I thank God I don’t have to thank “God-in-general,” or some alternative deity.
Yes, the God of the Bible is called “God” because, in the view of God’s people, God is not just the God of this territory, or our God, or even the best of the gods, but the only God.
But God has a particular name as well, one he gave to Moses precisely to mark him out from any other divinity in the ancient pantheon of Egypt. “I AM THAT I AM,” God says to Moses from the burning bush. “I am—not what you might think I am, or guess that I am, or hope that I am, or fear that I am—but what I actually am.” And it is this name that the Psalmists encourage us to praise: “Blessed be the name of Yhwh” and “Let Yhwh’s name be magnified.”
I thought of this particular God this past Christmastide partly because it was the end of the fall term during which I had taught a theology class on the doctrine of God. Over and over, I stressed that we must pay attention to what and who this God actually reveals himself to be, rather than project into the sky what we think a Supreme Being ought to be and then do God the favour of attributing “maximal greatness” to him. Human beings have a long career of guessing what the gods must be like, from what we observe in the world, from what we deduce from our ideals, and from what we long for in our hearts. And the history of religion shows that, compared to the way God reveals himself authoritatively in Scripture and in Jesus, the true God is just not the God we expect. And thank God he isn’t!
Canadian composer and performer Steve Bell recently teamed up with Irish poet Malcolm Guite to produce a beautiful album of music focused on the Incarnation, Keening for the Dawn. One song in particular compares the heroic gods of Greece and Rome—those larger-than-life figures playing out an endless soap-opera-cum-palace-intrigue—with the God of Christmas. Zeus is not Yhwh, any more than Baal was, or Amon-Re. Nor is Yhwh an extrapolated version of what our culture tends to recognize as “great” people, the ones on the evening news or in the big conventions or on “Entertainment Tonight.”
The upward striving of the great to be greater, of the rich to get richer, of the already-famous to receive top billing perhaps makes a kind of sense on Olympus, or in Hollywood, or in Washington, D.C. But, thank God, it makes no sense in heaven. When you are the very Maker of Heaven and Earth, and when you can make another cosmos any time you feel like it, the ambitions of the minor gods seem simply silly. Think about it. When you’re actually Number One, needing nothing and no one, to what do you then aspire?
Instead, this truly Supreme Being descends: pours out his riches, in fact, on the world he made, cherishes, and longs to remake into its eventual glory. He empties himself, in fact, of all that prevents him from complete solidarity with his creation so that he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He does not demand from us, in fact: he gives to us. He does not step on our prostrate heads on his way up to glory; he washes our feet on his way down to death.
Thus does Yhwh distinguish himself from the other gods of human imagination, fear, and self-projection. And thus does Yhwh, especially via Jesus, call us to a different way of life. For we have been adopted into the divine family itself, given thereby the status greater than which none can be conceived. For us to strive for something more, when there is nothing more, is simply silly. Who, then, cares about worldly honours and riches?
Well, I do, still. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s true.
Yet I recognize, in my more lucid moments, that I care about them irrationally. For I have been elevated with Christ to the heavenly places and from those places he has sent me back into the world, as he was gladly sent, to fulfill my particular mission in God’s great mission of redemption.
So I do not aim my attention, energy, talents, and scheming on advancement. How do you get beyond the status of “Child of God”? Instead, I therefore ask, if I am not stupid, “What’s my next assignment? When and where?”
I know that once this life is over, I return to home base, I return to the imperial court of the universe, I return to my Father’s blessing and everlasting life. For now, I have been granted the awesome dignity of being given a real job by my heavenly Father, of being asked by God to make a genuine difference, of being issued my particular set of equipment and identity and sustenance and companions in order to accomplish something that actually matters. My status is already supremely high: I am a member of the Royal Family of the Cosmos. My future is supremely secure, glorious, and splendid.
For now, then, I can just get to work, as did Jesus, my Big Brother in that family. I keep my eyes on him, rather than on the strutting, preening “gods” that vie for my attention and adulation and emulation, and I’ll do all right.
So here’s the piece by Steve and Malcolm, “Descent,” that prompted these musings.
They sought to soar into the skies
Those classic gods of high renown
For lofty pride aspires to rise
But you came down
You dropped down from the mountains sheer
Forsook the eagle for the dove
The other gods demanded fear
But you gave love
Where chiseled marble seemed to freeze
Their abstract and perfected form
Compassion brought you to your knees
Your blood was warm
They called for blood in sacrifice
Their victims on an altar bled
When no one else could pay the price
You died instead
They towered above our mortal plain
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,
Aloof from birth and death and pain
But you were born
Born to these burdens, borne by all
Born with us all ‘astride the grave’
Weak, to be with us when we fall
And strong to save