“Does God change?” Or to put it in more theological terms, “Is God immutable?” Ah, the time-honored question of the Immutability of God. So, first off, what is Immutability? Well, it’s the understanding that the nature, character, and covenant promises of God do not change, ever. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says it like this: “[God’s] being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.”[i]
But does God change? We know Jesus changed, right? As his earthly life progressed he changed physically. He grew from an infant to a child, he left childhood behind and became a young adult, and from there he grew into a man. And he grew Spiritually. He was recognized as a theological prodigy at a very young age, which, as he grew in knowledge and years, lead him to become an itinerant Rabbi. And we know that Jesus was God or, at the very least, had a mystical connection to the Divine. So, does that mean God changes.
Well, to take on that question I think we need to examine very carefully the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. In our reading for today, we see Jesus go up the mountain, where his appearance changed, as so poetically stated by Eugene Peterson, “from the inside/out.” Glory surrounded him, the voice of God echoed a strong sense of pride and love, and with it, a command to those in attendance to “listen to him.”
Now, this transformation, the inner change that burst forth, happened in front of three of his closest companions: Peter, James, and John. And during this transfiguration some interesting things happen. The three disciples see a vision of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, whose symbolic mantel and message Jesus had taken on. And in that moment, that holy moment, that moment when the veil between God and humanity was as thin as it could get, Peter wanted to build three memorials, or dwellings depending upon which translation you read, because he wanted to stay in that moment.
You know, I read somewhere this week that Peter’s response was kind of like looking at a light bulb and going blind, instead of looking around the room at what the light from the bulb had revealed.[ii] I know I’ve done that. I’ve missed the beauty of the current moment because I was either lamenting the former moment or figuring out how to manipulate the upcoming one. So, maybe that’s the first lesson of this text; to stay in the moment and enjoy what’s happening right now.
But that’s not the sum of this text. As Jesus and his newly-inspired followers descended the mountain, we can safely speculate that they had been changed because of their experience. We can see from our perspective here in the 21st century, that they had begun to see everything differently. Because, up until this point in Mark’s Gospel, we’ve seen Jesus and his followers moving back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, between the Jews and the Gentiles. But in this passage, right here in the middle of the gospel, we see a significant change. Jesus’ face is now turned squarely toward Jerusalem and the Cross and all their travels from here on in, will be in the direction. So, it not too far of a leap to say that James, John, and Peter’s perception of Jesus, and perhaps even their understanding of God changed with the movement of this gospel. Now, they didn’t all-of-the-sudden fully understand Jesus or the quest they were on, but the Transfiguration was a giant step in that direction.
Now, before we leave this mountaintop narrative, there’s one final nugget for us to discover. Embedded within this ancient text is something very interesting. The tense of the verb that Mark uses for “listen” in the “listen to him” is called in Greek the “present imperative.” That mean, God is commanding the disciples, the whole world, and us, the readers of this text still today, to listen to Jesus.[iii]
And this is where this ancient story and our lives intersect. The emerging movement within the Christian tradition is based on the premise that our life journey and spiritual journey are one and the same; and that along the way, there is both changes and choices; the possibility and opportunity around each new bend in the road to meet these changes we inevitably encounter with faith or fear, hope or despair, regret or renewal, even wisdom or foolishness. It offers a new and different way of being “Christian;” yet the idea is rooted in the heart of our faith tradition. As Isaiah proclaimed, God is always up to something new.[iv] Maybe we should attend to Mark’s timeless imperative here and “listen” to Jesus and this ever-changing way of understanding the journey.
Which leads us back to our original question, “Is God unchanging?”
Well, rest assured, as usual, I’m going to give you a vague and overly simplistic answer to our question. Yes and no. Yes, God is permanent. Like an anchor in the storm; like a mighty oak that may bend, but never break; like a bush burns, but cannot be consumed; God is always, well, God. But what changes is our perception of God. Across time God changes because humankind has changed. Our relationship with God is dynamic, ever-evolving, and ever-in-the-process of becoming more. And it’s our perception of God that informs our understanding of the nature of God. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Author Brian McLaren tells the story of a conversation he had with Tutsi and Hutu tribesmen of Rwanda, in the aftermath of decades of genocide in that region. As McLaren relates it, one of the first to speak was a man named Claude, the son of a preacher, who’d been raised in the church, but who’d heard only one sermon, over and over, his whole life. “That sermon,” he said, “went like this: ‘You’re a sinner and you are going to hell. You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.” Then Claude continued, “When I got older, I realized that my entire life had been lived against the backdrop of genocide and violence, poverty and corruption … and in spite of huge amounts of foreign aid, our people remain poor, and many, hungry. Eventually I realized something. I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities.”
Later that day, McLaren writes, he noticed another participant, sitting alone at a table with her bowed head in her hands. Having a translator inquire if she was all right, Justine replied, “I’m Okay, but I’m shaken up. I don’t know if anyone else here sees it, but I do. I see it. Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it’s about changing this world, not just escaping from it and retreating into our churches. If Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change. Everything must change.”[v]
So, with her words in mind, when we ask the question, “Is God unchanging” I’m convinced we’re asking the wrong question. What we should be asking instead, is how am I changed, how are my compassionate actions increased because of my changing perception of God? Justine, in her wisdom, realized that change was not only something that happens to us, but something that we are called to participate in. Or to say it another way, if a Creative God can change things, why shouldn’t we act as co-creators with God, helping God, create a better world? Perhaps we can. Perhaps we can change from the inside/out? Perhaps.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] The Westminster Shorter Catechism
[v] Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change (Thomas Nelson Publishers 2008) pgs.18-23