Renaming “God” Ezek 16:8-22 ;Ps 104:14-35; Acts 14:8-18; John 13:1-15 St Marks 18.2.18
There’s something dreadfully wrong when we hear Christian people talking a lot about “God” and not speaking much about “Jesus”, for scripture teaches us that whatever we truly know about God we know only through the gospel of Christ (John 17:3; Acts 17:29-31). In our multicultural post-Christian society “God” can mean almost anything. Many people will tell you they believe in “God” but their lives show no evidence of it; they’re what we call “practical atheists” (Ps 53:1); “Oh My God!” (OMG) has become a popular exclamation today but it certainly isn’t a prayer. And common language shouldn’t deceive us into thinking that the “God” of the Muslims is the Father of Jesus. In fact the Koran goes out of its way to deny Allah has a son. There are places in the New Testament where even demons testify that there’s one God but that won’t keep them out of hell (Mark 5:7; Acts 16:17; James 2:19). The apostolic message is crystal clear, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”” (Acts 4:12). The groundwork for a spiritual revival today must begin with a revival in speaking about Jesus! Such a transformation will never come unless we move beyond a spirituality tied to creation.
Nature and God
Ours is a land greatly blessed, I can recall the brilliant starry skies of outback Australia, the beautiful white beaches of northern Queensland, the grand vistas over the desert from the top of Uluru and the majestic forest as it comes down to the sea at Denmark. But no one turns from their wicked ways to worship the Father of Jesus (John 4:23) through contemplating nature. We are like the pagans to whom Paul preaches, “he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”” (14:17). As a nation we have turned away from the Master Designer (Acts 17:27) living increasingly lawless lives. Against the backdrop of our marvellous climate and geography our spiritual dullness marks us out as an especially wicked people. The other week a devout Christian friend and I, he’d grown up in one of those cold Eastern European countries, walked out of his house into the sunshine and brilliant blue skies over Perth and he spontaneously exclaimed. “This is paradise, and anyone who doesn’t think that is wrong.” Cf. Korean Christian arriving in Australia; “This place is like the Garden of Eden, no wonder people here don’t believe in God.” Instead of a nation of grateful worshippers we are a country of complainers; we whinge about politicians, hospitals, schools, the police force, public transport…We are the people of whom Paul speaks in Romans who see God’s “eternal power and divine nature in the things that have been made” but “without excuse” wickedly refuse to “honour (God) him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom 1:18, 20-21). Our rank ingratitude in the face of our material blessedness surely places Australia under a far more severe judgement than almost anywhere else in the world (Luke 12:47-48). This terrible state began with a profound corruption concerning the identity of “God” in Eden.
What’s in a name?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet;”So says Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. This might be true of roses but it is insidiously false when it comes to how the God of the Bible reveals himself in the foundational chapters of Genesis. Where in our English versions we find the word “God” used throughout Genesis 1 this is a translation of a Hebrew word (Elohim) that would be recognised by people outside of Israel. From Genesis 2:5 on however we find the name “LORD God” (Yahweh Elohim) used, a name unique to Israel’s covenant relationship with their Redeemer, the personal name specially revealed to Moses (Ex 3:14). So when we read in Genesis 2:17; “the LORD God commanded the man, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.””, we can see that Adam had an intimate personal knowledge of the divine will.
Then suddenly in Genesis 3 Satan enters the scene and with brilliant trickery debases the Word of the LORD by saying, ““Did God (Elohim, not Yahweh Elohim) actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”” (3:1). By distorting language the devil undermines the personal character of the commandment of the LORD. When the dulled damsel replies, “God (Elohim) said”, not “Yahweh Elohim said” (Gen 3:3), Eve has already begun her Fall. We know the rest of the story, Adam and Eve desire to be like “God” (Elohim) and lose the glory of intimate communion with the LORD’s (Yahweh’s) personal presence (Gen 3:7ff.; Rom 3:23). Fallen human beings will always try to reduce “God” language to something manageable. So it is that Indigenous peoples all over the world believe in a great Creator, but knowledge of such a distant deity never has power to save them from their idolatries.
Even Israel exchanged the glory of the LORD for the worship of other gods (cf. Ps 106:20). In deep pain the LORD/Yahweh exclaims; “she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal.” (Hos 2:8; cf. Ezek 16:8-22; Rom 1:23). The sin of ingratitude is timeless. Before they entered the Promised Land the LORD warned his people, “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 …remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deut 8:17-18). In our world children are taught, “You can be anything you want to be.”, you can construct your own gender, fashion your own identity. Adults stream to life coaches to “reinvent” themselves. All such follies stand as signs of the judgements of God (Rom 1:21ff.). We should expect these sorts of things of the world. But when professing Christian people face retirement with a self-centred attitude, even a “bucket list”, which says, “We deserve it, we’ve worked hard for it.” we’ve conveniently forgotten we could never achieve anything apart from the gifts God has given us (1 Cor 4:7). Things are bad, really bad. So let’s turn to Jesus.
Unlike us Jesus never forget who he was, where he had come from and where he was going. We read today in John’s Gospel, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God…” (John 13:3). Satan has led all humanity on a path to usurp creation from God (cf. Luke 4:6), but Jesus knew everything he had given to him by his Father (Matt 28:18; John 17:2). But he also knew his inheritance would come in a way radically counter to all the cultures of humanity, the way of the cross. The depths of the sufferings of Jesus expose and challenge to the core all abuses of God-language. Have you ever heard another believer casually call the Father of Jesus “Abba”, or even “Dad”. Quite frankly I am not sure whose these folk are talking to for their is a weightiness in calling God “Abba, Father” that is immeasurable. The only place where Christ says “Abba, Father,” (Mark 14:36 cf. Rom 8:15) is in Gethsemane where he is being crushed to death under the sorrow of bearing the cup of God’s wrath on the sin of the world. In the utmost existential crisis of identity (Heb 5:7-8) Jesus’ soul understands that bearing the cup of wrath (Isa 51:17, 53:3; Jer 25:15; Rev 14:10) means losing the intimate personal covenant presence which has always empowered him to name God as “Father”. The cross’s cry of dereliction, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34) is a revelation that under our judgement God the Son can no longer discern where he has come from and where he is going and it seems like nothing has been given into his hands. On the cross Jesus must embrace all of humanity’s distortion, misuse, and manipulation of the name “God”, in whatever language. An abuse for which we all deserve eternal condemnation (Ex 20:7). But the good news is since Christ’s death is a death in our place it means the death of our inability to truly speak of God.
When he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father (Rom 1:4; 6:4) Jesus naturally began to speak of his disciples in a relationally supercharged way; “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”” (John 20:17). A band of brothers and sisters who gather together, pray, and ministry in the name of Jesus immersed by the Spirit in the love of the Father is the very essence of the Church. A Jesus-centred Church is a normal Church, but this is a body formed only in the way Jesus own God-language entered perfection, through obedient suffering (Heb 2:10; 5:9).
A Christian friend visited me recently who has had a painful divorce a host of family problems a long history of depression. In conversation he shared with me his daily routine; thanking God for life and another day when he awakes, for food on the table, the car he has been given to drive, the friend he is on the way to see…..and on and on. Beyond all human diagnoses he has power to live like this because being humbled by the Lord over many years he has come to see “God” through crucified eyes. He has been released from his own religious imagination and the distorting lens of culture, tradition and family influences to see Jesus and the Father more and more as they really are. He can testify that above all God is a crucified God. Only those who possess a vision of life (Acts 17:25) through the lens of the cross (crucivision) can understand and name “God” as he really is (cf. 1Cor 3:21-23).
Someone rang me the other day as part of a pastoral search for their church, and wanted to know what I could tell them about a certain minister. I don’t know the man personally but counselled they ask him what has been the most painful experience of life and what he had learnt about Jesus through it. The revelation of who God is does not come through intelligence, personality, giftedness or achievements, but submission in suffering. Many of us at St Marks have suffered in deeply painful ways, yet many of us find it difficult to talk to one another, let alone non-Christians, about JESUS. How can this change?
Firstly we must want to witness a dramatic shift in our speech. Satan has progressively encouraged the use of relatively inoffensive “God” language inside and outside of the Church to push out the name he hates above all other names, the only name to which he must submit, the name of….. (Mark 9:38; Acts 4:12; 16:18; 19:13; Phil 2:9). Only the name of Jesus is filled with prophetic power to revive the Church and converting to save the world (Luke 24:47; Rev 19:10). As I walked into a bookstore the other day which has 100’s of “God” titles, I spotted a book upon whose spine was, ‘LORD JESUS CHRIST (Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity)’. I was instantly excited because the name of Jesus is inexhaustibly wonderful (Eph 3:8). I had to pause when someone sent me a Spurgeon quote the other day; “Jesus- a gathering up of the hallelujahs of eternity in five letters”. Is that how you want to feel and speak about Jesus and is this the sort of Church we want St Marks to be? Shortly we will set up our ministry teams for 2018; what they achieve for the kingdom of God in Bassendean and beyond will totally depend on their naming God in the way he has named himself, the God and Father of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; 1 Pet 1:3 etc.). May it be our prayer to think and speak of God only in this way.