far is all the way over there. Near is convenient. Far is inconvenient. Near is being able to whisper to someone. Far is having to shout at them. Near is close by, right there. Far is distant and out of reach. When it comes to God, it seems we get both near and far. We hear that God is near, Emmanuel, God with us. But we also hear that God is far. El Shaddai, God of the mountain, El Elyon, God most high, Hashem, the one whose name must not even be spoken. God is far and near. Beside us, and so far beyond us. Near and far. Running between the two may have us wanting to collapse on the floor with exhaustion just like Grover.
Obviously the easiest thing to do is pick one location for God and live with it. And most of us would pick the God who is near. We’d like God to be close to us. God, our good shepherd, our light of the world. Our Comfort, strength, and shield. We want God to be with us, especially as we go in for surgery or interview for that new job or send our kid out with that freshly minted driver’s license. We want God near. Right there. Familiar and personal and as close to us as our next breath. Being near is a big part of who God is in the Bible. God with us; walking with us, talking with us, giving us our daily bread. God who is our friend, and has become something of a grandfather figure, who smiles at us and waves us off to play, who understands when we have other things to do. No time for me? That’s OK. Not able to love your neighbor like I ask? Well at least you tried. God is our buddy. Ordinary and available. So near to us. So nearly like us.
That popular notion reduces God to something we can fit in our pocket. But Isaiah offers a very powerful corrective to that. Isaiah, the prophet lets us know that God is so much more. The friendly, plush toy God that Christian bookstores love to market to us is simply not the whole story. In Isaiah 6:1-8, Isaiah has a vision and the God he encounters is one you definitely do not want to be near. This is a God who is so far above and far beyond. Unknowable, unsearchable. Mysterious, immense, terrifying. Really terrifying. A God you would not want next to you just like you would not want a supernova next to you. Radiating energy and power and life and death, and eternity. This God is so completely other, so far from anything we know. Isaiah sees angels, seraphim with all their wings, fiery altars, smoke, ground-shaking voices, a temple court filled with the hem of the robe of the Almighty. It’s a far cry from home. And all Isaiah knows is that he is terrified of being this close to God. “Woe is me!” The immensity. The magnitude. The vision of things that no one will believe. “Woe is me!” He is afraid of God. Afraid of God’s unspeakable otherness. Afraid of being next to God’s holiness. Afraid his own inadequate life will be snuffed out by the blazing righteousness of God. “Woe is me.” This is the God who does terrible, mighty things. This is the God who destroyed the earth with a flood and tore down the tower of Babel and confused all the languages. This is the God who turned the rivers of Egypt to blood and brought plagues of locusts and frogs and gnats and boils. Who divided the Red Sea and rained manna from heaven. Who gave the Ten Commandments and wanted righteousness from the people. Who demanded lives of purity. Who struck down those who wandered away and vaporized those who got too close. Who is in the temple, in a sacred, holy spot, far away. A safe distance from humans and their sin. A safe distance they will be protected from God’s nuclear powered otherness which could snuff everything out. “Woe is me,” says Isaiah. At the sight of the hem of God’s robe. At just the thought of being face to face with this eternal Lord. “Woe is me.” Near the Holy Almighty Creator. God, the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, full of justice and righteousness, ready to scorch us our messy unholy lives on contact. Would any of us not whisper, Woe is me?
I think that’s why many of us prefer keeping God at a distance. Far away from ourselves. Far away from our lives. We don’t want to be near an angry God. We don’t want the threats and the intimidation. We don’t need a God like that. We don’t need to live in fear. That’s what it means to be close to God. Just ask Isaiah. Just ask Isaiah about feeling overpowered, ashamed, and unworthy. Just ask all the people afraid of God, frightened by God’s followers who claim to speak in God’s name. Believers who tell us to be afraid. To live in terror of this merciless God who deals out strict punishment, who might or might not like us very much--we just can’t be sure. Who invites us in one minute then threatens us with outer darkness and gnashing of teeth the next. Who brings fires and storms and diseases. Who causes hurricanes and tornadoes and AIDS. This God can barely stand us. And he had to send his Son (whom he also doesn’t seem to like much) to make a deal for us. This God is so far from us, so distant from anything but our own anger and vengeance. This God is completely separated from goodness or good news, so can you blame people for staying away? Can you blame us if we would rather keep our distance from God?
The good news is that is not the way God wants it. God does not set out to bring famines and fires and miscarriages and unemployment. We know why those things happen and it isn’t God. And if that’s all that God is really good at, well, then God isn’t good for much. Through education and science and technology, we know better. We see that it isn’t God. It has nothing to do with God or God's love. And it isn't long before we have nothing to do with God. We pull away. And for better and for worse, we gradually lose the ideas of holiness and eternity and mystery. God is far away. We don’t need God with all we know. We don’t need God; except for those last few sacred moments. Weddings, baptisms, funerals, those last few times when we still want God to be near.
Maybe it’s the fear. Maybe it’s because we know too much. So many of us aren’t sure about God any more. We aren’t sure whether we’d like God to be near or far away. We aren’t sure whether we’d like God to be friendly or mysterious. We aren’t sure we want this God who seems both life-giving and life-threatening and just a little bit dangerous. But there is something wonderful in being able to preserve the balance, that God is both near and far. It’s the mystery at the heart of our faith. Life is sacred and holy and mysterious and far from our understanding and yet so, so ordinary and familiar and full of holes. Here God is among us. And not just any God, but the God who made heaven and earth, who filled the oceans with life and the air with birds. The God above all things and all life. The righteous, holy God who is with us, in all of our ungodly mess. Who makes us say Woe is me and Thanks be to God. The apostle Paul reminds us that God is not far away. All the awesome, larger-than-life glory of God has put on flesh and come as close as our next breath. The holy divine grace of God in Jesus, who didn’t seek to kill us or terrify us. He showed us on the cross who God is. Not full of wrath, but full of love. Full of joyful, mysterious, eternal-in-the-here-and-now life that death could not keep down. God who is far above has come near and adopted us, Paul says. God has adopted us like children and to play on God’s knee and pull God’s beard and call God daddy. (Romans 8:12-17)
Near and far. That’s our God. Far above us in love, in grace, in hope, in truth. Far above our wildest dreams for life. And so near to us. As close as our next thought and our next prayer and our next encounter with our brother or sister. Eternity, just a heartbeat away. In broken bread and a seat at the table for those who have come from near and far. The Almighty eternal God is near, driving out fear with perfect love. Conquering all that keeps us far apart. Bringing us closer to Heaven on earth with one another. Woe is me, woe is us if we should ever be without it.