A sermon by Harry Goodhew
Good morning. Depending, maybe, on your personality, or on your age, or perhaps on your employment status, the idea of “downsizing” can be the cause of exhilaration –“ I just love doing it” -, or frustration – “I positively loath it” – , or anxiety – “will I have a job tomorrow?”
I’m in the second division – I hate it. Whenever I have engaged in the process, and I have to say that my wife is more sane and better at this sometimes necessary activity than I am, I find just a few weeks later that I have thrown out that very “thing” which I need for just this moment. That is frustrating!
But at a more profound level, downsizing can be a damaging activity especially when it relates to God. The “Ten Words” or “Ten Commandments” of Exodus 20 are, in part, a defence against such reductions. It’s been engaging my thoughts recently so let me share them with you.
Think for a moment about God and about ourselves. God is, by definition, uncreated, totally self-sufficient, independent, eternal, and perfect. In short He is unique, an eternal singularity. By contrast you and I are beings he has created. We are derived, dependant and limited.
Miroslav Volf teaches at Harvard University in the USA. In a book in which he explores whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God, he refers to Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas was a 15th century thinker, a genius and a polymath who wrote about the Holy Trinity.
He offers a summary of the main points in Nicholas’ argument concerning the nature of God. It runs like this: “the way God is in God’s own being is distinct from –but not contrary to – how God manifests God’s own being to humans and in human language.
Have you got that? He’s saying that God has truly revealed himself to us in ways we can understand but that self-revelation does not tell us everything about God as he is in himself and to himself. So we have true but limited knowledge which is pretty obvious when you come to think about.
He goes on:
1. God is infinite and boundless, not limited in any way.
2. Since human beings cannot comprehend what is boundless, God is “incomprehensible and ineffable” to them; only God can comprehend and express properly who God is.
3. As the infinite and incomprehensible one, God is not said to be one or three or good or wise or Father or Son or Holy Spirit; God “infinitely excels and precedes all such names”
In other words, all human words and thoughts peter out when it comes to thinking about God himself. That prompted C. S. Lewis to write a prayer that he called A FOOTNOTE TO ALL PRAYERS:
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
When you and I turn our minds to thinking about God we have a twofold task. One is to take seriously what God says to us in Scripture. The other is to guard ourselves against thinking we have God “sewn up” as it were – we know all there is to know about him
Perhaps that is, in part at least, what the first two commandments of Exodus 20 are about. The command to have no other gods but God is to acknowledge that he alone is God. There is no other. The second, not to make any idol or graven image, forbids any attempt to represent God other than acknowledging the ways in which he has revealed himself in his words and actions. So to worship him, Israel recounted his deeds and remembered his words.
Any visible representation had, and has, the effect of confining God to human proportions and blurs his unique and inexpressible essence.
I doubt if you or I are very likely to build ourselves domestic shrines replete with images of God to focus our private worship. But I do think, even with our Bibles open in front of us, we can scale down our appreciation of who and what God is by limiting him to our measure of his greatness and ability.
Remember how a beleaguered and exiled Israel was offered words of encouragement by the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 40):
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
Who could blame the Israelites for being overawed by the might of their Babylonian captors and the hopelessness of their circumstances? But God is not to be limited to our measure of things. He is God, the limitless, uninhibited One capable of doing whatever He chooses to do. This truth is the basis of all true humility, dependence, and trust.
So I have tried to take a dose of my own medicine and turned these thoughts to some of my favourite Bible passages.
First, from Ephesians Chapter 2:
… God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
As a piece of his handicraft He has the will and the skill to make something out of me that will do Him credit. What I cannot do, He can.
Then Ephesians Chapter 1:
3 he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. 5 He destined us in love to be his sons (and daughters) through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 which he lavished upon us. 9 For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
11 … 13 In him you … who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.
For me to be made holy and blameless before him is no small miracle. It is an achievement that only Divine love and power can effect but He can. I cannot. My sins are many but He has redeemed me through the death of Jesus and he plans to unite all things in Christ reversing all the chaos in creation caused by sin. And he has given us His Spirit as a seal to guarantee the inheritance. Not a lifeless piece of wax but the living, loving and abiding presence of his own Spirit.
So if I match these words to the limitless capacity of my God and Father I have good grounds for confidence both for now and for eternity, and so do you.
To call to mind the infinite power and love that lie behind the promises of God prompts a number of responses. First, there is trust. Who would not trust a power so limitless and loving even if, at the moment, life seems chaotic and confusing? Then there is surrender. Surrender grows out of trust. Why would I not want to surrender myself up to the direction of Infinite Wisdom himself? Trust and surrender nourish humility, that relaxed spirit that knows who is in control. They evoke healthy dependence, the sense of reliance appropriate for a creature that draws everything from its Creator and Redeemer. And finally they fill life with confidence and hope. So praise be to the God of our salvation for who He is.
 Pheidian: relating to Phidias or the Great Pheidias, a Greek sculptor c. 480 – 430 BC.