What God Does with His Omnipotence

Tuesday in the 13th Week of Ordinary Time: Amos 3:1-8, 4:11-12, Matthew 8:23-27.

The definition of God — really any god in any tradition — contains within it an amount of power far beyond human abilities. In Greek mythology, Hermes has the power of speed so unimaginably fast that he acts as the messenger of the gods; there is a Greek pantheon of gods with differing abilities, culminating in Zeus, whose thunderbolts are legendary. But pagan gods are infamously mercurial in their use of power and have humanlike flights of fancy and anger, perhaps as a way to explain evil in the world.

Then there’s our God, the triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is omnipotent, containing all of the powers of the Greek gods plus more since He is also the Creator of all that is visible and invisible. What does our God do with his omnipotence? And why? Is He driven to flights of rage and fancy like pagan gods?

Today’s readings give us insight into how and why God uses His omnipotence, as well as the fact that He has been revealing these things to us over the ages according to His great plan. God works differently in the world over our historical, linear understanding of time. And yet God doesn’t change: He is the same source of all goodness, truth, light, and love. Jesus Christ, the Son sent from the Father at a specific moment in history, expands and perfects our understanding of how God operates, how He uses His omnipotence, and yet it does not diminish the revelation of the prophets like Amos who came before Him.

The Prophet Amos (1866), Gustave Doré | Wikimedia Commons.

The first reading comes from the Book of Amos, a prophet from the reign of Jeroboam II in Israel (790-753 BC), and around 50 years before Israel is to be defeated by the Assyrians. Amos, a shepherd and fig grower from the southern kingdom of Judah, is sent by the Lord to prophesy to the rich and powerful northern kingdom of Israel. We must acknowledge some powerful parallels between Jereboam II’s Israel and the contemporary United States. Jeroboam II was very successful militarily, conquering Damascus and expanding Israel’s borders back to their fullest extend (2 Kings 14: 25, 28). Yet this time saw a succession of prophets warning about the lack of sincerity and excesses of the elite in Israel: Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Jonah. In addition to father and son laying with the same woman Amos tells us that “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way … they lay themselves down beside every altar” (Am 2:6-8). Add to this the fact that they made their consecrated priests drink wine and commanded their prophets not to testify, and we have a picture of a people dominated by love of money, position, and enjoyment while not caring for the poor and needy nor living up to God’s commandments. Is the situation much different today?

The Word of God through prophet Amos’s mouth at the beginning of today’s reading seems to be contradictory: “You alone have I favored, more than all the families of the earth; Therefore I will punish you for all your crimes.” Is this a sign of favor, being punished?? As any parent may attest, sometimes the answer is yes. As we know from Jesus, His Father is exactly that: the ultimate father who provides all for us but also must guide and discipline His children as is necessary. His position as our ultimate Father is why we cannot say that the “God of the Old Testament” is somehow different from the one portrayed in the New Testament — He does not seek revenge or lash out in unexplained fits of violence. He punishes justly, as a father who loves his children and expects much of them. See how consistent Amos’s I-favor-you-therefore-I-punish-you is with what Jesus tells His disciples: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Lk 12:48). Through the mouth of both, God the Father is revealing the way He loves us, like a father loves his children.

What appears next from Amos is an interesting series of circumstances-from-prior-causes taken from the world we live in: people walk together because they agreed prior, a lion roars because prey is near, a bird is snared because there is a lure, people in a city are frightened because a trumpet sounds. His point is that we live in a world where actions have consequences. Not only this, the logic underlying these consequences is defined by God Himself. He created this natural world. He endowed us with the abilities we use to navigate this world. The inexorable logic of any given action-begets-consequence is fundamentally marked with God’s fingerprints.

Icon of the Prophet Amos (20th century), unknown artist | Image from the Orthodox Church in America website.

Amos goes on to say: “If evil befalls a city, has not the LORD caused it? Indeed, the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants, the prophets.” This final statement shows that God is active in the world in the same action-begets-consequence way that the other examples show. Of course He operates in this way, because He is not different or separate from the Logos He brings to the universe. But, Amos tells us, God first gives his servants, the prophets, fair warning. We know that He also stays His hand when the prophets ask. And thus both the warnings and the acts of mercy reveal that God sacrifices His own natural law in His love for us. What an interesting way to think of Christ, the sacrificed Logos! God’s omnipotence, we learn, is used to establish a spiritual law of love that supersedes the natural law that He imbues in the universe.

The verses we read at the end of today’s reading (from chapter 4 of the Book of Amos) are the end of 6 examples and repetitions of “Yet you returned not to me.” God is showing how his work as a loving Father was done in the history of the Jewish nation, first in blessings, then in warnings, and yet the Jews “returned not to me.” This establishes both His patience and His mercy. But at some point, God’s plan requires an appropriate response from His people. They do not respond appropriately and — as we have heard — actions have natural consequences. Thus, God warns them with a note of finality, “So now I will deal with you in my own way, O Israel!”

The final verse of chapter 4 that occurs after this (not included in the lectionary reading) adds a nice emphasis on what we’ve been contemplating: “For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth— the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!” Today, just as in 750 BC, we have a hard time contemplating that this is the One who is speaking to us. It is much easier to put God in that mental compartment that contains Zeus than the place He really belongs, which is everywhere and nowhere. No human mental capacity can contain or explain this One who made the universe and commands all that it contains. Here is where appropriate awe and reverence must characterize our relationship with Him. And that awe and reverence were distinctly missing from Israel under Jeroboam II. The consequence of their actions: God delivers them into the hands of the Assyrian nation.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt | Wikimedia Commons.

The gospel reading echoes this final verse from Amos where God tells us that He is the one who “forms the mountains” and “creates the wind.” It is a familiar reading, when Jesus falls asleep in the boat and his disciples become terrified by a storm that threatens to capsize them. Jesus “got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm.” Truly, this is the God who spoke through Amos! And to make this point, Luke tells us that the disciples marvel, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?”

But it seems to me there is another message in this reading, for what does Jesus say before stilling the waters? He tells them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” This is all that we hear from Him during this passage, and His emphasis is (as usual) on their faith. What faith is He speaking about? Is it the faith that nothing harmful will befall them? I think not, given His insistence elsewhere that they must take up their own cross and follow Him and that many will persecute them because of His Name. What other faith might He mean? As in other places in the gospels, I think it is more likely faith in Him as God’s Chosen One, His Only Son. In the gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus tells us that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. Here, too, it seems He is saying that even just a little faith can still the seas. 

What is the point of these statements about faith? Does it seem odd that Jesus is telling us that faith can have power over nature? I think this meshes well with our reflection on the reading from Amos. We learn from Amos that God uses His omnipotence in this very way, to contradict nature and natural consequences as a way to establish the supremacy of love and mercy. Maybe contradict isn’t the right verb; perhaps just “supersede.” Maybe it’s a way to establish a greater, more powerful set of consequences that operate on the spiritual level of love and mercy. Here, Jesus defines life as something with a spiritual dimension more dynamic and effective than anything in the physical world. Real life happens on the spiritual plane in concert with God Himself, and faith is the matrix within which we operate on this spiritual plane. Jesus stilling the waters makes us immediately wonder at one who wields such power in the world, but the point is about faith and the spiritual life, not about power on the physical plane. 

Let’s return to the question reflected in the title of this post. What have we discovered about how God wields his omnipotence? He’s not the bystander, the deist god of Benjamin Franklin who created the world but lives apart from it. He’s not the old-world pagan god running amok in the world with sometimes terrible, sometimes wonderful consequences according to his unknown whim. And he’s not the only-gentle new world god who couldn’t possibly be associated with anything like being vanquished, conquered, or punished. Amos first reveals that God’s law and the resulting application of justice is woven into the natural law of the universe, in other words, it is the opposite of random or driven by whim. It is Logos. Amos also reveals that because God loves His people as a Father, He endlessly provides mercy and second chances at their request while at the same time thirsting for them to be a light to all nations (i.e., having very high expectations for them). Given the periodic punishments He enacts on His people (slavery in Egypt, Assyrian conquer, Babylonian exile), we encounter arguably more time when He stays His hand, when He gives them second chances, when He sends prophet after prophet to warn them. This is another way to look at how God uses His omnipotence: to stay and forestall the natural consequences and natural justice inherent in His own Logos of the universe. By so doing, God reveals this is the essence of divine mercy, a power even greater than that in the physical world.

The Universe Surrenders (2019), Christopher Lyter | Image from singulart.com.

So, why doesn’t God wield his omnipotent power to still tidal waves and save thousands of peoples’ lives? Why doesn’t He cure all the cancer and stop all the war? I could offer reasons like divine punishment from a Father to his children or perhaps the crucible of the cross that forges a stronger soul and spirit more aligned to Him, but I think we need to make a major pivot from these questions given today’s gospel reading. Not just this physical vs. spiritual power shift Jesus teaches us in the reading but the fact of the greatest sacrifice of all, a divine Son on a detested cross in order to bring us into a new age and crack open the river of liturgy in our lives. What these immense displays of omnipotent power tell us is that we need to stop thinking so myopically about God and His power, as if our concerns during this blip of cosmic time are the be-all and end-all. God’s saving plan, already so very far in motion, have a scope and power in history so far beyond anything we can imagine. We have a small window into His intelligence and omnipotence, and that window is showing us a spiritual plane where the logic of love and mercy occupy the topmost place.

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