Rev. Mark Schaefer
Pasadena United Methodist Church
October 20, 2019
Genesis 32:22-31Luke 18:1-8


I am something of a know-it-all. I love to learn and share that knowledge with others—whether they want it or not. One of my least endearing traits is my tendency to supplement a conversation (frequently one I am not a part of) with some tidbit or piece of information I find interesting. The college students I used to work with were usually tolerant enough of this only because they were either too nice, too impressionable, or too young to know that they should be annoyed by this obnoxious behavior.

Image courtesy Wordle

But one of the net effects of my know-it-all-ism is that I can’t stand the idea of not knowing something. The idea that some information remains forever hidden drives me crazy. I want to know the answer. I become frustrated with revelations that are drawn out and, while I love the ongoing mystery of well-crafted entertainment like the TV show Lost, I have slight anxiety that I might never find out the answer. There are some fans of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire on which the show Game of Thrones was based who worry that the author George R. R. Martin will die before he finishes the books. I don’t worry about that. I worry about whether I’ll die before he finishes them. How will I ever find out how it ends? Will it really end like the show did?

I like knowing things. And so it’s frustrating to be in a profession where the subject matter is inherently unknowable.

We don’t talk about faith that way and we certainly don’t act that way. Instead, we imagine that faith is knowable, master-able, and comprehensible. There’s a lot of business in answering questions and figuring everything out. I had a classmate in seminary who had his own website in which he sought to answer every single question that an inquiring Christian might have—definitively.

He’s not alone in that; there’s a whole industry built around asking and providing definitive answers to questions of faith. There are a lot of people seeking simple answers and others who are providing them.


I find it interesting that when we actually look to the scriptures, we find a very different attitude toward the idea of whether we can know things perfectly. In the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, in one of the oracles of hope that the prophet gives following the destruction of Jerusalem, he says:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. …  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer. 31:31–34)

“No longer shall they teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me…”

To me this is a strong hint that people at present do not know God. That knowledge of God will be something that comes with the end times.

Jeremiah is not alone in this assessment—we find something of that same idea in the lesson we read from Genesis earlier. In this passage, Jacob is crossing the Jabbok and sends his family and retinue on ahead. That night, he wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger, to the point where his hip gets put out of joint. The man he’s wrestling with says, Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”

But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Jacob has been wrestling with God all night but doesn’t know it. When he asks, “Please tell me your name?” God’s response is, “Why is it that you ask me my name?” In effect: “Don’t you know who I am?” Really?” Beyond Jacob’s unknowing, this text is frequently used in the Jewish and Christian traditions to talk about the ways we wrestle with God. This story is highlights the importance of struggling with the questions of faith we haver. Usually, that means wrestling with what God wants of us. But I think there is something else this wrestling episode is meant to show us: God is hard to pin down.

So does this mean that we don’t know God or can’t?


Now, I’m a language guy—I studied Russian in school, my first courses in seminary were Biblical Hebrew and Greek. Philosophers of religion have noticed that there is something unusual about religious language that sets it apart from other kinds of discourse. They have noted that there is something special about religious language.

Now, there’s nothing odd about the grammar or the syntax, and aside from the odd word in Greek, Hebrew, or Latin, there’s nothing overly unusual about the vocabulary. What sets religious language apart from more ordinary forms of communication is the predominance of metaphor.

Now, for those of you for whom it’s been a long time since your last English class, a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.”[1] Some familiar ones might be war is hell, life is a highway, love is a battlefield.

And when you look closely at religious language you begin to see that metaphor is everywhere.

In the fall of 2015, I visited a different house of worship every weekend—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Unitarian. And as I worshiped, I made note of the metaphors that were employed in the liturgy, the hymns, the scripture readings, etc. My list, even from my brief semester-long survey was quite substantial.

god is a king, god is a father, god is a lord, god is a creator, god is love, god is a companion, god is a forgiver, god is a rock, god is a judge, god is a fortress/refuge, god is a guardian, god is a shepherd, god is a potter, god is a breath, god is a source, god is commander of an army, god is a treasury, god is peace, jesus is a son, jesus is god, jesus is a king, jesus is a judge, jesus is light, jesus is a lamb, jesus is an eagle

And those are just the ones about God and Jesus that I found. The list includes a lot of metaphors like the the church is a mother, evil thoughts are filth, the faithful are servants, life is bread, love is food, righteousness is a road, sin is a debt, sin is a crime, and so on.

So much of religious language is metaphor that you wonder whether it’s even possible to say anything directly about God. So, maybe we should just skip all the metaphors and just stick to the simple word like God. But even here, we have some problems.

God is not an easy word to define. At first, it seems to function like an ordinary word but its meaning is not as clear as that of other words. It’s not at all like dog, which can be described relatively easily: furry, four legs, pointy or floppy ears, barks (or in the case of our dog, barks at airplanes). This gives you some confidence that you could identify a dog if you saw one. But how do you define God in such a way that you’re sure you’ve encountered God?

The religious philosopher I.M. Crombie points out that because God is not known to anybody, we lack perfect descriptions that would define God. Even the terms we come up with to define God (the first cause, the supreme being) are the kind of terms about which no one can say what it would be like for something to actually fit such a definition. For example, how do you know when you have encountered the supreme being?

And, the way we use the word God is different from the way we use other names.

Consider this scenario as a case in point: Two people are talking about matters of faith and one of them says, “I am hopeful about this election; I really believe God wants a president who favors a strong military.” The other replies, “Well, I’m not sure about that; my God favors peace and reconciliation.” Now, were this a conversation between two polytheists, nothing would be amiss. One might be talking about Mars and the other about Venus. But if we assume that both are monotheists, and let’s even go so far as to say both are Christians, then this conversation reveals an odd phenomenon that makes it different from any other conversation.

Such a conversation would not work, for example, if you substituted an ordinary name. You can’t say, “Steve really prefers a president who favors a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy” and have that countered with, “Well, my Steve favors peace and reconciliation.” If both individuals are talking about the same Steve, then that Steve is either a hawk or a dove. One of the people in the conversation is wrong.

But with God, such statements are common. And this can only be because, as Crombie points out, unlike other individuals for whom names are used, God cannot be fully known.[2]

The English word God comes from the Germanic side of the family through a proto-Germanic root that ultimately means “to invoke.” Thus, God is “that which is invoked.” Alternatively, some linguists trace the word to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to pour, pour a libation.” This suggests that the ancient Germanic form may have originally referred to the spirit present in a burial mound or “poured earth.”

Neither sense—“that which is invoked” or “that which is poured”— sounds like something concrete. They sound an awful lot like metaphor. We have talked about all the metaphors we use in describing God’s relationship to us or our experiences of God, but now we have to consider the possibility that God itself is a metaphor.

So, when it comes to religion, metaphors, it seems, are everywhere.


And this tells us something about the knowability of God.

There is an old story told of St. Augustine as he walked along the seashore, contemplating the teaching of the Holy Trinity and struggling to understand it. He observed a young boy digging a small hole in the beach and filling it with water from the sea. Augustine asked the young boy what he was doing, and the boy responded that he was emptying the sea into the hole he had dug. Incredulous, Augustine asked him how he could expect to contain such a vast body of water in such a small hole. The boy responded that he would sooner finish his task than would Augustine be able to comprehend the mystery of the Trinity and contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book.

Augustine understood the boy to have been an angel sent by God to remind him to have a little humility. For us, the story serves as parable of the futility in trying to comprehend divine mystery with human intellect. And it serves as a reminder that divine mystery cannot be fully contained in human words. Nevertheless, we keep trying to do exactly that.

It’s impossible to contain the entirety of God in words. And when those words that we use are metaphors, that’s even more the case.

See, metaphors are a kind of pointer. We use them because the thing we’re usually talking about is difficult to define precisely. It’s why love is referred to with so many metaphors—usually involving sweetness, aroma, brightness, warmth. Because love is really hard to pin down—we have to talk in its direction, with metaphor.

Metaphors point us in the direction of something. They say, ‘I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s somewhere over there.’ What is he like as a leader? He’s a lion. Do you trust Anna? She’s a snake. Is Rachel reliable? She’s a loose cannon. Each metaphor gives us an image that we can understand that points us in the direction of the reality we’re trying to describe. But it doesn’t capture or define the reality perfectly.

And when it comes to God, all we can really use is metaphor.

Even Jesus concedes as much. You’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about God or God’s kingdom in anything like concrete terms. Jesus doesn’t even ever really go down the road of traditional theological language. He doesn’t refer to God as “three co-eternal persons in a hypostatic union, indivisible but nevertheless distinct.” He calls God Abba—“Father” or “Papa.” And his teachings are almost entirely in parables—metaphorical stories like the Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Talents, the Parable of the Day Laborers, the Pearl of Great Price, the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Bakerwoman, the Parable of the Unjust Judge we heard today, and on and on. And so many of his parables begin with something like, “The Kingdom of God is like…”

In the end, the abundance of metaphor, the limits of language, and the prevalence of parable all remind us that when it comes to God—indeed to most aspects of our faith—there are just some things that are unknowable perfectly. We can’t pin God down any more than Jacob could.


So where does this leave us? Are all bets off? Is there nothing we can really know about God? Is there nothing we can really claim to understand?

Well, there are a couple of things to bear in mind.

The first is that even though a metaphor, or a parable can’t define the thing we’re looking for, it’s not arbitrary, either. That is, even though the use of metaphor tells us that we can’t define what God is, we don’t just use any old word to stand in for God. We use words like Father, mother, king, lord, rock, creator, love, shepherd, forgiver, companion, fortress, judge… and so on. We don’t talk about God as a lawnchair or a toadstool or bookshelf. The words we use, as imprecise as they are, are nevertheless meaningful. They resonate with us for a reason.

See, the knowledge that we often crave—to know intellectually and to understand—is not the kind of knowledge the Bible talks about.  Biblical scholars point out that the Hebrew word for know ידע yada’ means “knowledge by experience” as opposed to simple intellectual knowledge. When God declares to Moses that God “knows” the sufferings of the Israelites, God is saying much more than that God is aware the Israelites are suffering—God is claiming to have intimate, experiential knowledge of that knowledge.

And so, when we encounter a metaphor about God, we know it’s meaningful because it comports with our experience of God. And in the end, it is through experience that we know God the most.

The Israelites had an experience of God in their liberation from bondage and in the covenant that bound them together as a people. The earliest Christians had an experience of God in the person of Jesus, whose own experience of God informed his parables and teachings. The church continued to experience God in the enduring witness of the faithful.

In fact, most of what the world knows of God lies not in theological treatise, or apologetics, or literal descriptions of the nature of God, but in the ways love is lived out and experienced through us, through the church.

Christians are often harshly—and rightfully—judged for our intolerance, our bigotry, our narrowmindedness, and our judgmentalism because when people experience those things from us, they experience nothing of the loving, gracious God we claim to worship. There’s a disconnect between the God of their experience and the God they experience through us.


It may be true that we can never truly comprehend God. It may be that God remains ultimately unknowable, that we may never claim to have perfect understanding of what God is. That we will forever be consigned to using poetry and metaphor to even begin to describe God.

But that doesn’t mean that we cannot know something of God, in many ways the most important somethings, through the God we experience in Jesus and in one another: A God of love, of grace, of compassion, of mercy, and of justice. And if we can remember that it is through us that most people will experience God and know God, then we can, like Christ, become a metaphor for God in the flesh. And in so doing, we can be a part of helping a broken and hurting world to know more truly, more deeply the Unknowable God.



[2] Schaefer M. The Certainty of Uncertainty: The way of inescapable doubt and its virtue. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers; 2018.


Genesis 32:22–31 • The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Luke 18:1–8 • Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?””

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