First Mennonite Church
November 26, 2017
Back to Basics II: A Personal God
Text: Isaiah 48:17-19
17This is what the Lord says—
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
18 If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your well-being like the waves of the sea.
19 Your descendants would have been like the sand,
your children like its numberless grains;
their name would never be blotted out
nor destroyed from before me.”
This passage is part of the larger call to Israel to assemble. The call came at the initiative of the Lord. God pleaded with Israel to come and to listen to him. The Lord, the Redeemer, the Holy One who is the Lord your God is calling, says Isaiah. This call to assemble was addressed by God after the people of Judah had been carried out into exile. And God lamented that his people had not paid attention and listened to his words. “If you had only paid attention to my commands . . .,” God lamented. If Israel had only listened to the voice of the Lord, it would have enjoyed peace, well-being, increase of its population, and prosperity. Unfortunately, after much pleading on the part of God and his endless pursuit of a close relationship with Israel, calamity, exile and destruction swept across the land.
Israel’s story mirrors that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. A little later we will take a closer look at how Israel’s story and Adam’s and Eve’s story mirror each other.
In my first sermon in this series I said that the first portrait of God given in the Bible is that of a Creator God. “God said . . . . And it was so” (Genesis 1:19). And although God created animals and mankind from the dust, to which they must return when they die, God interacted only with Adam and Eve. God personally addressed the man and woman. God blessed them, gave them instructions, and gave them freedom. After the fall, God searched for them when they tried to hide from God. God, then, executed judgment upon them, but God also promised them redemption. God’s close and exclusive interaction with Adam and Eve in the creation story highlights his profound desire to commune with us humans. God’s interaction with the first humans set the foundation for the biblical stories of God’s interaction with the world and with Israel. The biblical message is that God is a personal God and that he created people with the ability to freely and spontaneously respond to him.
In 2000, I took a four-week summer course at the Myanmar Institute of Theology titled “Doing Theology under the Bo Tree.”
This course included traveling in Burma, visiting churches, NGOs, Buddhist temples/pagodas, and Christian seminaries. During a conversation with Buddhist monks, the topic of God came up. The Buddhist monks said they were puzzled at the idea of a personal God in the Christian religion. The monks spoke about their devas (“Nat” in the Burmese language). These are characteristics of some non-human beings who dwell outside the human realm. These characteristics, like peace, kindness, or simplicity achieved by ancient monks after a cycle of rebirths, are pursued by the Buddhist. But Devas do not have an all-encompassing power over some aspect of life or over the world as would the gods in other religions. They also do not relate to humans, nor are interested in human affairs. Therefore, for us to speak of a God who relates to us humans is just beyond the Buddhist belief. For us to speak of Jesus, who loves us, who died for us, who wants to live in us by his Holy Spirit, who cares for us in our needs is foreign to the Buddhists. For us to address God as Father, Creator, Savior, and Lord is just beyond their comprehension. The idea of us calling God “Father,” for example, is too limiting to the Buddhist. If God is like a father, they argue, God cannot be omnipresent, eternal, or almighty.
The portrait of God as a personal God again begins in Genesis. In Genesis 3, where we find the story of the “human fall,” we are given a clear picture of a personal God. Genesis 3, verses 8 and 9 gives us a window on how God actively sought to relate to the first man and woman.
This is how the passage reads:
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the
Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the
cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God
among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God
called to the man, “Where are you?”
The description we are given in this passage assumes a certain pattern of relationship between the man, his wife and the Lord God. After Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, awareness of their nakedness stroke them. They wanted to hide when the heard “God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Adam’s and Eve’s recognition of the presence of God assumes there had been an ongoing close relationship between the Creator and the creatures. God interacted with his crown creation at the cool of the day. God sought to be with them. God did not go out to be with the animals, the birds of the air or the fish of the seas. God came in person to have fellowship with Adam and Eve.
It would seem as if God did not know what had happened that day of the fall. God came as usual and was puzzled that Adam and Eve were not at the place of encounter. Their absence prompted God to ask the question, “Where are you?” There is a terrible feeling when someone goes missing.
One of the houses we lived in, in Elkhart, Indiana, had large wooded backyard. One afternoon Lilian and I were preparing dinner when all of a sudden we realized Emmanuel was not in the back patio. I thought, maybe he entered the house and went upstairs, so I ran upstairs and checked the bedrooms, but Emmanuel was not there. I rushed down to the basement and he was nowhere there either. I ran out to the front street and to the corner of it and Emmanuel wasn’t there. At this time we were getting very desperate. And then we noticed that Francis, the fluffy little dog, was not there either. And we knew that wherever Emmanuel would go, Francis would go also. We could not call Emmanuel by his name because he cannot hear us. So we figured out if we were to call Francis, the puppy will come and Emmanuel will follow. So we began to desperately call, “Francis,” “Francis.” And sure enough, Francis came running out of the woods and behind it, Emmanuel came running too!
There is a terrible feeling in getting lost or losing someone. When you lose someone, you feel as if your heart has been ripped open and left hallow or empty. On the day of the human fall, God’s heart was ripped open and he felt his treasured creation had gone missing. God’s cherished fellowship with humankind had been intentionally rejected by Adam and Eve. And God had no other choice than to go and seek for them.
“Where are you?” This question coming from the heart of God reveals the persistence of God in seeking mankind even in the face of outright rejection. It reveals God’s incomprehensible love for a rebellious humanity.
Here is the connection between Israel’s and Adam’s and Eve’s story. Adam and Eve were given a freedom that included the possibility of rejecting God, their Maker. Israel was made free from the Egyptian slavery. From among all of creation, God only interacted with Adam and Eve. From all of the nations, God chose Israel to be his people. Just as Adam and Eve were given a garden to sustain their lives, the Israelite people were give a land flowing with milk and honey. Just as Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God, so did Israel. Just as God pronounced judgement upon Adam and Eve and sent them out of the Garden of Eden, Israel was judged and sent into exile, out their own land. But just as God made a promise of redemption to Adam and Eve, God also promised Israel his restoration and their return to their homeland.
God has also given you and me the freedom to choose for ourselves. Yet in light of what we have seen in Adam and Eve and in the life of the people of Israel, humankind always uses its God-given freedom to move away from God. Our sin nature will never on its own move us towards God. Our sin-nature always gives priority to our selfish desires. We want to be gods. We want to choose away from the will of God. We want to be and live far away from God. We do not want God to interfere in our lives. The sin-nature in us pushes us not only to reject God but also to hurt the brother and sister—the neighbor. In the second generation in Adam’s line, sin continued to take its toll. Cain killed his brother Abel. And then God came asking another question: “Where is your brother?” Sin not only makes us reject God but it also makes us hurt the brother. Sin makes us believe we can live without the brother. The world glorifies this idea by promoting self-sufficiency. But sin goes further more. Sin makes people believe that it is right to violate, gossip about the brother or sister. Sin is what leads to prejudice, injustice, and murdering the brother and sister—the neighbor. The idea that we can live without the brother is variously displayed in racism, unjust economic systems, bigotry, and indifference towards others. But again, in the beginning God came to his human creatures with two basic questions: Where are you? And, where is your brother?
The question, “Where are you” directed to Adam and Eve reflects God’s profound desire to remain in fellowship with his creation. And the question, “where is your brother,” reflects God deepest desire that his children would remain in communion with one another.
It is my duty to echo to the ears of your spirit the words of God’s yearning question. Where are you in your relationship with God? Did he meet with you today? Or is there something for which you do not want to meet with God? Once again, hear his voice, “Where are you “Pastor?” “Where are you, (a name?)”
God is a personal God and he wants to relate to you in person. He wants to hear your voice, see the smile in your face, wipe away the tears from your eyes, rejoice with you in what gives you have joy and hope. God is a personal God and he is calling you by your name.
God also wants us to be personal with each other. God wants us to be in fellowship with each of our brothers and sisters. Thus, he asks you and me, where is your brother, your sister, or your neighbor? Have you made peace with the one who offended you? Have you forgiven the one who hurt you?
God being a personal God does not mean our relationship should only be vertical, me and God. God wants our relationship to be horizontal also. He wants us to treat each other with patience, compassion and justice. When we gather to worship, we respond to these two questions. When we come to worship we are answering God, “here I am.” When we come to worship, we do so in the company of brothers and sisters. Let us keep doing this and let us seek to extend the company of our fellowship by being considerate, compassionate and mindful of others. Amen!