Opening scenes are important. You miss ’em, and you may miss the key element in everything that follows. Like an Agatha Christie mystery. The ending won’t make sense if you skipped the early pages introducing the main characters.
Okay, I’ll admit I can’t recall ever having actually read an Agatha Christie novel, but I’ve seen the Murder on the Orient Express movie. That counts, doesn’t it?
The same goes for the Bible. Now, before you go “oh, that Bible stuff again”, hold on for a second. This could be important — maybe even life-changing. Faith and a relationship with God may not occupy center stage in your life as it does with some of us fanatics, but I’ll bet you’ve got some thoughts about God, about who he is, what he likes and dislikes, whether or not he’s tallying merits and demerits on his infinite abacus. What’s the first image that comes to mind when someone mentions “God”?
And that’s the point. Most of us get it wrong. Our impressions are based on images from Renaissance art, or Hollywood movies, or (even worse) fire and brimstone preachers. Church can really mess you up sometimes if you let it. And, frankly, a lot of those preachers don’t know much more about God than you do — I mean really, his personality and character, his heart, not just Bible facts and head-stuff. If they did, we’d see a lot more water-into-wine miracles happening all around us, a lot more Hanukah lamp-oil generation, and a lot less public stonings.
So let’s go back to the opening scenes. Let’s let God introduce himself. Scrap the images we’ve been carrying around most of our lives about what God is like, and let him tell you himself. What does God want you to think about him?
Act I, Scene i
Famous first words — everybody knows them: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Book of Genesis, chapter one, verse one. And we could camp out here for a while, but I am especially moved by the next sentence. “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
There’s an image for you. “Hovering.” The Spirit of God was hovering over it all, over the mass of chaos and emptiness. And out of that mess, he brought order and life. Good life. (And if you happen to be going through some chaos in your own life right about now, that simple thought may hold the key to keeping you sane.) This is who God is. This is how he introduces himself. The hovering one.
The English language doesn’t do this justice. The word used there is a rare one in Hebrew. It only occurs 3 times in the entire Hebrew Bible, and those other references paint a powerful picture of what’s going on here. The image is the protective action of a bird, caring for its young, wings spread over them in the nest, fluttering. In fact, that is a better translation than “hovering”: fluttering. The other reference in Deuteronomy describes this protective love God has for his people: “In the desert God found Jacob, in a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them on its pinions” (Dt 32:11). (The third passage, Jer 23:9, reads “all my bones tremble…”, reinforcing the “fluttering” action inherent in the word.) God introduces himself, as soon as he steps onto the stage, as the protective, caring one. His Spirit flutters over the empty stuff of time and space, and embracing it between wings of love, transforms it, nurtures it into his beloved creation. This is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.
Later in the story, when Moses is dealing with the harsh realities of leading a strong and stubborn people, he confronts God and demands a greater revelation of him. Kind of like “If these are your people, then I’m gonna need to know you better so I can lead them better.” He wants to see God face to face. Of course God knows this would kill him; Moses would vaporize in the unfiltered presence of full glory. So God puts him in a cleft in the side of a mountain, covers him protectively with his hand, and then passes by, declaring his name, revealing himself to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Ex 34:6). God describes himself in the way he wants to be perceived and understood by us. Compassionate. Gracious. Overflowing with love and faithfulness. Loyal. Forgiving. And Just.
How have we missed this? How have we turned this loving, protective, caring, compassionate and gracious God into something other than that? How have we turned him into a vindictive, white-bearded and cranky old man, catching us in every fault, every sin, every failing and mistake? Maybe it’s human nature. We know God is perfect, and our imperfections are glaring in comparison. We think he must be angry or displeased or at the very least disappointed by our shortcomings. But, as King David once noticed, he knows that we are but dust, he knows we fail. And he loves us anyway. He eagerly accepts us back into his presence — full of grace, compassion and love.
The Final Word
God’s own people may be the worst at misunderstanding him. Jesus one day stood with his protégés in the Temple of Jerusalem, surrounded by religious people, some hungry, some self-satisfied. And he called out with aching heart, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you were not willing…” (Mt 23:37). As he faced rejection by the people he came to love, Jesus again and again showed the heart of the Father, even in the very choice of his words. He longed — and continues to long — to gather us under his wings of love. Yet we are so often not willing. We don’t get it. But this is your God. This is how he wants you to see him.
We may have missed this introduction. We may have skimmed past it, or may have never seen the spotlight shining on him as he bursts onto the stage of creation and into our personal lives. But this is the description of the main character in history. Hovering — fluttering — over us, gently caring for us as a bird sheltering its young under loving parental wings. This is the Eternal Father, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love, full of forgiveness. If we miss this crucial character profile, we’ll read the rest of the book with the wrong impression. We’ll walk through our day to day lives seeing God as someone other than he really is.
Opening scenes are important. They set the tone for the rest of the story. And sometimes we need to go back to page one to get it right.