Speechless – New Series

Ever try to describe something so magnificent or beautiful, that your words or thoughts just couldn’t do it justice? So it is when we try to describe God. Thinking about God leaves us speechless—in a good way.

Over the next month or so, we will be looking at the idea of who God is and what He is like. Theologians have spilled a lot of ink writing about who God is. Sometimes the best way to describe Him, is actually to say who He isn’t.

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

God invented language it would only seem fitting that the very vehicle which he invented would be incapable of delivering His full disclosure.

The early Church fathers used the term apophatic theology. Words are inadequate at describing someone so magnificent. God is ineffably sublime.

We often describe God as invisible, immortal, unchangeable, infinite, unrivalled, unequalled. We often used apophatic words and don’t even realise we are doing deep theology. In saying what he isn’t we clearly delineate who He is.

God’s character nature cannot be described by words. His nature and character are only fully known by his self disclosure in Jesus, The Word made flesh.

I Thirst

I had the joy and privilege of going on the Alpha Away Day also known as the Holy Spirit away day. I guess an adjective to describe those who went on the Alpha away day would be “thirsty”. It reminded me of Jesus when he said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” “I Thirst,” are some of Jesus’ last words. They are unique to the Gospel of John.

John 19:28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”

The exact words “I thirst” or dipso in greek, though you may find the inflection elsewhere, is only found here in the Gospel of John. The other gospels record what is sometimes called the cry of dereliction “My God, My God why have you abandoned me!” John records only “I thirst.” It is a poetic way of reporting the cry of dereliction.

Jesus is the water of life of John 4 when speaking to the Samaritan Woman. Jesus is the one who beckons all who are thirsty to come to him at the Feast of Booths in John 7. In light of the connection in the Fourth Gospel between thirst and the living water which Jesus offers, it is striking that here, Jesus himself, the source of that living water, expresses his thirst. This is the poignancy of the cry of dereliction. Christ thirsts that we need not thirst again.

“I thirst” is a declaration of Jesus drininkg the cup of wrath to its full measure that we would not have to drink it. All we will ever experience is the water of grace.

Lastly “I thirst” is a prophetic declaration. Verse 28 says “knowing that all was now completed” and “so that the Scripture would be fulfilled”. The whole reason for this is that all has been fulfilled. His declaration of “I thirst” is not for himself. He is speaking of Pentecost. Jesus gives up his spirit that we may receive the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps we come to church thirsting for more of God, thirsting for the next fad, the next thrill, or the newest church service. Recently at the Alpha Holy Spirit Away day, a friend of mine challenged me. After we prayed for the infilling of the Holy Spirit he said, “I do not know what to feel. Are these feelings, this warmth, this tingling what you call the Holy Spirit. If it is, I was expecting so much more.”

Are we thirsty for the real thing? Are we thirsty for the right thing? God is much bigger than we imagine Him, why do we settle for anything less than Him.

Last Orders

John 13:34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.

Every year on the Thursday before Easter we reflect on Jesus last orders before his crucifixion. In some english speaking traditions it is referred to as Maundy Thursday from the latin words “mandatum novum do vobis” – a new commandment I give you. 

I distinctly remember the first time I was put on sentry duty at Beast Barracks. The upperclassmen asked me what my General Orders were. Promptly, I popped off with the response, “1.I will guard everything within the limits of my post and quit my post only when properly relieved. 2. I will obey my special orders and perform all my duties in a military manner. 3. I will report all violations of my special orders, emergencies, and anything not covered in my instructions to the commander of the relief.”

A sentry is supposed to follow their last orders and their intent until they are properly relieved or are given new instructions. Jesus gave us last orders that are still in full effect, “Love one another just as I have loved you.”

John’s gospel is the gospel where the word love is used more than any other gospel. Even within the gospel, the usage of the Greek root of “agape” we see a massive spike in its usage in the three chapters of John 13-15. These are Jesus’ conversations with his friends right before and during his last meal with us. John puts it this way:

John 13:1   Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

The only power that was able to hold Jesus to the cross was Love. The only power that helps us keep our promises to another is Love Himself.

Let Love Himself transform the way we relate to everyone.

Our King

Mark 15:26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “Our King.” [paraphrase]

A friend of mine by the name of Wayne once told me it is impolite to ask “What did you do that landed you in prison?” The proper social tact is to ask, “What did they accuse you of doing?” Obviously the first question implies that they are guilty, the second one implies a wrongful charge. Jesus was accused of being, “Our King.” Was this charge correct?

If you are at all familiar with the final 48 hours of Jesus life and his trial there were a few trumped up charges. This was not one of them. When Rome executed a criminal, the speculatore and centurions would normally affix a placard outlining the charges. Crucifixion was considered one of the worst forms of execution. It was illegal in the Republic and then the Empire to execute a Roman citizen by crucifixion. Even the non-citizen was afforded the dignity of being spared crucifixion. Crucifixion was reserved for the murderer and the traitor. Claiming to be king was a treasonous act against the emperor. Treason demanded the most serious of consequences.

And yet we crucified the Lord of Glory. Most of us do not understand the import of the words “Our King.” We live in a time constitutional monarchies, parliamentary monarchies, or are members of republics. We do not understand what it means to acknowledge someone as king. Kings have become figureheads. When we look at our passports and it says that our queen wishes us safe conduct, we do not really think that she actually has any day to day involvement or real say in our life or really cares about our safety in foreign lands.

Jesus’ death tells us how seriously many people in the 1st Century found Jesus claim. Many found it offensive that Jesus would stake claim over their lives. There is something inherent in us that wishes to be captain of our own destinies. As the poet William Ernest Henley put it:

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

The placard, “Our King” speaks of gratitude, of debt, of honour. We failed in our debt of gratitude and yet our Sovereign’s good pleasure still rests on us. We live, move, breathe and have our being because of his royal grace. To call someone king or lord implies respect.

As Abraham Kuyper says: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

Jesus was not treasonous, we were. But his royal grace is enough to forgive every treason.

God’s claim is not a claim of possession, it is a claim care.

Easter is the story of humanity recognizing God’s royal claim.

Who is this?

Matt 21:10 And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?”

All the city said it then; and all the world has said it ever since. For nineteen centuries one Figure has haunted the thinking and the conscience of mankind.

If you go climbing among the mountains, you may come occasionally to a lofty pass where the water-courses change their direction. Here a tiny rivulet makes its inconspicuous way to join the rivers flowing eastward: yonder, a few yards off, another begins its long winding journey towards the sunset and the western lands. The raindrops falling on one side of the summit may be carried down to the North Sea, while those on the other merge at last in the Atlantic. You are standing at the watershed, where all the streams divide.

Incomparably the most important watershed in the long history of humanity has been the Incarnation of Christ. At this point, the streams divide. After this, the human course and direction are changed. One Figure has split history in two—so that every event is now dated with reference to His coming, either before or after. In the clash and turmoil of this bitter age in which we live, His influence is still a more dominating thing, His power more to be reckoned with, than the power and influence of any Caesar. For this one Figure multitudes to-day would be glad to die; and no man who has once seen Him can ever quite thrust Him out of sight again or evade His urgent challenge. “Who is this ? “ they asked at the street-corners in Jerusalem long ago : and it is no academic speculation or theological theorizing that renews the question now. It is life, it is history, it is all that is deepest in your experience and mine, that force it inescapably upon us. Who is this Jesus?

Let us begin our inquiry by setting right in the centre of our minds one fundamental fact: the Christian religion is first and foremost and essentially a message about God. It is not primarily a new ethic. It is not just a gospel of brotherliness and loving our neighbour and accepting the Golden Rule. It is not in the main a philosophy of life or a social programme. Doubtless it includes all that : it involves an ethic, supplies a philosophy, enunciates a programme for society. But basically, it is none of these things. It is not a message about human virtues and ideals at all. It is a message about God.

That message is this—that the living God, eternal, immortal, invisible, has at one quite definite point broken through into history in an unprecedented way. Once and for all, in an actual life lived out upon this earth, God has spoken, and has given the full and final revelation of Himself. In Jesus, God has come.

Determination

Isaiah 50:7    But the Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

Luke 9:51   When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Our expectation of the future determines the way we will face it. How would you face the future if you knew what really would meet you around the invisible corner of time? Hope is something that uniquely belongs to human beings. Jesus fully knew what awaited Him on this journey to Jerusalem (see Mark chapter 9 and following, John 11 and following, Luke 9 and following, or Matthew 16 and following ). If he chose to go towards Jerusalem, it would lead an inevitable future: your forgiveness, His death.

Determination (look forward)

Israel had long awaited a deliverer. They awaited a Messiah who would rescue them; what this rescue would look like no one knew. Would it be religious freedom? A new definitive interpretation on religion? Would it be political freedom? A freedom from oppression and aggression from foreign rule? Would it be social freedom? Would everyone final be free from want and need?

The beauty of the Incarnation is that it leaves all previous understandings of the Messiah in tatters. Jesus’ rescue would be such that the world had never seen. The dreams of religious, political or social freedom held by all would be mere appetizers for the greatness of the miracle that Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem.

The coach Vince Lombardi once commented, “The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack in will.” Jesus’ rescue is incredible because only he had the resolve to say, “Father, not my will but Yours be done.”

Determined (look back)

The only way to have the resolute determination to face your future and embrace it is to look back. Look back and see the story of relentless grace pursuing you. Easter is the story that long before you ever knew and loved God, He knew and loved you.

I Have Come

Matt 5:17 Do not suppose that I have come to destroy the law and the prophets. I did not come to destroy, rather to bring to its desired completion. (author’s translation)

I have come is a declaration of purpose. Though more ink has been spilled by commentators focusing on Jesus’ relation to the Torah and Matthew’s understanding of Jesus and the Torah, few scholars have gleaned the cosmic importance that Matthew gives to this passage. Jesus came with a purpose and a desired end. He came that we may have life.

The gospels are replete with, “I have come’ sayings (cf. Matt. 5:17; Matt. 9:13; Matt. 10:34; Mark 2:17; Luke 12:49; John 8:14; John 9:39; John 10:10; John 12:27; John 12:47; John 15:22). Some have mistaken these sayings as simply to be a prophet declaring that he has been sent from God with a specific message using Old Testament examples for such usage (Num 22:38; 1 Sam 16:5) However, in the earliest greek translations of the Old Testament most of the times in the word “I have come” or elthon is directly linked the speech of an otherworldly emissary sent to deliver a message or accomplish a specific task (Num 22:32; Josh 5:14; Daniel 9:23; 10:12). Overwhelmingly the text of the Old Testament introduces the formula “I have come” to indicate a divine commission, whether a natural or supernatural emissary. It is most commonly used of either the angel of YHWH (Num 22: 23; Josh 5:14), the angel Gabriel (Dan 9:23) and then an unnamed angel (Daniel 10:12). What we discern from this text is that Jesus claims to be the Messiah and bring the Torah to its intended completion.

“I have come” presupposes not only a place, origin or commission but also an intended goal. The overarching impetus of the phrase “I have come” is that Jesus is not some one who ‘adds’ to the Torah or modifies it. This same idea of “coming” is seen in the Babylonian Talmud. “I came neither to destroy the Law of Moses nor to add to the Law of Moses” Talmud (b. Shabbat 116b).

Jesus does not claim to be a new interpreter, or a new prophet. His statement of “I have come” is even more radical; Jesus is declaring that he is in fact the Lord of the Torah.

Jesus’ use of the double negative of both “do not think” and “I did not come” are not only strong and emphatic, but also all encompassing and final. Their usage indicates that in no way, shape or form would Jesus abolish the law and the prophets. In fact Jesus is the one who will bring the Law and the Prophets to their intended goal. The goal is covenant relationship.

Jesus came that we may have life, life to the full.

 

For Such a Time as This

Today around the world many will celebrate Purim. This is a celebration that thousands of years ago God delivered the Jewish people from near certain death. When the writer of the book of Esther chose to tell the story, their method of telling the story was very strange. For centuries Esther has baffled commentators and Bible scholars. It is the only book in the Bible where the word God is not mentioned – not  even once.

How we use our words can be very revealing. The lack of words can also be very revealing. If you have ever been involved in a polite work discussion in the British isles you may have heard the phrase. “That is very brave.” What an American hears a Brit saying is, “They think I am courageous,” when in fact the Brit is trying convey a completely different thought: “You are barking mad.” So it was many years ago, the writer of Esther wanted to convey the feeling that God was hidden and removed from the day to day life of His people. It felt like God was absent.

To top it all off. This book which tells the story of a hidden or surreal God, tells the story of a very real and clear existential threat to the Jewish people. The Jewish citizens living in Persia were faced with a life and death situation and God seemed painfully hidden. In the hiddenness God is actively working. Esther, in vicarious representation of her people, walked into the courtroom of the king and pleaded in proxy for her people.

“If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request.” (Esth. 7:3)

Esther risks power, privilege and position to petition the potentate for her people. We know of a true and better prince, who not only risks everything, but actually gave up everything to rescue his people.

Let those Purim words sink in this Lent. Hear Jesus plead on the cross, “Let my life be granted to me … and my people for my request.”

Conditions Are Perfect

Setting the scene is a vital part of a splendidly crafted play. This universe is the masterpiece play of God. The scene is set, conditions are perfect. Now enters our hero. Conditions are such that there is no other way than a majestic rescue.

Paul uses an amazing term when explaining the Gospel. He says, “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3). Often we think of the term necessary as something denoting inherent lack or dependance. This is not the way Paul is using the term. He is using a small three letter word in Greek, dei.  It is absolutely necessary, there is no other way.

A close approximation to this concept is the term necessary as used in philosophy. When something is necessary it inevitably results from or is produced by the nature of things, so that the contrary is impossible.

This Lent reflect on that necessary prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden, “Father if there is any other way, let if happen. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”

Reflect on the awesome nature of Lent, Jesus not only needed to die for us, he wanted to. Let this melt and change us.

 

Old Friends

Psalm 44:24 Why do you hide your face?
     Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

Recently I travelled to London to catch up with an old friend. We had not seen each other in quite while. The busyness of our lives, the pace of work makes it hard for us to meet up. There are some friendships which are so wonderful that no matter how long it has been you can just catch up and start the conversation right where you left it all those months ago.

So it is with God, his omnipresence is such that there is no place where we can go that he is not already there. And yet sometimes He feels distant. When Scripture uses the term “face” to refer to God’s presence, it is not implying that God has somehow left the conversation. There is that beautiful verse reminding of God’s favored presence, “May the Lord bless you and keep you and cause his face to shine upon you.” There is something about seeing a friends face and smile that makes the effort of meeting up worth it.

Seeing someone’s face is asking for a unique and special way of interacting. During Lent some Christians give things up. But what is the absence all about? The absence is designed to remind of the presence. Sometimes it feels like God may be far away.

Speak to the absent God about his absence. That is what this Psalmist is doing. Tell him how much you miss Him. Speak to him about His silence. There is nothing that turns a friends face towards you as when you speak of their heart-felt absence.

On the tree so many years ago, Jesus spoke of this absence. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” His prayer to the absent God about His absence had the most wondrous effect: God’s face is now forever turned towards us.