THE TRANSCENDENT GOD

“As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours”.

Isa 55:9 GNB

One of the basic symbols around which much religious thought and sentiment revolves is that of height. Ancient people were afraid of high mountains. No doubt dangerous animals inhabited high mountains, as did birds. There was something eerie about them. And the idea gained ground that “the gods” lived “up there”. Some believed in a “Sky-god”. In the stories about Abraham in Genesis he meets a king, Melkizedek, king of Jerusalem, who is described as the “priest of God Most High”. God and height go together. Anything that is high is thought to be superior to anything that is low. When we say that God is “high over all” or, as in Isaiah 57:15(NIV) he is referred to as “the high and lofty One” we are describing the characteristic of God as “transcendent”. The very idea of God includes this sense of transcendence. He is not only high above the earth, he is vastly superior to human beings in every way. And his ways and thoughts are equally “other” and vastly superior.

Christians incorporate this sense of transcendence in some of their hymns. One is “The Lord Jehovah reigns; his throne is built on high, the garments he assumes are light and majesty” by Isaac Watts. Another is “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes” by Walter Chalmers Smith. Then there is “Praise to the holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise” By John Henry Newman. Worship is acclaiming God in his transcendence, and Christ in his glory.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, help me to worship you in your transcendence.

THE BIG DIFFERENCE

“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord”.

Isa 55:8 NIV

God is different. He is from eternity to eternity – while human beings come to birth on planet earth, scratch and scramble around for seventy or eighty years and then die. Human beings live in space and time. God lives “in temples not made with hands”. He is of an altogether different order. Human beings consume air, water and food. God consumes nothing, but rather he makes and controls the nature out of which these elements come. Humans think – of money, of sex, of food, of problems, power and property. God thinks of relationships, of love that is everlasting, of people’s joys and sorrows, of their hopes and despair, their faith and their loyalty. God rules in sovereignty and splendour, and guides the course of history, commanding his children, saving, redeeming, sacrificing for their salvation. God thinks of his people’s higher good. They grovel around with selfish motives provoking animosity, hatred, enmity. Humans think of how they can acquire things, money and even people. They love to hoard, to outdo each other, to be admired by their fellow human beings, to be served and to exercise power over each other. Sometimes they kill to bring glory to their tribe or nation. God loves people and seeks to provide for their every need, both physical and spiritual. He thinks life, joy, happiness, truth and justice. They think predominantly of themselves, their problems, their successes and their failures.

People need God because he is different and because he lifts them to ever new heights of human achievement and because by the Spirit he breathes into them he gradually makes them more like his Son Jesus Christ.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, help me to understand and think your thoughts.

LAVISH WITH FORGIVENESS

“Come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness”.

Isa 55:7 EHP

How forgiving is God? Does he overlook people’s sins? Or does he punish people for their misdeeds and transgressions? Sometimes in the Old Testament we get a picture of a severe God who demands this, that and the other and who exacts retribution for people’s offences. Then at other times we find language that suggests that he is kind, loving and forgiving, tolerant of people’s human frailties.

In the time of King David a terrible thing happened. He “took a shine” to another man’s wife, Bathsheba, while the man himself was away on military duty. They committed adultery and a child was born. David ordered Bathsheba’s husband to be put in the fiercest line of battle and he was killed. David had committed murder and adultery. Then in Psalm 51 David turned to God and confessed his sin. He said, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Ps 51:1,2 NIV). Such was David’s understanding of God. God both could and would pardon and forgive him. Isaiah, speaking some five hundred years after David, could describe God as “lavish with forgiveness”.

In the New Testament there is no doubt. In Jesus God lived out the forgiveness that was a component part of his grace. To the man on the cross who repented of his sins and asked Jesus for acceptance, he replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV). Jesus was “lavish with forgiveness”. If you have committed sins, seek Christ’s forgiveness and live a renewed, wholesome and Christ-filled life for the rest of your days.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, cleanse, heal and forgive me. In Christ’s name I pray.

GET RIGHT WITH GOD

“Let them turn to the Lord, our God; he is merciful and quick to forgive”.

Isa 55:7 GNB

One of the most creative, beautiful and life-changing events happens when a person who has been disobeying God turns to him in penitence and remorse. Suddenly (usually) God becomes a significant reality in that person’s life after previously being, at the best, marginal. What happens is that the person has previously focussed almost exclusively on himself or herself. By turning to God that person now focusses on him and tries to give him a significant presence and place in their life.

Turning to God involves firstly, admitting, or confessing that you have been in the wrong by ignoring him heretofore. The most common “evil” for the Israelites up till the time of Isaiah was disloyalty to God by going off and worshipping the Canaanite baals (i.e. gods of fertility) and engaging with the sacred prostitutes at the Canaanite shrines. So to revert to God involved turning one’s back on the foreign gods first. Then getting right with God involves expressing regret for one’s past misdeeds and asking God for forgiveness.

Christian disciples often begin in this way. People become aware of their failure to follow Jesus Christ and confess their sins. They ask for pardon from Christ and then accept it. They are then restored to harmony with Jesus and try to reshape their lives according to his commands and his Lordship. They seek to walk with Christ and to grow in grace in the power of the Holy Spirit. They also seek to serve Christ in some meaningful way or ways and to help and love other people, observing spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible reading.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, grant that more people may turn to you.

CHANGE

“Let the wicked leave their way of life and change their way of thinking”.

Isa 55:7 GNB

Dominating the thinking all the way through the Bible is the idea that God is the sovereign Lord and that he is holy. And he demands holiness in his people. The Ten Commandments set the standard of what God expects of his people. Those who do not accept them as their standards of living set themselves up against God. This stance of rebellion against God is sinfulness or wickedness. It is willingly and knowingly chosen on the part of those who adopt this attitude. One person described this way of thinking as “Man in his Godalmightiness”.

People do not have to go this way. They choose to when they reject God. But people have free will. They can also choose to reverse their God-defying way of life. Many parts of the Bible have that very message – “Listen to God. Obey him. Stop sinning. Leave your wicked ways behind and live in harmony with God from this time on”.

When Jesus began his ministry in Galilee he said, “The right time has come, and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mk 1:15 GNB). Jesus himself set his face to oppose and combat evil in the form of sickness and demon possession. He became known as “The friend of sinners”

The best time for wicked people to turn from their sinfulness is now. It is a decision they need to make, however steeped in evil they are. By “repenting” they will find God removes the sense of guilt and shame that they experience in their inner hearts. And they will be able to start anew with him.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, help me to leave any wicked ways I may have behind me.

TURNING TO GOD

“Turn to the Lord and pray to him, now that he is near”.

Isa 55:6 GNB

The truth, of course, is that it is far easier, and far more common for people to turn away from God. Some people grow up schooled in discipleship to Christ from their mother’s knee. Then they drift away, they develop intellectual doubts and difficulties, they get influenced by friends or acquaintances who lure them away from God, and suddenly or slowly they forget all about God.

No doubt the painful experience of being conquered and exiled shook the faith of many of the ancient Israelites. They were in a foreign environment with different cultures, different food, and different languages. That kind of thing can damage your faith and make you feel alienated from God very quickly. But God has a habit of turning up unexpectedly, when you least think he will. And the prophet Isaiah had kept in touch with God. In fact, the exile had stimulated his faith, and his watch on world affairs, with the Persians rising up next door at the prompting of God, fired his imagination and stirred his hope for the future. He knew it was still God’s future and that God was coming to his people. He sensed that God was near and that it was time for his people to turn to God again and to seek their future in him.

There is never a time when it is inappropriate to turn to God. In light and in darkness, in sadness and in despair, in joy and in victory, in defeat and in failure, in disappointment and in confusion, when your faith is low and when it’s confident, turn to Christ. Find in him life, strength, faith and joy. Do it now!

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, I turn to you for light, strength and peace.

HONOUR AND GLORY

“I, the Lord your God, the holy God of Israel, will make all this happen; I will give you honour and glory”.

Isa 55:5 GNB

Some people have an idea of God which, when “unpacked” sounds like they think of God as a kind of lucky charm or jinn whom they can call up at the snap of a finger and who will produce something startling. He is almost a personal possession. But God is no such being. He is bigger, stronger, more awesome, holy, powerful and almighty. God must never be trivialised.

In their catastrophic military defeat and their exile to Babylon the Hebrews learnt more about their God than they had previously known as they laboured along back in Israel. They learnt that he was more than just their guide and keeper. Now he became “the holy one of Israel”. “Holy” meant “of another order, altogether separate” and included the idea of “awesome”, “majestic” and “special”. They had been a ragged defeated, dispirited rabble in Babylon, but now this great and mighty God was promising to make them great as well. He would cause other nations to envy them, and eventually to come and worship him, their God. And he would give them honour and glory. There hadn’t been much for them to glory about. Nor had they enjoyed much honour among the nations.

But God can change things – including the course of history and the status of nations. And the Israelites needed all the boosting up they could get.

When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus, he grants them a dignity they didn’t have before, a sense of self-worth and a claim to glory both here and in the next life.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, thank you for the glory and honour you give me.

AMONG THE NATIONS

“Now you will summon foreign nations; at one time they did not know you, but now they will come running to join you!”

Isa 55:5 GNB

In the modern era nations form themselves into groups in order to support rather than compete with each other. So we have the United Nations, the EU, the AU and groups combining in North America and South East Asia, as well as BRICS. In Biblical times there were occasional alliances between two nations, but generally nations were wary of each other. This attitude of “distance” was greatly promoted by the religious practice of each nation having its own god. The different gods were thought to be in conflict or competition with each other, which flowed over to the nations.

Israel’s unwanted exile to Babylon had several repercussions. One was that it exposed them to Babylonian culture. Another was that they found they could still worship Jehovah-God even in a foreign country. They discovered they lived in a bigger world than the one they had been aware of from their perspective inside Israel. Little by little the idea gained ground that God himself was not confined to the boundaries of Israel. He was the God of ALL the nations. And here God spoke through Isaiah to show them that he was calling them to have a mission to the other nations on his behalf.

When Jesus came this perspective that God was the God of all the earth gained ground. And when the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost he started driving the apostles out beyond the confines of Israel and sent them “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NIV). He still thinks globally and wants his church to do so as well. Do you?

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, help me to think, pray and plan on a global scale.

GOD’S LEADER

“I made (David) a leader and commander of nations, and through him I showed them my power”.

Isa 55:4 GNB

Sometimes the President of the United States is referred to as “the most powerful man on earth”. And power is, of course, one of the most important aspects of human existence on planet earth. Many secular commentators would not make any guess as to how or even whether, God exerts any power in the world of “men and affairs”. But probably the Pope would be regarded as the most powerful religious leader on earth.

David was powerful in his time – 1000 B.C. But he began as a shepherd boy, sent to take supplies to his brothers on the front line in a war against the Philistines. From that lowly task he rose to be king. And by his military prowess he guided the Israelite people to be powerful in their region. The prophets (who were the theologians of their day) made it clear for all to understand that it was God who had raised David and guided him to the position of power he attained. Personal strength he had in abundance – but God guided him and the affairs of the surrounding nations to the point where God used David as an “advert” to the world of God’s own power.

We do well to take heed of this situation in our day. God exercises his power over and above the machinations of the political, financial and military leaders of our world. Christians will believe that the God who raised up David to be a leader among the nations of the world still wields his sovereign power today, even though we cannot always clearly discern where and how he is exercising that dominion.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, guide and control the nations of the world.

THE PROMISE OF BLESSINGS

“I will give you the blessings I promised to David”.

Isa 55:3 GNB

Most nations are proud of their history and have some heroes to whom they can look back with admiration. The Americans look back to the Pilgrim Fathers and to those who framed their constitution. The French revere the revolutionaries who stormed the Bastille in 1789. The Israelites looked back to Abraham and to Moses.

However, there was a much deeper thing with the Israelites. God shaped and guided it all. The call to Abraham came from God. The escape from Egypt under Moses’ leadership was a miracle of God’s doing. They were not just a proud nation working out their place in the world. God was in everything they did. They owed their existence as a nation to him. They attributed their placement at the south-eastern tip of the Mediterranean Sea to his providence. And, whilst David, by his military prowess, lifted their fortunes to their greatest summit under his rule, David himself was given his victories by God. God was the founder, the creator, the guide, the warrior and the shepherd of the nation. Now they were about to be delivered from their humiliating exile – and it was God who was raising up the Persians to do his bidding and to carry out his purpose. And God was renewing the promises and blessings he had previously given to David and was “reinstating” them so to speak for the benefit of the soon-to-be-restored Israelites.

The promises of God are promises that Christian disciples cherish and inherit today. The love he promised to those first disciples in Galilee he still offers to Christians today. And the fellowship into which he called them is still the community into which we enter today.

FOR REFLECTION

Lord, thank you for the renewal of your promises today.