God of many names

Easter 4 – 2013, Good Shepherd Sunday

John 10:22-30

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose nature cannot be described by human language and whose name is above every other name. Amen.

I wonder how many different expressions do you use to address God or how many names you know for God? Most of us use the word “Father” – partly out of habit because that is what we were taught as children and because it is the form of address used in the Lord’s prayer which we have used for as long as we can remember. While the expression “Father” is not exclusive to the gospel of John, it is this gospel that firmly established “Father” as a name for, and descriptor of, God. In this gospel, Jesus consistently refers to himself as God’s son and to God as Father.

Father is a useful and relational term, however, the biblical language for God is much more complex. In the OT, God is addressed and described in many and varied ways. In Genesis alone, God is acknowledged as creator and Lord. God is called Elohim, El Shaddai and simply El. When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush and Moses asks whom shall he say sent him, God answers: tell them YHWH (I am who I am) sent you.

In the Psalms we find a rich source of expressions for God. The Psalmist says: God is my fortress and my tower; God is my strong defence, my help and my deliverer. God is named as a judge, a shield and a king and is described as awesome, righteous, gracious and merciful. The Psalmist can call God a rock, a sun and state that God is more majestic than the everlasting mountains.

The prophets likewise draw on a wide range of imagery to name and to describe God. Often they speak in the first person, as if God is actually speaking: “I will bear you up on eagle’s wings”, “I am he who blots out your transgressions”, “as a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you and so on.” God is envisaged as a potter in Jeremiah and Hosea imagines God as a bridegroom – an image that is taken up again in the Book of Revelation.

Sometimes the language used for God reveals the people’s experience of God, sometimes reflects the situation in which the people find themselves and sometimes it is drawn from the environment around them. So for example because God is seen as the protector of Israel, language like tower, refuge and defence are seen as appropriate terms to apply to God. A rock or a mountain, suggest that God is solid and steadfast. An experience of God’s comforting love might lead one to think of God as mother.

One expression for God that is found throughout the Bible is that of shepherd. From Genesis, through the Psalms, the prophets, the gospels and right up to the Book of Revelation, God is described as a shepherd. As a nation of herders, the Israelites would have been all too familiar with the imagery of shepherding. Their well-being and their livelihood would have depended on their flocks being well cared for. They would have known first hand the difference between and good and a bad shepherd. They would have observed the relationships between shepherd and flock and seen the results of good and bad shepherding. Even those people not directly involved in the care of the animals would have noticed that some of the shepherds were more protective of their flock and they would have seen how well those animals responded to being cared for. They would also have seen that carelessness and neglect led to the destruction of the flock at the hands of wild animals and that cruelty led to flocks that were timid and easily startled.

Given their intimate knowledge of animal husbandry, it is not surprising that the image of shepherd was used of God. God embodied everything that was good in a shepherd. God provided for the people, kept them safe from their enemies, knew and responded to their needs and led them where they needed to go. God was their shepherd and they identified themselves as God’s flock (Ps 79:13, 100, 95:7).

It is little wonder then, that Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. The Jesus of John’s gospel, consistently argues that he and the Father are one. If God is the shepherd of the sheep, Jesus is the shepherd of the sheep. If God has promised to send a “shepherd after his own heart”, Jesus is the shepherd whom God has sent. If God is able to protect the flock from harm, Jesus can guarantee that no one will snatch the sheep out of his hand – not in the present nor for all eternity. Unlike the leaders of Israel, who were as varied in their commitment to the flocks as shepherd with their sheep, Jesus’ commitment is total. He is the Good Shepherd who will lay down his life for the sheep. Those who hear and respond to his voice are those who recognise that they belong to his flock. Those who do not respond demonstrate by their behaviour that they do not belong – they self-select to stand outside and to refuse the gift of life that Jesus the shepherd offers.

Shepherd, king, rock, shield, father, mother – ultimately, all our expressions for God are merely human expressions of what we believe God to be, what we experience God to be or what we hope God to be. Even so, as the variety of biblical names indicates, our language is completely inadequate to capture or to begin to describe everything that God is. God is so much more than mere words can express.

In Jesus we have a glimpse into the nature of God. We discover in him a God who gives himself completely to us and gives himself completely for us. All we have to do is to recognise Jesus as God and respond to his voice – and that, after all, is why we are here.

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the human heart conceived,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9)

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