Reflection – Identity and identifying
Good morning, or if you’re watching this on catch up, good afternoon or good evening! I’m recording this, not in Abercynon, but in Swansea, where we arrived on Monday to a local joke: if you can see the Mumbles from Townhill, it’s going to rain; if you can’t see Mumbles from Townhill, it’s already raining! But it’s now Wednesday, and the grey has disappeared; try not to be jealous, but we’ve been walking on the Gower coast, a hike along Rhossili Beach and then back over the downs, not far from where Liz and I were married, and probably our favourite place on earth, whether the sun is out or not. If you are watching this, you can see, just over my shoulder, one of the sunflowers which we picked at Rhossili for Liz’s mum, Shirley. The coast here is part of us – and you may too have special places which are part of you, which helped shape you, and made you who you are.
By way of introduction then, I should explain that our short reflection this morning is going to be on the subject of identity, that of God and of ourselves. – or perhaps both identity and identifying. We’re going to consider a little the nature of God, given to us in the Hebrew and Christian traditions, and ask questions – who knows, perhaps even consider an answer or two – about how we also identify with this.
First though, I want you to prepare for a game of Pointless which we’re going to have in the middle of the reflection. The idea here, for anyone not familiar with the quiz, is to try and think of an obscure answer to the question, but it has to be correct, or you’ll score the maximum 100 points; you’re looking for that all-coveted pointless answer!! Feel free to hit the pause button on film, or take a moment from reading, but here comes the question – I want you to think of any adjective or ‘identities’ which are used to describe God within the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament. If it helps, write down your word. Don’t worry about ‘which translation’ to use – and since there are no prizes, only virtual chocolate this morning from me – I’m hoping that everyone can think of at least one description. There are about 14 correct answers on my list, and any not on my list, I’ll consider ‘Pointless’; though I’ve got a couple of 100-point incorrect answers on my list too.
So, we’re looking for any word used to describe God in the psalms. Go! All done? Good!
We’re now going to hear two of the readings set this morning, but neither from the Psalms! Rather, from Genesis and Matthew’s Gospel, and as you listen, remember our theme – identity and identifying.
Genesis 32: 22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21
Questions of ‘who am I?’ – or ‘who are we?’ or, perhaps – ‘who are you?’ or ‘who are they’? – these questions are probably some of the oldest philosophical problems of the human condition. They are questions of identity which go to the heart of our understanding of society, of relationships, of tribe and family. The ways in which these questions have been answered, over thousands and thousands of years, have shaped our understanding of the world. And as humanity spread around the globe, geographical separation gave way to distinctions of language, of society and culture, and of religion. And yes, as humanity moved away from the hotter climates, geographical separation even resulted in difference in the colour of our skin. Who are we? Who are they? – these questions of identity have become fundamental to our understanding of the world and our place within it.
Just as identity is fundamental to our understanding of each other, for people of faith, identity has always been fundamental also to our understanding of the divine, and our relationship with the divine – and I don’t just mean the Judeo-Christian traditions, but religion in a much wider context.
Think for a moment of the other major religions of the Mediterranean Sea during Biblical times. The Egyptian, Greek and Roman belief systems had many gods who were identified by their character or nature. People understood gods of war, gods of love, gods of the sea or the sky, gods of nature, of harvest, food and drink. The people worshipped very much by their understanding of these characters and might choose their god according to the context of their own life. A sailor or fisherman might worship Neptune or Poseidon, a Roman soldier might worship Mars, whereas a Roman farmer would worship Saturn, the god of agriculture and the harvest.
There might be a tendency to think that these things were not of particular interest to the monotheistic faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to the twelve tribes which were descended from them, but I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the ancient Hebrews were also concerned with the identity and the character of God. In today’s reading from Genesis, we heard a story of Jacob’s struggle with the identity of God – Jacob literally wrestles with an unidentified man who then turns out to have been God. At the end of the story, God gives Jacob a new name – Israel, a name which in the Hebrew sounds like, or has a meaning close to ‘struggles with God’. But when Jacob asks for God’s name in return, God refuses to divulge any more of his name or his character; God basically seems to say ‘you don’t need to know’.
Forward from Genesis to Exodus, and you can read for yourself the story of Moses meeting God in the burning bush – it’s Exodus chapter 3
13 [Moses asks] “When I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ So what can I tell them?”
14 God said, “I am who I am. You must tell them: ‘The one who is called I Am[a] has sent me to you.’
God seems to be playing very hard to get – hard to get in the sense of understanding the nature and character of God, wrapped up in a name, or a clearly defined identity.
It seems that in the earliest parts of the stories of the Old Testament, the single God is asking the Hebrews for faith despite not knowing. This is presented in contrast to the other faiths of that period, but the One God is not here to be defined or limited by name or character, but simply is.
Of course, this did not stop the people using their experiences and their imagination (God given, we would say) to consider what God is like. Those who experienced the divine would quite naturally talk about it, but they would also write stories and poetry about the experience. It’s through the stories, the psalms, and even through prophetic writing, that we glimpse what the ancient Hebrews really thought of the nature of God; of God’s identity through experience.
Let’s consider the psalms for a moment and play our game of Pointless. I asked you to think of a word which by which God is described in the book of Psalms, the ancient Hymn Book. Turn to your answer and as I read out some of the answers which I found on my way to preparing this morning’s reflection, see how many points you’d have scored (by the way, I’d love to say that I asked 100 people, but in truth, I’ve made up the scoring….you can argue with me another time).
The top answer, scoring 80 points is of course Shepherd ….
If you wrote Refuge, or Strength – 45 points
Or you may have written Strength and Shield – 40 points
Rock- 32 points
Protector – 30 points and Salvation or Redeemer also 30 points
King comes next – 28 points
Fortress or ‘mighty’ fortress even, just behind – 27 points
Creator – 15 points
Deliverer as a separate answer to redeemer – 10 points
Provider – also 10 points
Judge is second to last – 5 points for that,
but I’ve got at least one pointless answer: did anyone say ‘avenger’?
You may have also thought of some of the words used in prophesy rather than in Psalm –
if you said ‘Counsellor’ or ‘Prince of Peace’, you get 100 points for an incorrect answer –
these are names which Isaiah used in describing the identity of the Messiah.
I’m using all this by way of illustration, because this has always seemed to me to be one of the contrasts between the Old Testament identity of God and the New. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is essentially mysterious, hidden, unknown, the ‘I am’. These are the only glimpses you get – words of poetry and prophesy. God never reveals identity, and we rely therefore on human reaction – powerful and inspired, but human reaction all the same. But in the Christian Good News, in and through Jesus, God becomes fully known.
It’s in the Gospels that we read of the descriptions given by Jesus himself, the great ‘I am’ sayings – not stopping at that, which is God did with Jacob and Moses, but continuing…. I am the good shepherd (a deliberate echo of the psalmist, almost certainly)….the light…. the way…. (more echoes, of prophesy)….the door…. the true vine….the Resurrection and the Life…. And so, God is revealed, in name and in character to us.
Another identity which Jesus gave himself several times was that of a servant, and we see that demonstrably in stories such as the feeding of the 5000. For me, understanding stories like this is often not so much about miracle, as about what the story says about the nature of God, in and through Jesus. In Matthew, as well as in Mark and Luke, this episode follows immediately after the report that John the Baptist has been killed by Herod; here, the story opens with Jesus hearing of it, and simply wanting to get away from it all, and be alone. But the crowds follow, and rather than being annoyed that he can’t get his peace and quiet, Jesus responds, first with the service of healing, then with the service of food.
The miracle, if you like, is that we get to see how God really is, fully known and fully revealed. And of course, God’s identity is revealed as being all-loving: finally, we have it – we know what God is, and what God is like, and God is love.
I said right at the start, that this reflection is about both identity and identifying, because as well as an understanding of the nature of the divine, Christians are also called to identify with Jesus. For the first disciples, the call to ‘follow me’ was both directional – going with him, and behavioural – being like him. And so too must it be for us today.
As we continue through this most disruptive of years, our identity as people of faith has also been challenged – and the very concept of church is again under the spotlight. Christian identity is defined only by the extent that we continue to follow Jesus. If anything, I’ve been reassured by the way in which the emphasis during this crisis has been on people rather than buildings or institutions. Now, as I was first writing that, it was undermined by a news item about how much Cathedrals are losing because of the lack of tourists, but I think on reflection, that’s a loss to the importance of heritage and history, not to the Church per se. We reflect the nature of God, not by going to church, but by being church. In our tradition too, we try to reflect the nature of God not through the mysterious ‘I am’ of the Old Testament, but through the pattern of service which Jesus has given.
There may be times when we, like Jacob, will wrestle with what it all means. There may also be times when we follow, out into the countryside and end up a little bit hungry, wishing we’d been slightly more prepared. But we know who we are, and who we can be, simply because Jesus has shown us how God is. And that is not at all pointless!
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PRAYER by Margaret Morris
Dear Loving God,
You have made yourself known through all ages, by different names, and in different ways, to all people. We come to you today, thanking you that you have been made known to us, through Jesus, who came to live among us, to show us what you were really like, and to show us, through his life, death and resurrection, that your love is endless and everlasting.
We pray today, for those who are sick and grieving. We pray that your love will surround and uphold them, through the presence of family, friends and the knowledge of your presence with them. Give them peace, we pray.
We pray, in these difficult times, for those who support them, and who support us all, not only in this country, but throughout the world. We pray for your beautiful, sad, grieving world, but we pray not as people without hope. Teach us to look beyond what is happening at the present time, and to see glimpses of light and love in each and every situation.
We ask that you will be with the suffering throughout the world; the hungry, the homeless, those who are persecuted for their beliefs. We pray for those agencies and movements which are trying to bring justice and peace to all your people, our brothers and sisters. Help us to do our part, through prayer and practical help, wherever we are able.
We pray for governments, throughout the world, that you will give them the wisdom and compassion that they need, to deal with each and every situation, at this time.
We pray for your church, worldwide and in this place, that as we try to deal with the present limitations that the pandemic has placed upon us, we will seek your guidance concerning our place and your purpose for us, as your people in the future.
Forgive us, Lord, for the times when we have not shown your love, as we ought. As we go through the coming weeks, give us the strength, patience and courage to deal with whatever may happen in our lives, and in the lives of all those we love.
And we pray, in the words of Charles Wesley;
“Your nature, gracious Lord, impart,
come quickly from above;
write your new name upon our hearts,
Your own great name of Love”
In the name of Him who first loved us, Amen