In some ways it’s an impossible question, because when we talk about God we’re trying to describe someone who is greater than all the universes in the cosmos and yet whose spirit is also able to come and dwell inside each one of us. Baptism is about welcoming God’s Spirit into our lives and the life of our family, and asking God to shape the way we live and care for another, following the example of Jesus who also showed us what God is like.
But apart from talking about the spirit of God and looking at the life, and death, and new life of Jesus, to see what he teaches us about God, is there anything else we can say about what God is like? The Bible says there is.
It has lots of suggestions and one of them, which I thought might be interesting for a few minutes, is to look at some animals and birds and see what they might be able to show us about what God is like.
An eagle So the Bible says that God is sometimes a bit like an eagle. Really? With those fierce talons and that sharp beak? And all those big feathers?
The people who wrote the Bible had watched eagles trying to teach their young to fly and they thought that showed us what God is sometimes like. Deuteronomy 32.11 says, ‘God is like an eagle teaching its young to fly, always ready to swoop down and catch them on its back.’
Now actually it’s very hard to get close to an eagle, especially when it’s protecting its young, so in the days before binoculars people could only watch eagles doing their thing from quite a distance. To the people who wrote the Bible it looked as though sometimes the mother eagle swoops down and catches a falling young one and carries it aloft on her back. There’s no evidence that’s what really happens, but it’s a lovely idea. God is circling round us waiting to swoop down and help us when we get into trouble.
A lion Even more surprisingly the Bible says that God sometimes seems a bit like a roaring lion. Really? With that mighty roar and those big teeth? Not to mention the claws!
Isaiah 31.4 says, ‘God said to me, “I will roar and attack like a fearless lion that isn’t frightened by the shouting of the shepherds who are trying to protect their sheep.”’
Imagine the scene. A group of shepherds are sitting round the fire at night keeping watch over the sheep, when suddenly a lion prowls out of the shadows. They shout at it and wave their arms, hoping to frighten it away from the sheep. But the lion is fearless and it roars back at them and threatens to attack.
It seems strange to compare God to a roaring lion, but the prophet says that God gets angry when someone behaves wickedly and bullies those weaker than them who can’t look out for themselves. The bullies think they can get away with it because they don’t know God is watching them. But God is like a lion hiding in the shadows, waiting to pounce, and God isn’t afraid to let them know they’ve done wrong and give them a fright.
A wild ox The Bible aso says that God is like a wild ox. What, with those big sweeping horns and those powerful hooves? Wild oxen disappeared a long time ago, but fairly recently people have tried to recreate the breed and this majestic animal is what they’ve come up with.
When the Bible compares God to a wild ox the writers are thinking of an animal that cares for its young just as much as an eagle, but does it in a different way, not by catching its young when they’re falling but by keeping danger at bay with its long horns, so that its young calves may graze in safety. Just as the roaring lion isn’t frightened by the shepherds but roars back and frightens them instead, so the ox isn’t frightened of enemies but stands her ground and tries to protect those she loves, and that’s how God feels about us.
A mother bird You might have noticed a theme emerging here. With the exception of the lion, God is often compared to a mother animal, like this mother hen.
Isaiah 31.5 says, ‘God said, “I will protect you like a mother bird circling over her nest…” And in Luke 13.34 Jesus says, “I have often wanted to gather you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.”
Mother eagles and mother oxen are all very well aren’t they, but they’re not very soft and cuddly. A nesting bird, flying up into the air to distract predators and make them follow her away from the nest, or a mother hen cuddling up to her chicks or playing with them in the dust, is a warmer, cosier idea isn’t it. And the Bible says God wants to be like that, too, loving and nurturing us.
A lamb Perhaps you noticed that in one of those readings Jesus compared himself to a chicken, and the Bible also compares him to a lamb. John 1.29 says, ‘John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Here is the Lamb of God.”’
Just as mother animals put themselves in harm’s way to protect their children, so in most religions lambs were offered by people as a sacrifice to try to persuade God to bless them. But the Christian religion says it’s wrong to sacrifice defenceless animals. That’s not what God wants. Instead, in Jesus, he was prepared to come and die himself to try to show us a better way to live and save us from harm. That’s why the Bible calls Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’.
A dove We’ve seen different animals that the Bible says teach us something about God and Jesus, but what about God’s Spirit? The Bible compares God’s Spirit to a dove. Matthew 3.16 says, ‘Jesus saw the spirit of God coming down on him like a dove.’
Why a dove? Because doves are gentle; because they sometimes hover in the air but sometimes glide along; because they’re symbols of peace and grace. God comes to dwell in us and bring us that same kind of grace and peace, but in a gentle way, as a gift, not something that we’re forced to accept. These gifts are ours if we want them.