Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 27, 2003

Isaiah 44:1-8 The first and the last

"Listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. This is what the Lord says--he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. One will say, 'I belong to the Lord'; another will be called by the name of Jacob; still another will write on the hand, 'The Lord's', and will take the name Israel.

"This is what the Lord says--Israel's King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let them proclaim it. Let them declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come--yes, let them foretell what will come. Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one."

Revelation 22:7-17 The Alpha and the Omega

"See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, "You must not do that! I am a fellow servant a with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!"

And he said to me, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. "Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy."

"See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.

"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."

The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

Doctrine of the Lord #36 God is human from inmost to outmost

God became human on the outmost level, just as he is in the first principles. God is human, and every angel and spirit is a human being from God. . . . From the beginning, however, God was human in first principles, but not on the outmost level. After he had taken on the humanity in the world, he became human on the outmost level as well. This follows from what I have already demonstrated: that the Lord united his human side to his divine side, and in this way made his humanity divine. This is why the Lord is called the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. (Revelation 22:13)

Is God a distant, unattainable God, or a close, personal God? Is the Lord far above the daily grind of human labor and conflict, or right here with us, facing the struggles of life just as we do? Do we have an abstract Creator, or a flesh-and-blood Savior? In philosophical language, is God transcendent or immanent?

Questions such as these have been debated by theologians and mystics throughout the ages. Yet from the perspective of the Bible and the teachings of our church, there is no need to debate. The simple answer is, "All of the above."

Our reading from the final chapter of Revelation, which is the final book of the Bible, echoes passages in Isaiah, including the one we read this morning: "This is what the Lord says--Israel's King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God." And Jesus, speaking to John in the closing words of the powerful vision he received while in exile on the island of Patmos, affirms that he is that same God: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."

For those of you who haven't studied Greek, Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega is the last letter. Both are vowels, Alpha being equivalent to our letter "A," usually pronounced as it is in the word "father," and Omega having a long "O" sound, as in the word "home."

The Alpha and the Omega are depicted right here in our chancel, above the altar, in an insignia made of the two letters intertwined. This symbol expresses our belief in the Lord God Jesus Christ as the beginning and the end of all things, who is both the high and mighty Creator of the universe, far above all human conception, and our own personal Savior, right here with us every day and every moment.

And yet, it wasn't always that way. For the people of Old Testament times, God was a high and mighty God, the Creator of the universe, but not a close and personal God as Christians experience him. Yes, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and others heard God speaking to them, and even on occasion had the experience of speaking with God face to face. But if we look into the matter further, we find that they were speaking, not directly to God, but rather to the "angel of the Lord's presence" (Isaiah 63:9). For in the Old Testament the Lord plainly states, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). The great figures of the Old Testament knew a God who occasionally filled an angel with his presence, and in this way spoke to them through the angel. In other words, in Old Testament times, God was a high and mighty God, a transcendent God, but not a close, immanent, personal God--except by proxy. It was necessary to have angels, priests, and prophets standing between God and human beings.

With the New Testament, this all changed. With the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, God added time to his eternity, flesh and blood to his infinite divine essence. In Jesus, God became both divine and human, both transcendent and immanent, both distant from us and close to us. Ever since then, there has been no need for intermediaries between us and God--no need for angels, priests, or prophets to stand between us and our Lord, carrying God's messages to us, and interceding for us before God. The Lord is now his own intermediary, and we can be our own priests and prophets. In other words, each one of us can now have a direct, personal relationship with our Lord and our God. And my job as a minister is not to stand between you and God, but to invite you to form your own direct relationship with the Lord God Jesus Christ.

Of course, the nature of the Lord our God is a vast teaching! I could spend the rest of our time here this morning expounding on the intricacies of our church's theology on the nature of God, and of his incarnation as Jesus Christ. And for any of you who would like to delve more deeply into such things, I am always happy to oblige. If there is interest, perhaps our beliefs about the Lord would be a good topic for a small group series, or even a publicly offered workshop.

This morning, though, I would like to offer a few thoughts on what it means that we worship a God who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last--who is both almighty God and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The very first thing to emphasize is that we believe there is only one God. This means God is not three Persons, as in the traditional--but non-Biblical--doctrine of the Trinity. There is no mention of a Trinity or of Persons of God anywhere in the Bible. Everywhere the Bible makes a statement on the issue, it says that God is one. It took fancy theologians to get confused enough to invent the idea of three Persons in one God.

Our belief is that God is just as fully one Person as each of us is one person. Just as each one of us has a soul, a body, and the words and actions that flow from us, so the Lord has a divine soul, called the "Father" in the New Testament; a body, or presence, called the "Son"; and words and actions, called the "Holy Spirit." Using these three names for God doesn't make three persons any more than our having a first, middle, and last name makes us three persons. Whether you call me "Lee," "Mr. Woofenden," or "Reverend," I am still the same person. Those names and others simply emphasize different roles and different parts of my personality. It is the same with the many names for God given in the Bible: each refers to a different role or a different aspect of the one and only God.

For us, this means that our minds and hearts don't have to be torn between different beings and different personalities of God. We don't have to worry about an angry God the Father, and turn to a loving God the Son for protection from that angry Father. We don't have to be fearful of some divine debate among the various personalities of God over whether we are worthy of heaven or deserving of hell. We don't have to feel ourselves at the mercy of conflicting, and possibly hostile, omnipotent beings deciding our eternal fate.

The one God that we believe in is a God of pure love, pure wisdom, and pure compassion. The wrath, condemnation, and destructiveness attributed to God in the Bible is how God looks from our perspective when we have turned our backs on God. And the Bible speaks in those terms to those of us who need to believe in an angry, punishing God in order to have the motivation to change our wrong ways and follow the Lord's way instead. You see, the Lord loves us so much that he will even allow us to have a misconception about his true nature if that misconception will do a better job of getting us to repent and turn to him.

David expressed the same thought this way in Psalm 18:25-27 (and in 2 Samuel 22:26-28):

With the loyal you show yourself loyal;
     With the blameless you show yourself blameless;
With the pure you show yourself pure;
     And with the crooked you show yourself perverse.
For you deliver a humble people,
     But the haughty eyes you bring down.

I recall very vividly a conversation I once had with a conservative Christian pastor. When the subject turned to my belief in a God of pure love, and I mentioned our church's view that God is never angry, but the "wrath of God" is simply what God's love looks like to us when we are opposed to God, I found myself on the receiving end of this pastor's anger! She told me in no uncertain terms that she could never believe in a God who is not angry with the wicked for all the terrible things they do to innocent people.

Seeing that I would make no progress on that particular subject, I beat a hasty retreat! But inwardly I was thinking: This is why the Bible speaks of God's anger--some people just have to believe in it! And God loves us so much that he will allow us to believe even things that are not true if it will help us to feel God's presence more strongly in our lives.

However, for those of us who have accepted a God of pure love, wisdom, and compassion, there is no need to be fearful of an angry, vengeful, and punishing God. If, as the Bible says, God is one, and God is love, then the one God loves each one of us with a total and eternal love that can never change, no matter how badly we stray from the paths of the Lord. Whether we are an enlightened spiritual leader or the worst criminal offender, God's love for us is constant. There is nothing we can do to make God stop loving us. In the Lord's own words, "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).

So the Lord is also Alpha and Omega in this way: he is with us in our best times and in our worst, when we are walking in his paths and when we are straying far from them. As the Psalmist says, "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there" (Psalm 139:8).

This is a very comforting teaching. Sometimes we may find ourselves with not a friend in the world--or at least, feeling that we have no friends. We may find ourselves in conflict with our family, our friends, our coworkers, and even the whole world. We may think that we are all alone. But we are not. The Lord is always with us, following each of our thoughts and feelings, helping and leading and guiding us, loving us with an intense and compassionate love that goes beyond anything we can ever conceive of. The only thing missing is our awareness and acceptance of the Lord's presence with us and love for us. And if we can then draw on our faith, and realize that we are the Lord's beloved, our burdens will be lifted off our shoulders, and we will know the inner peace of the Lord.

Of course, sometimes we may not want to believe that the Lord is with us, following each of our thoughts and feelings. Because let's be honest: some of our thoughts and feelings are not the sort of thing that we would want anyone to know about! Sometimes we have jealous, angry, and hateful feelings towards others and even towards ourselves. Sometimes our minds are full of foolish ideas, black thinking, and sordid thoughts that we would be embarrassed to have anyone else know about.

But consider this. The Lord knows about every one of these thoughts and feelings in us, and still loves us! Whether we want to believe it or not. The Lord is fully aware of even our most deeply guarded secrets and our most shameful and embarrassing thoughts--yet still feels nothing but love and compassion for us. There is nothing we can feel, think, or do that will make the Lord stop loving us! And when we realize this, we can lay down all those inner burdens at the Lord's feet and accept his salvation, which liberates us from our slavery to all our inner demons. The Lord Jesus Christ willingly accepts our confessions and our prayers, invites us to lay everything out before him, and to receive from him the peace and the joy of knowing that he is with us through our best and our worst, loves us tenderly, and is willing to bear our burdens of darkness and pain in order to lift us out of them.

The Lord God Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. This is the God we love and worship. This is the Lord our God, who has the power to save us from all our darkness and sin, and lead us into eternal life. Amen.

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Artwork: ©Greg Olson
Lost and Found
Used with Permission

Music: In the Garden
© 2003 Bruce De Boer
Used with Permission


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