Escape to Egypt

December 26, 2010

THE ESCAPE TO EGYPT

Matt.2:13-18

 INTRODUCTION

The scene is one of mayhem.  In the centre of a snow-covered village a massacre is being perpetrated.  In the near distance a troop of mounted soldiers stands, spears at the ready, prepared for any counter-attack.  But they won’t be required.  The villagers are in disarray.  They are weeping; they are down on their knees, pleading.  One woman sits in the snow, clearly in a state of shock.  Others are wringing their hands in grief.  For running amuck among them is a gang of assassins, killing their babies.  Little ones lie on the ground, wrapped up tight against the cold.  They are being skewered by these ruthless killers. 

I’m describing a painting called “The Slaughter of the Innocents” by Pieter Brueghel, the Flemish artist who lived in the mid-1500s, who was giving the Biblical story a contemporary setting.  It still works.  Somehow Bruegel manages to convey the horror of this ancient massacre so that it transcends time and place. 

Given that Bethlehem was really only a village, the numbers involved would have been quite small.  Hardly a dozen.  Herod was capable of far worse barbarity.  This was the man who ordered that all the leading citizens of Jerusalem should be executed on the day of his death, just to ensure that there was some mourning that day.  He had killed three of his sons on suspicion of treason, causing the Emperor Augustus to quip that it was safer to be one Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.  He wasn’t going to lose any sleep over a dozen or so children. 

It’s ironic that Herod, who was infamous for his cruelty, should be best remembered for an atrocity so small that it was not considered worth mentioning by anyone else; for Matthew is the only historical writer to tell us about what happened in Bethlehem to those innocent babies and toddlers. 

Why?  Why does Matthew think this story is worth telling?  It’s not simply because he wants to give us an example of how cruel Herod was. 

The reason Matthew wrote his gospel in the first place was to reveal the true identity of Jesus.  Jesus is, as Peter proclaims in 16:16: the Christ the Son of the Living God.  Jesus is the one who has the right to claim: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  (28:18)

What part does this heart-breaking story play in revealing to us the true identify of Jesus?  How does it fit in to the big picture of who Jesus really is?  Let me make three suggestions. 

PROTECTION

The first concerns the preservation of Jesus’ life.  Jesus’ life was under threat.  We’ve suspected this all along.  We’ve been suspicious of how Herod enthusiastically pointed the Magi in the direction of Bethlehem.  His professed desire to worship the one born king of the Jews didn’t quite ring true.  It turns out we were right.

v.12 tells us that the Magi had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod.  So they head home without going via Jerusalem. 

v.13 Tells us that when they had gone the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, warning him:

Get up and take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child and kill him.

And we read that Joseph got up and under the cover of darkness took his family to Egypt.  It wasn’t too far away but it was outside Herod’s domain.  They would be safe there.

I wonder if you are making some connections.  Can you think of another Biblical story where God’s people were preserved by going down to Egypt?  That’s how Jacob and his family were saved from the famine, thanks, of course, to another Joseph. 

 Then, after about 400 years the survival of the people of God was again under threat.  This time it was from a despotic pharaoh who embarked on what we would label as genocide.  He ordered that all Hebrew baby boys be killed at birth. 

One child, however, slipped through the net: Moses.  It was he who led his people to freedom and to the land promised by God to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

And that’s the point.  God had made promises.

To Abraham (Gen.22:18): through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

To Isaac (Gen.26:4): I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed

To Jacob (Gen.28:14) Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south.  All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.

God repeatedly promised that through a descendant of Abraham, all the earth would be blessed.  It should be no surprise, then, that Satan, whose aim is to render God’s promise null and void, has made God’s people his primary target.  Pharaoh and Herod were only puppets in Satan’s hands. 

Sometimes the target has been God’s people in general.  Think of Haman, the Persian Prime Minister, who wanted to obliterate the Jewish people from the face of the earth.  But God had his woman on the inside, Queen Esther.  In saving her people from destruction, she also preserved God’s promise.

Sometimes the target was more specific.  Think of how King Saul hounded David, though David had done him no wrong.  If Saul had succeeded there would have been no Son of David.  Less well known is the story of Queen Athaliah (2Kings 11) who thought she had wiped out all of David’s descendants in a bloody coup.  She didn’t know that little Joash had been saved by his aunt Jehosheba.  If there had been no Joash, there would have been no Messiah. 

During the season of Advent I have been following a prayer booklet prepared by the Barnabas Fund entitled “Praying for the Persecuted Church”.  Each day we are given information about a country where it is dangerous to be a Christian.  All my life I have been involved in praying for persecuted Christians, and yet it still never ceases to amaze me how some governments can be so cruel and vindictive towards believers. 

How is it that there can be such hatred towards Christians?  They are not subversive; they are not terrorists.  They are, by and large, the most loyal, hard-working citizens any country could ask for.  Yet across the globe Christians are harassed, imprisoned, tortured and killed. 

The only answer I can come up with is that there are certain governments which feel threatened by anyone whose ultimate loyalty is not to them.  Like Herod, they cannot abide the fact that within their kingdom there exists another king.  As Ps.2:2 says:

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.

But the psalm also tells us: The one enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them. (v.4)

It continues: Therefore you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.  Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.  (v.10)

Jesus is the Lord’s Anointed and neither Satan nor any earthly power will prevent him fulfilling his mission, to be the One who blesses all nations. 

THE TRUE ISRAEL

Which takes us to our second point.  As he reflects on the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, Matthew makes another connection.  If Egypt was initially a place of safety for God’s ancient people, it became a place of danger, a place of near extinction.  As a promise-keeping God, the Lord could not allow them to be wiped out, or assimilated into Egyptian society.  So he raised up Moses to lead them freedom.

Centuries later the prophet Hosea pointed back to the exodus as a prime example of God’s love for his people.  Hos.11:1:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. What’s Matthew doing with this verse?  Is this just a verse that comes to mind, a verse that seems to suit the occasion, as we might quote Shakespeare or Burns?  There’s a lot more going on than that.  The clue lies in the reference to Israel as “my son.”  Matthew says in v.15:  And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, Out of Egypt I called my son.

Matthew sees a direct correlation between what God did for Israel, and what he did for Jesus. 

One of the ways the Bible describes God’s relationship with Israel is that of father and son.  This comes out very strongly in the exodus story.  In Ex.4:22 the Lord tells Moses to tell Pharaoh: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, Let my son go, so that he may worship me. 

This is why the final plague is the death of the Egyptian first born sons.  It is pure justice. 

Yet as Hosea observes, Israel was hardly the ideal son.  (Hos.11:1,2)

When Israel was a child I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son.  But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.  They sacrificed to the Baals, and they burned incense  to images. 

Israel failed as son, failed to be a blessing to the world, failed in their calling to represent the Living God to their pagan neighbours, failed to shine the light of truth into the dark corners of ignorance and idolatry.  It’s a theme that runs all the way through the prophetic books.  Israel is an adulterous wife, a rebellious nation, a disobedient son. 

It’s going to take a perfect Son to fulfil God’s promises.  So Jesus succeeds where Israel failed.  During those 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness, he doesn’t yield to Satan’s temptations.  Unlike Israel, he doesn’t grumble and complain about the lack of food.  He doesn’t fall for Satan’s lies.  He is the light which those living in darkness have seen.  He is the true vine.  And when the ultimate test presents itself, he doesn’t run away, as the Israelites ran away at the sight of the Canaanites.  Instead, he says, Not my will but yours be done. 

Friends, we cannot be the people of God in our strength.  If we are to be what God wants us to be, we must be “in Christ.”  We must recognize that the church is his body, and he, he, is the head.  We are the branches, he is the vine, and we must draw our strength, our life, from him.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.

Surely this is at the heart of the modern church’s failure to be the people of God, the root cause of our failure to reflect his character to a lost and desperate world.  Like the ancient Israelites who wanted to be more like the world around them, preferring other gods to the Lord God Almighty, we have fallen into the trap of thinking that if the church is more like the world, the world is more likely to listen to us.

For example, the Presbytery Plan Review Group has circulated a paper asking congregations to look closely at our parish and ask ourselves certain questions, among which is “asking where we see the ministry of Jesus in secular guise.” 

What do they mean by that?  They mean, we are to look for Jesus outside of the church.  We are to look for Jesus among those who do not love him, who do not even acknowledge him.  And then, presumably, ask if we can join in too!   

Now, if we’re talking about property maintenance or the good management of finances, I’m happy to concede that the church would be foolish not to learn from the latest thinking.  But I draw the line when we are told that we should be looking for Christ where Christ is not loved or even acknowledged.  It cannot be.  According to Jesus, Apart from me you can do nothing. 

The more the church becomes like the world, the less notice the world takes of the church.  The church becomes irrelevant, for we have nothing unique to say, nothing distinctive to offer.  And in the end, the church—I mean the institution—becomes indistinguishable from any other charity or social club.

The people of God are those who are “in Christ”, who have “put on” Christ, who are clothed in his righteousness.  He has become for us, as Paul says in 1Cor.1:30: wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Or as the old chorus puts it: He is my everything, he is my all

Out of Egypt I called my son.  Matthew is preparing the ground for the revelation that Jesus is none other than the Son of God.

This is my Son whom I love, with him I am well pleased.  (3:17)

HOPE

This takes us to the massacre itself so graphically depicted by Pieter Brueghel.  Herod, the deceiver, is deceived.  Given that Bethlehem is only five miles from Jerusalem, it wouldn’t have taken him long to realize that the Magi were not coming back. 

v.16 tells us that in a fury he ordered the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem and the vicinity who were two years old or under.  It seems that the Magi may have first seen the star two years previously.  That doesn’t mean that Jesus was by then two years old; but it does suggest he wasn’t a new-born.  Herod isn’t going to take any chances.  If a rival king exists better to widen the net.  There was always going to be collateral damage

I don’t think we need Brueghel’s painting to evoke scenes of bloodshed.  Television means that we are well acquainted with the sight of bodies scattered among the rubble of a village or town.  And all too often children are the innocent victims of such violence.

Matthew quotes a most poignant verse from Jer.31: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.

The context is the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians.  As the survivors are carried off into exile, Jeremiah pictures Rachel, who was regarded as the mother of the nation, weeping for her children.  If you remember Rachel’s story it took a long time for her to get pregnant, in stark contrast to her very fertile sister Leah.  There is an added pathos, then, in this symbolic evocation of Rachel, watching the destruction of her descendants.  

But this is not the whole story.  The Jeremiah quote is set in the midst of a prophecy of hope.  Rachel is weeping, says the prophet, but the Lord says (Jer.31:16): Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, declares the Lord.  They will return from the land of the enemy.  So there is hope for your future, declares the Lord.  Your children will return to their own land.

Indeed, if we had read on we would have discovered that this is the context for the Lord’s promise of a new covenant (Jer.31:31-33).  Listen to this, and make the connections:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers and took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant though I was a husband to them, declares the Lord.  This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people.

Thus, the massacre in Bethlehem stands for all that causes us to weep, all that breaks our hearts.  In that village we see in microcosm all the evil that has ever been perpetrated, all of man’s inhumanity to man.  Could there be a more appropriate example of humanity’s exile from God than the slaughtering of innocent children at the command of a paranoid king?  To murder a child, who poses no threat to anyone, is sin at its ugliest, its foulest.  That’s how far human beings are separated from God. 

And yet one child survives.  The child of hope.  The child who will reconcile God and humanity, the child who will ransom captive Israel and bring the lonely exile to an end.  He is the perfect Israel, the obedient Son.  By his death he inaugurates the new covenant so that when we trust in him God writes his laws on our minds and hearts.  Then, and only then, can God truly say to us: I will be their God and they will be my people.

CONCLUSION

Friends, if Christmas is about anything, it is about hope: hope for the world, hope for the church, hope for us as individuals. 

The world of 2010 is in no position to point a condemning finger at the world into which our Lord Jesus was born.  The hope of an end to the exile from God is still required.  Praise God, through Jesus Christ that hope is still on offer.

The church in 2010 still suffers as Christians throughout the world are persecuted for their faith.  It’s creeping into British society too as Christians are told to leave their beliefs at home and not bring them to work.  We shouldn’t be surprised.  Nor should we despair.  The God who preserved his Messiah will preserve his church.  The Herods of this world will never prevail. 

And for many of us as individuals, 2010 certainly brought its fair share of heart-aches, perhaps more than we thought we could bear at the time.  In our darkest moments we thought we could never survive, we couldn’t go on, there was no future for us. 

But here we are.  For we have discovered that in Jesus Christ there is hope, hope for today and hope for tomorrow.

May the hope of Christ which has sustained you in this last year continue to sustain you in the year to come.  “Apart from me,” he said, “you can do nothing.”  Let us then, as individuals and as a church, remain in him.  He is the Beloved Son; he is our everything, he is our all.

 

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TALKING GOD #7

December 23, 2010

TWO TRICKY QUESTIONS

I want to tackle a couple of questions that this doctrine of God’s unchangeable nature sometimes raises in people’s minds. 

The first is this: if God never changes, then how can we talk about God becoming angry, for example, or grieved?  How can we talk about God having compassion for his suffering people?   When we becoming angry or grieved, when we are filled with pity, there’s a change in us.  One moment we’re not angry; then something happens; and now we are angry.  One moment we hadn’t heard of someone’s plight; now we have, and we’re filled with pity.  Is God emotionally detached from his creation?  Is he unconcerned and unaffected by the plight of his suffering children? 

That is certainly not how the Bible portrays God.  He does not live in glorious isolation, insulated and insensitive to what happens in the world.  We only have to read the Gospels to discover just how much the heart of Jesus goes out to us in our distress.  So are we wrong to say that God never changes?

The answer is to recognize that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us.  Our emotions are subject to our circumstances.  Things happen, we are taken by surprise, and we react.  God is never taken by surprise.  He knows what will happen.  And he has chosen how he will respond.  His emotions are never an involuntary response to an unexpected situation. 

The other question is this: if God never changes, why are there passages in the Bible which talk about God changing his mind?  The most famous example of this is in Jonah in relation to the Ninevites.  In Jonah 3:4 the prophet proclaimed the word of the Lord:

Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.

Nineveh was not overturned.  So what’s going on? 

Turn with me to Jeremiah 18:7:

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I planned.

That’s exactly what happened in Nineveh.  The people repented—which was the point of the warning.  Jonan 3:10:

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. 

God was being consistent with his character.  It is God’s nature to hate sin and to love repentance.  God changed his mind with regard to destroying the Ninevites, but the change of mind was consistent with his character.  Warnings are meant to be heeded.  They need not be the last word. 

Let me remind you of Jesus’ parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt.18).  The king had cancelled the servant’s massive debts; yet the servant was unwilling to overlook the tiny amount his friend owed him.  The result?  The king changed his mind; he cancelled the cancellation.  Jesus says (Mt.18:35):

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. 

It’s unnerving.  But nobody can say they don’t know where they stand with God.  He is the God who by his very nature is looking for an excuse to show mercy.  When we repent he will receive us.  But if we are presumptuous, if we “take a loan of him”, he will judge.

TALKING GOD #6

December 23, 2010

ATTRIBUTES OF GOD

We’re now going to be thinking about what theologians call the attributes of God.  In other words, God’s nature, his character.  How would you describe God?  What words can we use? 

There are different ways of categorising God’s nature, and personally I can’t see that one way is any better than another.  The important thing is that we are drawing our conclusions from scripture.  Given our Presbyterian heritage we can do no better than turn to the Shorter Catechism.  Question 4 asks: What is God?  And the answer given is:  God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

God is a spirit—we thought about that last week.  What kind of spirit is God?  In other words, what adjectives describe God?  Infinite, eternal and unchangeable. 

These three adjectives apply to everything about God.  They apply to his very being, to his wisdom, to his power, his holiness, justice, goodness and truth.  Everything about God’s nature is infinite, eternal and unchangeable. 

GOD’S BEING

First of all then, let’s think about God’s being.  We are human beings.  Our being is finite; we are mortals; one day we will die.  Our being is limited.  We can only be in one place at a time.  Our being is changeable.  We grow, physically, emotionally, mentally.  We are always learning and adapting.  God is not like us.  He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

What do we mean when we say God is infinite in his being?  We mean that God has no spatial limitations.  He is present in every part of his creation all the time.  In other words, there are no no-go areas for God.  No-where is literally God-forsaken.  The technical term is that God is omnipresent.  There is no “whereness” to God.

Ps.139:7-10:  Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens you are there, if I make my bed in the depth, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me.

Here’s something to think about.  Everything we are saying about God is true about all three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  So even though we talk about the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, that does not mean that when the Spirit came upon the disciples in the Upper Room he hadn’t been there already.  It means that the Spirit was experienced in a new and unique way.

It’s the same for our Lord Jesus.  We talk about Jesus leaving heaven at Christmas time and coming into the world.  But the Son of God was in the world already.  And he certainly never left heaven.  What we mean is that the Son of God made himself known to human beings as a human being. 

Let me quote something from one of the early church fathers, Cyril of Alexander:  [The eternal Word] subjected himself to birth for us, and came forth man from a woman without casting off that which he was…although he assumed flesh and blood, he remained what he was, God in essence and in truth…For although visible and a child in swaddling clothes, and even in the bosom of his virgin mother, he filled all creation as God, and was a fellow-ruler with him who begat him, for the Godhead is without quantity and dimension, and cannot have limits. (quoted by Reymond p.170)

What, then, are we to make of verses which talk about being separated from God eg.Isa.59:2:  But your iniquities have separated your from your God

Not physical separation, but spiritual incompatibility.  God is not present in the same sense for every creature. 

Quotation from Herman Bavinck (Doctrine of God p.164)  When you wish to do something evil, you retire from the public into your house where no enemy may see you; from those places of your house which are open and visible to the eyes of men you remove yourself into your room’ even in your room you fear some witness from another quarter; you retire into your heart, there you meditate: he is more inward than your heart.  wherever, therefore, you shall have fled, there he is.  from yourself, whither will you flee?  Will you not follow yourself wherever you shall flee?  But since there is one more inward even than yourself, there is no place where you may flee from God angry but to God reconciled.  There is no place at all whether you may flee.  Will you flee from him?  Flee unto him.   

God is also eternal in his being.  In other words, God has always existed in the past and will always exist in the future.  He never began to be, he knows no growth or age, he will never cease to be.  Ps.90:2: Before the mountains were born or you brought for the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

And he is unchangeable in his being.  Think about it.  There are only two ways for someone to change—either they get better or they get worse.  Either they improve or they deteriorate.  The idea that God could get worse is a very scary one indeed.  How much worse? 

But what about the idea of God improving with time?  If that were possible, if it were possible for God to be a better God, a more loving Heavenly Father tomorrow than he is today, it would mean that today we are dealing with a less than perfect God.  It would mean that tomorrow God could learn something that he doesn’t know today.  To suggest that God can change, develop, mature like we do, is a very unsettling thought.

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth and the heavens are the work of your hands.  They will perish, but your remain; they will wear out like a garment.  Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.  But you remain the same, and your years will never end.  (Ps.102:25-27)

The psalmist is saying that this world is like a thread-bare jumper, a frayed and fading collar on an old shirt, a well-worn pair of shoes.  But not the Living God.  Let me spell out four very practical implications of this. 

1. This means the God we worship today is precisely the same God as revealed in the Bible.  He is the same God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the same God who spoke to the prophets.  What the Bible tells us about God is true today as it was then.

2. It means that God is not like certain people who blow hot and cold.  One minute they are pleased to see you the next they’re not talking to you.  Sometimes we hear God described as the God of surprises.  And there’s a sense in which that’s true.  His love and grace and mercy do often take us by surprise.  But there is a sense in which there are no surprises with God.  There is a sense in which there is a blessed predictability with God.  For example, God hates sin.  Always has; always will.  On the other hand, God always forgives our sin when we confess and repent.  We never need to worry that our sin is too great or too heinous or that God is too angry. 

3. It means that God’s plans remain the same.  When I’m making plans to meet up with someone I tend to say, Let’s pencil that in.  I know it’s better to put it in my diary in pencil because I might have to rub it out and reschedule.  We make plans, but we have to be flexible because we never know what’s going to happen. 

Not so with God.  His plans never gang aft a-gley.  Heb.6:17 talks about the unchanging nature of God’s purpose: But because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.

God’s ultimate plan is to restore creation so that the prayer will be answered: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s also true to say that within that universal plan, God has a plan for each of his children.  We do not know that plan, it only unravels itself gradually over time.  The details are different for each one of us, but the purpose is the same for us all.  Rom.8:29:  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

That’s the plan for each and every Christian—to be conformed to the likeness of God’s Son.  In other words, God’s plan for us all is that we should be like Jesus—in our devotion to our Heavenly Father, in our love for others, in our temperament and character, in ambition and zeal—to be like our Lord Jesus. 

4. It means that God always keeps his promises.  If God has said he will do something, he will do it. 

And can I again point out that what we are saying is true for God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Our Lord Jesus is the same yesterday today and for ever.  (Heb. 13:8).  And in Acts 1:11 the two men dressed in white said to the gaping disciples as they watched the Lord ascend to heaven:  This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.

TALKING GOD #5

December 23, 2010

THE NAME OF GOD

The God who reveals himself in scripture has also revealed to us his name.  We don’t tent to attach as much importance to the meaning of names these days.  It was different in the ancient world (and still in other parts of the world today).  Names were supposed to make a statement about the person.  We see this throughout the Bible, such as when Jesus renames Simon.  And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Mt.16:18).  Peter is Greek for “rock” (hence to be petrified means being so frightened it’s as if you have turned to stone.)  

Let’s turn to Ex.3, the story of God appearing to Moses in the burning bush. God has commissioned Moses to go and lead the Israelites to freedom (v.10): So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.

Understandably Moses is reluctant.  v.11: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?

God promises to be with him.  But Moses hasn’t run out of excuses yet.  In v.13 he anticipates the Israelites asking, Who is this God that has sent you?  What is his name?  It’s now that God reveals his name to Moses (v.14): I AM WHO I AM.  That is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent you.

I AM WHO I AM.  That’s the English translation of a phrase, a name, that has taxed the mind of Jewish and Christian scholars for 4000 years. 

The name in Hebrew is just four consonants, which in English we tend to represent as YHWH.  It is quite literally the Hebrew for “I am”.  We also tend to translate the word as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh”.  Most commonly in our Bibles we represent the name as LORD in capital letters.  Hence sometimes you’ll read The LORD our God, he is Lord.  This is the name that no Jew will ever pronounce for fear of taking the Lord’s name in vain. 

What does this name tell us about God?  At its most basic tells us that he is the One who is ever present.  He is ever the same.  He never changes.  Never I WAS.  Never I WILL BE.  Always, I AM. 

Going deeper, it means that he is the God who is Being.  He is Reality.  He has no origin, he depends on nothing, he is self-existent, self-determining.

TALKING GOD #4

December 23, 2010

GOD IS SPIRIT

A second fundamental truth about God is that he is spirit.  

John 4:24 God is spirit and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.

What does it mean, that God is spirit?  First of all, it means that he does not have a body.  He is incorporeal.  American theologian Robert Reymond puts it like this: He has no extension in space, no weight, no mass, no bulk, no parts, no form, no taste, no smell.  (Systematic Theology p.167)

We should not think of God in terms of size or dimensions.  We shouldn’t think of him as being infinitely large, nor as infinitely small. 

It also means that God is personal, that he is self-conscious, self-determining, living and active.  He is not an impersonal force or energy.  (“May the Force go with you.”)

It means that God is invisible. 

Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.  Amen. (1Tim.1:17)

What about those passages in the Bible which talk about certain people seeing God?  For example Moses.  Ex.33:11 says that the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend.  God caused his glory to pass by Moses while he hid Moses in the cleft of the rock.  Moses saw God’s back after he had passed by.  However, we do read that God said: my face shall not be seen.  (Ex.33:21-23)

I think we need to realize that there are times when God has to use the language of the human body just in order to be able to communicate with us.  So we read about God’s hands, and his feet, his eyes and his ears.  We call this “anthropomorphism”.  Humanising something that is not human.  How can we talk about God seeing our plight without eyes; or hearing our prayers without ears? 

God does not have eyes or ears or a back.  It’s a way of describing the effect on Moses.  No one can see God and live.  We could never bear the total revelation of God.  Yet, God has chosen on occasions, somehow, to show something of himself. 

And let me inject a little bit of Christology here—something about the doctrine of our Lord Jesus Christ.  John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side has made him known.

And remember what Jesus said when Philip cried out: Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.

Don’t you know me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time.  Anyone who has seen the me has seen the Father.  (Jn.14:8,9)

What about those occasions in the Old Testament where the angel of the Lord appears to certain people, but then we’re told that this angel was none other than the Lord himself.  There’s an example in Judges 6, the story of Gideon.  v.11 says that the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and greeted him.  But a few verses later in v.14 we’re told, The LORD turned to him and said…And then in vv.22,23 Gideon exclaims, Ah Sovereign LORD, I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face. But the LORD aid to him, Peace.  Do not be afraid, you are not going to die.

Let me make the following points:

1. There is only one God, and he will not permit any creature, even an angel, to rob him of his glory.  An angel from God would not allow itself to receive worship.

2. Yet, it is clear from this passage, and the others, that the angel of the LORD, is the LORD.

3. Since God the Father never allows himself to be seen; likewise, God the Holy Spirit; the angel of the LORD must be God the Son.  He is the only person of the Trinity whom we know for a fact has come in the flesh.  Paul says in Col.1:15 that Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

The technical term for these pre-incarnate appearances of Jesus is theophany.

Let me draw your attention to two verses in John’s Gospel.  In Jn.12:40, John quotes Isa.6, when Isaiah responds to the Lord’s question, Who will go for me?  Inv.41 John says: Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.

Then in Jn.8:56 Jesus says: Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad. 

And when his enemies mock him, he says: I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am. 

The invisibility of God leads us to the second commandment: You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath on in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I the Lord your God and a jealous God… 

Scripture places a complete ban on producing images of the Living God, be they pictures or statues.  As a consequence, the Jews were again unique in the ancient world in not having an image of their God.  There’s a wonderful story of the Roman general Pompey marching into the Jerusalem temple, heading straight for the Holy of Holies, tearing aside the dividing curtain, and to his amazement finding no idol of the Jewish god. 

The reasons for this ban are multi-laired.   The first and simplest is that no-one has seen God; and therefore any representation of him would be a lie.  It would not be accurate.  Second, any image of God would have to be in the form of something that has been created, and that would be to demean him.  Presenting God in the form of an animal, would inevitably lead people to think of him as having the characteristics of that animal.

Think about the story of the golden calf in Ex.32.  Aaron wasn’t enticing the people to worship another god.  He presented the calf to them as the Lord their God.  But the result of imagining the Lord as a calf or a bull was an orgy. 

So too when we imagine God as a human being.  He becomes just like us.  Even a superman, or superwoman, is much less than what the True God is.  

Idols are a way for us to control our god.  They are the product of our own hands; a god made in our image.  Idolatry is the de-throning of the God.  Christopher Wright: A great reversal happens: God who should be worshipped becomes the object to be used; creation which is for our use and blessing becomes the object of our worship.  (The Mission of God p.165)

Christopher Wright (p.167) quotes Job 31:26-28: If I have regarded the sun in its radiance or the moon moving in splendour so that my heart was secretly enticed and my hand offered them the kiss of homage, then these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high.

Then he makes this connection with the modern world: We look for such magnificence and power, and worship these things wherever they inspire awe and trembling admiration; in the stadiums of great sporting triumph or in the lives of pampered sporting heroes; in massed battalions of soldiers, parades or military hardware or on the decks of aircraft carriers; on the stage of rock concerts or the glare of TV and movie celebrity; on the pinnacles of the thrusting towers of corporate power and greed in great cities.  All of these can be enticing and idolatrous. 

And then he makes this devastating conclusion: In trying to be as God (in the original temptation and rebellion) we have ended up as less than human…As long as other gods are worshipped the living God is to that extent denied what is rightfully his—the total worship of his total creation.

TALKING GOD #3

December 23, 2010

ONE GOD

Now I want us to consider some of the most basic and fundamental truths about God which the Bible teaches us. Most basic, most fundamental is the truth that there is only one God. We are not polytheists, like the ancients, or like Hindus today. We do not believe that there are many gods. Christians are monotheists.

This is a truth which is constantly repeated in the Bible; not surprisingly since the Jews were unique in the ancient world in their insistence that their God was the only God. The foundational text for this doctrine is Dt.6:4, known as “The Shema”:

Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.

That is followed in v.5 by the command which our Lord Jesus identified as the most important of all the commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Right away can I point out that these two verses combine the transcendence and the immanence of God. The Lord our God is one.

As we’ll see in a moment there are different ways of understanding that phrase; but whatever our understanding it speaks to us of God’s uniqueness, his intrinsic “one-ness”. That’s the transcendence. But how can we love a God who is far away, remote, unconcerned? Fear, yes. Worship even. But love? We can only love where there is a relationship. The command to love God implies a relationship with God. And for relationship there must be immanence.

So what does it mean: the Lord our God, the Lord is one? Let me remind you of the context. The Israelites are on the border of Canaan, the Promised Land. They are the children of the Hebrew slaves whom Moses had led out of Egypt. That first generation had blown it with God. They didn’t believe that the God who had parted the waters of the Red Sea could bring them victory over the gigantic Canaanites. So the Lord had allowed them to travel around the wilderness in circles until they had died off. Now it’s their children’s chance. And Moses wants to ensure that they know how to live in the land that God is giving them.

So Deuteronomy is a repetition of the law, a reminder of what God expects of his chosen people. He says to them: Hear! Listen up! Grasp this O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

1. The Lord God is the only Lord. He is the only one to be worshipped, obeyed and loved. When they enter Canaan they will discover that the inhabitants worship lots of gods. They obey lots of different “lords”. The Israelites must not fall into the trap of thinking that the Lord God is just one lord among many. He is the only Lord. It’s the first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me.

2. This is true not just for the Israelites. It’s not that the Lord God is their god, but other peoples have their gods. No. The Lord God is the only true God and therefore he is the universal lord. Listen to Hezekiah’s prayer (2Kings 19:15) when faced with threats from the Assyrians: O Lord God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth.

3. It means that the Lord God is unique. He is in a class, a category, all of his own. To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal? says the Holy One. (Isa.40:25)

4. It means that there is unity within God. I mean, there is consistency within God. He is not double-minded. He isn’t two-faced. What he is he always is. God does not have many names. He is not one thing to one group of people; and another thing to a second group of people. The Lord is one. That’s why we reject any suggestion that the god of the Bible is the same as the god of the Koran under a different guise. They are completely different gods. It’s not that the Lord God is the best God; he’s the only God.

TALKING GOD #2

December 20, 2010

DOES GOD EXIST?

Question: How do we even know that there is a God? 

Probably the most important question in human philosophy is: Does God exist?  It’s an important question because the answer will affect the whole of human life.  Is mankind the supreme being; or is there a Being superior even to us who is to be loved and obeyed, and indeed, worshipped? 

Throughout history human beings have grappled with this question and tried to find the answer through logic.  Let me put to you three so-called proofs for the existence of God. 

One approach basically says that the very fact that we can conceive of a God must mean that a God exists.  A more sophisticated way of putting it would be this: our idea of God is that of a being which is greater than anything else.  Even atheists, when they deny the existence of God, are denying the existence of a supreme being beyond which nothing greater can be conceived.

Well, says this argument, how can you have the idea of something beyond which nothing greater can exist, if the reality behind that idea doesn’t actually exist?   Indeed, the very fact that such a reality doesn’t exist would mean that it isn’t greater than everything else.  After all, anything that doesn’t exist can’t be greater than anything that actually does exist. 

Do you find this argument persuasive? 

It’s shot full of holes.  Just because we can imagine something doesn’t mean that it has to exist.  We can imagine fairies and unicorns and mermaids. 

Yet—might there be something more to it than at first sight.  We might not believe there are fairies at the bottom of the garden; but as Christians we do believe in the spirit-world.  Unicorns and mermaids have a basis in fact, in that they are inaccurate descriptions of real animals—the rhinoceros, and the porpoise. 

We have to acknowledge that belief in God or in several gods is universal.  Every tribe, every culture, has or has had a concept of the divine.  Why?  Where has the idea come from? 

Another argument is based on cause and effect.  We know that everything has a cause.  Nothing happens without something causing it to happen.  So how did the universe happen?  Why is there anything and not nothing? There must be a First Mover.    There must be an Eternal Something. 

Perhaps the universe itself is self-existent, self-creating: the universe has always been there.  The problem with this theory is that the universe doesn’t act as if it is self-existent.  The universe is cooling down, like an oven that has been turned off.  It doesn’t keep itself going.  It is, in fact, decaying, like an apple or banana left in your fruit bowl.  The universe looks as if it has had a beginning; but instead of maintaining itself, it is clearly heading towards an end.  So who started it?

A more modern version of this argument is the one called Intelligent Design, which Dr. Alistair Donald spoke to us about during our Mission.  The irrefutable fact is that the universe seems to be designed.  Everything about our planet appears to be designed to support life—the Goldilocks Effect. 

It is just the right size; it rotates at just the right speed; its distance from the sun is spot on; it tilts at just the right angle; the land-water ratio is just perfect.  Too much heat, too much cold and there can’t be life.  We need light, but not too much ultra-violet.  We live just beneath an air screen shielding us from millions of extra-terrestrial missiles every day.  We live just 10 miles above a rock screen that shields us from the ferocious heat at the earth’s core.

Who created all these screens and shields that make life on earth possible? 

The choice is that either the universe developed all these features by chance, or that it was designed.  Either the universe has been planned or it’s an accident. 

And may I suggest that chance really is not an explanation; rather it’s the refusal to give an explanation.  When scientists explain things they operate on the assumption that this is a regular universe where everything occurs as a result of the orderly procession of cause and effect.

Yet, if they are evolutionists explaining the origins of the universe, they abandon the principle of sufficient reason and assume that the cause of everything is an unthinkable causelessness, chance or fate. 

A third attempt to prove the existence of God by logic relates to our sense of right and wrong.  Where do we get our sense of morality from?  Is it just from society?  But if that is the case, why is it that some of the greatest moralists in history have been those who have challenged their society, criticising the moral failings of their contemporaries? 

If there is no ultimate arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong, then morality becomes subjective.  Who is to say that within a given context slavery is wrong, or racism, or genocide?  Might is right. 

There must be a God to whom we are accountable; who, because we are accountable to him, has given us this universal sense of what is right and what is wrong.

None of these so-called proofs are a clincher.  If they were then there would be no atheists.  Some theologians dismiss them out of hand as completely useless.  I think that’s a bit hard.  Perhaps we can call them pointers rather than proofs.  They suggest the existence of God.  But I would never rely on them totally. 

From its opening sentence the Bible presupposes the existence of God. 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  (Gen.1:1)

For us the existence of God is the great presupposition of theology…that there is a self-existent, self-conscious, personal Being which is the origin of all things, and which transcends the entire creation, but is at the same time immanent in every part of it…The Christian accepts the truth of the existence of God by faith.  But this faith is not blind faith but a faith that is based on evidence, and the evidence is found primarily in Scripture as the inspired Word of God and secondarily in God’s revelation in nature. (Louis Berkof)

The Bible tells us that we should be able to work out the existence of God from nature.  Ps.19:1-2 The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech, night after night they display knowledge.

Acts 14:17 Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.  (Paul to the people of Lystra) 

Calvin: men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. 

Ties in with Intelligent Design.  Everything that exists gives evidence of God’s existence.  More than this, the Bible also tells us that every human being has a deep, inner sense that God exists.  This is not to say that we have within us a full understanding of God’s nature.  But it does explain why peoples all over the world have a sense of the divine.  Thus, if we deny the existence of God it is because we are actively and deliberately suppressing something we know to be true. 

Rom.1:18-20 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness since what may be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.   

Paul is saying there that from creation we should be able to conclude that there is a God, one whom no-one can be greater (eternal power and divine nature).   The fact that human beings have worshipped that which is created—the sun, the stars, animals, themselves—demonstrates how perverted our notions of the divine are—worshipping things which are inferior to ourselves.  But there is within the human soul the need to worship something. 

It’s only when we turn to the Bible that our ideas of God are clarified.  Calvin illustrates this beautifully: Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.  (Institutes I.vi.1)

Creation can tells us that God exists.  It can tell us that he is the creator, that he is imaginative, that he is powerful and majestic.  We can even discern God’s love and grace from creation.  But not always.  We might equally conclude that God is cruel and capricious. 

Only from scripture do we learn that God is holy.  Only from scripture do we learn that we are sinners in need of a Saviour; and that God loves us so much that he sent such a Saviour into the world.  If we are going to know God we need the Bible. 

Let me make just say one more thing about how we know God.  The contemporary theologian, Douglas Kelly, makes the extremely important point that whatever truth we need to know about God, indeed, anything about our faith, can only be learned within the community of the church. 

Scripture teaches throughout that God, who is truth, makes himself known to mankind by means of both Word and personal communion within a covenant context.  God speaks his Word to his image-bearers, not in a vacuum, but within a personal relationship.  And this personal relationship in which God’s speaking occurs is always in the bounds of a covenant community.   (Systematic Theology p.16,17)

We learn together.  And when, as the church, we talk about learning together, we don’t just limit ourselves to those who are physically present.  We listen to the saints who have gone before us.  We listen to our brothers and sisters throughout the world.  To exclude their voices would nothing but the utmost arrogance. 

As the hymn puts it

We need each other’s view’s to see the limits of our mind

That God in fact turns out to be far more than we’ve defined

 TRANSCENDENCE AND IMMANENCE 

I want to draw this first talk to an end by introducing you to two important concepts which are foundational in any discussion about God.  The first says that God is transcendent; the second says that God is immanent.  The reason why it is important for us to grasp these concepts is that in many other religions these concepts are held to be contradictory.  God cannot be both transcendent and immanent.  The Bible, however, teaches that the True God is both.

To say that God is transcendent means that God is distinct and separate from the created order.  God is not part and parcel of creation.  Thus God is unique.  There is God; and there is creation. 

This means that the New Age idea of God being everything and everything being God is quite wrong.  It’s one thing to say that we see God in everything, meaning that we see God’s handiwork in creation.  It’s quite another thing to refer to nature as divine.  The technical term for that is “pantheism”—everything is God, everything is an extension of God.  Listen out for this philosophy in some of the song of Disney movies like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas”. 

God is transcendent—he is over and above, he is distinct from creation.

To say that God is immanent means that is present within his creation. Deists are those who believe that God exists and that he is transcendent; but that he has nothing to do with his creation.  It’s as if the creation is a wind-up toy car.  God has wound the key, and then let the toy car go wherever it goes.  He has nothing more to do with it.  If there are bumps and crashes along the way that’s nothing to do with him.  But that’s not Biblical. 

The Bible tells us that God is intimately involved in creation.  One of the names of Jesus emphasises this: Immanuel, God with us. There’s a wonderful verse in Isaiah that marries the transcendence and the immanence of God.  Isa.57:15: For this is what the high and loft One says—he who lives for ever, whose name is holy; I live in a high and holy place [transcendence] but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the contrite [immanence]. 

That’s a good place to finish—the True and Living God, is the Talking God; the God who though he is above and beyond us, the high and lofty One, is the God who Immanuel; beyond us, yes; but also beside us and within us.