Texts: Isa 40.6-31, Ps 145, Heb 12.18-29, Luke 12.4-7, 32-34
This week I join St David in declaring the greatness of God. Three points: 1. What is God? 2. The greatness of God 3. Fear
1. What is God?
The question is too deep and too simple for most adults to ask; but children want to know, so they ask, “What is God?” The best answer is probably: “The One who made everything, the great Artist, the Source of all being and life.” But if you think about it, that isn’t exactly an answer either. What is this Maker? Is he a giant old Man, with a long flowing white beard? an especially mighty angel? some kind of fifth element, pervading all things? What is God?
Last week, I preached the Church’s answer to the related question: “Who is God?” The true God, the Maker of all creaturely being and life, is not an anonymous spirit. He has an identity—a Name. That name is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt 28.19). Now, we know who God is, not because we are clever, but because he has told us himself. Above all, we know him to be the One who sunk his Son into the depths of our flesh to redeem us, and poured out upon us his Spirit to give us life, because he is our Father, who loves us.
Still, the child’s question remains: what is this God? What does it mean to be “God”? Would it surprise you if I said this was the most practical matter you could ever think about? In reality, we all have our ideas about what God is, and for good or ill our “theologies” shape our lives powerfully; for we live in light of what he think is true about God. Aren’t quite ready to buy what I’m selling? Consider five common gods who’re running rampant in the Church of the true God.
(a) There’s god the Cosmic Cheerleader, who watches my life unfold from the sidelines. I allow him to be positive and encouraging, but if he can’t say anything nice, best for him to not say anything at all. Because god the holy Cheerleader cannot rebuke me, I remain firmly in control of my life. This god might be jolly, but he isn’t good. He might be likeable, but he isn’t the LORD.
(b) Then there’s god the Cosmic Therapist. He provides the solutions I need to manage my emotions; and because he is jealous for my sense of self, he never calls me to account for my sin. This god might be sensitive, but he isn’t kind; he might be insightful, but he isn’t wise.
(c) Then there’s god the Great Sugar Daddy in the Sky. He’s always there for me, to get me what I want. He will never lead me into the wilderness of suffering; and if I do suffer, well, surely that proves god isn’t real after all. This god might be resourceful – at least, we can pretend he is till the money runs out – but he is not the almighty God Job learned to fear.
(d) Or perhaps god is the Stern Judge, ruthless in his uprightness. (This god has gone into hiding in the culture, but is still found among church people.) He is useful to secure the moral high ground I need to judge other people; but the self-righteousness he props up keeps my proud soul from ever tasting the sweetness of mercy or feeling the tenderness of love. This god might be strict and severe, but he is not actually holy; he might make a fine drill sergeant, but he’s a failure as my Father.
(e) Today above all, the god our culture permits us to worship is the All-tolerant Affirmer, who wouldn’t hurt a fly and certainly wouldn’t dare judge anyone, ever, because he is a god of “love.” There are three unforgiveable sins against this, the spirit of our age: smoking, not recycling, and worst of all, judging. Of all the false gods, this god is the cruelest of all. For his indifference to truth robs me of my chance to gain freedom through repentance, and his apathy toward righteousness obliterates grace. This false god has nothing to do with the God who is love, who sent his Son to atone for our sins (1 John 4).
Do any of those gods sound familiar? I dare say, each of us tends to favor one or the other. Left to our own devices, tugged by the pull of culture, deceived by the Evil One, as a rule we prefer our own ideas about “god” to the truth which God himself has spoken through his Word. That is why we American Christians lead such worldly lives, lives marked not by truth, courage, and sacrifice but by complacency, self-indulgence, and sloth. For all our affluence, we lead impoverished lives, because we serve such poor, small, paltry gods. Mark this well: The reason we lead such small lives is that we think so little of God. That’s why I said before that there’s nothing more practical than theology. Here’s a good rule of thumb: the smaller the god you serve, the smaller your heart & your life will be; the safer & tamer your god, the more fruitless your pilgrimage. On the other hand: the secret to true greatness, the key to living a life that is big, the anchor that holds fast the kind of life that actually requires courage, is this: to know, fear, and adore the God who is great—so great, St David says, that his greatness is unsearchable (Ps 145.3).
2. The greatness of God
What do we mean by the greatness of God? Ps 145.3: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.” In himself, the being, life, glory, and joy of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is so perfect that the depths of his greatness cannot be fathomed by anyone but himself (1 Cor 2.10-11). In the first place, when we confess that God is “great,” we mean quite simply that there is none like Him; no creature can be compared to the LORD God, the Almighty.
That’s what Hannah sang after the Lord answered her prayer for a son: “There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God” (1 Sam 2.2). God is great: that means God is in a class all his own, peerless, incomparable, infinitely precious, holy. God is not, as an odd song once sang, just a slob like one of us. Strange as it might sound at first, God is not even just a being among beings. If he were, then even if we wretched bipeds couldn’t compare with him, at least the angels, or the archangels, or the seraphim could. But in his Word, God teaches us that there is quite simply none like Him (Exod 15.11, 1 Cor 17.20, Ps 86.8, Jer 10.6f). For he is not just a being, but the infinite source of all being, the inexhaustible Fountain from whom flows all that is, and all that lives, and all that is good, and all that is beautiful, and all that is noble, and all that is true. You see, in our finitude and sin we tend to imagine a great scale of being, with God up at the top, then angels just a bit lower, then us bipeds, then beasts, and plants, and microbes. God is really big, and microbes are super small, but at bottom they’re basically similar because they’re beings, things that “are.” So we tend to think, for if God is just a really big being, then we’re not really that different from him after all. Who knows? We might even become a god like him one day ourselves! (as Mormons think). Here is a theology to flatter our pride; and before we know it, our “big” God has shrunk into one of the very small gods I preached against before.
But that’s why we love St Michael so much! For his very name means: “Who is like God?” Except for when he’s off giving the Devil a throw down (Rev 12.7-11) – by the way, does that make him the original WWF wrestler? – St Michael the Archangel stands to minister before the Lord God the Almighty in the courts of his glory. He of all people knows that in all his real but borrowed glory, he is much more like a microbe than he is like the true and living God. For archangels and microbes and men are all made out of nothing, and if God drew back his hand, back to nothing Michael himself would fall. Michael’s name reminds us that we creatures live at every moment on the knife-edge between existence and the abyss, our borrowed being upheld at every moment by the mere generosity of God. But he, the LORD, is the same, and his years have no end (Ps 102.27); he is the one who is, and who was, and who is to come (Rev 1.8); and from everlasting to everlasting, He is God (Ps 90.2); for he is the Great I AM, who swept inquisitive Moses off his feet with the simple & majestic reply: “I am Yahweh; I am who I am; I will be who I will be” (Exod 3.14). And that is why, after he’d seen the fiery God of the slaves redeem his people by engulfing Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea, Moses sang for joy: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in deeds, and doing wonders?” (Exod 15.11). Years later, when the time drew near for Moses to breathe his last, the God who met him in the fiery bush and delivered him in the waters of the sea spoke one last great prophecy of his incomparable greatness: “I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound & I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut 32.39).
That is what we mean when we confess that God is great. Here is a Mountain no mortal can climb, an Ocean no diver can fathom, a Lion no master can tame, a Symphony the angels themselves cannot sing, a Sun that blinds the eye of the creature who dares to gaze upon its radiance, a Fire that consumes all impurity in a white-hot kiln of holiness (Heb 12.29). In his sheer greatness, the God who is is unsearchable; and instead of trying in vain to explain him – or worse yet, to tame him (!) – the safest route is to bow down flat on your face in the dust, and adore him. Because we are far more frail than we care to admit, and because God is far greater than we’ve even begun to imagine, he is greatly to be praised (Ps 145.3).
Now, because the God who is is so huge and deep and vast and wild and fierce and gentle and good as to be unsearchable in his greatness, in his presence we small, sinful ones find that we can’t say much at all, and simply cry out: “Glory!” (Ps 29.9). Perhaps you’ve experienced this before? Perhaps you’ve felt the weighty glory of the LORD, and fallen on your face in a puddle of holy tears, and found yourself speechless apart from the simple cry: “Glory!” or, “The LORD: he is God! the LORD: he is God!” (1 Kgs 18.39) or, “Faithful, faithful God” (Ps 31.5). If you haven’t yet, I hope you soon will. For we are dust and ashes, and sinners on top of it, and in the presence of the holy God, whose name is great and whose heart is kind, our impurity and puniness – like the prophet Isaiah’s – is overwhelmed. If you remember, the glory Isaiah glimpsed was so great that in its radiance and purity and power the seraphim themselves veiled their faces before the Thrice-Holy, their jaws dropped, their pure hearts overwhelmed, and cried out: “Holy, Holy, Holy LORD, God of power and might: heaven and earth are full of your glory” (Isa 6). Amen! Holy is he!
And then, if you stop to think that this God became small for us, and clothed his omnipotence in our weakness, and wrapped up his immense glory in our untold shame, and suffered for us on the hard wood of the cross: I admit, I do not see how you can see that and not fall in love with such a God as our God. For though it is true that no one has ever seen God (John 1.18), it is also true – and if I may be so bold, it is even more true – that we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, in the dirty, blood-stained, tortured face of Jesus Christ (John 1.14, 2 Cor 4.6). Glory to him! Glory to Jesus Christ!
Jeremiah 10.6-7: “There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might. Who would not fear you, O King of the nations? For this is your due; for among all the wise ones of the nations and in all there kingdoms, there is none like you.”
The truth is, you are afraid. We’ve all been scared to death since Adam & Eve ripped us out from our only safety: communion with God. Gen 3.10: “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.” If you’re like most of us, your entire life is structured by fear. You fear poverty, so you work hard. You fear failure, so you work even harder. You fear exposure, so you hide the truth of your sin – past and present – from God, from others, even from yourself. You fear being penniless in old age, so you don’t tithe. You fear rejection, so you don’t speak up for the truth even though in your heart you know you should. You fear your dreams won’t come true, so you shrink them to a more reasonable size. You fear your dreams haven’t come true, so you pretend you never had them in the first place. You fear that God’s dreams for you aren’t even close to your dreams for yourself, so deep down, you resent him bitterly. You fear that if you went all-out in discipleship, and followed Jesus no matter what it cost you, you would lose out on something worth having. You fear suffering. You fear persecution. You fear death. All these fears loom over you in their imposing greatness; in comparison to them, you feel weak and small; and so, you obey them. You do what your fears dictate; they enslave you, but it seems a price worth paying to ensure that the illusion of security is prolonged a little longer.
What is the solution to the problem of fear? Not to get rid of it, but to rightly order it. Fear itself isn’t the problem; the problem isn’t that we fear, but what we fear—or better, whom we fear. In short, we fear Man; and because we fear Man, we trip over ourselves to please people even if in so doing we displease God. Freedom from the fear of Man is hard to come by; it involves infinite risks and bitter suffering. But it’s worth it. How do you get hold of it? How do we exchange our timidity for the heart of a lion? Freedom from the fear of Man only comes by daring to ignore your fears and daring instead to fear God alone.
“I tell you friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more they can do. But I warn you whom to fear: fear Him who, after has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I say, fear him!” (Luke 12.4-5). I didn’t make that up; those are the very words of Jesus Christ. But then, what happens if we overrule our fears about what people might say or do to us with a greater fear, a deeper reverence, a total regard, an entire, fierce, jealous obedience to God alone, the God who is great? “Fear not, little flock! For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12.32). You see, “the fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe” (Prov 29.25). For whoever trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ is righteous. He has come back into the safety Adam lost in the Garden. He lives with God in Christ, and Christ lives in him, and because he lives in the Rock of Ages by faith, he is as immovable as the Rock himself. Ps 112.6-8: “The righteous will never be moved … he is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD; his heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.”
Learn to fear God, and you will find strength you never knew you had to give away your possessions to the poor, or to put your hard-earned job on the line for the sake of truth, or to offer up your body into death for the name of Jesus, or to give up your pride by telling the truth about your sin to your wife, or to yourself, or to God. For in the presence of the One who alone is to be feared, you will find that his grace has made you fearless, and free.
To the great God, the fear of Isaac (Gen 31.42), who alone accomplishes this fearlessness in us frail ones by his strong grace, be glory forever. Amen.