Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Lord is One

Deuteronomy 6 contains one of the foundational statements of Jewish, and thereafter Christian, theology:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."
The first part - verse 4 - is the Shema, the central confession of the faithful Jew.  God is One.  I think that means two things. 

Firstly, God is unique.  This does not necessarily mean that Deuteronomy is teaching a rigorous monotheism here; in fact, the book seems to maintain the reality in some sense of other gods and spiritual powers.  Even when Moses affirms that "the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other" the context implies a comparison with other 'gods'.  The uniqueness of Yahweh, the God of Israel, is not simply a matter of alone-ness.  Rather it is that none of the other 'gods' or powers or whatever you want to call them are this God, the Creator of all and the Redeemer of his people.  He is unique.  What other 'god' has ever tried to save a people out from the midst of another nation?  What other 'god' has ever spoken to his people and entered into saving relationship with them?  As we move towards the New Testament, we have to add: what other 'god' has humbled himself to human flesh and Calvary's cross to redeem a people for himself?

Martin Luther in his Large Catechism asks: "what does it mean to have god?  Or what is God?"  His answer is: "a god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress".  In other words, what you trust is your god.  I think this helpfully illuminates the meaning of Deuteronomy.  The Lord is God, the one and only; he is the one from whom we are to expect all to good, and in whom we are to take refuge in all distress.  He and he only, because he is the only real Saviour.

But second, God is united.  God is always himself.  He is not in any sense divided.  In this he stands in contrast with the ancient deities, who might appear differently in different sacred sites.  He also stands in sharp contrast with us.  We often find that we are divided against ourselves, hardly knowing what it is that we want or who it is that we really are.  Not so God.  He is always God.  That means that he is always dependable, always the same.  The Lord is One, and therefore he can be our God.

It's worth noting in passing that, theologically speaking, the fact that God is One is also the foundation of the church's doctrine of the Trinity.  Because God is One, we can take Jesus absolutely seriously when he says that to see him is to see the Father.  Wherever the Son is, there is the Father and the Spirit.  Therefore, in Jesus, we have a true revelation of God, God without remainder.

Between verse 4 - the theological affirmation - and verse 5 - the instruction to Israel - there is an implied 'therefore'.  Because God is One, you shall love him with all your heart, soul, and strength.  The logic is simple: because he is the only god, in the sense discussed above - the only source of good and only refuge of our souls - he is to receive absolute loyalty, love, devotion.  That could be terrifyingly totalitarian, and indeed it would be if any human being were to make such a claim on our loyalty.  But to love God wholeheartedly does not eclipse the love of other things.  Rather, it orders the love of created things, such that in loving God wholeheartedly we find ourselves loving other people and indeed all God's creation appropriately - and we find that our love for those created things flow back into love of the Creator.  Because God is really God, the source and fountain of all good, he is not a black hole sucking in all our devotion and love, but the one in whom we really learn what it is to love in the first place.

And then again, because God is united, wholehearted love of him is the only way to bring our fragmented and sin-shattered lives together.  "Unite my heart to fear your name", prays the Psalmist.  Take, O God, this bundle of contradictions that I call myself, and, by orienting it around your great self, bring it to order and sense.  God alone is great enough to be the sun at the centre of the solar system of your life.  This is why in Jesus we see the only real example this fallen world has ever known of true humanity - life properly oriented, lived out of a centre in God which makes the disparate whole and the complex simple.

Friday, September 13, 2019

More limits

As a brief post-script to yesterday's post, it is particularly encouraging in these troubled times to recall that God has also set limits for nations and temporal powers.  Both in time and in space, the nations are bounded. It seems to me that there are direct parallels to the way the sea is described in the Old Testament. The nations are always potentially chaotic, potentially anti-God and anti-creation. But they are restrained. And of course the nations are also a part of creation, potentially good and a blessing to those who live in them, and so within their constraints they are given time and space to flourish.

It is worth remembering with gratitude that the supreme limit against which the nations bump up is the enthronement of the Lord Jesus as the King of the universe. They cannot undo this, nor can any political arrangement (or lack of arrangement) threaten it. Therefore God's people are secure, no matter what.

I think it's a bit of a mug's game to try to discern exactly what is going on out there from the point of view of providence. But the certainty that providence rules, and that God has already allotted the times and spaces of the nations, is encouraging to me - precisely because he is the good God, who is for us in Jesus.

Thursday, September 12, 2019


Been thinking a bit about limits and limitations this week.  The first 'limits' in the Biblical story are found right back in Genesis 1, when God separates light from dark, the earth from the heavens, the land from the sea.  The anti-creation forces of darkness and chaos are driven back to within specific limits, in order to create space for life.  And according to the unfolding story, God maintains these limits - consider specifically the boundaries of the sea in Jeremiah 5:22.  The limits which make life possible were established by him in his Wisdom and are preserved by him so that life itself may be preserved.  (Consider the story of Noah's flood as an example of what happens when God in his wrath declines to preserve these borders!)

The counterpart to the limits of Genesis 1 are found in the story of the Garden.  There is, of course, the boundary to the Garden itself, but actually this is not the real limit in the story; there seems to be some expectation that the Man will increase the size of the Garden, cultivating the earth and making it all a place fit for human life.  The real limit is found in the centre of the garden, where the two trees stand: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

This is the first personal, ethical limitation that we find in Scripture.  The limits of Genesis 1 were established by fiat; this limit is delivered by command and requires obedience.  Here the Lord deals with his animate, rational creature, rather than the impersonal darkness and sea.  But the purpose of the limitation is the same - life.  God limits the darkness and the sea because he wills the life and flourishing of humanity.  The world without form and void is not habitable.  It is death.  In the same way, 'life' outside the commandment of God is not life, but death.  This continues to be underlined throughout Scripture.  Wherever humanity is confronted by God's command, the options are life and good or death and evil.  There is only life in his will.  The limit is good.

To rail against our limitations seems to be the most human thing in the world - and perhaps it is.  Human, all too human.  But if God is for us - if he is on our side - then the limits he has imposed are good for us.  He has given me these gifts and skills and not those.  That limits me.  He has given me this level of energy and not that.  I am limited.  I cannot, contrary to the mush which passes for a contemporary worldview, be whoever and whatever I want to be.  I must accept these limits as the good provision of God.  They provide the borders, the negatives, within which God wills to give positive shape to me.  I can only exist as the person I am here.

And similarly, the commands of God which limit me, which tell me what I may and may not do - these are good.  They set out the boundaries of human flourishing.  It is not possible to transgress them with impunity - not in the end, and if it seems like you're getting away with it, it just isn't the end yet.  Actually, just as I can only really be me within the physical/psychological/cultural/etc. limits that God has set for me, so I can only really be me within the limits of God's commandments.  God's commandments, which seem so narrow from the outside, turn out from the inside to establish a broad space within which I can live.

The most challenging limitation of all is of course death, when God returns me to dust.  I think about that a lot, and this week I marked another birthday, which makes me think about it more.  But to accept this limitation too as in some way good - not perhaps good in the sense of the first design of creation, but good for me as a sinner, as one who is fallen, just as I believe it was mercy which set up the flashing sword at the gate of Eden - that is a challenge.  But one to be embraced in Christ Jesus; as the limit which also carries the promise of a glorious resurrection, the boundary which makes life - real life - possible.