God, the Anguished Parent (a sermon on Hosea 11.1-11)

I suspect I’m not the only parent in church today who remembers being nervous about the impending birth of their first child. Becoming a parent can be joyful and exciting, but it’s also an invitation to a life of worry and anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, and a strong sense of your own personal inadequacy! I don’t know too many parents who really believe, deep down inside, that they’re doing a good job. We all feel like we’re struggling to keep our heads above water.  And yet, as we saw last week, when Jesus is teaching us how to think about God, he invites us to say, “Our Father…”! In other words, Jesus’ favourite metaphor for God’s activity in our lives is parenting.

There’s a common caricature of the Old and New Testaments that says that the God of the Old Testament is an angry and scary God of judgement, and the God of the New Testament is a warm and cuddly God of love. In fact, of course, there are plenty of passages about judgement in the New Testament, too—anybody remember who actually gave us the parable of the sheep and the goats?—and the Old Testament has some tender and loving passages. And one of the most beautiful Old Testament passages about the love of God is our first reading for today, Hosea 11.1-11.

Of all the Bible writers the prophet Hosea is most adept at describing God for us in human terms. And he gives us some striking images while he’s doing it. In last week’s passage, God commanded Hosea to go marry a prostitute, and he obeyed; he married Gomer, and it didn’t take her long to be unfaithful to him. And so Hosea’s marriage became like an acted parable of what it felt like for God to take Israel as his lover, and then have her cheat on him. Philip Yancey says Hosea gives us the striking image of ‘God the jilted lover’!

This week we’re still using family images, but now we’re into a parental metaphor. This week our image is ‘God, the anguished parent’. Do you want to know what it feels like to be God? In this passage from Hosea, God’s heart is laid bare for us.

Hosea begins by describing the people of Israel as children of a loving God.‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son’ (v.1). God saw the Israelites suffering as slaves in Egypt, and sent Moses down to lead them out of slavery to freedom. He sent the ten plagues on the Egyptians and finally forced Pharaoh to let the slaves go. He defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led the people on their long journey through the wilderness. When they were hungry he gave them manna from heaven and quails to eat. When they were thirsty he brought water out of a rock for them. And through it all, he taught them his ways through the Ten Commandments and the other laws he gave them.

In verses 3 and 4 we see God describing Israel poetically as a much-loved child.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them, and fed them.

Note how this image usually works in the Old Testament. We’re not yet at the idea of each human as a child of God. Here we’re talking about the nation as a whole as God’s son. But nonetheless, the language is vivid and compelling. We see the parent watching anxiously as the toddler takes her first wavering steps across the room. Suddenly she falls down, but before she hits the ground she’s scooped up into the arms of her mom, who quickly soothes away any hurt.

That’s what God was like in the early days. Israel took their first wavering steps as a nation, and God hovered over them, picking them up every time they stumbled and soothing away their pain. God is like a mother overwhelmed with love; she can’t help but hold her child cheek to cheek, communicating security, love and peace.[1]

In the New Testament, of course, Jesus’ favourite image for God is ‘Father’. In fact, it’s almost the only name he uses for God. And he invites his disciples into this relationship too, teaching us to pray ‘Our Father in heaven.’ Note that gender isn’t the issue here; God isn’t a male as opposed to a female God. It’s the loving, caring parental relationship that counts. Even if we’ve had a bad experience with human parents, we’re invited to imagine the best possible parent and think of God in those terms: one who always loves us, always provides for our needs, always guides and teaches us and corrects us when we go the wrong way, one who protects us from harm. And for all this, of course, the framework is God’s steadfast love.

But now we come to the hard part. Israel isn’t only seen as the children of a loving God; they’re also seen as wayward children.

We know that no parent is immune from having struggles with their kids. Our church is named after St. Margaret, who was the mother of eight children. She’s recognized as a saint, but even she didn’t have a perfect record—at least one of her children turned out very badly, so we’re told! And we can go even higher than that. In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the father of the prodigal is meant to represent God, and he certainly comes across as a wise and loving parent. But still, his son rebels against him and takes off for a far country where he wastes all the money his father gave him in what Luke calls ‘dissolute living’ (Luke 15.13).

Israel’s rebellion against God is spelled out in verse 2:

The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

What a contrast with Jesus, the Son of God! In the New Testament, Jesus’ whole life is defined by his close relationship with God, his heavenly Father.  But in the Old Testament, we could say that Israel’s life as a people was largely shaped by their rejection of God. This is the major story of the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, and even back into the earlier books that tell the Exodus story.

The specific form their rebellion took was idolatry: the worship of things that are not God. In other words, they rejected their ideal parent and ran off with another one – and then another – and then another – and so it went on. Note this: God isn’t giving in to a fit of jealousy here, like an insecure parent who complains because his child doesn’t worship the ground he stands on. No—idolatry is poisonous for us as humans, because so often we humans become like the things we worship.

We can see an innocent example of that in fans of rock bands who sometimes dress up in the same kind of gear their idols wear. I’m old enough to remember Bay City Rollers fans from the 1970s, all dressed up in tartan like the boys they loved so much! But far less humorous is the story in the Iliad of the Greek king Agamemnon, leader of the army that was trying to cross the Aegean sea to fight against the city of Troy. But the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and the Greeks were getting incredibly frustrated. Eventually Agamemnon’s prophet told him the only way he could get a favourable wind was if he would offer his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to the gods. And Agamemnon did that. He worshipped savage gods, and he became savage, just like them.

This sin is also mentioned in the Old Testament: some of the Israelites were influenced by worshippers of the god Molech, and they began offering their children in human sacrifice to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yahweh is appalled by this: “I never asked this,” he says, “nor did it ever enter my mind!” And there are other things that seem to go hand in hand with idolatry in the writings of the prophets: injustice, cruelty, oppression of the poor, sexual immorality and so on. Apparently, to reject the God of Israel is to reject his moral and ethical teaching too.

This is not ancient history. In case you hadn’t noticed, idolatry is alive and well today. When we turn to created things and ask them to fulfil God’s role in our lives, we make them into false gods. Many people do that with money and possessions, or success, or popularity. In the scary world we live in, nationalism is a powerful idol for some people: loyalty to their country is the highest ideal they can think of.

In our culture these are powerful God-substitutes that call us away from the worship of the one true God. Christian conversion, to St. Paul, involves turning away from these idols. Listen to his words in 1 Thessalonians: ‘For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead’ (1.9-10).

This turning from idols to the one true God isn’t just a one-off thing. False gods are constantly tempting us. Think of how many times we fall for the ads that promise us ultimate happiness if we just buy their product. We’ve seen again and again that they’re peddling lies, but still we give in! So daily conversion involves intentionally turning away from the lies of those false gods, and turning back to the one true God who alone can give us what we’re looking for.

We’ve seen that we’re the children of the living God, but we’re also wayward children who tend to stray away from him and worship false gods. So how is God going to respond? Is it going to be judgement or forgiveness?

Let me read verses 5-9 again, only this time from the New Living Translation:

“But since my people refuse to return to me,they will return to Egyptand will be forced to serve Assyria.War will swirl through their cities;their enemies will crash through their gates.They will destroy them,trapping them in their own evil plans.For my people are determined to desert me.They call me the Most High,but they don’t truly honour me.

“Oh, how can I give you up, Israel?How can I let you go?How can I destroy you like Admahor demolish you like Zeboiim?My heart is torn within me,and my compassion overflows.No, I will not unleash my fierce anger.I will not completely destroy Israel,for I am God and not a mere mortal.I am the Holy One living among you,and I will not come to destroy.”

Here we are really gazing into the pain in the heart of God, aren’t we? What parent hasn’t felt this way? “I can’t believe she did this! How could she betray my trust like that? If I let her get away with it, her feet are going to be set on a path that leads to a very bad place. I need to stamp this out right now! But wait—if I do, she’s going to be really hurt! She’s going to think I’m rejecting her, and she’ll hate me for it. How can I possibly cause her pain? I can’t bring myself to do that. But if I let her get away with it…”

In this section we see God mulling this over. He contemplates sending them away into exile, but then he recoils from this thought. In fact, he sounds like a parent who says rash things in the heat of the moment, then thinks it over and in the morning gives a more measured response. Are there any parents here who have done that? I know I have! “No”, God says, “if I behaved like that I’d be acting just like a mortal—a human with a temper problem!” God will correct us, but in love, not in anger.

In one of his books Philip Yancey talks about a conversation he had with a Japanese friend about the love of God. His friend told him that in his culture father-love and mother-love are complimentary but different. Father-love is the love that pushes children to achieve and makes demands on them. Mother-love is the safe place they can return to when they’re exhausted or lonely or demoralized. Philip’s friend felt that his culture had over-emphasised the Father-love of God but under-emphasized God’s mother-love. We can see this tension in the verses we’ve just read.

How does God balance these two kinds of love? Surely this demands infinite wisdom on God’s part—a wisdom all parents long for! Sometimes children misinterpret parental discipline. “You hate me! I hate you back!” If you’re a parent, this pierces you to the heart! We don’t hate our kids—if we did, we wouldn’t care. No—it’s because we love that we feel the need to correct and train our kids. But the overall framework for all of this is the deep, deep love we have for them. Balancing the contrasting demands of the different kinds of love is what makes parenting such a tough gig. Ask God—he knows all about how tough it is!

 So we’ve seen that we’re children of a loving God, but we’re also wayward children. We’ve seen the dilemma God has—balancing what Philip Yancey’s friend called father-love and mother-love is a tough gig. Finally let’s look at verses 10-11, which deal with responding to God’s call.

‘They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.’

These two verses have a poignant quality to them. They remind me of a parent shaking her head over her children, saying “One day they’ll smarten up!” We can hear the sadness in her voice; she sees the pain her child is putting himself through because of his choices, and she longs for him to change his mind and change the direction of his life.

Our NRSV Bibles translate this in the third person: ‘They shall go after the Lord.’ But the New Living Translation puts it in the first person: ‘For some day the people will follow me.’ We hear God saying, ‘Some day—I wish it was today!’

God is committed to respecting the free will of his people, so what can he do? He can call—and I think that’s what the lion’s roar in verse 10 is all about. The lion is roaring to signal to his kids that the street lamps are about to come on, so it’s time to come home! The kids have been having fun, so the call is a bit of a shock. “Whoops—I guess we stayed out too long!” So they come ‘trembling’, says the reading—they’re expecting a scolding!

Remember again Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The son asks for his inheritance, then goes off to a far country and wastes it all. When it’s all gone, and a severe famine comes to that land, he gets a job feeding pigs. That’s when he comes to his senses, and decides to go home. He makes up an apologetic speech to give to his dad, and I’m sure he practices it many times on the way home. Why? Because he’s expecting to encounter anger, not welcome.

But to his surprise, he encounters not anger, but joy. His father gives him a bear-hug and a kiss, sends a servant off for new shoes and new clothes, and throws a feast in his honour to welcome him home. Jesus says this is how God treats us when we come home to him. We’re wayward children, yes, but we’re still his children, and nothing can change that fact. ‘They shall come trembling…,’ says God, but ‘…I will return them to their homes.’

The heart of God is our home. We’ve seen that God’s heart is full of love for us, a love stronger and wiser and fiercer than the love of any parent who has ever lived. We’re constantly being tempted to stray from that home, but God is constantly calling us back. The welcome feast is spread out for us this morning. Let’s come home again to the heart of God.

[1]I’m indebted for this image to Paula Gooder, Hosea to Micah (The People’s Bible Commentary, BRF, 2005).

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In You I Find Refuge

(And this is today’s post)

‘Defend me and deliver me;
let me not be put to shame, for in you I find refuge.’ (Psalm 25.20 REB)

Looking at the rest of the psalm it’s clear the writer was going through many troubles: he’s ‘lonely and oppressed’, with ‘troubles in his heart’, suffering ‘affliction and misery’ and surrounded by violent and hateful enemies. And he feels free to pray about that without trying to put a brave face on it.

The psalmist had many adversaries, but God was not one of them. Rather, God was his ‘place of safety’. A refuge can be a strong castle to defend us from the enemies. Today we also use the word to talk about a peaceful place we go to when the stores of life blow strong. I have a strong sense of that when I come home after a long, tiring day. Home is the place where I know I’m loved. My comfy chair is there, and my favourite teapot, and the human whose love has never let me down.

Sadly, some people do see God as one of their adversaries. If we’re been trained to view God as mainly angry and perfectionistic, then we’re going to be afraid to take refuge in him. We have to receive again the New Testament teaching that God is love. Love may sometimes need to speak a hard word, but love does not reject us or try to destroy us. Nor does love ignore us because we’re an inconvenience.

The refuge is there. I’m invited to enter into it. Prayer (including listening and silence) is the way I do it.

Jesu, lover of my soul
let me to thy bosom fly,
while the gathering waters roll,
while the tempest still is nigh.
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,
til the storm of life is past.
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last.
(Charles Wesley)

(One Year Bible readings for January 31st are Exodus 12:14 – 13:16. Matthew 20:29 – 21:22, Psalm 25:16-22, and Proverbs 6:12-15)

The Pearl of Great Price

Jesus: ‘The kingdom of Heaven is like treasure which a man found buried in a field. He buried it again, and in joy went and sold everything he had, and bought the field. Again, the kingdom of Heaven is like this. A merchant looking out for fine pearls found one of very special value; so he went and sold everything he had and bought it.’ (Matthew 13.44-46 REB)

‘The kingdom of heaven’ is not ‘heaven’, nor is it ‘religion’. It’s the answer to the prayer ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. When God’s perfect loving will is done on earth as in heaven, then the kingdom of God has come.

So selling everything I have to buy the pearl of great price doesn’t mean giving up everything in my life that’s not ‘religious’. It means putting God at the centre of my life, and then discovering that everything else is in its proper place around him too. As C.S. Lewis once said, it means loving God above all others, and then discovering that we love the others more than we did before. God, help us today to seek first your kingdom and your justice, and then to discover that everything else we need has been given to us as well. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 41:17 – 42:17, Matthew 13:24-46, Psalm 18:1-15, and Proverbs 4:1-6)

Revealing them to the simple.

‘At that time Jesus spoke these words: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and wise, and revealing them to the simple. Yes, Father, such was your choice.”‘ (Matthew 11.25-26 REB)

I have a great respect for learning and scholarship. I’ve been greatly helped by the writings of scholars who’ve studied the ancient scriptures in their original languages and cultural and historical backgrounds. I love reading books by people who have really thought their way through issues.

But great learning doesn’t necessarily equal great love, and Jesus leads us in the way of love. The key word here is ‘revealing’. The mysteries of life in the kingdom are not learned by intellect alone; they are revealed by God. And no outsider knows a father like one of his own children. God chooses to reveal himself to us through the Son, Jesus. And Jesus chooses to reveal God to us primarily by teaching us a life of love.

Thank you, God, for wise scholarship, but thank you even more for revealing yourself to the humble as we come to Jesus and learn from him the way of love.

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Genesis 32.13 – 34.31, Matthew 11.7-30, Psalm 14.1-7, and Proverbs 3.19-20)

The God of your father (One-Year Bible #13)

‘Jacob set out from Beersheba and journeyed towards Harran. He came to a certain shrine and, because the sun had gone down, he stopped for the night. He took one of the stones there and, using it as a pillow under his head, he lay down to sleep. In a dream he saw a ladder, which rested on the ground with its top reaching to heaven, and angels of God were going up and down on it. The Lord was standing beside him saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac…”‘ (Genesis 28.10-13 REB)

In this story God describes himself to Jacob as ‘the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac’. He’s not yet ‘the God of Jacob’. Jacob has been raised in a family of faith but it’s not yet his faith. Until this moment he only knows God by hearsay.

But now this is changing; for the first time, he encounters God for himself. Not that he understands everything clearly. Far from it! He makes the mistake of thinking he can cut a deal with God: ‘If God will be with me, if he will protect me on my journey and give me food to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come back safely to my father’s house, then the Lord shall be my God’ (vv. 20-21). It takes Jacob many years to learn that there’s no cutting deals with God! But at least he’s on the road now.

What’s the New Testament equivalent of Jacob’s ladder?

‘”Rabbi,” said Nathanael, “you are the Son of God; you are king of Israel.” Jesus answered, “Do you believe this because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than that.” Then he added, “In very truth I tell you all: you will see heaven wide open and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1.49-51).

Jesus is the ladder from earth to heaven. He is the one who connects us with God.

Lord Jesus, thank you for connecting us with God. Help us not to be content with faith by hearsay. Help us press on to know God as you have made him known to us.

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Genesis 28:1 – 29:35, Matthew 9:18-38, Psalm 11:1-7 and Proverbs 3:11-12)

 

God our Refuge (a sermon on Psalm 62)

I wonder what you think about when you hear the word ‘refuge’?

A few years ago, Marci and I were up in Jasper and we decided to ride the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain. For those of you who haven’t been there, the tramway takes you about 80% of the way to the top. There are great views from the upper tramway station and if all you’re looking for is a good photo opportunity and a chance for a coffee in a restaurant near the top of a mountain, you’ll probably be happy with that!

But if you want to, you can also hike up from the station to the actual summit of the mountain; it takes me about an hour, although of course some people are faster than me. On this particular occasion the weather up there was a little iffy; the clouds kept coming down and then lifting again, and those clouds had snow in them. At one point the snow began to fly furiously and the wind was wickedly cold, and Marci and I decided to take shelter until the weather blew over. We found a nice big rock and hunkered down on the lee side of it, where we sat and munched on granola bars for a few minutes until the clouds lifted and the sun came out again!

‘Refuge’. That rock was a place of refuge for us. Move away from the rock, and we were subject to the battering of the wind and the cold. Move into the shelter of the rock, and we experienced protection. In the words of today’s psalm, it was ‘our mighty rock, our refuge’ (see Psalm 62:7b).

The theme of Psalm 62 is trust in God. And not just ‘trust in God’ in general – trust in God when the wind blows and the snow flies and life gets hard. Trust in God when you need shelter, when you need protection. In other words, this wasn’t just an academic exercise for the psalmist. When he wrote these words, he wasn’t just taking part in a poetry exercise. He was going through a battering of some kind, and he had discovered from his own personal experience that God was a place of refuge for him in times of trouble.

Before we go any further, let me remind you of a couple of things about the psalms.

First – and I say this because some of us here are very new to church and may not know this – the psalms that we read together each week as part of our service are very old. They were originally written in Hebrew and are included in what we call the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. We don’t know for sure who wrote them or when they were written, although some of them may go back to the time of King David, about a thousand years before Christ. Many of them are probably not be that old, but all of them come from well before the time of Christ. They were collected and used as the prayer book and hymn book of the Jewish people, and Jesus would have been very familiar with them – indeed, he probably had many of them memorized, just like some of you have favourite hymns and songs memorized. So when we pray the psalms together, we’re actually joining in the prayers of the Old Testament people and of Jesus himself.

Second, the psalms are different from the rest of the Bible. In the rest of the Bible what we often get is God speaking to his people – and through them, to us today. But the psalms don’t speak to us – they speak for us. First and foremost, they’re prayers, and very honest prayers too. So we don’t read them in the same way we would read a letter of Paul or a prophecy of Isaiah. The best way to use the psalms is to pray them – and as we pray them, we’ll learn to understand them better.

Third, the psalms are poetry. Poetry isn’t meant to be understood literally – it uses imagery and metaphor to draw us into its world of feeling and experience. When philosophy tries to describe God, it uses words like ‘omniscient’ (he knows everything), or ‘omnipresent’ (he’s present everywhere), or ‘almighty’ (he can do anything). But the psalms don’t tend to use philosophical language for God; they call God ‘my shepherd’, ‘my rock’, ‘my fortress’, ‘my refuge’. These aren’t literal statements – they’re powerful metaphors to help us enter into an experience of God.

So let’s look for a few minutes at Psalm 62. As I said the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and sometimes it’s a tricky language to translate into modern English. Archeologists have discovered quite a lot of ancient manuscripts, and sometimes there are differences between them. If you look at different English translations like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version, you’re going to see some differences. I’m going to base my thoughts today on the NRSV, which is a little different from the version we read a few minutes ago in our Book of Alternative Services.

As I said, the theme of this psalm is trusting in God in the time of trouble. The first thing I want you to notice is the structure of the psalm; it jumps back and forth from God, to people, to God, to people, and finally to God again. Turn to it in your pew Bible and look at it on the page. Notice that there are basically five sections. Verses 1-2 are about trusting God. Verses 3-4 are about the actions of the enemies. Verses 5-8 are about trusting God again. Verses 9-10 are about the attributes of humans. And finally, verses 11-12 return to the theme of trusting God. Neat, isn’t it?

So why does the psalmist write this prayer? Apparently, because he was being assailed in some way by people who were out to get him. Look at verses 3-4:

‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence? Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse’.

I love that image of the wall: ‘How long will you assail a person, will you batter a victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?’ We can imagine a rickety old wall, in such poor shape that a little gust of wind could bring it down! And we get the point right away: the writer of the psalm is feeling fragile, because he’s being persecuted.

It doesn’t sound to me as if the persecution is imprisonment or torture or danger of death – at least, not yet. What seems to be happening is that people are spreading lies about him. To his face, they’re being nice to him: “Well, hello there, my friend! How are you doing these days! It’s so good to see you!” But he’s not deceived by these greetings, because he’s heard rumours about what they’re saying behind his back. ‘Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood’ (v.4) – or, as the B.A.S. version says, ‘lies are their chief delight’.

I’ve got a couple of things to say about this. First of all, this is a form of persecution most of us can identify with. Most of us here haven’t been imprisoned or tortured for our faith. Most of us haven’t had to flee our homes as refugees. But all of us, from time to time, have been the victims of gossip campaigns. We’ve all experienced those who greeted us warmly but whose greetings made our skin crawl, because we knew what they were saying about us behind our backs.

Second, let’s not minimize this form of persecution as if it wasn’t serious. Sometimes it can be devastating. A person’s reputation – and their entire life – can be destroyed by a false story. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a story; sometimes it can just be a question raised about their character or their history. It doesn’t matter – the damage is done. A lie once told can’t be recalled. Even if it’s later disproved, the victim will still be affected by it.

So what do we do about this situation? What does the psalmist recommend?

Negatively, we’re not to be surprised by it. People are not saints. People are complicated. We’re a bag of contradictions: joys and fears, loves and resentments, strengths and weaknesses. Good people do bad things sometimes; none of us is completely without our skeletons in the closet. The psalmist has a lovely poetic way of describing the human condition: look at verse 9:

‘Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath’.

I love the way the New Living Translation puts this verse:

‘Common people are as worthless as a puff of wind, and the powerful are not what they appear to be. If you weigh them on the scales, together they are lighter than a breath of air’.

So human beings might be able to give us a little help, the writer says, but in the end they’re strictly limited. Even the powerful, the rich, the movers and shakers, are ‘a delusion’. All their grandeur and their wealth and their fine clothes can’t change the fact that underneath, they’re just fallible human brings with the same weaknesses and frailties as the rest of us. They make mistakes, their projects fail, and one day – like everyone else – they die.

No, the psalmist tells us – trust in God. In the long run, God is the one who can be trusted.

Look at these poetic images the psalmist uses for God: ‘He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken’ (v.2) – ‘My mighty rock, my refuge is in God’ (v.7) – ‘God is a refuge for us’ (v.8) – ‘Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord’ (vv.11-12a). We get the message: when the wind is blowing on the top of the mountain, threatening to freeze your bones, God is the rock you can get behind for shelter. “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.

How does that work? What do we actually do to take refuge in God? The psalmist offers us two insights that seem at first to be contradicting each other.

First, he seems to counsel silence. Verse 1 says ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation’. Verse 5 returns to the theme: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him’. The idea seems to be ‘Wait for God to help you, and while you’re waiting, keep your mouth shut!’

But this can’t be what the verse means, because verse 8 goes on to counsel speaking! ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This makes sense to us; as someone once said, ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ How many of us have had the experience of carrying around a heavy load on our hearts, and then finally being able to tell someone about it. The load was lifted! The problem hadn’t gone away, but just the fact that we could pour out our hearts to someone else made us feel better! We weren’t alone any more!

How do we resolve this contradiction?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the psalms were written in ancient Hebrew, and it isn’t always easy to translate into English. Many words don’t have exact English equivalents. With some words, scholars aren’t completely sure what they mean. And sometimes archeologists have found many manuscript copies of a particular passage, and they aren’t exactly the same – a copyist has made an error and transmitted it to others.

So ‘waiting on God in silence’ might not be the best translation of what the author originally wrote in verses 1 and 7. One of the commentaries I read suggests this translation: ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’. I love that! I get the picture of someone who has cultivated a close relationship with God: they’ve spent time with God in prayer, speaking and listening. They’ve learned from God’s commandments and God’s teachings and tried to shape their lives by what God says. And the result is this feeling of restfulness. Couples with good marriages know what this is about! It’s not that you don’t try to please each other; of course you do! But you’re not anxious about it; you’ve been together for a long time and you feel totally secure in each other’s love. That’s the way the psalmist is in his relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Our NRSV translates verse 7 in exactly the same way, but some other ancient versions put it slightly differently: ‘Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. In verse 1 his soul is at rest in God, but in verse 7 he’s encouraging himself to stay there. He’s just had this huge shock of discovering this awful gossip campaign that his friend has started against him; he feels like a leaning wall, a tottering fence, as if his life is shaken to the foundations. But then he stops, takes a deep breath, remembers his experience of the love of God, and says to himself, ‘Truly, my soul take rest in God’.

When we understand the verses in this way, verse 8 flows right along: ‘Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us’. This is part of resting in God: sharing with him what’s on our hearts. Sometimes that’s an experience of joy, sometimes it’s an experience of anguish. Whatever is on our hearts, we’re encouraged to ‘pour it out to God’.

I experienced this for myself in a powerful way a few years ago when my friend Joe Walker died. Some of you knew Joe; he was forty-seven when he died of cancer; he left behind a wife and four children under the age of twelve. He was a great priest, a great evangelist, a thoughtful and genuine Christian. And I was mightily annoyed at God when he died.

I found it difficult to pray. I couldn’t make all the usual affirmations about God’s goodness and love. They rang hollow for me. I would go for my morning walk around Blue Quill park, and the only thing I could do was yell at God. I told him that if he’d wanted a list of people to snuff out, I could have given him one, but Joe definitely wouldn’t have been on it. I asked him what sort of loving care it was for Joe’s kids to do this to them. It wasn’t rational; it was visceral. But it was honest; it was how I felt.

The funny thing was: it helped. When I came back from those walks, I felt better. More than better: I had the sense that God was with me much more than when I tried to mouth platitudes I couldn’t bring myself to believe. I was pouring out my heart to God, and God heard my prayer. I didn’t get answers, but I did get God.

So this is the experience the psalmist is inviting us into this morning. Have you experienced it?

We all go through blizzards of one kind or another. Relationships are tough and sometimes people let us down; sometimes they hurt us badly. The good news is: God can be a place of refuge for us. God can be a fortress, a mighty rock.

But it doesn’t happen instantly; it takes time to cultivate that sort of relationship with God. ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God…Truly, my soul, take rest in God’. This is a daily decision: to turn to God, to listen to God, to be quiet in God’s presence, to listen for God’s word, to trust in God. This is a lifetime’s journey, but it begins tonight, or tomorrow morning, when you make the decision to open your Bible and read, and to say your prayers.

And say your prayers honestly. ‘Pour out your heart before him’. There’s no point in trying to deceive God; he knows what’s in your heart! So be the real ‘you’ when you pray. Tell God the truth, warts and all. He can take it! Martin Luther apparently once said ‘It’s better to shake your fist at God than turn your back on God’. So let’s turn to God, pour out our hearts to him, and find rest in him, so that we can learn to say from our own experience, ‘Truly my soul is at rest in God; from him is my salvation’.

Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why

Survey after survey has indicated that religious affiliation and practice are in decline in much of the western world. Over the last twenty years the statistics are quite dramatic.

Responses to this in churchland vary. Some are in denial (‘My church is doing fine, so I can’t see how it can be true’). Some are pointing fingers at changes (or lack of changes) in the church (‘We’re too homophobic’, ‘We don’t believe in the Bible any more’, ‘We gave up the old prayer book’ etc. etc.). Some think we should just retreat into our ghetto and accept that this is just the way things are.

It seems to me that we need some hard data as to why people are either dropping away, or (in the case of the young) not joining in the first place. I don’t know if we have that data.

In the absence of it, all kinds of solutions are being floated. We should bring contemporary music into the church (actually, we’ve been doing that since the 1970s). We should make the church more seeker-friendly. We should make it more like Starbucks. We should have more invitation Sundays. We should get out in mission more etc. etc.

None of these ideas are necessarily bad, but are they addressing the actual reasons for decline and disinterest? I suspect not.

I have no statistical evidence for the idea I’m about to float, but conversations with lapsed churchgoers and with people outside the church lead me to believe it’s a bigger factor than we would like to admit. I would suggest that one of the major reasons for the decline in religious faith and practice is that people are actually finding it a lot harder to believe in Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, etc. etc.) these days.

People are steeped in science from their early school days. Science purports to have a totally satisfactory answer to the universe that doesn’t require the God hypothesis. And as Isaac Asimov observed years ago in his Foundation novels, science has this huge advantage: it obviously works. Planes fly. Computers buzz. Cells divide. Medicine heals (way more effectively than it did fifty years ago). You don’t have to take science on faith; it’s empirically provable.

People are also very aware of all the crap that’s going on in the world. Natural disasters are proliferating. We just conquer one deadly disease and another one comes along. Wars and rumours of wars continue, with ever more deadly weapons. Terrorism spreads. Human beings kill and exploit and oppress one another. And God seems to do nothing. People cry to God, but there seems to be no answer. Hurricanes don’t appear to change course in answer to prayer. People continue to die because of diseases based on genetic factors (‘they were made that way’). All of this is a huge challenge to faith.

And, quite frankly, people outside the Christian community don’t seem to notice an obvious difference in the quality of lives being lived by Christians. Divorce and family breakup seem just as prevalent among people of faith. Greed and materialism and racism and support for war and violence don’t seem to be seriously impacted by faith.

For these and other reasons, people are finding it harder to believe the religious view of the universe these days. If there is a God, why would he choose to work through such a weird system as evolution (which works by genetic mutations, which lead to suffering way more often than they lead to positive changes)? If there is a loving and powerful God, how come he isn’t rescuing us from the various kinds of mess we’re in? And if there’s a God, how come his followers don’t seem to be actually putting his teachings into practice (you know: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”, “Do not refuse one who asks for help” etc. etc.)?

If I’m right, we surely have to address this. And I think there are a number of avenues we can explore.

First, we need smart people who can engage with the arguments raised by atheists and agnostics. A strong case can be made for the existence of a powerful and loving creator God, and many intelligent writers over the years have made it and continue to make it (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, to name just a few). Some of these people have also investigated the intellectual foundations of atheism and secularism and found them just as wanting (I think especially of Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of God’, which he said was not so much answering people’s questions as questioning people’s answers). And in order for these discussions to be fruitful, they can’t be belligerent; people of faith need to make friends with atheists and agnostics, find out why they believe what they believe and how the world looks from their point of view. This is a risk, but we have to do it.

Second, we have to be quite clear that the point of the whole thing is to help people meet God – the real God, the creator of the universe, the one who is far above our understanding, who we can’t control or get to know in three easy steps because he’s always the senior partner in the relationship. People can’t share what they don’t have, and if we can’t share a relationship with the living God, why would people bother with us? They can get everything we’re offering somewhere else, at a much cheaper price! Unless we can say, “Yes, it is possible to meet with the living God, and I can help you do that”, what do we have to offer?

Third, we need to address the quality of our lives. Quite frankly, we are the only Sermon on the Mount our friends are reading. Is the Sermon clear in our behaviour? If not, why would they bother to read the original for themselves? Unless we Christians (individually and as a community) are living lives that surprise our neighbours, those neighbours aren’t going to be interested in hearing about our weird religious theories. Billy Bragg (no friend to organized religion) has said many times that the reason he doesn’t dismiss religion is because of all the people of faith he sees volunteering at the local food bank. Boom! There it is!

In this blog post I’m not proposing exact answers; I’m just attempting to identify the major issues. Quite honestly, I don’t think changing the church’s music or running invitation Sundays or – well, add your favourite solution here – is going to have much of a long term effect. Why? Because we’re still assuming that our neighbours are basically lapsed Christians who still believe the basics of the Christian faith, and would still attend if… (we invited them, or our music was better, or the pastor wore jeans and had a goatee, etc. etc.).

This may be true of some of our neighbours, but for a growing number of them, it’s not true at all. They aren’t lapsed Christians; they’re people for whom Christianity doesn’t make sense. They may believe in a vague god out there somewhere; they may not believe in a god at all, or they may think it’s not possible to know one way or the other.

What they are not is Christian believers; they find Christianity too hard to believe. And I think we have to accept that, and find a way to address it.