I’ll do this poll again at the end of my sermon,
So first why a sermon on the question, ‘Does God change?’ Well this is the first of four services on the theme of change. In the next two sermons we’ll be thinking about changes in the human situation, such as the change in our lives when someone close to us dies, or when we ourselves fall, what appears to be permanently, ill, or when we lose our job through redundancy or even retirement. I am guessing slightly here because I don’t know what the preachers are going to say. But in this sermon I am asking, ‘Does God change?’ And I want to pose four questions.
Firstly: Does it matter whether God changes? My answer to this question is: yes it does matter whether God changes: hence a special sermon on the subject.
Secondly: Does God experience change? I know that this is not the same question as, ‘Does God change?’ But I think it helps us get a better grip on the bigger question. And my answer to the question, ‘Does God experience change?’ is yes.
Thirdly: Does God change his mind? And my answer to this is yes.
And finally: Does God change in his essential character? And my answer to this is ‘no but’.
So firstly does it matter whether God changes? But before tackling that question we might like to ask ourselves can we answer the question anyway or even what it means?
Talking about this question of whether God changes, or perhaps it was a related issue, to a friend the other day, she pointed out that God says to Isaiah: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than our ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ There are many things about God which are mysterious. All our attempts to describe God and what he is like – such as this sermon - are provisional, almost bound to fail.
Nevertheless we have, not just a desire to know God, but to know what he is like. In a sense the whole of the Bible is the authors’ attempts to explain what God is like – and in Jesus we get to see what God is like - and so I think it is legitimate to ask questions such as, ‘Is God good?’ To which the answer is yes. Or, ‘Does he love us?’ Again: yes. Such questions matter and so does the question, ‘Does he change?’
In our hymns we often sing to God but we also often sing about God. And it will have not escaped your notice that we have just sung the words.
GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS,
O God my Father,
there is no shadow
of turning with thee;
thou changest not,
thy compassions they fail not;
as thou hast been
thou forever wilt be.
I should say I didn’t choose this hymn but I am not quibbling with the choice. But the author - Thomas Chisholm – would surely have been with those of you who put up their hands with the ‘nos’ just now. And I think our natural response to the question, ‘Does God change?’ is no he doesn’t. We might even be able to dredge from our memories some biblical support for our response. Perhaps Hebrews 13: 8 springs to mind: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ Or even Malachi 3: 6 ‘For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.’
The changelessness or immutability of God goes together with other properties of God that we might have heard about and accepted. That he is omnipotent – all powerful, omniscient – all knowing, everlasting – has and will be around forever. As I am sure I have said before I am not at all sure that God is omnipotent or omniscient. (I do think he is everlasting). But I am not going to go into my reasons for my thinking today. Just to say that I think that the notion that God is omnipotent and omniscient comes from Greek philosophers like Plato and not from the Bible.
The idea that God is immutable is also a Greek idea and some Christians I think have taken it far too far. Some have argued that what God is and therefore what he going to do is entirely fixed: there is no way he can be and do otherwise and thus cannot change in any way. That means that it is only humans that can react to God and God cannot react to anything that, for example, humans do. This, in my view, can lead to thinking of God as cold and unfeeling. Even beyond contact.
In the second book of Samuel David says, at one point, ‘The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge’. Now rocks and fortresses are unfeeling and when we sing ‘Faithful one, so unchanging; ageless one, you’re my rock of peace’ or as we will do later ’Safe in the shadow of the Lord, beneath his hand and power, I trust in him, I trust in him, my fortress and my tower’, we might end up thinking that just as a rock doesn’t really care whether we are clinging to it desperately or not, or a fortress doesn’t really care why we are taking refuge in it, so God doesn’t care. Rock, fortress, tower metaphors for God can clearly be taken too far.
The one area where the idea of the immutability of God might be useful is when thinking about God’s faithfulness, as, for example, in the hymn we have just sung beginning ‘Great is thy faithfulness’. And indeed in that verse from Malachi, ‘For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.’ Malachi is reporting God as saying that he will stick to his promises whatever his people do to themselves and to him. We can always rely on God to be faithful to his promises; he is not in any way fickle or capricious. The supreme faithfulness of God means that he is consistent in what he says, can be relied upon always to act in a way that is loving and good. But does that mean he never changes his mind? I’ll come onto that in a moment.
But secondly: Does God experience change? I know that this is not the same question as, ‘Does God change?’ But, as I said, I think it helps us get a better grip on the bigger question. Because if God is affected by what goes on within his creation then there is a sense in which he can be said to be changed by it. And even, in consequence, do things differently than he otherwise would have done.
The question, ‘Does God experience change?’ is related to the question of whether God is unfeeling like a rock or fortress or whether he feels for us – say like a shepherd feels for his sheep, or a father for his son or a mother for her daughter? When I pray I think of God as a person who cares for me, rather than an uncaring rock. But does that mean God feels emotions in caring for us – like we human do. When we fail does he feel sad, when we succeed does he feel glad?
Well I think so, yes. There are hundreds of instances in the Bible where we can see God feeling. Jesus clearly feels emotions. He is angry in the temple, scared at Gethsemane, sad about Jerusalem, happy when Lazarus is raised from the dead. Jesus is also acutely sensitive to other peoples’ needs and feelings though his many encounters with sick, poor, outsiders, c. He also tells parables where God shows delight when – like a shepherd – he finds a lost sheep, or - like a king - feels anger when the guests don’t turn up to the wedding of his son, etc. But the God of the Old Testament also feels anger, pleasure, sadness, happiness. You can think of many instances I am sure.
This all means, I think, that God is sensitive to the situation before him and responds accordingly. If he experienced everything before him as unchanging there would be no occasion to feel happy or sad, pleased or angry. So does he experience change as we do? I said at the beginning of this sermon that this is the first of a series of sermons where we think about change. We are talking about big changes – such as losing someone we love, losing our health, losing our job. Note that all changes in our life seem to involve loss, in some sense or other. Even good, big changes like leaving home, getting married, having a baby involve some loss on our part: the loss of our old way of life with all that meant to us, if only to gain a new way of life. Change goes hand in hand with loss.
The big world changing event in Jesus’ life is – perhaps to state the obvious – the loss of his life at his crucifixion. How does God experience the crucifixion? In line with Greek thinking about omnipotence, immutability, etc. it has commonly been thought that God is impassible, i.e. incapable of suffering. Why people have thought this seems to be because a suffering God seems, somehow, a weak God, too human, too un-godlike. Everyone could see that Jesus the man suffered on the cross but did his father God just not feel a thing? It seems to me that since God has experienced suffering – both in actually dying and seeing the person that most matters to him dying - then he stands by and with us in our suffering. He experiences loss just as we experience loss. He experiences change as we experience change. He suffers with us when we suffer. In this sense he is not at all like a rock. Rocks do not suffer.
Of course it is also important to stress that the reason why God experiences change is because he allows himself to do so. Here those famous verses from Philippians come into play: ‘Though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ God, in order to experience change, self-limits himself.
Some think that it was not only God in Jesus who self-limits himself but also that God created the universe and in particular his favorite creatures - we humans - by an act of self-delimitation. They think that because God is a perfect being no creature could exist except where God was not. Thus creation occurred only when God withdrew in part: a self-emptying preceding the second and corrective self-emptying of Christ's incarnation. And this helps me to make sense of suffering. I think that if you think God is omnipotent, immutable, etc. it is difficult to believe that he could allow horrendous suffering in the shape of the death of his son, but also the Holocaust and all the other cases of horrendous suffering that we can think of.
I also think that a capacity to suffer and in particular to suffer loss is necessary for love. The ancient Greeks recognized this in their mythology. The Gods could only truly love mortals rather than other Gods because where you have immortality you cannot have love. Only with the possibility of the loss of the loved one can there be love.
So in summary I think God experiences change because without doing so he cannot love.
My third question is: Does God change his mind? Or, in other words, does he react to what happens and in particular to what we do? And my answer to this is also yes. Here the two readings that we heard just now are important. In the first Abraham pleads with God to change his mind over destroying the city of Sodom. And God in answer to Abraham’s prayers does change his mind so that he agrees at the end to spare Sodom if ten righteous people can be found within it. There are many similar examples in the Old Testament.
A famous example of God changing his mind can be found in the book of Jonah. When Jonah finally reaches Nineveh after his adventures inside the whale he delivers his message from God to the Ninevehns . ‘Forty more days’, Jonah proclaims, ‘and Nineveh shall be overturned’. But when God sees how the Ninevehns fast and pray he relents and despite Jonah’s protestations spares the city.
The second, Gospel, reading tells a famous story of Jesus changing his mind in response to some persuasive arguments from a gentile woman. Up until this point Jesus seems to see his mission as being just to Israel. After this encounter he changes his mind and sees his mission as being to Jews and Gentiles alike.
There are by some accounts around 40 instances of God repenting – i.e. changing his mind - described in the Bible. In contrast we can find two or three verses which suggest that God does not repent. One of these examples is Numbers 23: 19. Here the prophet Baalam says: ‘God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?’ But note firstly that the word repent in this verse is synonymous with lie. I am sure God doesn’t lie, i.e. say one thing and do another. Second this proclamation of Barlaam’s applies to a particular case and it shouldn’t be taken as a generalisation. Third the contention that in this case God will not change his mind presupposes that he can do so.
But what convinces me most that God can change his mind is petitionary prayer. What point is there in asking God to do things if he has already decided what he is going to do? You might say that by praying we are bringing our minds in line with the mind of God. In all true dialogue people will change their mind in the light of what the other says. I find that when praying I frequently change my mind about what I am asking God to do. But I also think he changes his mind as a result of our conversation. It wouldn’t be a real conversation otherwise.
And finally, my last question was: Does God change in his essential character? And my answer to this is no but.
No because even if God experiences change, reacts to it, even changes his mind, this does not mean that God ever changes in his essential character. And we can say this because of know that God is faithful – more faithful than we can comprehend. Faithful is, I think, a much more useful description of God than unchanging.
The faithfulness of God is something really very important. Because of his faithfulness we know we can rely on God. One of the main messages that Jesus brings to us through the gospels is that God is with us. And we can rely on God to be with us when we need him to be.
But here comes the ‘but’, and it relates to what I was saying at the beginning: God’s ways are not our ways. God is like Aslan in the Narnia stories by C S Lewis. In those stories the characters, even Aslan’s enemies, constantly note that Aslan is a wild lion, not a tame lion. Our God is a wild God, who comes and goes in a way we cannot control. His reliability is such that he does not always do what we want him to do but he does what we need him to do. His faithfulness is a strange sort of faithfulness. His essential nature may be unchanging but not in a way we might assume.
So I’d like to ask that question again: ‘Does God change?’ Can those of you who now think ‘no’ put up your hands? Can those of you who now think ‘yes’ put up your hands? Can those of you who don’t know put up your hands? Can those of you who have changed your answer as a result of this sermon put up your hands?