An Islamic alternative - Allah or the Almighty? - Mark 14:32-42

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 1st April 2007.

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I had just finished writing a major project on the similarities and the differences between Islam and Christianity when I received an email which invited me to speak on this very subject. I was at Bible college in Oxford and one of the local Christian groups was hosting a debate on the rather uncontroversial subject: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Now for some reason they decided to ask me. I thought this was strange. I wasn’t an expert and I always think that someone with skills in diplomacy is needed on occasions like these – and it has been a long time since someone has called me Mr Sensitive! I tend to shoot from the hip, say it as I see it and then dive for cover. But anyway I decided to go and told a very busy lecture theatre that on the core issues, not on the peripherals – but on the core issues Christians and Muslims believed completely different things.

My basic point was that we need to be honest with each other. Examine our source documents – the Bible for Christians and the Qur’an for Muslims - then we will reach very different and contradictory conclusions about who God is, who Jesus is, about what heaven is like and how about each one of us can get there. Now these are not minor differences. We are not talking about what we wear or what we eat or how we sing. We are talking about the nature of God, the identity of Jesus, the future eternity of billions of people. People agreed with me. After an hour of me speaking and 45 minutes of questions there was general agreement in the room.

Since then my belief has not changed. Strengthened as I have learned more about Islam. So my basic point this morning is that we need to be honest with each other.

We need to face the facts. Both religions are different. They make contradictory statements which can’t both be true.

Now this doesn’t mean we need to fight each other or start calling each other rude names.

It was the French philosopher, Voltaire, who said, "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it."

A great statement! We need to hear this in the Western world which out of a position of ignorance assumes all religions are basically saying the same thing.

When you examine the evidence you discover fundamental differences.

Lots I could say – if you want to know more about Islam then I would recommend reading this book – Islam in our Backyard.

This morning we will focus on two issues of disagreement between Islam and Christianity – the identity and the mission of Jesus.

1. The identity of Jesus

It’s very obvious when you read the Qur’an that Jesus is an important and venerated figure. He may not be the central character but he is still mentioned in 15 chapters and 93 verses speak of him.

On handout a summary of what the Qur’an does say about Jesus.

1. Jesus was a real historical person.
2. His birth was announced by an angel.
3. He was born of a virgin.

Sura 3:42-47: “Behold, the angels said: ‘O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee – chosen thee above the women of all nations. ‘O Mary! Worship thy Lord devoutly: prostrate thyself, and bow down (in prayer) with those who bow down…Behold, the angels said: ‘O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah; ‘He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous.’ She said: ‘O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?’ He said: ‘Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: when He hath decreed a Plan, He but saith to it, “Be”, and it is.”

So far so good? Important to realise that we don’t disagree on everything. There are a few similarities in what Christians and Muslims say about Jesus.

C.S. Lewis who said, “If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of truth. When I was an atheist I had to try and persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered most. When I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic - there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.”

Qur’an is not completely wrong in all it says about Jesus. In fact, it even teaches that he did miracles, that he was a prophet from God and that he will come back one day to this earth. We disagree about why he will come back again – Muslims believe he will return one day and persuade us all to become Muslims and Christians believe he will come back to usher in the day of judgement but on the fact of his return we are united.

However, on the most fundamental issue of all we are worlds apart. Listen to what the Qur’an says in…

Sura 4:171: “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not ‘Trinity’…for Allah is One God.”

Here, therefore is a major clash between the bible and the Qur’an. Although the two holy books refer to the same historical figure they categorise him differently.

Muslims are commanded not to attribute deity to Jesus. He was an important figure, indeed a great prophet but not on the creator side of the creator/creature divide.

And yet the Bible makes a completely contradictory claim.

o Mark 2. Paralytic healed of his sins. Pins Jesus not the sins. They mutter – who can forgive sins but God alone?
o John 8. Jesus is arguing with some of Jews about his identity and he says, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” What happens next? They pick up stones to kill him.
o Or at the end of John’s Gospel. Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.” And Jesus accepts his confession.

Many others but what is clear is that when reading the NT as it stands (without suggesting it has been changed) there is only one conclusion that makes sense – that is to say that Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully divine.

As we’ve discovered over the last few weeks this has led Christians to the conclusion that God is Trinity. Much easier to say that God had three different faces or phrases. But the evidence led to a different destination. That there were three divine persons who together were united to form one God. And we proclaim Jesus as one of the divine persons.

Now from my experience of talking to Muslims its quite common for Muslims to misunderstand the Trinity.

o Often think we believe in three gods
o Often misunderstand who the persons are

Sura 5:116-117 states, “And behold, Allah will say: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, “Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah”?’ He will say: ‘Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, Thou wouldst indeed have known it…Never said I to them aught except what Thou didst command me to say, to wit, “Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord;”

But this is not a one off – in fact, Allah is actually defined in anti-Trinitarian language.

Sura 112:1-4 we read, “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.”

And we need to understand that in Islam the one unforgivable sin is what is called the ‘sin of association’ – or shirk. Allah forgives all other sins except the sin of associating other divinities with him.

Sura 4:48 declares, “Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but he forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth; to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin most heinous indeed.”

On this fundamental issue we are poles apart. We must part company and be honest with each other. However, what most Muslims realise is that many Christians are pretty clueless about the Trinity, cannot explain it and are embarrassed about it. In many discussions it will be the first belief to be attacked.

Remember going to the Islamic Awareness week. During the Q&A I asked a question which showed I knew something about Islam and afterwards I was surrounded by Muslims. One of the first things – he tried to mock belief in the Trinity because he thought I would be embarrassed by it. But why should I be? It is who God is and not completely unintelligible. 

o It does mean we need to have the basics clear.
o Also why it’s important – why we shouldn’t give up the belief.
o Love – How can God be eternally loving?
o Someone who doesn’t need us but who invites us into the fellowship of the eternal Godhead. The intimacy of God.
o Explains the cross – cry from the cross
o Families and church life.
o Practical and true! Important. If Jesus is divine…

2. The mission of Jesus

There are few subjects defended as vigorously in Islam as the denial of Jesus’ death on the cross. You might be thinking, does the Qur’an really say that? Surely it was obvious that he did die. Roman historians claim it, Jewish historians claim it and the Christians claim it. Surely the case is closed.

Sura 4:157-158: “That they said (in boast), We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’ – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge”

Appear to them. So a very different type of substitution. Christians believe that Jesus had to die in our place so that we can be forgiven. Why? Justice needs to be done.

Some examples of human forgiveness where this does not need to happen. If someone offends my dad. He doesn’t say, I forgive you but first let me sacrifice my younger son.

Other times when justice needs to be done. For example, murderer in court. People cannot simply be let off.

Christian faith says what God has done is to provide forgiveness by placing our punishment on other, his own Son, so that we can go free.

Isa 53:5-6; “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Principle of substitution

But the Qur’an has a very different understanding of substitution. Not that Jesus was substituted for his people but that someone was substituted for him. 

Who was this substitute? The Qur’an does not provide an answer. However, various suggestions have been made by throughout the years. In the sixteenth century Father Moreno, a Christian turned Muslim, wrote the Gospel of Barnabas, and in it he claimed that it was Judas who was crucified instead of Jesus. His detailed explanation is that God snatched Jesus from danger and removed him to the third heaven. Subsequently, he then changed Judas’ physical appearance so that he resembled Jesus in every way. Other Muslims have suggested that someone else took Jesus’ place at the crucifixion. For example, perhaps in a moment of confusion a figure such as Simon of Cyrene was crucified instead of Jesus. A third option was proposed by a group called the Ahmadis, who claimed that although Jesus was crucified he never, in fact, died. According to this theory, Jesus was taken down from the cross alive and was then resuscitated in the tomb with the help of Nicodemus. He is said to have made a full recovery. Whatever the explanation there is a forceful denial of the death of Jesus by Muslims. And so therefore here again we come to a major point of disagreement. A major point of departure.

Both religions cannot be true. Contradictory things. One says…

Christians say this is not some peripheral issue. Not only is it historically verifiable but it is vital for our salvation.

And if we doubt this then don’t take communion this morning.

Jesus in Gethsemane. Is there another way? Take this cup from me. What do we drink this morning? Not a cup of judgment but the cup of joy.

Reading from Revelation 7 – why are people there? Because of the blood of the Lamb.

People who say all religions are the same don’t know much about religion. In the core issues they make contradictory statements so they can’t all be write. Doesn’t mean they are wrong all the way through and it doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be allowed to believe them.

But for the sake of their souls and for the glory of God we must maintain that without personal commitment to Jesus people are worshipping an idol of their own creation.
Let’s be informed. Let’s be respectful. But let’s also be convinced that all people, even the most sincere Muslims, must turn from idols, and serve the true and living God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath.

Sincerity is not what counts – I may sincerely believe that if I drive very quickly up the northern lane of the A1 that I will reach London. Not the case. I must be in the right direction. Sincerity is not what counts – truth is what matters.

So with the conviction that Jesus has revealed the truth about who God is and how we can be reconnected with him then let’s pray that God will grant us the ability to keep on believing these things and keep on speaking about these things when the pressure is to keep our heads below the parapet. Let’s pray.

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