Sunday, July 4, 2021
We are very used to hearing prayers addressed to “Almighty God,” aren’t we? We were taught that God is all-knowing (omniscient), all-present (omnipresent), and all-powerful (omnipotent). But is this true in real life? You may think I’m being heretical, but, no, it is not strictly speaking true. God’s power—God’s might—God’s δυναμις (dynamis) that we were talking about in last week’s homily—is limited. Nothing limits God’s power, but the divine will itself. God freely introduced limitations in order to create. After all, the universe is of God, and in God, but it is not God.
By looking at God’s creation, we learn that God is love, because love, by its very nature, is self-giving and all of creation is a gift of God. We might even argue that, since God is love, and love is self-giving, that the very essence of God is to be creative. Perhaps God had to create. But love also implies a relationship. That means the existence of a creation capable of loving God in return. However, ironically, in order to be capable of loving, that creation must be capable of not loving. A forced love is no love at all. In other words, in order to create, God chose to limit his power. If that did not happen—if God were to exercise all power and all authority in all things—the love would be impossible, and creation would be meaningless. So, who is the most powerful being in the universe? You are!
Throughout history, people have failed to grasp the importance of the fact that God’s power is limited by our free will. In effect, these people demand that God become what he has chosen not to be: a tyrant. “God, if you really exist, hit me with a lightning bolt—strike me dead.” “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross and we will believe in you.”
What do we expect of God? We listen to the words of the Scriptures and we build stories for ourselves of what God ought to be like. We hear things like, “Ask and you shall receive,” and “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” We take these words at face value and then try them out almost as a test for God. Then, we wonder what went wrong when nothing happens. For many people, unanswered prayers, sickness, injustice, and death are “proofs” that God is either a liar or doesn’t exist at all. People fail to appreciate that the failure arises not from God, but from their expectations of who God ought to be and how God ought to behave. God will never live up to our expectations because our expectations are too narrow and too small.
That’s what we’re seeing in today’s gospel. When Jesus first came to Nazareth, the people were awestruck and welcomed him home enthusiastically: “Local boy makes good,” and all. Now, he has come back home with his disciples and begins teaching in their synagogue. No doubt, his message is the same as his preaching everywhere: “Repent and believe the good news that the reign of God is at hand.” Repent? Me? Who are you to tell me to repent? The admiration of his boyhood friends, his neighbors, his relatives, and all the folks he grew up with begins to fade. They become skeptical. “Where did he get all this?” “Does he think he’s smarter than we are?” “Look at what he’s doing? It’s gone to his head!” Their skepticism turns to contempt. “Who does he think he is?” And the gospel tells us that they took offense at him. They dismissed him because they had a preconceived notion of who he was and of who the Messiah would be. The two notions did not jibe.
What was the result? Jesus was not able to perform any mighty deeds there. Remember from last week’s homily that “to perform mighty deeds” was expressed in Greek as ποιηει δυναηις (poiesei dynamis). It is sometimes translated “perform miracles.” Here’s the key: the skepticism, the contempt, the opposition that Jesus faced—all arising out of the people’s unrealistic expectations—made Jesus’s power ineffective. In other words, our lack of faith limits God’s power.
God’s power—the miracles of his love—are around us always. The power of God never fails. It cannot. What fails is our acceptance of God’s power (which we call ‘faith’), our trust in God’s power (which we call ‘hope’), and our response to God’s power (which we call ‘love’). The principles we rely on are three: first, honesty—accepting the limitation of our human condition; second, openness—letting go of our preconceived notions about God, the universe, and ourselves; and third, willingness—the choice to surrender ourselves to God and to how and when he chooses to respond to our needs. It’s hard to recognize answers to our prayers made in faith, hope, and love, because they never look like the answers we expect, nor do they come when we expect them to.
From the outside, looking at the arc of my life, it might appear that I have experienced an endless string of failures. I fought for my ministry but, in the end, needed to surrender it to find healing. I fought for my relationships, but each one failed. I fought for my businesses, but they, too, failed. It was only when I stopped fighting that I gained it all in the end. The lessons I learned were invaluable. I embraced my powerlessness and found the power—the miracle—of God’s love.
Life is a school for love. If we let it, it will teach us about acceptance, about surrender, and about gratitude. It will train us to grow in faith, in hope, and in love. It will bring us peace and happiness, so long as we lay aside our narrow expectations of what happiness and peace are supposed to look like. The people of Nazareth had a certain expectation of what the Messiah would be like and what he should do for them. Jesus, his words and actions did not fit their expectations. As a result, they did not see him even though he was right there in their midst. Their own expectations blocked them from receiving what they were longing for. They missed their miracles. We don’t have to.