This is a sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures it references are Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:21-28.
I wonder… how big is your God?
Is that a strange question? After all, God isn’t made of stuff, as if we could measure or weigh it and come up with a number.
But I think it’s the key question both behind today’s gospel reading, and the reading from Isaiah. Just how big is God, anyway? Is there room for everyone in God’s household, or do we need to work out who’s in, and who’s out?
And that is, I think, the amazing thing about the Canaanite woman Jesus encountered. She believed in a big God; big enough that she knew, even though she was despised in Jewish culture, that even she had a place in relationship to that God. No wonder Jesus told her that “great is your faith!”
But I really want to spend more time this morning looking at how Isaiah deals with the same sorts of issues.
Isaiah – or at least, the part of Isaiah we read this morning – comes from a time when there seems to have been a shift happening in how the ancient Israelites thought about God. In the earlier writings, they seem to have still believed that the gods of the other nations were somehow real. So the Egyptians had their gods, and the Assyrians and so on; and the point of difference for Israel was that they had their own God, and refused to worship any of the others. This is, strictly speaking, not real monotheism; they believed in many gods, but they only worshipped one. (And this is why they had this problem of the worship of other gods creeping back into their society again and again; they still believed those gods were real, and might benefit them in some way).
But by the time this part of Isaiah was being written, there seems to have been growing acceptance of a new and radical idea; there really is only one God. All the other gods are not real; delusions or fantasies or perhaps demonic deceptions, but not other entities who might make competing claims for our loyalty and worship.
The implications took time to work through, but they would challenge many Israelite ideas deeply; partly because now – if there really was only one God, creator of all that exists and sovereign over everything – that was a much bigger God than when they had understood their God to be one of many tribal deities.
After all, if there’s only one God, then that God has to be the God, not just for us and our tribe, but for everybody… and suddenly those who were outside God’s embrace are seen, potentially at least, as insiders, those who might worship alongside us. God gets bigger; God’s household expands, and we need to become more generous with our thinking about who belongs.
And we can see exactly some of that sort of stuff being worked through in today’s reading. Foreigners will join themselves to the Lord; they will hold fast to the covenant, they will be joyful in prayer to Israel’s God, their sacrifices will be accepted, and they will be gathered in.
It’s hard to over state how deeply shocking and confronting this would have been to people hearing it for the first time. All of this is turning upside-down how people thought about their place in the world, in relationship with God. God just got a lot bigger.
I should point out that although Christians would claim a relationship with this big God, we don’t do it on exactly the terms Isaiah puts forth here. He only knows one way to be in relationship with God; to hold fast to the Jewish covenant. And so his vision of what a bigger, more inclusive God might mean includes non-Jews who keep all the covenant laws, the sabbath regulations, and sacrifice at the temple. We don’t do those things, because in Christ we’ve learned that God is big enough to be able to have more than one relationship at once; to keep his relationship with the Jews and also to have a relationship with non-Jews on different terms. You could say that Christ gave us a bigger vision of God again.
But some things are constant. We might not be obliged to keep sabbath, but the fundamental attributes of God which are mirrored in the lives of God’s worshippers belong to us, too. So when Isaiah talks about the need to maintain justice and do what is right, we’re still part of that picture.
We often tend to think about these sorts of terms – justice and righteousness – in fairly forensic terms. But we struggle to translate the Hebrew into English, and in the original they’re much richer than we our translations can easily convey. Take the word for justice; in Hebrew it also means something like “exercising authority for good outcomes.” Justice in this sense isn’t such an abstract thing, but the quality of how we use the power we have – and we all have power, whether we always recognise it or not – to achieve good things.
In a similar way, the word for righteousness, or doing what is right, isn’t just about playing within the rules (however we understand them). It has a sense of relational loyalty and faithfulness; of giving of yourself to the full in your relationships. Your relationship first with God, of course, but also those around you.
So together these two words – justice and righteousness – are about the quality and depth of our relationships, and about how we use what we have to work for good outcomes in our own families and wider society. They’re very rich and warm terms, and it’s worth thinking about how we live them out.
But where is Isaiah going with all of this? He puts in front of his people a vision of a bigger God – not just one God among many, but the only God who exists – and draws out the implication that therefore, that God is for everybody; that God will accept and gather in the foreigners and the outcasts, and integrate them into the people who know, love and worship the one real God.
And the point of all of this is that it points to a future full of hope. If this good God is God for everyone, if even the foreigners – who are generally, in Israel’s experience, brutal, oppressive and depraved – can come to know God, and be bound together in relationships characterised by justice and righteousness, then the ultimate outcome of all of this will be the transformation of the nations. Those powerful external forces which Israel knows as enemies will become partners in worship and service of God, and their national character will also come to reflect what is best about God.
We realise that we won’t know the fulness of that transformation until the end times, when earth will be entirely renewed and all evil removed. But in the meantime, glimpses of that are possible.
And it suggests to us that we should take up Isaiah’s challenge to see that we have a big God; a God big enough that – potentially at least – nobody need be outside relationship with Him. It calls into question all of our categories, all of our tendencies to play games of “us and them,” of insiders and outsiders; of those who belong, and those who do not; and to accept everybody as being – potentially at least – part of this vision of a transformed world.
So that’s Isaiah’s challenge to us today; how big is your God? And does your vision need expanding?