Bible Readings: Deuteronomy 6:1-9 & Mark 12:28-34

The One and Only

“I am the one and only” sang Chesney Hawkes in 1991, to great chart success. Sadly for him, it was, pretty much, his one and only hit. According to Collins dictionary, the phrase “The one and only can be used in front of the name of an actor, singer, or other famous person when they are being introduced on a show.” In my head it’s a phrase that gets used a lot by over excited masters of ceremony at boxing matches and darts matches. “the one, the only, Phil “the power” Taylor”, and so on.

In English we need two words – one AND only to communicate something about unity and uniqueness. One and only, not divided nor multiplied, but united and unique. One and only – we need two words. In Biblical Hebrew, however, you only need one word that carries both meanings, which is great, very economical, until you’re trying to translate that word into English and you have to choose one of the meanings to emphasise in your translation.

If you look at verse four of chapter six of Deuteronomy you’ll see that it says, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one Lord.” But, you might also see that there’s a footnote to go with the verse, and in that footnote it gives alternative translations, which rather than describing the Lord as one, describe the Lord as the Lord alone. The translation in the main text chooses to emphasise the unity of God, the alternative is to emphasis the uniqueness of God. It isn’t that one is right and one is wrong – we need both to capture the breadth of meaning in the Hebrew.

This conclusion is supported by the response of the Scribe in his conversation with Jesus. Having asked his question, and heard Jesus’ reply, he responds, “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.” That is to say, God is both one and only.

It may lead to a bit of a dilemma for translators, but I think that this is a gift to us, as it give us an opportunity to look at both of these shades of meaning, to reflect on them, and to think about what difference they make to our relationship with God. And this is the important bit. You see, the next verse goes on to talk about loving God with our whole selves – our mind, strength, and soul. It seems to me that in order to love someone, you have to know who they are, you have to find out something about them. And that process doesn’t stop as your relationship with them progresses. In fact, in the best of cases it’s like a virtuous spiral. We love someone so we want to know them better, and as we get to know them better, so we love them more, and so on.

So what does it mean to say that God is one? I’d like to offer three words. Consistent, undivided, and faithful.

God is consistent. God is the same, yesterday, today and forever. God’s character doesn’t change. God has always been, is now, and will be forever: creative, loving, kind, merciful, patient, just, righteous, holy. God in Eyton in 2018 is the same God who was God in Jerusalem in AD 30 and the same God who was God in the middle of the Sinai desert hundreds of years before that. Sometimes we find this difficult to believe. We read parts of the Old Testament and compare them with the New Testament and wrestle with some of the tensions of the way that God is portrayed. This difficulty is not new. As early in the Christian church’s life as 70 years after Jesus’ return to heaven a man called Marcion of Sinope was arguing that the God of the Old Testament was completely different to the God of the New Testament, cut all the bits out of the Bible that he found objectionable and was left with none of the Old Testament, parts of Luke’s gospel, and ten of Paul’s letters. It was one of the first great doctrinal arguments in the early church – do we really believe that God is one – consistent through time and space? We might find it difficult to see that consistency some times, but that is because our vision and understanding are imperfect, and so we choose to submit them to God, and ask that the Holy Spirit might reveal that consistency to us, so that we can know God better, love more deeply, and really mean it when we say, as we did in the words of the creed a few moments ago, “I believe in one God.”

God is undivided. God’s mind, heart, and self are not divided in any way. I wonder if you ever find yourself in two minds about something. God doesn’t. I wonder if you ever say that your heart wants to do one thing, but your mind another. God doesn’t. Do you ever feel like you’re being torn in two? God doesn’t. God is one: undivided, whole hearted, single minded. It seems to me that we don’t often think about this. When we talk about the Trinity it seems to me that we tend to focus on the three persons of God, Father, Son, Spirit, and on what makes the three distinct. So today, we’re focussing on what they have in common. For they are one. Trying to get our heads round this might cause us to want to go and have a lie down in a darkened room, but we have to grapple with this. This is our beloved we’re talking about. Father, Son, Holy Spirit are not three gods, they are not three parts of God, they are one God, one substance, undivided, more than that – indivisible.

God is faithful. Flowing out of God’s consistent character and undivided nature is God’s faithfulness. Even when we are flaky and inconsistent, even when we fail and fall, even when we sin and rebel, God does not abandon us. God is faithful and trustworthy, reliable and dependable. We don’t have the Holy Spirit saying one thing to us, Jesus saying something else and the Father not backing up either. No, they reveal each other to us, they teach us the same things, they are faithful to each other. We can rest in this, even when we don’t understand it all, even when life is hard, and we can’t feel it, we can rest in this. God is faithful.

So what does it mean to say that God is one? God is one means that God is consistent, undivided, and faithful.

And what does it mean to say that God is the only? Perhaps it might help to think of different spheres of life, and what it means to say that God is the only God in each of those spheres.

God is the only God of Belief. The people of God, having been rescued from slavery in Egypt, have been wandering around the desert for 40 years. They are about to enter the Promised Land. In that land, they were going to find all kinds of religious beliefs. There would be sun gods and moon gods, fertility gods and weather gods, gods of the cities and gods of the plains. Before they go into that place God makes a claim. None of those gods are really God. You can’t pick and choose, there is only one God, who is God of all those places, all those aspects of life, the whole of creation, and alone is to be worshipped. Jesus made the same claim about himself, for example in John 3:18, “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” We also live in a society of many religions, it might feel uncomfortable or arrogant to say it, but we are called to bear witness to this claim of God’s to being unique. God is the only God.

God is the only God of the world. It is not just the gods of religions that God claims primacy over. God is also God over the secular gods of our culture and society. In our world there are competing claims and expressions of power and influence. There are competing political systems and theories, multinational corporations controlling data, finance, and medicines, media forces from CNN to Youtube. These are the elemental forces and energies of our day, that have a massive influence on us and our thinking. But they are not God. God is the only God.

God is the only God of our hearts. Our gods are the things that we worship, that we prioritise, that we invest our time and energy in that take the place of the one true God. For each of us the temptations will be different. Money, career, family, clothes, reputation, cars, holidays, education. None of these are bad things, in fact they’re all good things, given to us by God. The problem comes when the created takes the place of the Creator, when we give these things a higher place in our hearts, minds, and lives than God. This cannot be if we are to be loving God with our whole selves: body, mind, and soul. God is the only God.

“Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is the one and only.” Consistent, undivided, faithful God of belief, of the world and of our hearts. Worthy of all of our worship, worthy of all of our love, worthy of all of our lives.

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