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     Sermons | Passionate worship

    This sermon was preached by Philip Melton at Swift Presbyterian Church.
    He completed the Christian leadership program offered by Dubuque Theological Seminary.

    June 16, 2019 | Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day

    The Nature of God
    Acts 15:1–11

     L ET ME ASK YOU a question:

    Is there anybody here this morning that enjoys studying physics? You know, just for fun.

    Well, it’s not that I study physics exactly, but I do like to dabble in different understandings of the universe and today I want to tell you about a magic number that is found in the study of atomic structure, called the “fine-structure constant.”

    You see, hydrogen atoms emit light at specific energy levels. And these energies are determined by this magic number — which, to my understanding, is what holds electrons in place around the nucleus of an atom.

    This mysterious number just appears over and over again in the atomic calculations — calculations of the most fundamental physics of our universe. Yet, it is something that we don’t know where it comes from.

    Our atmosphere, the air that we breathe … even our shoelaces have an atomic number that includes this mysterious number. And this is a mathematical constant that would be recognized anywhere in the universe. For this reason, physicists refer to this as “God’s number” or the “God-given number.”

    And the significance of this number, simply put, is that it is the energy that keeps atoms together — the energy that keeps atoms from just exploding. And we have all seen the extremely destructive results of an exploding atom. And the fine-structure constant is the “cut-off” point for the energy that just keeps everything in the universe from going up in flames. Where does this magical number come from? Well … only God knows.

     † † † 

    AS I READ about this magical number, I cannot help but to see the very nature of God — and the certainty of his creation. As humans come to understand better the forces that hold the universe together, we see God in a new way — through science. We see the character of our good and merciful God, who creates with such amazing complexity — providing for our very existence. And our understanding of that complexity has only scratched on the surface.

    In ancient biblical times, as the Hebrew people experienced the different natures of God, they would use a new name for God that reflected their new understanding of God’s nature.

     † † † 

    IN THE CHURCH TODAY, we celebrate Trinity Sunday, where we embrace the mystery of our faith in the triune God. And, like the ancient Hebrew people, we do something similar as we use different names for God that help us, as humans, to understand a specific nature of God. We call God … Father, Son, and Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Three-in-One, One-in-Three…. We say God is Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent … the three O’s as I like to call them. And those three O’s simply refer to the nature of God as being all powerful, omnipotent and all knowing, omniscient — and everywhere, omnipresent.

    Which takes us back to today’s greeting of “Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” the reminder that God is present or omnipresent with us in worship today. And just a quick reminder: God is present in your lives when you walk out of the doors in the back of the church as well. God’s everywhere. Right — omnipresent!

    There are so many additional names that we use to know God’s nature and refer to God. During the seasons of Advent and Christmas, for example, we call God the Christ child, which fosters an image of the baby in a manger … or Emanuel, which demonstrates the nature of God as being God with us. The Messiah.

     † † † 

    DURING THE SEASON of Easter, we say the crucified Lord. That comes with the image of a fragile, broken body hanging on a cross. We know Jesus as Resurrected, Risen, Ascended, Fully Human, Fully God, Prophet, Teacher, Redeemer, Judge and by so many more names, all of which create for us an image of God made Man, The Son of God, The Son of Man.

    Last week was Pentecost, when we embraced the nature of God in the image of flames. We received the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost, Paraclete, the Breath of God. This nature of God bears witness to our God who sustains us — until Jesus comes again.

    In the Apostles’ Creed that we recite as an affirmation of our faith in God, when we say that we believe in “God the Father Almighty” and by “Almighty,” what we are saying is that God is omnipotent, all powerful and there are no other gods … the nature of God is Almighty.

     † † † 

    BUT THE BIBLE refers to God as a mother as well, so it must be all right to say: “God … She is good.

    Right from the get-go in the Bible, Genesis 1:27 says:“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

    Bam! It’s right there after “In the beginning….” The image of God is both male and female.

    The prophet Hosea uses a female image of God in his prophesies, saying, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.” This particular scripture makes me think about the nature of God as being like my mother, who taught me to walk and cared for me as a child.

    Deuteronomy 32:18 chastises the Hebrew people, saying:

    “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.”

    When I was a kid, before football games, our coach would play records with inspirational speeches from famous coaches to get us pumped up before we played the game. And one of those inspirational speeches — I believe it may have been Knute Rockne speaking; I’m not sure — he told the story of a football player who went out and played the game of his life the day after his mother’s death. The coach said something that I will never forget; he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave us all a mother.” To a kid, that statement was profound. This is the sentiment that I believe the writer of the Deuteronomy scripture that I just read was getting at when he told the Hebrew people that God “so” loved you that he gave birth to you.

    God our Mother is, then, a valid representation of our understanding of God’s nature.

     † † † 

    ANOTHER WAY we know God is “I Am” because that is what God told Moses to tell the people at the base of Mount Sinai. Exodus 3:13–14 read:

    13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”

    He said further: “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

    Some theologians contend “I Am” is the ultimate name of God. And this is truly a name for God where the other names speak of the nature of God.

    Another name that we know God by is Abba, a word that means daddy, like a child would say “daddy.” After the sermon, we will sing “Abba, Father,” the Cursillo version. It is one of my favorite songs.

    Other names in the Hebrew Bible: Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, El-Elyon, and El Shaddai — another one of my favorite songs that we will hear today.

    How about these names? See if any ring a bell with you: Almighty, Ancient of Days, Anointed One, Bread of Life, Beginning, Chosen One, Creator, Deliverer, Everlasting God, Eternal Spirit, Father, Fortress, Friend, Gift, Great Shepherd, Holy Spirit. I could go on and on, because one resource that I studied had 219 different names for God — names that are found in the English translation of the Bible, that is. And as I said, all these words describe a different understanding of the nature of God. This is a list that I believe would make for a very good Bible study, by the way!

     † † † 

    A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, Jody Beth preached about “Stepping Over the Threshold” of faith, based on the scripture from Acts 11 where Peter recounts his vision from heaven — of the sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of animals on it. He was told to kill and eat but he refused because the animals were unclean and God told him not to call what he created unclean.

    In that scripture, we were shown a new nature of God — a nature that was being revealed to the Apostles who were largely Jewish. No longer was God the God of only the Jews, which was something that the Jewish people of the first century were wrestling with, like thay are in today’s scripture reading. But the revelation was that God created everyone and everything and loved them as his people … as his creation. What’s interesting — and not too surprising — in the Acts 11 scripture was the way the other Apostles criticize Peter for having spent time with gentiles and eating with them.

    What it boiled down to, though, was their Jewish understanding of the nature of God. They thought that they alone were God’s chosen people and they should adhere closely to the law which defined for them what was clean and what was unclean. In the first century, the Jewish people — in particular the Pharisees — would have studied the Leviticus scriptures where the Hebrew word translated as “unclean” appears nearly 100 times. Animals, objects, food, clothing and even people could be considered unclean.

    Generally, the Mosaic Law spoke of something as “unclean” if it was unfit to use in the worship of God. Being clean or unclean was a ceremonial designation governing the ritual of corporate worship. And they were indignant with Peter for becoming ceremonially unclean by eating with Gentiles.

    Pigs were considered unclean and therefore not to be used as sacrifices. Touching a dead body would make a living person temporarily unclean and unable to participate in worship. They would have to go through a cleansing ritual to be considered clean again.

    Leviticus taught them that there was a parallel between the holy and the common — between clean and unclean. And this parallel between holy and clean revealed that the command to be clean, to a Jew, was related to their spiritual condition. And they were appalled that Peter would render himself unclean — that he would put his spiritual condition at risk — by even walking into the household of a Gentile, even though they were believers.

    Peter defended his action as a new command from God … a whole new understanding of God’s nature.

     † † † 

    AND AGAIN in today’s scripture, Peter continues to defend this understanding, saying:

    “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.”

    That was from the Acts 11 vision.

    He told the council:

    8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

    Peter confirms a new understanding of the nature of God. A new insight that was radical, to say the least. But so was the life and the ministry of Jesus that they had just witnessed. And now they were called to embrace this new knowledge of God.

    Emanuel, “God with us,” then was not to be understood as God with the Jews. But God with everyone because everything was made by God … everyone was made by God. And for that reason alone, all were to be called holy. Gentiles were not sacrilegious — no, they were God’s people as well and were not to be called unclean. And unless any of you here today are Jewish, everyone in this church is a gentile. We are not unclean.

    And this was mind-blowing stuff (boom!) that represented a new understanding of the nature of God. A new understanding that came with a new name: Christ. A name that embodied the revelation of God’s love for all mankind. That God wanted all to come to Christ so that all might be saved — every single person, and not just those who were living in Jerusalem at the time — but everyone who ever existed from “in the beginning” until the “End Time … Judgment Day.”

    And this radical new understanding of God’s nature is where every Christian hangs their hat today, so when we use names for God like Great Shepherd, High Priest, Horn of Salvation, King of Kings, Lamb of God, Light of the World, we are talking about our God — yours and mine — who came so that we might all have eternal life … that we might all have salvation.

     † † † 

    ONE OF THE SCRIPTURES from John’s Revelation that is one of my favorites is the scripture that tells us some more about the nature of God.

    “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

    Our God is the one who is beyond language, beyond time, who will live beyond all of our human measurements. We connect God’s name to the relationship God shares with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — the ancestors of our past. God, in this scripture, then declares this is his name forever, right now, in the present and always, and then finally promises to be that same God for all generations as time marches on — past, present and future.

    In John’s Revelation, we are offered grace and peace from Him who is and was and who always will be. Why? Because God is completely constant. God never changes and will be with us no matter what is happening in our lives. He will be with our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and on and on he will be their God to treasure as well! This is the nature of God!

     † † † 

    FRIENDS, OUR GOD is the beginning and the end. Our God is the God of the entire universe — the God of stars that are over a thousand times bigger than our sun and a million times brighter — and is the God of tiny little energy fields that are so constant that they keep atoms from exploding, thus keeping all of His creation in order.

    Brothers and sisters, from the very beginning of Christianity we receive an understanding of the nature of God, who “so loved the world” that he would become a part of the world.

    Last week we celebrated Pentecost and the birth of the church — the Christian church. With the birth of the church at Pentecost, our new understanding of God comes with a new name for God: Jesus Christ. A name so powerful and life-giving that we pray all prayers in that name. So as we close worship today, my friends, in the name of Jesus Christ we pray — this day and every day. Amen.

    — Philip Melton   

    SCRIPTURE FOR THE DAY

    Acts 15:1–11
    Holy Bible, New International Version


    The council at Jerusalem
    15 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

    5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”

    6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

    — The Word of God for the people of God.
    — Thanks be to God.


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