What is about religion and comedy outfits? Seen the Pope's hat? The Arch Bishop of Canterbury's hat; comedy beards; men in gowns… at the most insignificant level all religions a bit ridiculous!
Our question this morning is 'are all religions the same?' and we're looking at this because a lot of people in our world believe, or assume, that they are. And that somehow that means that they don't need to take the claims of Christianity seriously.
Maybe you've come across conversation stoppers like this: 'you religious types are all the same – always trying to convert people to your point of view, but it's all nonsense' (what do you say to that?) or 'if your religion gives you a sense of belonging or a moral compass well that's nice for you, but don't try and push it on me, I've got my own beliefs' or 'in the end all religions boil down to a moral code, it's just a matter of picking one that suits you' or even 'I'm not really religious, but I take a bit from all religions, after all in the end they're all just different ways to the same thing'.
Or maybe you're not a Christian this morning and that's where you're coming from – a little bit of religion can't do any harm and it's nice to come to church and it seems to help a bit so why not? And it doesn't really matter if it's a Christian church or a Mormon tabernacle or a Hindu temple or a pagan shrine or any other sort of religious building, they're all more or less the same in the end.
(many ways to answer this question – tried a very different type of answer in a sermon from Nov 2011, can find it on the website…)
There are many ways to answer this question). Perhaps the most popular is to point to grace – in religion we do what we can to please God in some way or another, but in Christianity we admit that we can never do enough to please God and rely instead on God's grace – forgiveness through what Jesus has done for us. That's true and I think a very good answer, in fact I used it myself in a sermon on this topic in 2009 – you can probably find that on the website if you want to see how it plays out. At the level of how religion affects us, or works on us, grace is the key difference between Christianity and all other religions. And that is a massive difference.
But there is another answer that is often given in the Bible that is even more fundamental – an answer that looks not just at how a religion affects us, but at the level of reality. It's an answer that I have to admit we're reluctant to give an airing. Yet the Bible comes back to it again and again and again. So this morning I'm going to give you another answer, an even more fundamental answer, the Bible's first answer.
Are all religions the same? The Bible is emphatic that they are not – they are emphatically different at the most fundamental level – at the level of reality: the God of the Bible is real, and all other gods are imaginary. That's not my answer, I'm much too timid to come up with that – that's what the bible says.
Now I realise that if you're a believer in another religion you might be a bit upset by that. More likely in our society people who are not religious at all will be upset on your behalf. That's quite likely why we don't often go here first – we don't like upsetting people.
But this is too important a topic to censor ourselves, and the Bible is very clear on this point. In fact the Bible says that God is actually quite precious about it. So that's what we're going to look at this morning.
So are all religions the same - Bible says almost yes, almost all religions are the same – false; but one religion is real. The Bible was written in a context that was just as diverse religiously as we are, with much harsher penalties for making claims like this. But still it is repeated again and again – there are many who claim to be gods, but only one creator God, only one God who is real, who speaks and acts.
So this morning want to focus your attention on the argument of the scriptures, we'll be working from that OT passage in Isaiah 45, so you might like to turn to that now – page 514.
And the first element of the Bibles answer is this:
The LORD says that he alone is God
see it in Isaiah 45 reading…
18 For this is what the LORD says--he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited--he says: "I am the LORD, and there is no other.
… 20 "Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.
... Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me.
Do you see it there? 'I am the LORD and there is no other', 'there is no God apart from me… there is none but me'. Couldn't be much more straight forward could it?
So what about other gods – the gods of the nations? Those gods are dismissed as mere idols that can't save (and that because they are not real gods at all, just fancy pieces of wood); to worship them is ignorance because they are no real gods at all. This LORD, Yahweh, declares 'there is no God apart from me – a glorious God and a saviour – and there is none but me'.
That's pretty black and white isn't it? The claim is made in the clearest possible terms. And it's not just these verses – this argument actually begins back in chapter 40, and it has been repeated and worked over for what, a good 6 pages so far, and it continues at least until chapter 50, you might say it goes right on through to the end of the book in chapter 66.
And it's not just Isaiah; you can see this argument running right throughout the OT. Throughout the whole OT, as God's people live among the nations with all their many gods, the constant claim is that they alone know God, the true God.
And we need to be clear at this point - the claim of the Bible is not that the Israelites thought they had a monopoly on the truth. The claim of the Bible is not that the Israelites - or the early Christians for that matter - discovered the truth. No the claim of the Bible is that this is what God himself says. The bible doesn't claim to be a record of people's thoughts about God, but a record of what God said about himself.
Have a look at verse 18 again: this is all in the first person, it's introduced to us 'this is what the LORD says… I am God, I am God and there is none beside me'.
This LORD is the God who introduces himself to his people, makes himself known. Are you still looking at the passage? Do you see that the word LORD there is all in capital letters? That's telling us that LORD is not just a general word that means deity – Lord as in ruler, my Lord, God – 'Lord' there is a gloss, a translator's way of avoiding translating something that's a bit tricky. If you look in the preface you'll see that in the NIV when they write LORD in all capitals it's to show that the word in the original is not LORD. In the original it says 'Yahweh' – that is God's personal name. In older versions it was often written as 'Jehovah'. The point for us is that this God who is speaking is not just any god, not a vague force, or a spirit – this God has introduced himself, made himself known, declared his own name – Yahweh. This God who has made himself known personally declares himself the one true and living God, the active God, the God who is really there.
The Bible claims to be communication from our creator to us. And our creator – Yahweh – is precious at this point – he wants the credit for creating us and for sustaining us. He wants to be known as God because that is what he is. And he's actually more than a little put out by all the other claims to be gods – he says in no uncertain terms – no, I am God, the rest are imitators, or more actually inventions (that's why he's put out – other religions are invented ways of denying him the glory for what he has done for us!).
I think this is quite an important point for us to grasp in answering the question of other religions. It's important because it gets to the heart of the objection. See when we say that all religions are the same we smuggle in a pretty important assumption – the assumption that they're all false.
Let me see if I can explain it like this – let's imagine for a moment that all religions were equally real, equally true. How can the many religions be reconciled together: could there be an actual real God who stood behind all the different religions – so that they are just so many different ways to the same God?
Could there possibly be such a god - no there couldn't. If you stop and look at the various religions in any sort of detail it's impossible to reconcile them – could the God of the Bible who hates child sacrifice, for example, be the same God as the god's who demand child sacrifice? Could the god who commands widows be burnt alive on their husband's funeral pyre be the same God who says you shall not kill? Would the same God require directly contradictory things, mutually exclusive things of different people, just because they have different cultural backgrounds?
Or would this God we meet here in Isaiah - who is so insistent that he is the only God – would he be the same god as the Roman Emperor's who declared themselves gods and were worshipped by millions; or which one of the Greek pantheon of many gods would he be, or could he be all of them?
It's simply not possible that the one God should stand behind all the world's religions. So we rule out the possibility that all gods are real, what are we left with? If they can't all be real and equally valid, but they are all equally valid they must be equally false. If we believe that all religions are equal, in the end we are saying that they're all imaginary.
So how does Isaiah address the possibility that Yahweh might be imaginary? He says that Yahweh has demonstrated that he is real by both speaking and by acting. And that's what we're going to look at in point two:
Point Two God shows he is real by speaking publicly and acting publicly
We see the logic of it worked out in these verses. Look at the argument as it's there in verse 19-21:
19 I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob's descendants,`Seek me in vain.' I, the LORD, speak the truth; I declare what is right. 20 "Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save. 21 Declare what is to be, present it--let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is none but me.
These words come from Yahweh. But they were proclaimed by a prophet. How could anyone who heard them know that they weren't just words that the prophet made up? How could this God be differentiated from all the other gods who make big claims? Well this God claims to have demonstrated his reality by word and deed. This God provides evidence for us to demonstrate that he is the real God. There are two parts to this evidence:
First, Verse 19 he is a speaking God. God speaks to his people. This is no small thing. God speaks and his people hear his voice. Contrast the idols of the nation that have no voice, they can not speak for themselves. Blocks of wood, idols made of stone, images – they can't speak as this God can.
Now you might say that all gods have their prophets who claim to hear from them and pass on message to their followers. That may be, but this God doesn't just speak to the prophets in secret he speaks to his people in public.
In some cases he does it audibly for everyone to hear. For example there are several times in the Bible when God actually speaks directly from heaven for crowds of people to hear.
The best known large scale public declaration comes on Mt Sinai after God led his people out ofEgyptand into the desert. While the whole nation (more than 600 000 men, with their wives, children and servants – a massive crowd!) gathered at the foot of the mountain God spoke to them from the cloud. And it was terrifying – his voice shook the mountain and scared the life out of the people – they literally asked Moses to ask God to stop speaking to them directly because they were afraid that the sound of God's voice alone would be enough to kill them! God spoke and the nation heard it – at Sinai, and on several other occasions too.
This is the first evidence that Yahweh's is the true God – he speaks, not just privately, but in public, in ways that can't be just brushed off as the ravings of a mad prophet – the voices in some mad man's head. Yahweh's voice is public, his words are heard.
And Yahweh's word is public in another sense too – in his word he makes promises and commitments that can be verified or falsified – they are in the public domain. In particular he makes promises that tie him to action in the world in history. Hearing God's voice is not just a private thing between God and the holy man – God makes public pronouncements about what he will do in the world – the sort of things that can be checked off when they happen, or that can be demonstrated to have failed to happen – like when he said to Abraham your descendents will go down to Egypt and in 400 years I will bring them back into this land to inherit it. Or when he said through Jeremiah that the nation would go into Exile in Babylon for 70 years, and he gave the dates – so that people could check it off in their calendars – you'll know it was truly God speaking if in 70 years it happens, and you'll know equally if Jeremiah was just making stuff up because you'll never leave Israel for Babylon, or if you do you'll be just like all the other nations that never come back from exile. Back in Isaiah 45, in verse 1 Cyrus is called out by God – named as the one who will send his people back toJerusalemafter their period of Exile. Cyrus did indeed send the Jews back toJerusalem- around 130 years after Isaiah's death.
So God's speech in public is tied to action, and by these actions Yahweh again demonstrates that he is real, and that he is God.
This is the second argument that God makes in this passage to support his claim to be the only true God. He doesn't just speak, he acts. He makes promises, and he acts in history to keep them. He acts to save his people, and he acts to judge his people, and the peoples of the nations. He is not like the gods of the nations which need to be carried around – they need to be carried because there is no life in them, they're just bits of wood or stone or precious metals – but he is the God who gives life to all things – he made the whole world and who does not need anything from us. And he shows it in the way that he dictates all history. That's the claim in Isaiah here – verse 21 'declare what is to be, present it' – why does he say that? Because that is precisely what this message from Isaiah is – a declaration of what will happen in the future – and when it comes to be, who will they credit it to? Only Yahweh – only this God – declared it in advance. And who can declare what's going to happen – only the one who makes it happen.
God's claim here and throughout the bible is to be the God of the whole earth, the God of the future, the God who dictates all history, from beginning to end. And that is a big claim isn't it? But this God doesn't just say after the event – yes I did that, and this is why… no he says before hand 'I'm going to do this, and that and the other, and here's why and what it will mean when it happens'. And history records that those promises from God have been fulfilled. Abraham's children did go down to Egypt and them back into Israel 400 years later, Israel did come back from exile after 70 years, and at the command of a King called Cyrus.
See the claim being made here is that history is in some way a form of advertising for God. Through his words and works in the public domain, in history, he makes his claim to be the one and only God. Like Coke declaring the themselves the real thing or the Rolling Stones labelling themselves the greatest rock band in the world, God declares his marketing slogans – He is: the only true God; the God who speaks and acts; the Living God; the Saving God. God declares these things in public as a form of advertising – he wants these things to be known. And a bit like modern marketing God attracts imitators who compete for attention and worship – but God asserts his copy right on the title to be the only true God. And unlike our modern advertisers there is no need for spin, no exaggeration or massaging the figures, God's record stands and speaks for itself.
How are you going with this argument? Is it compelling or has it failed to grip you yet?
Let me try and bring it into focus for you.
All of these characteristics of Yahweh are repeated and amplified by Jesus in the New Testament. Jesus is like a concentrated version of all that I've been saying – essence of God at work in the world. He claimed that the promises of the Old Testament were about him – that he fulfilled the many prophecies and promises on which God staked his credibility. All of God's promises find their fulfilment in him – he is the saviour, it is before him that every knee will bow and tongue confess. Jesus said that the essence of the OT promises was that God's King would be rejected, suffer and die, and three days later be raised to life again. He said it repeatedly to his disciples and to the crowds. He said that those promises were about him - he would be rejected, suffer and die and then three days later he would rise from the dead. And history records that he did – he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried, and three days later he rose again. In history, in the person of a man, God has acted and we can know that he is God by checking it out.
But it's not just a miracle show – like an old school circus or something. Jesus didn't do all this for entertainment value. He went on to say that after his death and resurrection he would return to judge the living and the dead. All those who put their trust in him would be saved, but those who rejected him would face God's wrath.
See in our world this question of religion is a bit of a non event for most people. The majority assume that all religions are the same because we've already swallowed the assumption that this world is all there is – there is no real God, no real life after death, no heaven and no hell.
But Jesus life, along with all of the Bible, points us in exactly the opposite direction – it says there is a God, a God who has made himself known by speaking and acting, making public promises in time and space and fulfilling them publicly in time and space. And it says this God wants to be acknowledged as God, to be served and honoured as is his right for making us. And we're all going to meet him – whatever our beliefs about the matter. So we all need to get ready.
So let me finish with a question – will you be ready to meet Jesus when he comes back?