Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Who is the true God?

[notes of a sermon, loosely based on Jeremiah 10]

There is a question underlying the passage we’ve just read… a question that doesn’t on the surface seem relevant in today’s society … As I hope we’ll see, it is actually the most important question we can ever ask, because if we know the answer to this question, and if we live and act according to that answer, then we will be happy, secure, fruitful and useful people… The question is… Who is the true God? And there is one simple answer to that question that we see in Jeremiah 10… The true God is the God who creates.

When the prophet Jeremiah was pleading with his people to worship the true God, when he was trying to communicate to them what God is like, who God is, that was one of his fundamental points - the Lord God is the one who made all things, God is the creator God, opposed to all the other pretend gods in the world. V11,12… and then v16

About two years ago in the UK there was an atheism advertising campaign. You might have read or heard the story… The campaign was launched throughout Britain on the buses - the slogans had the message “There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”

If you saw the original story in the news, you might have spotted a follow on story - a Christian bus driver, in Southampton, England, refused to drive any bus with the advert on it.

The bus company tried to manage his concern about the ads: its statement read like this "As a company we understand Mr Heather's views regarding the atheist bus advert and we are doing what we can to accommodate his request not to drive the buses concerned." It added: "As an organisation we don't endorse any of the products or sentiments advertised on our buses”

The chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "I have difficulty understanding why people with particular religious beliefs find the expression of a different sort of belief to be offensive… I can't understand why some people seem to have a different attitude when it comes to atheists."

What’s going on in all this? The story itself was pretty insignificant. Compared to other things in the news at the time… compared to Gaza and Israel, compared to the economic meltdown, compared to the new superstar American President, in media terms the story was small.

But it illustrated something, something that Jeremiah 10 illustrates too. Both the No God bus slogan story, and the story in Jeremiah 10 illustrate that we are all witnesses of a battle of the gods. More than that we are all involved in the conflict.

It’s not a conventional battle. There is no clear division of sides. It is a difficult conflict to notice and describe even though it is all around us. But we are involved in it body and soul, our bodies and our souls are affected by it, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. It is a real battle that we need to be aware of, conscious of, even if we know it’s difficult to understand fully.

The battle is all about answering the question, Who is the true God? And it’s important because the way we answer the question will influence how we live, how we work, how we respond to the poor and the needy, how we care for the sick and dying, how we care for the environment and the earth, how we care and look after ourselves… how we worship when we worship.

The God question is not academic. It is not theoretical. It’s highly practical. It is relevant for our moral and ethical questions. It is relevant for legal and political questions. It’s not just a religious question. If there is a God who created the world, that doesn’t just change whether or not we go to church, and what we do in church. It changes everything. If there is no God, that changes everything too.

No Creator God, nothing to worry about, because nothing has any lasting value or meaning. No Creator God, no worries about right and wrong, because there is no-one to set any principles of morality. No Creator God, you can do whatever you want, which on the face of it is quite appealing.

No Creator God, anyone-else can do whatever they want, whether you like it or not. No Creator God and there are no consequences, no justice - because if there is no Creator God, then there can be no ultimate consequence, there can be no final justice.

In the first five verses of the passage, Jeremiah passes on a message from the Lord to Israel. That message is something like this…

Don’t learn or copy from the nations round about you - don‘t follow their ways of worship, their religious customs. Don’t look to astrology for guidance. Don’t make idols or statues to use in your worship. And don’t be afraid of their idols and gods, the idols and gods of other nations.

That’s quite a clear message. It’s a negative message. Comes from the first two of the ten commandments:

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. "You shall have no other gods before me. "You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

Why did Jeremiah have to say this to the people? Why did God have to remind them not to have other gods, not to use images and idols?

It’s simple - that’s what they were doing! They were looking to other gods, they were using images and idols - they were playing away from home. That’s partly what the first nine chapters of Jeremiah tell us: God was angry with his people, because they had turned away from him, to follow and worship idols, to look to the stars for inspiration and guidance… Jer 8:18,19 9:12-14

Jeremiah warns them, warns us too, that these other gods, these other things that we worship, will fail, they will be destroyed. They can’t do anything for us. (verse 11,15) They cant offer help. They cant protect us against anything. They are not worthy of our praise or our time or our money.

It’s important for us to understand what God is like, because if we don’t believe in the true living God, if we don’t worship him, we’ll worship something or someone else.

That’s why all the recent debate and discussion about God is so shallow… there is no such thing as pure atheism. Even the atheist worships his or her own god - if you stop believing in God, you just end up believing in anything that fills the gap. Everybody has to worship something. Everybody has to serve someone.

I don’t know about you - I shudder whenever I hear someone talk about Mother Nature - who is this person? Why turn nature into a person, where does that tendency come from? Why is it so difficult for us to talk about the world without using personal terms?

There’s an answer to that question… we find it difficulty not to talk about the world, because we are personal, and personality makes the world what it is. The whole world shouts out to us that a person is responsible for it, a person is behind it all.

I remember a few years back, I got the chance to spend some time in America, in New Jersey. New Jersey is just south of New York City - so I was able to visit the city several times… it’s an extraordinary place - not the biggest city in terms of population, but it’s pretty special - and I remember thinking about how New York City is now this huge massive place, with a life of its own, organised, and so on.

And I had this thought: no-one’s responsible for it, nobody’s planned this place. There’s a government, and a mayor, but the city has grown up over the years, and nobody planned that it would become what it has become. But I still wanted to attribute responsibility to someone… something in my little head kept saying to me, there has to be someone behind this - it can’t be chance, it cant be a mistake.

Now that’s just one city - how much more is that feeling present when you consider the whole country, the whole world. Somebody has to be behind it, somebody has to be responsible - Mother Nature, or Father God - that’s the choice.

You see there are only three real options when it comes to explaining things, everything that we see:

Either, before this world there was absolutely nothing. Everything we see came from nothing. No-one has provided a theory that supports this - it requires a leap of faith.

Or, everything we see came from an impersonal something or other. A lump? A energy? A bunch of atoms? Or just a mass of stuff? Out of that came the all diversity that we see and know. Everything came from the impersonal lump.

Lots of scientists and philosophers try to work from this assumption - but it still remains an assumption - and there are still questions - why something rather than nothing? And what’s driving the progress, where does personality come from, how did it come out of some impersonal thing?

The third option is the Christian doctrine of creation - a living personal God who is responsible for the world, the universe. A God who is the source of all personality and intelligence. A God whose wisdom explains scientific knowledge, emotional behaviour, our artistic gifts, our sense of beauty. A God who provides the energy for life to exist and flourish. A God who watches over how all things in the world change and develop. A God who provides purpose for everything that happens in his world.

Those are the three basic options…
1. something from nothing;
2. personal and living stuff from impersonal and dead stuff, stuff that just happens to be lying about;
3. or personal and living stuff that finds its cause and origin in a personal and living God.

Now, I’ve simplified each of those three options.

But I’m sticking to only three. You might think I’ve missed out an option - is it not possible that there are other gods?

How can we be sure that the Christian knowledge of the one living God is true? Well, that’s the point of Jeremiah chapter 10 - other gods are not the God who created everything. The true living God is the God who creates - that’s more or less what the last few verses teach us in the passage.

V11- these other gods, wherever they come from, whatever their origin, are not the creator God. Most of them come from our human imagination, they are human creations. Or they are human perversions of the sense that we carry with us of the true living God. Because we’ve got to worship something, if you turn your back on the living God, you need to fill the gap... and that’s what we’ve done.

Story about Kingsley Amis, the novelist - apparently on one occasion he was asked whether he was an atheist, and he answered, “Yes, that’s right, but it’s more than that. You see, I hate him!” It’s that kind of spirit which leads us to go and follow other gods.

There’s a tendency within us to hate the living God, the creator God. And that tendency is prone to temptation. Things start getting difficult, our circumstances become trying, tragic even. And we are prone to get angry with God, to reject Father God because we won’t believe that he cares anymore, or we wont allow his ways to shape us.

But that’s our human folly - because God is not like the idols we make, he is the Maker of all things - he has something to do with everything - no matter how far back or how deep we search, he’s always there - we can’t escape him - even though we try.

Story of Job. Job38:1-3, God’s appearance to Job - in love! Job is righteous man. His answer, v4 - creation! - where were you when I laid the foundations… I’m the creator God, Job. I’m the Maker of all things - let me worry about the problems – you, keep trusting me… I know what I’m doing.

It’s our twisted hatred of the living God that leads us to worship other gods, or things, things that owe their existence to the living God.

And it is a twisted thing, because it is based on two lies that attack us like a pincer movement.

On the one side, the lie that God doesn’t love us - a belief that is more rooted than you would imagine, because the other lie says the opposite. The second lie tells us that we’re not as bad as all that - our faults our failings are not all that important - don’t go worrying about your sin… because if God does exist, then surely he is a God of love, he will forgive me… this lie that we’re not all that bad, is based on a false view of love.

Do you know the worst thing about this second lie? This lie that our sin doesn’t matter, because God must be a God of love? It’s a perversion of the Christian God, the living true creator God - what other religion even dares to think that God or the gods love you?

There is only one God who loves, only one person who proves that love, only one Holy Spirit who assures us inwardly that we are loved. It’s only the Christian understanding of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the one true creator God - he’s the only God who can be a God of love. (Two lies countered… Ephesians 2.3-5)

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