Monday, August 12, 2013

No Shadow of Turning


Introduction
One of my favorite movies is The Patriot.  Admittedly, it’s not a film for everyone.  The violence of war is graphically depicted.  But the themes of courage, patriotism and redemption make it a very inspiring movie for me.  I usually watch it every year sometime around Independence Day to remind me of the cost of freedom.

The story centers on Benjamin Martin’s experience during the Revolutionary War.  The Mel Gibson character is loosely based on a real American hero, Francis Marion, the so-called “Swamp Fox” who terrorized British troops in South Carolina during the war.  The film opens with Martin’s confession, “I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me, and the cost is more than I can bear.”  He is a widower with six children and a dark past.  How is he to raise his family properly in such an uncertain world?  Martin and his children look to the memory of their deceased wife and mother for moral guidance.  She was called their “North Star.” 

People on a journey, whether it is geographical or a path of life, need a fixed point of reference in order to determine where they are and in what direction they should go.  Celestial navigation has a long history for those who travel by sea or by land.  As a Boy Scout, I was taught to find the North Star at night in order to determine my general bearings.  Ships that traveled the sea developed complex mathematical formulas to determine directions without landmarks by using only the sun and the horizon. 

We need something that is immovable and permanent in order to gauge our progress through life.

But the Scriptures say that even the stars in the heavens are subject to change.  There is only One that remains the same forever. 

Psalm 102:25-27 (Quoted in Hebrews 1:10-12)

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.

Prayer

The Doctrine of the Immutability of God
The attribute of God in which he is known as unchangeable is his immutability.  Unlike some of God’s attributes that we have considered like his holiness or his self-existence, immutability is easier to grasp.  The one constant in our lives is change.  Because of our experience, we can grasp the opposite – that which never changes.  Theologian Wayne Grudem defines God’s immutability in this way:  God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations (Systematic Theology, p. 163).  In the latter part of the definition we observe that God acts and responds as a personality – indeed, all of Scripture reveals God to be personal.  In this message, however, I want to deal only with the first part of the definition:  his unchangeable being, perfections, purposes and promises. 

Scripture is full of declarations that God does not change:

·         His mercy and patience are not exhausted:  “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”  Malachi 3:6
·         God is the eternal source everything good: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17
·         His purposes never change: “The counsel of the Lord stands forever.” Psalm 33:11
·         God’s promises never change:  “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.  Has he said, and will he not do it?  Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? (Numbers 23:19)

Scripture declares the unchangeableness of God, His character demands it, and human reasoning may deduce it.  God is holy and perfect in all his ways.  If God were able to change, then he would have to change in one or any of three ways.  God cannot improve or get better.  If that were possible, then he would not be perfect now.  For God to somehow become less holy and to allow only one small evil intention to enter into his being would be to open the door to unspeakable horrors.  If God could get worse, there would be nothing to stop him from continuing to digress until he became totally evil.  An evil sovereign God is an unthinkable terror.  God cannot become better or worse.  Neither can he somehow “mature” or grow in his person.  Such a God is not the one revealed in the Scriptures. His holy perfection forever rules out any possibility of change.

I know theologians can be stuffy, wordy, and boring.  But occasionally, one will say something we can understand and it clarifies our notions of God:  “All that God is He has always been, and all that He has been and is He will ever be.” (Anselm, (1033-1109) quoted in Knowledge of the Holy, A.W. Tozer, p. 50)  In God, there is no shadow of turning.

Contrasting with the Mormon Doctrine of God
It seems to be the nature of things that there are always counterfeits – people or things that attempt to deceive and replace the valued original.  Ever since the invention of printed money, someone would try and make similar copies in order to gain the value of the original.  Bankers and those dealing directly with currency have been trained to identify the fake by thoroughly learning the qualities of the valued original. 

The same is true in spiritual matters.  It is vitally important that Christians understand what the Bible teaches about the nature of God.  There are plenty of counterfeit religions that masquerade as the church, but indeed are not the church because their understanding of God is radically different from what Scripture and the church has historically taught. 

One of those counterfeit groups is The Church of the Latter Day Saints,” better known as the Mormons.  I’ve seen their missionaries traveling in pairs on the streets of Aberdeen many times.  Mormons are probably some of most moral people you will ever meet.  They have very strong family values.  Their sense of excellence and beauty, most evident in the Temple at Salt Lake City, is of the highest caliber.  They sing many of our most beloved hymns.  Much in their statement of faith, on the surface, sounds evangelical. 

Their similarity in many ways with us is seductive.  But they are counterfeit.  Their doctrine of God is one of many points of departure.   Their founder, Joseph Smith, once declared, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens.” (King Follet Discourse.)  The god of the Mormons is ever changing, ever growing.  He is not perfectly holy because he has not yet arrived at what he will be.  This god is not the God of the Scriptures or of the Hebrew people or the historic Christian church.  I have seen too many Baptists converted to Mormonism because they were seduced by surface goodness and their ignorance of the glorious God of the Bible.  “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  Let us not be deceived because we do not know the truth about God.

The Doctrine of an Unchangeable God is our Rock
Of what value is it to me to know that God never changes?  To know that God never changes is no esoteric tidbit of knowledge that musty old theologians ruminate on in their crowded studies.  No.  The immutability of God is essential understanding.  We are all on a journey of sorts throughout our lives and there are difficulties and dangers around every corner of our adventure.  Like the navigators of old, we must have a fixed, immovable point of reference to keep us safe and on track.  The unchangableness of God is our Rock that does not move.  It is the credit of God’s credibility and the source of our eternal hope. 

We began this message with a few verses from Psalm 102.  Let’s return there and observe how God’s immutability affects a believer’s life: 


Psalm 102 (ESV)  Comments in italics.

Do Not Hide Your Face from Me
A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord.
Do we not all find ourselves, from time to time, in that kind of situation?  It is when we are afflicted when we know whether or not our faith is real.  It is when we are deeply troubled that we need a Rock to stand on - a God who does not change.

Hear my prayer, O Lord;
    let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me
    in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me;
    answer me speedily in the day when I call!
For my days pass away like smoke,
    and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered;
    I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
    my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
    like an owl of the waste places;
I lie awake;
    I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
All the day my enemies taunt me;
    those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread
    and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
My days are like an evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.

I love Jewish spirituality.  It is not afraid of offending God by complaining about their circumstances.  No faking it there.  This is real life and we can learn from our Jewish forebears. Some have suggested, and I believe it may very well be the case that this psalm was written during the exile in Babylon, looking for and longing for God’s promised deliverance and return to prosperity in Jerusalem.

But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever;
    you are remembered throughout all generations.

Virtually every psalm of lament has this kind of language.  The conjunction, “But you, O Lord…” is the onrushing of faith.  “My life is terrible, my life is horrible,….blah, blah, blah…BUT YOU, O LORD.  This is a strong statement of faith in the midst of troubles.


You will arise and have pity on Zion;
    it is the time to favor her;
    the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold her stones dear
    and have pity on her dust.
Nations will fear the name of the Lord,
    and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion;
    he appears in his glory;
he regards the prayer of the destitute
    and does not despise their prayer.
Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
    so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord:
that he looked down from his holy height;
    from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
    to set free those who were doomed to die,
that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord,
    and in Jerusalem his praise,
when peoples gather together,
    and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.

The psalmist makes these statements because his faith in Yahweh is strong.  And his faith is strong because God’s promises are sure.  And God’s promises are sure because God never changes.  Back to the complaint…

He has broken my strength in midcourse;
    he has shortened my days.
“O my God,” I say, “take me not away
    in the midst of my days—
   you whose years endure
    throughout all generations!”

There it is!  The psalmist has faith because he knows the quality of God’s character.

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
    their offspring shall be established before you.

Why?  Because God never changes.

The Distinction Between Creator and Creation is that we do change
We were reminded a few weeks ago that God is God and we are not.  God never changes.  The fact that we can change is not only a distinction between us as creatures and God as Creator, it is also, for us, a wonderful grace.  While God’s immutability is our security, change in our lives is our basis for hope.  Imagine if you could never change.  You would be stuck with your many imperfections at this very moment.  What you have is what you will always have.  What you are is what you will always be.  There would be no hope for tomorrow.  Change, for us, is a grace.  It works for us rather than against us. 

Change is at the heart of the Gospel.  Repentance is required for salvation. It is the action we take to change our behavior to align with God’s purpose and plan.  We are also saved to a changed life.  “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature, old things have passed away, behold, all things have become new” (II Cor. 5:17).  We are in the process of change – of being transformed into the image of Christ.  “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18). Charles Wesley put it this way:

Finish then Thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation, perfectly restored in Thee:
Changed from glory into to glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.

Praise be to God, in whom there is no shadow of turning, who through his everlasting mercy, has given us hope to be transformed through the life that he has given us in Jesus Christ. 

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