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THE ULTIMATE AND THE INTIMATE

THE ULTIMATE AND THE INTIMATE

by Ted Schroder

The Bible assumes the existence of God: "In the beginning God created." (Genesis 1:1) "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (John 1:1-3) So when the Ten Commandments are given to Moses, God does not defend his own existence, but raises the issue of his identity: "Who do you think I am? What do you mean when you think of me? For what you think of me is foundational to everything else."

The first commandment lays out the way God wants us to think about him. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of Slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." (Exodus 20:1-3)

He addresses his people as the one who has not only created them, but also saved them from slavery. He is the Maker and the Redeemer, the Creator and the Savior. He doubly owns them by virtue of his original creation and his subsequent redemption of them. They are to have no other God except him. They owe everything to God. God is their source of life and salvation.

God goes before everything else. God is prior to all things. God is to be pre-eminent in all things. All life follows God. God is the leader, we are the followers. That is the order of creation and salvation. To attempt to reverse that order is to fly in the face of reality, and to go against the grain of the universe.

This claim on his people is carried over to the New Testament. "For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live." (1 Corinthians 8:6)

We exist in order to serve God ("for whom we live") - that is the reason for our existence. Our destiny is to be found in God. Without God our lives cannot be fulfilled as they were intended. Christ is the agent of creation and redemption ("through whom all things came and through whom we live"). We find our human and divine life through Christ. We come into being through Christ. Jesus Christ is the divine agent in whose life and actions God is to be seen. "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father... it is the Father living in me, who is doing his work." (John 14:9,10)

The God whom we are called to serve, our creator and redeemer, our maker and savior, is to be seen in Jesus Christ. We are to have no other gods before him. He is our rescuer. He brings us physical life, and spiritual life. He shows himself to us in his creation and in his mighty acts in history, especially and fully in the acts of Jesus Christ, in his cross and resurrection. He suffered and died for us to ransom us from the slavery of sin to eternal life, which we grasp and appropriate by faith in him. We are to follow him.

He is the ultimate power in the universe, far above all other powers. He is also the most intimate expression of love in relationship. God is Almighty and All-Personal Love. We are to have no other gods before him. He is both our Lord and our Lover. He is both our Judge, the fount of all that is just, and our Bridegroom, the source of all that is desirable.

Why would we want to have other gods before the Ultimate and the Intimate? Because we want to take his place. We want to lead. We don't want to follow. The essence of sin is that we want to be like God (Genesis 3:5), we want to replace God. We want our own way. We want freedom to do what we want to do. We want individual autonomy. We don't want to be told what to do. We don't want to serve someone greater than us. We don't want to be beholden to someone to whom we are indebted for life and liberty. We want to believe in ourselves. We want to help ourselves. We want to love ourselves.

"We live in an age whose chief moral value has been determined by overwhelming consensus, to be the absolute liberty of personal volition, the power of each of us to choose what he or she believes, wants, needs, or must possess." (David Bentley Hart, I Am The Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, ed. Carl E. Braaten & Christopher R. Seitz, p.55)

The god our culture worships is freedom of choice. By that I do not mean freedom to choose goods or products, or freedom to choose our words (freedom of expression), or to choose our friends (freedom of association). By it I mean freedom to choose between my will and God's revealed will, freedom from any restraint except that moral standard I choose to adopt, that value which I choose to uphold, that fashion of religion I choose to wear. It is the god of the boutique where we choose what suits us, and discard whatever is inconvenient. "The triviality of this sort of devotion, its want of dogma or discipline, its tendency to find its divinities not in glades and grottoes but in gift shops make it obvious that this is no reversion to pre-Christian polytheism. It is, rather, a thoroughly modern religion, whose burlesque gods command neither reverence, nor dread, nor love, nor belief; they are no more than the masks worn by that same spontaneity of will that is the one unrivaled demiurge who rules this age, and alone bids its spirits come and go." (Hart, p.57)

How have we come to this pass? The Ultimate and Intimate God underpins all that is good. God is the final arbiter of Beauty, Truth, Morality, Goodness and Justice. These were considered absolutes because they were guaranteed by God. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) rejected God. He said that God is dead. All that God stood for, and therefore all claims to an absolute standard of beauty, truth, goodness and evil were rejected as well. All the underpinnings for the ideas of morality and belief collapsed. He killed God as leader. He criticized Christian morality as 'herd morality'. He saw Christians and Christian doctrines as pathetic and weak. He rejected compassion. He dismissed the need for forgiveness. He called for the creation of the superman who is brave enough to live without God; who is able to create his own values based on pride, strength and self-will. The strong man has to recognize that he must be his own god, he must make his own decision on what is good and evil, what is right and wrong. These became relative terms, which each person could define for himself. "Your opinion is as good as anyone else's. What is true for you may not be true for me."

This leads to a suspension of judgment and discernment. Tolerance and respect for the opinions of others become the new gods of Western society. All views, all moralities are to be respected. Therefore there is no basis for judgment or criticism of evil belief or behavior. There is a reluctance to condemn the behavior and belief of anyone. When god is dead everything is permitted!

This line of thinking has permeated our culture, our educational system, and our spirituality. While we may believe in God we are more likely to act on what our culture has taught us. We are indoctrinated with this way of thinking. We are marinated in this philosophical sauce. We act on what we think is best for us. We treat our environment as there to serve us. We are a consumer society. We can treat our religion as a consumer commodity. It is there to satisfy our needs. Our church is just one item in our boutique religion. We add to it what we find fashionable and attractive elsewhere. We are impulse shoppers. We acquire what we need when we see it available.

Our morality is based upon what works for us. Our goals in life are about what serves our needs. Our financial decisions are calibrated to protect our lifestyle choices. Our political inclinations are influenced by what government can do for us or what it can allow us to do for ourselves.

Yet God calls us to have no other gods before himself. We cannot worship both ourselves and the Ultimate and the Intimate. We cannot even know ourselves without serving the Ultimate and the Intimate God. There cannot be a rival to the Ultimate and the Intimate God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. When there are two claimants to leadership in the universe there is disharmony and conflict. There can be no peace.

The rival 'self' must go. The self must not get in front of God. The proper place for the self is behind God. Our self cannot be before God. We are called to follow God, to follow Christ, not to expect God to follow us and our whims, and our slavery to our autonomy, our ridiculous claims to know what is the ultimate, and the intimate in our lives, to know by ourselves what is just, and good, and true, and lovely. We do not have knowledge of good and evil without God leading us. Jesus said that "if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Matthew 16:24) We must deny this self-centeredness, this sense of self-importance, this self-aggrandisement, this arrogance of choosing what I want instead of what God wants for me, and instead take up the cross of sacrifice of our ego, and follow God revealed in Christ. The "I" must be crossed out before love and justice can flow, before the Ultimate and the Intimate can be our God. We must not get in front, but be humble enough to follow. "You shall have no other gods before me."

Are we willing to let God lead us? Are we willing to follow? Are we willing to deny the rival to God - our self? Are we willing to submit our choices to his scrutiny and judgment? Are we willing to trust in the Ultimate and the Intimate God? Are we willing to let him trump the culture? Are we willing to forsake the boutiques where we have been buying our wares on credit, and worship at the source from which all things come.

"Who do you think I am? Who do you think you are?" Janet Martin Soskice writes, "Knowing who God is for oneself means that you are on a path of discovering who you are and who other people are which is always in a sense leading you deeper and deeper into mystery. This is not because you're continually more and more baffled, but because you're aware of an ever-greater plenitude of being which is beyond your conceiving. You are led deeper and deeper into this, but what matters is not your comprehensive understanding, but the fact that you are a follower.

"There's a beautiful expression of this at the end of Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses, a book in which the law-giver is held up as the template of the ideal Christian life. That's wonderful: Moses wasn't even a Christian. But Moses is a follower of God, a man who spoke to God, whom God loved above all others. He's a follower and a leader - a leader because he is a follower. Towards the end of the book Gregory is musing about Moses' request to see God's face. God denies this request and says, I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by, then [rather rudely] I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back parts (Exodus 33:21-3). Gregory thinks it's a pity that even so great a friend of God as Moses was not allowed to see God's face, but then observes that, after all, our Lord did not say, 'If anyone wants to be my disciple let him go ahead of me,' but rather, 'If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him follow me,' and when you see someone's back you know that you are following them." (God's Advocates, Rupert Shortt, p.35)

You know who God is when you follow him, when you follow Jesus.

An audio version of this presentation may be found on www.ameliachapel.com.

Amelia Plantation Chapel
Amelia Island, Florida

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