Text: Isaiah 46:3-11
A Sermon delivered on Sunday August 26, 2012 at Bethel CRC (Newmarket)
The theme of SERVE this year is “Picture This”, based on verse 5 of the text we just read – “To whom will you compare me, the Incomparable? Can you picture me without reducing me?” In our daily worship services and small group discussions, we spent the week focused on this verse looking at the different ways that God reveals himself to us and how these experiences challenge our images and ideas of who God is and how he works in the world.
We’ve all heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”. And we know it means that an image of something often does a better job of describing or representing that thing than someone trying to describe it verbally. I know I’ve had it happen to me a number of times where I’m trying to describe a person, event, or a thing to someone and words just don’t do it justice, so I end up saying “You just had to have been there” or “let me show a picture”. We tend to think in pictures too – when I say “Car”, chances are that an image of a car and not the letters “C-A-R-“ is what pops into your head.
I want to do a quick exercise with you. Everyone, please close your eyes. I’m going to say a word, and when I do, I want you to focus on the first image or picture that comes to mind.
Keep that image in your mind, open your eyes and share with the person next to you what image you saw.
For many of us, that image is consistent – when someone says God, we automatically have our preferred picture of God on display in our head. For others, the image is a bit fuzzy, like an out of focus photograph or movie. They know there is something there, but they can’t see it too clearly. The point is this – everyone has an image of who God is, a picture that comes to mind when they hear the word “God”. Moreover, it is essential to realize that the picture we have of God will define and shape how we respond to God. In other words, who we think God is will determine our relationship with him.
Our culture is full of images of God.
Perhaps the most popular image of God is God the old man in the sky wearing a toga with a long, flowing, white beard. This is an image we are all familiar with – it is so ingrained into our minds, that we don’t even question whether or not this as an accurate representation of God when we see it in pictures, on TV, and in movies. The persistence of this image of God owes much to Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel. This is a painting we are probably all familiar with – it is one of the most enduring pictures of Western civilization. Our immediate ability to recognize it goes to show that even though the Bible makes no reference to God having facial hair and is equivocally clear that God is not a human, this picture has directly influenced our image of God. I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but it is important to note how culture can influence how we picture God.
Another popular image of God is, in the words of film director Joss Whedon, God the “Sky-Bully”, often pictured as an old man “up there” with a really, really bad temper, whose only interest is in raining down plagues and pestilence. He has no love or concern for the world, but is rather annoyed by it; he demands unwavering loyalty and obedience and will quickly punish anyone who disobeys. He is a control freak who micro-manages the world the way a chess-player moves her pieces on the board. This is the typical image many atheists have of the Christian God; it is an image they base upon their reading of certain passages in the Old Testament and the book of Revelation. Unfortunately, there are also some Christians who operate with this image of God. Last year, an influential preacher told his congregation “God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.” He wasn’t doing this as a rhetorical move to make a point; he means it literally.
Now, to counter this image of God, many Christians have an image of God that is the extreme opposite, what can be called “the Buddy Christ” or “Santa Jesus”. They claim that yes, the God of the Old Testament was in need of some serious anger management therapy, but the New Testament shows us a different side of God through his Son Jesus. Unlike his dad, Jesus is a much mellower, a down to earth guy. They respond to atheists by saying that Jesus wasn’t a buzz kill or a downer like his old man; he was into parties and wanted to be everyone’s best buddy. More than that, Jesus came to earth to give us stuff – all we have to do is ask. After all, he’s God Son and God has everything – he is “infinitely rich, always available, and an unfailingly generous giver” who “gives without conditions or demands” and he “scatters gifts, smiling in blissful affirmation of who we are and what we do no matter who we happen to be and what we happen to do” (Volf, Giving and Forgiving, pp. 27-28). God is our cosmic butler – he’s there to ensure our happiness and pleasure and to gratify all our wants.
Although we all know that these images of God are problematic and inaccurate, they persist in our culture and imaginations. These images affect our theology, our understanding of who God is. The only way to contest these images is to root our images of God in Biblical images of God.
The Bible is full of images, metaphors, and names for God. Even so, there are a few that tend to captivate our imaginations more than others.
First is the image of God as Creator – this is how the Bible begins telling God’s story of redemption – “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. God is the one who brings all things into existence and sustains life.
Second is the image of God as King. Psalm 47:7 reminds us that “God is the King of all the earth”. We Reformed folks love to talk about God’s sovereignty, his kingship over all creation. We proclaim with David, “I will exalt you, my God the King”, the God who reigns over all powers and principalities.
Third is the image of God as Shepherd. The beloved words of Psalm 23 paint a picture of the God who cares for us, the one who ensures that we are safe and protected; the Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and goes to great lengths to rescue those who are lost.
Fourth is the image of God as Love. Based on this image, we know that love is not only something God does; love is what God is. This is made clear in three short words in 1 John 4:16 – “God is love”. John is saying that whenever we see love, we see God; whenever love is experienced, God is present because he is the root cause.
Fifth is the image of God as Parent. God is the one we address as “Our Father” when we pray as Jesus taught us. He is our “Abba”, our “Daddy”. He provides us what we need. And like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, God wraps his fatherly arms around us in loving embrace when we return to him. But let’s not forget that God is also like a mother. Indeed in our scripture passage for today, God uses motherly language as a self-description – in verse 3, God says this – the House of Jacob “has been borne by me since pregnancy, whom I carried from the womb” (CEB). God is not referring to human mothers – God is referring to Godself. God is the Mother of Israel – the one who says in Deuteronomy I am the one “who bore you…the God who gave you birth” (32:18 NRSV). This is the God who, in Hosea 13:9, fiercely protects her children “like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them, open” (NIV). This is the same God Jesus identifies himself as in Matthew 23:37 when he weeps “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longer to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Like a loving parent, God protects and cares for us.
These are all important biblical images of God – Creator, King, Shepherd, Love, and Parent. But is this enough? God is all these things. And yet, we know that God is so much more than what these beautiful images describe. So, at what spiritual cost do we limit of our images of God to a few favorites? The result is that we end up limiting who God is in order to fit God into our preconceived boxes. In her book “Amazing Grace”, Kathleen Norris summarizes the problem well:
“One so often hears people say ‘I just can’t handle it,’ when they reject a biblical image of God as Father, or Mother, as Lord, or Judge; God as love, as angry or jealous, God on a cross.…this choice of words [is] revealing…: if we seek a God we can ‘handle’, that will be exactly what we get. A God we can manipulate, suspiciously like ourselves, the wideness of whose mercy we’ve cut down to size”.
In other words, the result of us limiting our images of God to those with which we feel most comfortable is idolatry. That’s right, idolatry. As strange as it may seem, we can easily make our image of God into an idol. Whether the source of our images for God is from the Bible or culture, we have a tendency to limit our understanding of who God is to a few select images or metaphors. The result is that we put God into a box; we’ve put limits, boundaries, of who God is. We set ourselves up as the ones who determine who God is and images are acceptable.
In doing so, we allow our images of who God to replace the reality of who God is. We forget there is a difference between images of God and the living God; they are not and cannot be the same thing. There is always a gap between image and reality, between a picture and what that picture is representing. An image points to reality, but it itself can never be the reality to which it points. When we make the image into the reality, we are practicing idolatry; we are placing the image above the reality, we are saying the image is more real, more important, more manageable. Think of it this way. Here is a picture of my wife, Natalie. This picture is a realistic and accurate representation of her on our wedding day. However, I am married to the real Natalie, not the image of her. Idolatry is the equivalent of me saying that I am married to Natalie’s picture and that our relationship is based upon how I interact with the picture. It’s simply absurd! And yet it is what we do when we seek to limit our images of who God is and can be.
This is where verse 5 of our text comes in when God says “to whom will you compare me, the Incomparable? Can you picture me without reducing me?” God is saying I am more real than any image you may have of me. God is not saying that it is wrong for Israel to use images and metaphors to describe who he is; rather, God is directly challenging Israel’s image of who they believe God to be. God is saying “stop trying to limit me! Stop trying to put me in a box as if I were something that you can control and manipulate as you see fit! I am God! Who I am is beyond human understanding – I am Infinite! I am Uncontainable! I am Indescribable! I Am Who I Am!
When we come face-to-face with the awesome reality of who God is, our first response must always be one of worship. We fall on our knees and say “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen! (Rev. 7:12)
When we are worshipping this God, in spirit and in truth, we come to the humble realization that God is and will always be more and beyond our mere images and words. God has given us the gift of language by which we worship and pray; language we use to create images and tell stories of who God is. Yet, it is a gift that we will never be able to use to transcend the reality to which these images and words point. Once we think we’ve wrapped our minds around who God is, we’ve created an idol. Because God is infinite, he is beyond the limits of finite human comprehension.
And yet, this is a God who comes to us, who shows himself to us in show many different ways. The Belgic Confession tells us that God reveals himself through the book of Creation and the book of Scripture, through what theologians call “general” and “special” revelation. Through the majesty and beauty of creation, we get a sense of who God is. Through the Bible, God’s story of redemption, we get a sense of who God is. God is, as one of my professors in grad school would often say, a “Revealed Mystery”; a God who shows himself to us and yet remains infinitely more than what he shows us.
The clearest and fullest revelation we have of God is in and through Jesus Christ. He is the best image we have of who God is. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well…Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father…I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” If you want to know who God is, or you want to show someone who God is, look no further than Jesus Christ.
We correctly call Jesus the Son of God. But let us not forget that Jesus is God.
Jesus is the Revealed Mystery whom Saul meets on the road to Damascus.
Jesus is, in the words of Colossians 1, “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things…by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”.
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one who has defeated the power of evil and death once and for all. He is the one who restores us to God, who heals us by his grace.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the story of his life, death, and resurrection. His story is the climax of Israel’s story. Who Jesus is and what he came to do only makes sense within this context. He “resolves what is yearning for completion in the story of Israel…[he] is the one who saves Israel from its sins and the one who rescues humans from their imprisonments” (McKnight, King Jesus Gospel, p.37). Because Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s story, he is the one who saves. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, and the Lion of Judah.
Jesus Christ is the one who is fully God and fully man, 100% divine and 100% human. He is the one who shows us what it means to be created in the image of God and shows us how to properly bear that image for the sake of our neighbors, restoring the reflection of God in others that sin seeks to negate.
Christ died, Christ was buried, Christ was raised, Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, and Christ will return again to establish his heavenly kingdom here on earth. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ – that he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords – it is the good news is that Jesus is King and the rulers of the world are not. He is the one who saves and he is the one who reigns.
Christ is ruler over all. And yet, he is a different kind of ruler, completely unlike earthly authorities. He does not demand special ceremony or that we dress in order to impress him. He is not a mere figurehead, someone to whom we pledge allegiance for the sake of appearances. He is not a benevolent king – he is a gracious king. The justice he exercises is not retributive, rather it is restorative. He does not see us as mere subjects to be ruled, but rather, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:17, “we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ”. Jesus is the ruler who calls us to exercise his authority on his behalf. We, as the people of God, are Christ’s ambassadors sent through the power of the Holy Spirit to establish his kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven”.
But this does not mean we are merely servants. In John 15, Jesus says to his disciples, and, by extension to those of us who call ourselves his followers, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit”. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a good buddy, someone we like to hang out with and have a good time, someone we call up when we need help with something. Jesus calls us friends and makes it clear that friendship with him comes with expectations, a relationship with responsibilities; a relationship similar to a marriage. Christ is the bridegroom and we, the church, are his bride. Christ is our lover and we are his beloved.
All of the images of God from the Bible paint a picture of who God is. But we must always remind ourselves that God cannot and should not be limited by our finite images. Too often we want a safe and comfortable God, a God who will meet our expectations of who he is. It reminds me of a scene in “the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” where Lucy asks if Aslan the Lion is safe, to which Mr. Beaver replies:
“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you”.
All too often the church has served as a lion-tamer. We want to make God appealing, we want to make God understandable and non-threatening; so we build rituals and routines to help us do this. We don’t want to scare people away and we want to make sure that folks are not frightened by an experience of God, so we create ways to keep God at a safe distance. We attempt to manage and control God in our lives because we know the cost of a true, unadulterated, unmediated experience of the Revealed Mystery – it will cost us our very lives because such an experience will leave us utterly transformed and will call us to the responsibilities of living as Christ’s friends.
God the Father is not safe. Jesus Christ is not safe. The Holy Spirit is not safe. And yet we sacrifice a deep and lasting relationship with the King of the Universe for the sake of our own personal comfort.
In our journey of faith, we should never be at a place where we are “comfortable” with God for indeed when we assume such a thing we are walking in dangerous territory. The moment we cease to be awestruck by who God is, the moment we limit our perception of who God is to our preferred images of God, the moment we think that we have understood God, fully and completely, is the moment that we have ceased to be in relationship with the God of Israel, the God of the Church, the God most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Our comfort should not be based upon our ability to manage and keep God at a distance. Rather, our comfort should be rooted in God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. The God who is good and beautiful and true. This is the God who is says “Behold, I am doing a new thing”, this is the God who time and again does the completely unexpected.
The ability to open ourselves to this God, to make ourselves completely vulnerable before him, rests on a radical and total trust on the God who is faithful to his covenant promises.
God asked the Israelites “to whom will you compare me, the Incomparable? Can you picture me without reducing me?”
God asks us, his people the church, the same question today.
Jesus once asked his disciples “Who do you say I am?”
And he asks the same question of us today.