Only One God?

Last week, I called into the opticians to choose some new spectacle frames. Confronted with racks of frames which from a distance all looked roughly the same conforming to the current style, the assistant asked: ‘What are you looking for?’ I mumbled something about them not being too heavy where upon she told me I needed titanium ones which sound heavy on the wallet. She whipped a few frames off the rack which on careful examination had some differences of detail and then it was down to me to choose.
We have become used to a world of choice. In order to compete, manufacturers and retailers have provided ever expanding ranges of merchandise to tempt us. The supermarkets are full of products from across the world, food, clothing, furniture and luxury goods available to suit all tastes and budgets. Internet shopping has taken this to whole new levels bringing global markets to our sitting rooms. If you are buying a new car, then you can specify the engine, trim level and optional extra’s to suit. The Fiat 500 web site for instance allows you to ‘configure’ your vehicle to your own taste. It’s all a long way from Henry Ford’s words: ‘Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.’
Maybe it is partly because of having so much choice in material goods that people expect to make more life style choices as well. The idea of ‘conforming to the norms of society’ appears to many to be dated and there is much encouragement of ‘diversity’. The voice of smaller interest groups is more often heard on the public stage and people’s right to express themselves as they wish through dress, speech and association is more readily upheld than it once was.
One of the key choices we all make is about religious belief. Time was when, unless you were determined to be different, you were just C of E, Church of England, even if you lived in Wales. Recent surveys now suggest that well under half of the population identify themselves as Christian, a rapid decline from the beginning of the decade. No longer is Christianity a default choice for British people. They may well declare themselves to be Buddhist, humanist, pagan or atheist rather be classed as nominally Christian. When I visit people’s homes, I am just as likely see a statue of the Buddha as I am a cross or a text from the bible. When I began my ministry over thirty years ago, most funerals were conducted by Christian ministers and included only Christian material; readings from scriptures, prayers and hymns. Now as people exercise choice, up to a third or more are conducted by secular celebrants, and even when a Christian minister is engaged to take the service, there will often be the request for songs and poems from outside the Christian tradition which resonate with the family’s grief.
I therefore wonder how much this shift towards greater choice influences our faith and religious understanding as Christian people. For those of us who grew up in a society where Christianity was presented as the only choice, would we have chosen something different if it had been more acceptable to do so? Are there a range of gods out there in a kind of celestial market place for us to choose?
The reading from Isaiah (Isaiah 6.1-8) tells of the vision of God experienced by the prophet as part of his call. The Lord is pictured on a throne, high and lofty surrounded by seraphs who call in worship to each other, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory’. It is just one of many encounters with God which the bible records. We might think of Moses on Sinai, Elijah on Horeb or John on Patmos. From these, we gain our traditional image of God, ‘him upstairs’, the angels and the trumpets. Is this just one God among many each with a claim to power?
That is not a position that the bible will allow. One of the most remarkable things about our scriptures is how consistently they present God to us. He is creator of earth and the stars, he sustains them by the power of his word. (Hebrews 1.3) He places human kind at the centre of his creation, creating it in his own image. (Genesis 1.27) He is shown to be a God of standards; a holy God. Everything which is created he deems to be good including human kind. When humanity fails to live up to God’s standards, they fail to prosper, they become subject to his judgement. Crucially, that does not mean he abandons them to their fate. The loving kindness of God is constant calling successive individuals to enter a covenant relationship with him. Each time the covenants are broken because people prove unfaithful, there is much bitterness and heartache, but hope never completely fails. In the middle of the darkest of all the bible’s books, Lamentations, a slither of light shines: ‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never fail, they are new every morning.’ (Lamentations 3.22) Ultimately, in Christ, that steadfast love, drives God to suffer with us and for us in the cross of Calvary.
This love of God does not mean he tolerates rivals. He is described as jealous God (Exodus 20.5) Jealousy is a sin when we desire something which does not belong to us. But because of who God is, the unswerving nature of his love for the world, all praise, honour and devotion rightly belong to him. He is justly jealous for it and does not want us to make choices about where we place or worship and praise; to try to ‘play both ends against the middle’ when it comes to faith.
And if his love is such, what about evil? Lamentations just a few verses on from my previous quotation says: ‘Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?’ Isaiah reflects a similar sentiment speaking God’s words: ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other. ‘I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.’ (Isaiah 45.6-7) The prophets speak of God using world leaders, intent on their own selfish and evil ends, to act as instruments of God’s judgment. God is seen allowing calamities to happen to achieve his own ends. He wields both good and evil to work his way in the world without actually being the source of evil. There is no sense in the bible of battle between good and evil, between God and the devil as though either might win like in a pantomime. God is always portrayed as having the ultimate mastery over evil. We can choose between good and evil, but if we chose the latter, we will always be on the losing side.
Joshua, in his farewell speech to the tribes of Israel challenges them to make a choice: ‘…choose this day whom you will serve.’ (Joshua 24. 15) They could either choose the gods of their ancestors, the gods of the Amorites or the Lord. Joshua is clear where his loyalties lie: ‘…as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’.
For many people across the world, the choice of their religion is an accident of birth. Cultural norms and local laws make it difficult for them to change. In Britain, we are proud to uphold the freedom to choose our beliefs although that has not always been true throughout our history. Let us reflect on the choice we make. Can we say with Joshua; ‘we will serve the Lord’? When we make that choice, we need to be careful that we do not compromise. God is holy, he does not stand rivals, his power is infinite, even the winds and waves obey him.
Today, we celebrate the rich diversity of God which is the dance of love of the Trinity. If we choose him, we realise as the writer of psalm 139 does that we can never go from his Spirit or flee his presence. (verse7) In our darkest moments we conclude as Job does that there is no one else to turn to. That when choose him, we have found life itself, and are truly born anew of his Spirit.

Trinity Sunday 27.05.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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