Theophanies

sermon

Theophanies

‘Tis the Season

Many churches around the world – and particularly those of a more liturgical bent or traditional history follow a church calendar. This calendar allocates various days and weeks throughout the year into seasons. Each season emphasises significant aspects or events within our faith and so provides opportunity to reflect on those aspects.

Broadly speaking these seasons are Advent, Christmas and Epiphany at this time of year and then Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost.

Outside of those specific seasons are a number of weeks of what is called "Ordinary Time". Some of these lead up to Pentecost and there are many more weeks of Ordinary Time after Pentecost until the next Advent. These weeks leading up to Easter and then between Easter and Advent are called ordinary not because they are humdrum, but because they are ordinal or counted weeks between seasons.

Pentecostal churches are generally not big on Christian seasons because they can be seen as too ‘traditional’. But not holding to traditions is in itself a tradition!

I believe these liturgical seasons can serve a useful purpose because they help us focus on God's unfolding plan of redemption. The seasons follow the sending of His Son through to Jesus’ death and resurrection through to the giving or availability of the Holy Spirit and then the churches mission to make disciples of all nations.

These events are remembered and celebrated through Christian liturgical seasons. Often churches that follow these seasons use a lectionary which has suggested Bible readings for each day. As a result many churches throughout the world across different denominations can be reading passages and hearing sermons on common thematic readings. It's kind of cool if you also allow room for the Spirit to speak.

Advent

The first of these seasons is Advent which is the season we are in. I presume you've heard of and perhaps used Advent calendars which count down the days in Advent until Christmas Day? In the liturgical calendar Advent encompasses the four Sundays before Christmas and so can start from late November through to early December – depending on when Christmas Day falls.

The word Advent is from the Latin word adventus and simply means 'arrival' or 'appearance' so it is the season when Christians remember and celebrate Jesus' coming into this world initially as a baby. But it has a second emphasis of Jesus return or second coming or second advent when He comes in glory and power.

You could wrap up (pun intended) this whole idea of Advent in the word "expectation" where we celebrate and give thanks for Jesus' first advent and anticipate the second advent.

Theophany

So today we’re considering this idea of appearing and expectation. A few week's ago when Mark asked me to preach today he suggested Nigel and I might want to look at some of the Lord's appearances to people in the Old Testament as a prelude to celebrating Jesus' birth or Advent in Bethlehem.

Such appearances are known as theophanies. This word theophany is from Ancient Greek and means "God appearing". It is a time when God manifests Himself visibly, audibly, or both to a person. And there are more occurrences than I thought!

So as we begin to consider some 'God appearances' in the Old Testament, what is the first theophany or ‘God appearance’ recorded?

The first theophanies

The first one is in Genesis 3:8-10 where God is heard walking in the garden of Eden and then speaks to Adam. Let me read it from the Christian Standard Bible (CSB):

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. So the LORD God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

So this first theophany is not going well for humanity. God appears in the garden walking about and wants to have a conversation with Adam about things, and Adam, because he has disobeyed the Lord, hides.

How about the second theophany? What are the circumstances of the Lord's second appearance? We don't have to go far – just one chapter into Genesis 4 where Cain and Abel bring offerings before the Lord and Abel's is accepted but Cain's is not. Let me read verses 6 and 7:

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you furious? And why do you look despondent? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Unfortunately theophany number 2 hasn't gone any better humanity either because Cain invites Abel into the field and kills him.

Where is the third theophany located? It is just two chapters later in Genesis 6. We read of the Lord speaking in verse 3 but his conversation with a human begins in verse 13 where we read:

Then God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to every creature, for the earth is filled with wickedness because of them; therefore I am going to destroy them along with the earth.”

Given the track record of these theophanies, you could be forgiven for thinking we may be better off not holding these conversations with the Lord. But things do improve.

I'm not proposing to traverse our way through all of the theophanies in the Old Testament in this same way. But it was important to see why they began for they set the scene or purpose for many subsequent theophanies.

But what remaining theophanies can you recall? What are some further instances where the Lord appears to someone or a group in the Old Testament?

They do get better for us as we go. To enable us to see that I want to briefly list most of the remaining theophanies in the Old Testament and we'll then spend a little time digging into some of them to see how they shape the Kingdom of God.

  • There are further appearances to Noah and his sons in Genesis 7,8 and 9.
  • The Lord appears and speaks with Abraham and occasionally Sarah
  • There are appearances and conversations with Hagar concerning Ishmael.
  • The Lord confirms to Isaac the covenant made with Abraham.
  • Jacob physically wrestles with an angel.
  • Exodus 3 records Moses and the burning bush.
  • In Exodus 16 the nation of Israel sees the glory of the Lord in the cloud. The shekinah (sha-kee-nah) or pillar of cloud by day and fire by night is a theophany.
  • In Exodus 33 the Lord speaks to Moses “face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend” and later Moses is allowed to see the Lord's back as His glory passes by.
  • Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy record multiple occasions where the glory of the Lord appeared.
  • In Judges we read of both Gideon and Samson.
  • 1 Samuel 3 records Samuel being called by the Lord when serving under the priest Eli.
  • 1 Kings shows Elijah meeting with both an angel and the Lord.
  • And the later chapters of Job report Job's conversations when the Lord answers from the whirlwind.

These events cover a range of people and situations. There are something like 20 different theophanies described in the Old Testament in addition to the cloud of glory. Some instances are where the Lord offers hope and comfort. Others are pronouncements of judgement.

I want to spend time considering a couple of these theophanies in more detail.

Theophany to Gideon Judges 6

The first theophany I want to spend any real time looking at is the appearance to Gideon. Please turn with me to Judges 6. The backdrop is in verse 1:

The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. So the LORD handed them over to Midian seven years

The nation sins so the Lord hands them over to some foreign oppressor for a time.

The Israelites eventual response is in verse 6:

So Israel became poverty-stricken because of Midian, and the Israelites cried out to the LORD.

The Lord’s response to their cry was to send a prophet who reminded them of the Lord’s goodness but how they had disobeyed Him by worshipping false gods (verse 10):

I said to you: I am the LORD your God. Do not fear the gods of the Amorites whose land you live in. But you did not obey me.

The book of Judges is filled with this cycle of sin or disobedience, the nation then languishes under some foreign oppressor. They eventually repent and call on the Lord. He sends a judge who delivers them from the oppressor.

Rinse and repeat.

So we’re at the stage in this cycle where the Lord chooses a judge to deliver his people from their oppressors, and Gideon is next.

Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress so he was out of sight of the Midianites. He was young and his family was one of the smaller clans – an ideal candidate in the Lord’s books where our perceptions of our own ability often hinder the Lord’s working!

But it’s the description of the theophany that I want us to look at. We’ll be reading selectively from verses 11 through 16:

Initially (verse 11) the angel of the Lord was sitting under an oak tree and then appeared to Gideon when he was threshing wheat.

11 The angel of the LORD came, and he sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash, the Abiezrite. His son Gideon was threshing wheat in the winepress in order to hide it from the Midianites.

The angel appeared and then spoke:

12 ...“The LORD is with you, valiant warrior.”

Gideon then replied speaking of the capital L Lord in the third person so he believed he wasn’t speaking directly to God.

13 Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened?

Some translations have Gideon calling the messenger “sir” and others “lord” with a lower case “l”. But God is referenced as LORD (all capitals) indicating the sacred, covenantal name YHWH was being used.

But notice the shift in verse 14. It is no longer an angel speaking but the Lord:

14 The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and deliver Israel from the grasp of Midian. I am sending you!”

The account begins with an angel conversing with Gideon but there is a shift to it being the Lord.

One commentator indicates that there was no change in the messenger, but the shift occurred in Gideon as it dawned on him who was actually speaking. Either way, Gideon was finally aware that he had been chosen by God to deliver God’s people from oppression!

Theophany to Samuel 1 Samuel 3

The second theophany or God appearance I want us to consider is located in 1 Samuel 3. In verse 1 of 1 Samuel 3 we read:

The boy Samuel served the LORD in Eli’s presence. In those days the word of the LORD was rare and prophetic visions were not widespread.

The priest Eli had two sons who were corrupt and Eli knew they were corrupt.

This theophany came at a time when there was exploitation by the priesthood of their roles and revelation and prophetic vision was rare. It was a low point for the people of Israel so it was time for the Lord to intervene to call forth a prophet.

In the middle of the night the Lord called Samuel. Samuel thought Eli had called him so went to Eli and said "Here I am. You called me". Eli told Samuel he hadn't called. 1 Samuel 3:7 reads:

“Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, because the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him."

So here we have Samuel responding to someone calling in the night. He is being called by God but doesn't realise it because he has not received revelation. Eli on the other hand, despite tolerating the actions of his corrupt sons, figures out who is calling after the third time. He tells Samuel if he hears the voice again to say "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening".

People who have no knowledge or experience of the Lord are able to hear Him!

Interestingly the theophany then moves from a voice to a presence. Initially the Lord called to Samuel but we read in 1 Samuel 3:10 that:

"The LORD came, stood there, and called as before, 'Samuel, Samuel!' Samuel responded, 'Speak, for your servant is listening.'"

Samuel moves from having no understanding of the voice or presence of the Lord to having the Lord stand before him in conversation.

And the Lord confirms His judgement against Eli and his sons for He says, "I am about to do something in Israel that everyone who hears about it will shudder.”

This call of Samuel inaugurates one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament. He later anointed Saul, he then declared Saul's reign at an end. He anointed David. Samuel was the conduit or perhaps lightning rod for God’s communicating with His people at a time the Israelites reject the Lord and call for an earthly king like the other nations.

Soft and Slow Rules

So we’ve briefly looked at two different theophanies calling two different people to two different ministries or destinies. But the theophanies are quite different. I don't believe there are hard and fast rules for understanding or interpreting theophanies, but I think we can develop some slow and soft rules:

  • Theophanies often highlight or call people towards a destiny.
  • These roles or destinies are often prophetic or priestly – particularly evidenced by Moses and Samuel. Essentially hearing from the Lord and acting on or passing on that revelation.
  • Often they relate to children or descendants. Abraham and Jacob in particular highlight that.
  • They often deal with or challenge matters of character or obedience. They call forth greater faith and holiness.
  • Often the appearances were not sought. The recipients were surprised by the Lord's appearance and more so by the message!
  • Sometimes the recipient didn't realise it was the Lord until after the event. And, as we’ve seen, sometimes the theophany starts with an angel but the narrative goes on to identify the messenger as the Lord so there is a shift in understanding or indeed a change in the messenger!
  • Theophanies often deal with the progression or advancement of God's Kingdom. As we heard last weekend, the Lord seeks to advance the Kingdom through people who are totally available and radically obedient. Nothing has changed!
  • Finally, Old Testament theophanies anticipate and foreshadow the incarnation of the Son.

We don't know how many theophanies aren't recorded where the recipient rejected the choice.

The Lord is sovereign and may well choose someone else, or a subsequent time, or another method to bring about His purposes. But the person who rejected the message has forgone an opportunity for blessing.

There is no pattern to theophanies. Indeed the Bible intentionally doesn't highlight the messenger. There is no lengthy description of the messenger. Equally there is no set message or format.

So the messenger takes a backseat to the message. But even more important than the message is the response of the recipient. The real value of the message should be reflected in the response in the recipient, but that’s not always the case

  • Imagine if Noah had declined the Lord’s invitation to build the ark.
  • Where would we be if Moses hadn’t been interested in the burning bush that wasn’t consumed.
  • What would have happened if Gideon had refused to battle the Midianites?
  • What sort of faith would be available to us if Abraham had stayed in Ur of the Chaldeans and had opted to not travel to the land the Lord would show him?

Each theophany or revelation of God calls the recipient to a greater knowledge and experience of the Lord. Each one is an invitation towards greater godliness or love or obedience. Each is a call to participate more fully in and advance the Kingdom of God.

Jesus – the Ultimate Theophany

To recap a little on what we've looked at: Theophanies, God appearances are to advance God's Kingdom. In some cases they were to promote or encourage a prophet or judge. In other cases they were to provide impetus for people to take the road less travelled.

It picks up on what Brian Pickering was saying last week – that when we come to that fork in the road we should consider taking the road we haven't been on before because we know where the road we have been on takes us. It often brings us back to where we are!

And so the Lord gets our attention in a number of ways, and for a few souls in the Old Testament it was via a theophany.

And as we've considered a theophany is one thing, it is a message brought by a messenger; but the critical aspect is not the grandeur or awesomeness of the messenger. It's not the starkness or shock of the message. It is the response to the message that really matters.

I want to turn our attention to what I would call the greatest theophany. The ultimate God appearance has come.

His name was Jesus and He appeared in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. His name was Immanuel meaning ‘God with us’. He was with us. Born of a woman so He could identify with humanity, but not fathered by a man so He would be free from the sin that affects each of us.

He grew up in favour with both God and man. And then He declared Himself God through His actions and authority. And He fell out of favour with much of humanity. He died, willingly by hanging on a cross to redeem us because all who would see God must be perfect. And we can only be perfect through faith, through belief in Jesus that He died for me, and He rose from death for me.

Our theophany!

No, we can't leave Jesus as a baby because He became a man who became a saviour. Like all theophanies the messenger is awesome. Like all theophanies, the message is absolutely vital, but like all theophanies the most important aspect is what do you do with Him?

You can't leave Him to your imagination because there is too much evidence that Jesus really lived. You can't leave Him as an infant because He grew up. You can’t leave Him as a good man or a great teacher because He called Himself God. You can't leave Him on the cross because He left that cross through the grave and was raised from death and ascended back to heaven.

We have the choice to follow Him – to believe in Him and His Name and so receive eternal life. Is that a choice you’ve made?

It is the road less travelled. If you're not on that journey, I urge you to get on it. Make some different choices to what the world says.

I said earlier that each theophany or revelation of God called the recipient to a greater experience of the Lord. Each one shaped that person’s character towards greater godliness or love or obedience. Why would that be any different for us? Surely each revelation we have by the Holy Spirit into God’s word should call us to greater godliness or greater love or greater obedience.

Each theophany points people towards God’s ideal. And Jesus’ coming to this word is no different.

If you’ve never made a decision to commit your life to Jesus then is today that day?

In this season of Advent when we celebrate Jesus’ first advent and anticipate His return, could I finish with two prayers?

The first prayer is for people who belong to Jesus but have perhaps lost some of that expectancy and wonder of Jesus’ return. The second prayer is for those who haven’t as yet committed their lives to Christ.

Firstly, for expectancy:

Lord Jesus, thank you for this Advent season. May your Holy Spirit give us a fresh understanding of advent – what it meant for this world for you to firstly come as a baby, to live and die. And may we understand and anticipate and expect your imminent return in power and glory. May we live in the light of your power, your love, your truth and your Kingdom dynamic. May we hear, see, understand and walk in fresh revelation from your word through your Holy Spirit. May we experience your power and presence in our bodies, souls and spirits every day. Amen.

And secondly a prayer for those who haven’t committed their lives to Jesus but want to, then pray this after me in your heart:

Lord Jesus, I realise I’m a sinner. I realise I do the wrong thing and am unable to consistently do the right thing. I’m sorry, forgive me and cleanse me from my sin. I believe and welcome you into my life – that you died so I might be forgiven. I acknowledge you as both my Lord and Saviour. I welcome your Holy Spirit into my life so that I know the new life I have through belief and faith in you. Help me to know you and to walk with you from today onward. Thank You Jesus. Amen.

As we wrap up our service today, if you prayed that last prayer then come forward and let me know. If you want prayer for any reason, also come forward and there will be people here to talk with and pray with.

[Preached at our church Sunday 8th December]

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