The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

July 19, 2020

Summary

It comes with the collar. Despite the good manners guides that suggest one should steer clear of religion as a
topic of conversation, I talk about God. It can be quite frustrating because while I know whom I am talking
about, I’m not exactly sure which god I am hearing about. So it can happen when I’m having a chat about
religious topics – heaven, hell, angels, demons, how people are saved, how being good isn’t a pathway to
heaven, nature, god-in-everything-everywhere, and so on – and I do get told, from time, to time, that people
believe in God and I have been known to reply, “That’s good. What’s the name of your God?”.
And then there can be a pause; maybe some confusion; a furrowed brow.

In English we can use the word ‘god’ to be almost a species classification – spot a deity, any deity if you can,
and scientists can put it down in their little book “that’s a god” and maybe “that too is a god” but “no, that’s
not a god” and so on. We also use the word as a name and talk to ‘God’ in our prayers. The confusion for me
is summed up in the sentiment I often hear which goes something like “everyone prays to the one god”. Yes,
it is true that if there is only one God, he definitely hears all the prayers coming from planet Earth. But it is
not true if it means that the various names of God in the supermarket of religion are all talking about or
aspects of the same being. In the supermarket of religion, God is not above the building but in one of the
aisles.

If I asked you the question ‘How many gods are there?’ I suspect you might want further clarification of the
question before you give an answer. You could say ‘One’ or you could say ‘many’ and both answers could
be right.

It is with this tension in mind that we come to our first reading. Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf to his
people who lived surrounded by other gods, speaks what some have called a ‘trial speech’ (there are a
number of these in Isaiah 41-44) in which God takes all the other gods and the nations to court, to an
account, to a reckoning. At first glance this seems strange if God is prosecutor and judge but that really isn’t
the situation. God is not calling for a ruling, this is not a criminal court per se but more a civil court – in
which God accuses all the other gods of the nations of ‘false pretences’, ‘false advertising’, ‘fraud’, ‘forgery’
and he asks for the evidence to back the claims of these other gods to be presented as he is ready to do. This
doesn’t require a judge to decide because it will be so clear that people will see for themselves. (Think Elijah
and the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel and lighting the altar without a match.)

6
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
7
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
8
Fear not, nor be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44:6-8 ESV)

Idols of wood and stone are mocked – they can’t hear or see or speak, they even have to be carried around,
and they are made by human hands. God calls himself the first and the last and says that he’s the only God
and asks for others to speak up and challenge him. Here and in other ‘trial speeches’ God refers to the key
things he’s done – creation and salvation. And he calls his people to witness, to speak up, not over the
creation side of things but for the salvation that God has done. The Old Testament people were forever taken
back to the Exodus and from there to God’s continual rescue and help of his faithless people and in ritual at
each Passover they were telling by deed and profession that there is no other god besides this rock. Faithful
Jews still do the same today. But with the temple destroyed there is now no longer any complete confidence,
comfort, and certainty about God because the means of forgiveness – the blood sacrifices – can no longer be
made.

Christians hear Jesus’ words “Don’t be afraid” said again and again and see in him the fulfilment of the
temple sacrifice, of the temple itself – destroy it and I will raise it up in three days Jesus said – and think
about his nature miracles – stilling storms, feeding thousands – ie. making food – which are pretty powerful
signs – all because even though he died on a cross in suffering and abandonment, Jesus turned the tables on
everyone by rising from the dead! The entire Old Testament finds its fulfilment in Jesus who brings about
salvation that is complete and certain and sure. And so when Christians look for evidence about God, or
discuss salvation, or consider creation and the new creation (because we experience the groaning of the old
creation) they cannot go past Jesus. No other Saviour has the credentials – ask for the evidence!
We can learn from God – as we should – and his approach to his people. The followers of God need to
follow him and that involves trust and there is an element of leaping into the dark, no evidence, trusting the
word and what is said to us. But this faith is not blind faith and Christians, particularly those who have
grown up in the Faith, can find themselves struggling to debate or defend their faith at times because they
haven’t examined it in court. ‘Why would we if we believe?’ you might ask. Well, we might do that so that
we can be in even more in wonder and praise of the Triune God as well as considering answers, replies,
logics, and rationales that will make the world consider the evidence of its Faiths – which we believe will be
found wanting and the answers and hope and certainty when you trust something or someone only truly met
by Jesus.

Today we often have religions discussions along the lines of your religion can be true for you but it isn’t true
for me. The whole relativist approach, social construction, language is not definite or translatable are ways of
either rejecting an absolute truth or a way of claiming that my truth is the one you should believe and you’re
wrong if you are also not a relativist.

In his trial speech God called his people to witness. What? Here many Christians will talk about their
experience of the faith – it’s real for them and they want to share it. However God called his people to be
witnesses of his word and his action and his salvation. To persons and events that stand no matter which
perspective or angle you view them from. The cross executes and the claim that Jesus’ grave is empty and
‘Christ is risen!’ (He has risen indeed!) has never been proved to be false. This means that Christians need to
witness firstly to Christ and his cross – with Paul, speaking only of Christ crucified – and perhaps if
appropriate possibly reluctantly you will speak how God and you relate in your life – how he has helped you
or strengthened you or confirmed his presence to you – but I hope also like Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 that you
will see quickly how limited such a witness really is. People don’t need to know that I’ve had an experience
of healing but rather they need to meet the healer in whom I trust – the one who might also tomorrow say to
me “No healing this time – my grace is sufficient for you”.

God in court – Christianity in the dock – discussions about religion are very much part our increasingly
diverse religious community. This is an opportunity to rise up and give a witness statement, a message about
Jesus as the first and the last, the Saviour of the world, who graciously uses words to meet people and draw
them to him so that they, too, will believe that he actually does love them.

Bible References

  • Isaiah 44:6 - 8

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