Random Lent thought for Saturday March 25th: ‘Father’

I think we can probably take it for granted that the prayer life of Jesus was formed by the psalms. In one respect, however, he departed radically from that model: his name for God. In the psalms God is usually addressed by such titles as ‘Yahweh God of Israel’, or ‘God the King’, or ‘Yahweh my rock’. Very rarely, however, is any sort of parental metaphor used. Jesus, however, takes the parental metaphor and makes it absolutely central to his way of understanding and addressing God. ‘Father’ is not just one title for God among many for Jesus. In fact, there is only one time in the entire gospels where he talks to God using any other name, and that is when he was nailed to the cross and was quoting from the psalms: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

So Jesus’ way of addressing God is entirely simple and unpretentious. He doesn’t make speeches to God; he simply comes to God and says, ‘Father…’ And he encourages us, his followers, to do the same. ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’ ” ‘ (Luke 11:1-2a, NIV 2011).

The liturgical tradition in which I was raised (Anglican) has a long history of making beautiful poetic speeches to God (‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, Almighty and Everlasting God…’). Many of us Anglicans have been intimidated by the poetic genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. Jesus does not encourage us to make speeches to God. Nor does he appear to be in favour of long prayers. He encourages a simple and unpretentious approach to God.

What’s the most important thing we can know about God? That he is our parent (which means that he loves us more than we love ourselves; that he will die rather than not provide for our needs; that he is a role model for us; that he guides and teaches us, and that he disciplines us because he loves us). We can be entirely secure and confident in his love for us. Children who are secure in their parents’ love don’t make speeches to them; they talk to them naturally, simply, and without any sort of prevention.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father’ “. What a privilege!

The Fellowship of Forgiven Debtors (a sermon on Luke 7:36-50)

When I was a teenager I remember hearing my dad say that he’d like to have a sign on the door of his church that said ‘This Church is for Sinners Only’. I think some people were shocked and surprised when they heard him say that; it sounds so strange and counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You tend to think of the church as a place where we learn not to sin, not as a place for sinners. But to Dad, these words were an important reminder of the gospel of grace, which tells us that we all fall short of God’s will for us – we’re all sinners, in other words, whether we should be or not – but that God reaches out to us in love whatever we’ve done, and invites us to turn to him and be forgiven.

This reminds me of the famous words of John Newton’s well-known hymn:

‘Amazing grace (how sweet the sound),
that saved a wretch like me!’

To John Newton, this was his own story. He had spent the early years of his life as a sailor and a slave trader. He had lived in complete disregard for God’s commandments, not only abandoning his own faith but also trying to undermine the faith of others. But gradually the Gospel message had broken into his life. A two-week long storm at sea became the catalyst for the beginning of his conversion, and eventually in his late thirties he became a Church of England minister and a preacher of the very Gospel he had once tried to discredit. He felt that, like Saint Paul, he had been ‘the chief of sinners’, but God in his grace had forgiven him and made him a preacher of the Gospel to others.

Newton never forgot his early life of sin, and he never lost his sense of God’s continuing mercy toward him, despite his many failings. This gave him a tender attitude toward the sins and failings of others. He often said that when you know how much God has forgiven you, and continues to forgive you every day, you can’t help having the same forgiving attitude toward the people around you.

Our Gospel reading today has this same emphasis. We read that one of the Pharisees, named Simon, invited Jesus for a meal at his house. Dinner parties like this were very public. What we know today as ‘private life’ didn’t exist in those days; doors were left open all the time during the day and people wandered in and out at will. The dining table would have been in a U-shape, with guests not seated on chairs or the floor, but reclining on couches, leaning on their left elbows and using their right hands to reach for food and eat. The couches would have been angled away from the table so that the feet of the guests would be behind them.

There was a strict etiquette about these formal meals. As each guest came in, the host would greet him with a kiss of peace. As the feet of the guests would be dirty and tired from the dusty roads, the host would ensure that water was provided and the servants would wash their feet. Olive oil might also be given to anoint the heads of the guests. These were the unwritten laws of hospitality; these were the ways the hosts would show respect and honour for their guests. Luke does not let us in on the secret yet, but later on in the story he will tell us that none of this had been done for Jesus. Simon had invited Jesus to this meal, but had then given him a public snub by not honouring him as he would an ordinary guest.

The NRSV translates verse 37 ‘And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house…’ One commentator thinks this should be translated as ‘a woman who was known in the city as a sinner’. ‘Sinner’ here would have meant at least that she had lived a promiscuous life, if not that she was actually a prostitute.

We can read between the lines that this woman had already had an encounter with Jesus which had transformed her life. Verses 40-47 explain that a person who has been forgiven a huge number of sins will respond to this forgiveness with great love. Jesus explains the woman’s acts of love by the fact that she has been – past tense – forgiven a great many sins. “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love” (v.47). It seems reasonable to infer that Jesus has already met this woman and has declared God’s forgiveness to her, perhaps even that very day; she has come to Simon’s party to say thank you to Jesus for all he has done for her.

The woman seems to have been temporarily deflected from her original purpose; we read that she ‘brought an alabaster jar of ointment’ (37) to anoint Jesus’ feet, but she does not immediately use it. She stands behind Jesus – remember that he is reclining on a couch with his feet extended away from the table. She is overcome with emotion and begins to weep, bathing his feet with tears, wiping them with her hair and only then anointing them with the ointment. In those days, this would have been scandalous behaviour. Women in Israel at that time kept their hair covered and only let it down in the presence of their husbands in their own bedrooms. To let down your hair in public and use it to wipe the feet of a man you were not married to was shocking; in the eyes of the people at the feast, this woman would have been acting like a prostitute with one of her clients.

This is certainly the way Simon the Pharisee interprets her actions. He even questions Jesus’ status as a prophet; a true prophet would know what kind of person this woman was! The unspoken inference is that if Jesus knew she was a prostitute he would not allow her to touch him or even be near him. Evil was seen as highly contagious; the only way for good and holy people to preserve themselves from evil was to avoid evil people altogether. The woman had come into Simon’s house like a contagious disease; it was Jesus’ duty as a prophet to rebuke her and send her away, and he was not doing so.

Note that Simon did not voice this opinion to Jesus; Luke tells us that he ‘said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (v.39). Prophets know things other people don’t know, and they use that knowledge, in Simon’s view, to declare God’s judgement. However, Jesus is about to demonstrate to Simon that he is indeed a prophet. Simon has not spoken out loud, but Jesus knows what he is thinking! And he uses that knowledge to rebuke Simon, not the woman, and to invite him into a different way of seeing reality. Simon is wrong; Jesus knows ‘what kind of woman this is’. He knows that she’s made in the image of God, she’s a forgiven sinner overcome with gratitude for the grace of God, and in her gratitude she is expressing her love for Jesus, who has made it possible for her to be forgiven.

So Jesus tells the little parable of the two debtors; one owes the creditor five hundred denarii – that is, about eighteen months’ wages for an ordinary labourer – the other fifty. Neither of them can pay, so the creditor cancels the debts of both. Which one will love the creditor more? Simon can’t avoid the conclusion: the one who was forgiven the greater debt will feel the most love for the creditor.

There is more to this little story than meets the eye. Let me ask you this: do you think Simon sees himself as a debtor to God? Probably not! In his view, the woman is a sinner; he is not. And even if he is, he certainly doesn’t see himself as someone who ‘can’t pay’; he’ll work harder, make the right sacrifices and ritual actions, obey the laws, and in time he’ll pay what he owes. Jesus is inviting Simon to see himself as being on a level with this woman; they’re both sinners owing a debt to God, and neither of them can pay the debt. Simon’s debt may be small and the woman’s may be great, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re both bankrupt! As someone once said, if you line up a bunch of swimmers on the coast of California and ask them to swim to Hawaii, it won’t matter in the long run whether some of them are better swimmers than the rest! Some may drown after a mile, some after thirty miles, but none of them are going to reach Hawaii!

But how can this be? How can Simon be a sinner? After all, he’s a Pharisee! He’s been circumcised, he’s kept the Sabbath, he gives tithes of all he earns, he carefully observes the food laws and keeps away from bad company! He is an upright man!

Yes, but Jesus says the heart of the law is the two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. And on that very day, in his own house, Simon has offended against the second commandment. He has not loved his neighbour as himself; he’s snubbed his guest by refusing to extend the traditional courtesies to him. He didn’t give Jesus the kiss of peace when he came into the house – which is as if Jesus had come into your home today, extended his hand in greeting to you, and you had stubbornly kept your hand at your side. He hadn’t provided water for the foot washing or oil for the anointing of the guest. In this way Simon has not loved his neighbour as he loved himself; he has not done to others as he would have them do to him. So he too is a sinner, and he too stands in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.

So do I. I may be a churchgoer; I may have been faithful to my marriage partner, I may never have killed anyone or stolen anything or cheated on my taxes. But have I loved the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength, with nothing held back? Have I loved my neighbour as myself? Of course not, not perfectly. These commands are the debt I owe to God. I have not kept them perfectly; therefore I too am a sinner.

This is the first way in which Jesus’ story challenges Simon’s worldview; like the woman, he is a debtor who cannot pay what he owes. Like her, he’s entirely dependent on the mercy of God if he’s ever going to receive eternal life.

The second way the story challenges his worldview is in his interpretation of the woman’s actions. No, Simon, this is not a prostitute trying to allure Jesus into an inappropriate sexual liaison. This is a woman in the grip of God’s grace. She had always assumed that her sins barred her from coming into the presence of God. But the grace of God had invaded her life, bringing her the free forgiveness she had never dared to hope for. Of course she wasn’t in command of her rational faculties! She was overwhelmed with gratitude to the God who had forgiven her and to the man who had spoken that word of forgiveness! And of course her actions were open to misinterpretation – just like the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit and the bystanders said, “These men are drunk!”

The story ends before Simon has a chance to respond. We don’t know what he said or did. Jesus is challenging him: this woman whom you dismiss as a sinner is in fact your sister in God. Like you, she was made in the image of God. Like you, she had a debt of sin she could not pay. God has forgiven her sins and accepted her. Will you also accept her, despite her reputation? Luke leaves the story incomplete to challenge you and me; we’re invited to supply the ending in our own lives.

Let me close with these two final words of application.

God knows everything about me. There are embarrassing stories about my life which I have been brave enough to tell some of you, but you can be absolutely sure that there are others I would never dare tell you. If they were broadcast on a screen in front of you all, I would hang my head in shame. We all have those stories. I know you have them, and you know I have them. And God knows them all.

How does God respond? He comes among us in Jesus as one of us; Jesus is the walking embodiment of God’s love for all people. But what do we do with him? Through our political and religious leaders, we reject him, scourge him, mock him and kill him on a cross.

What comes next in this story? If this church is not for sinners only, surely the next act is an act of revenge and judgement. But no: the Gospel tells us that God is a God who loves his enemies, and so Jesus’ response is to pray for his murderers: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). On the cross, he models the unconditional love of God for all people. It’s nothing to do with how deserving we are. In fact, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. God already loves you more than you can ask or imagine, and nothing can change that.

Do you believe that? The woman in our story believed it. Jesus said to her “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”. He wants you to go in peace this morning too. No matter what that sin is which is troubling you so much, he wants you to bring it to him this morning, leave it at his cross, and dare to believe that it is forgiven. We can do that this morning as we receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The broken bread speaks to us of Jesus’ body broken on the cross; the wine poured out speaks to us of his blood shed for us. To come to the Lord’s Table is to come to the cross; we come with faith, we hold out our hands, and we eat and drink the forgiveness that God offers us.

And having received this free forgiveness, he wants us to look at each other with different eyes. Simon looked at this woman and saw a despicable sinner; Jesus looked at her and saw a woman made in God’s image, overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s grace.

What do you see as you look around the church this morning? Christian congregations are like families, and like any family we accumulate resentments. Also, we express our love for God in different ways, and some of those ways look a little strange to others in the congregation! But Jesus is calling us to learn to see each other with his eyes. C.S. Lewis reminds us that, next to the sacrament we will receive in a few minutes, the holiest thing we will look at this week is our neighbour, and we should treat him or her accordingly.

You and I are debtors who couldn’t pay our bills, and we have been freely forgiven. What should be our response? Delirious joy, of course! Who cares what other people think of us? We just want to thank this Jesus who has brought such love into our lives! And then our second response is to have a gentle attitude toward our fellow debtors who have also been forgiven. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. How many times do we pray that prayer without thinking about it? Now’s the time to think about what it means, and to ask God’s help so that we can live by it.

‘The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity’ (a sermon on Psalm 8)

It’s said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, for eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. In 1952 J.B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. Today I think that many of us still have that problem, a problem we share with our ancient ancestors. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in the same way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancient ancestors for this; I suspect that many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure – a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’ – or a heavenly pharmacist whose greatest desire is to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals, to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament: it’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name for God that God gave to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’; most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of Israel’s neighbours, and some people in Israel too, ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’ (B.A.S Eucharistic Prayer #4). As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that just appeared out of nowhere by chance. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’; in Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth – we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads are well within God’s creative capacity!

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too – over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being – approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA – the intricacies of the human eye – the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We know about the incredibly beautiful creatures that live in the depths of the oceans, where no light penetrates – ‘Who are they beautiful for?’ Philip Yancey asks! We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of our God – of his wisdom, his creative power, his artistic skill, his love of outrageous colour combinations – have you looked at a sunset lately? – and his fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by him, and he continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him – our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun – our eyes are almost completely screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worship our glorious God, and we can follow his instruction for our lives – including the particular call he has given to human beings as we seek to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too; I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains; I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this – for good or for ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. God has made many different kinds of creatures – millions of different species, down through the millennia – but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it that we’re called to do, exactly? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands’. Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment; we’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. Here is our call as human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and of massive extinctions of wildlife species, it has become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

We Christians don’t always think of this as being part of our call to discipleship; it wasn’t such an urgent issue in Jesus’ day. But let’s not forget that in Romans chapter five St. Paul calls Jesus ‘the Second Adam’. In Paul’s imagery, the first Adam failed in his calling and was unfaithful to God. But now Jesus has come, and where the first Adam failed, he has succeeded. So the call given to the first Adam – ‘to till the earth and keep it’ – has also been given to the second Adam, and as we follow Jesus, it’s given to us as well.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked; we have been placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less? I think not.

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet; why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person – ‘Come, let us sing to the Lord – but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into the river valley, or go walking in Elk Island National Park, or hike in the mountains – or even just go out into the country regularly and look up at the night sky, undisturbed by street lights – we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us! He’s not going to revoke our job description! His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me, or not? And if the answer is ‘not’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 8: A preliminary study

I plan to preach on Psalm 8 this coming Sunday. What appears below is not a sermon; it is my study notes as I have been digging into the psalm over the past couple of days. Hopefully it might be helpful for any other preachers who may be thinking of preaching on this psalm.

Text (NRSV, slightly amended according to John Goldingay’s translation[i])

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

  1. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
    you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  4. what are people that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you pay attention to them?
  5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
  6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
  7. all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
  8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
  9. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Exegesis
Donald Coggan introduces his comments on this psalm with these words:

This psalm begins and ends with identical words: ‘Lord our sovereign, how glorious is your name throughout the world!’ It is within this framework of adoration that the rest of the psalm is set. God in his majesty is praised in the vastness of the heavens and even babes and infants (v.2) chip in! The God who elicits the praise of his universe is a God of justice, concerned for his creation, and concerned about those who flout his laws (v.2b).[ii]

This psalm holds in tension two amazing truths. On the one hand, there is the wonder and the glory and majesty of the eternal God, Yahweh, whose glory is even higher than the heavens. On the other hand, there is the care that God takes of human beings, who are so small in comparison, and yet have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands. This creates another tension: what are the limits of that dominion?  When does God stop respecting the free will he has given to humans in order to prevent them doing evil to ‘babes and infants’? Where is the bulwark, the barrier, which he has established ‘because of your foes’?

All ‘God-talk’ runs out into mystery in the end. We little humans are tiny in comparison with God, and so we can’t grasp the full wonder and magnificence of his presence and his glory and his love. Neither can we grasp how he balances his respect for free will with his desire to protect those who are vulnerable. We know that God has given us a high calling, crowned us with glory and honour, and made us to rule over the works of his hands. But we also know that we have fallen from our high position by our own pride and sinfulness, and often dispute Yahweh’s ownership of the things he has set under our feet. We can only praise God for his goodness and also pray that he will restrain us from doing irreparable damage to the world he has created and to precious young lives that he has made.

 

 

  1. O Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.

The Hebrew of verse 1 has ‘Yahweh Adonai’, which presents a problem for translators who don’t want to use the name ‘Yahweh’, and prefer to use ‘Lord’ instead, because ‘Adonai’ means ‘lord’! The New Jerusalem Bible has no such scruples and simply translates accurately ‘Yahweh our Lord’.

‘How majestic is your name’; the ‘name’ stands for the person, so ‘how majestic is your name’ is a poetic way of saying ‘how majestic you are in all the earth!’ We’re going to read about Yahweh’s glory being set above the heavens, but this doesn’t mean that he is not present ‘in all the earth’ as well. Indeed, he is above heaven as well as earth; his glory is not ‘in’ the heavens, but ‘above’ it.

We humans sometimes take our pictorial language too seriously. In our minds we may have a renaissance painting of God as an old man with a long beard floating in the sky, and maybe reaching down to us so that his finger touches ours. ‘The heavens’ thus become the home of God; God is one being in the heavens, the Son is another being, the angels are others. In this picture, God is contained by the heavens, in the same way that we humans are contained by the earth.

But the reality is far different, and is well described by the writer of 1 Kings in the words of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).

That author knew a thing or two about God! We talk about inviting God into our hearts; the reality is that it is God who holds us in his heart! ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). God plus a human being doesn’t equal two; God is sometimes called ‘the ground of being’, the one who makes all other beings possible. We cannot possibly adequately imagine him; every picture we create of him, even the picture of Christ, is a partial representation of the reality of God’s greatness and justice and love. 

2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
     you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
     to silence the enemy and the avenger.

John Goldingay points out that babes and infants in the Bible are usually on the receiving end of atrocities; they are the ones who are crying out to God for help. So the sense of this verse might be that this mighty God, who is far above anything we can conceive or imagine, is so concerned for us that he even hears the cries of the least significant of people – babes and infants. And he founds a barricade, a bulwark, to protect them from their foes, who are his foes as well, ‘the enemy and the avenger’: ‘Thus far you may come, and no further’, to use a military metaphor.

Of course, this raises questions in our minds, because we know of many instances where it is not true. Prayers for help have sometimes been answered, but often not: children have been abducted as child soldiers, or sold into sex slavery, or simply been bombed or raped or murdered, or treated cruelly in a whole host of ways. Prayers for their protection have apparently not been successful.

The reality of course is that, for a God who has apparently decided to respect the free will of human beings and allowed us to make decisions that have real consequences, it is not a simple thing to both respect that free will and also protect the innocent victims of it. I personally can’t understand how God can possibly do it. That he manages to do it at all is a mystery to me. It’s a little like a Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor goes back in time and is given the opportunity to remove a great evil, like the Daleks, from the time line of history. But he is always slow to do so, because he is afraid that their removal would also remove the good things that have happened as a consequence of their great evil. Changing time to erase all evil would be a very complicated thing, and maybe we humans would not like all the results of it. So where is the ‘bulwark’? Where exactly in the mind of God is ‘Thus far, and no further’? I don’t think we humans can know that.

Not all commentators agree with Goldingay’s interpretation, however. Rolf Jacobson prefers to see this obscure verse as ‘a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation’. He says,

But v.2bc may also reflect the creation motif, as Nahum Sarna has argued. The enemy and avenger in v.2c are best explained  as a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation. As is well known, the mythic concept of creation as a conflict was commonly held among Israel’s neighbors. Within the Old Testament, vestiges of this mythic idea are found. In Ps. 74:13-14a, 16-17, for example, the psalmist writes,

You split, by your might, the sea;
You broke the heads of the sea monster on the waters.
You shattered the heads of Leviathan;

Yours is the day, also yours is the night;
You fixed the light and the sun.
You set the boundaries of the earth;
summer and winter, you formed them.

It is particularly enlightening that both Psalms 8 and 74 refer to God’s might (‘ōz; cf. Is. 51:9, Ps. 89:11). The term is part of the vocabulary of the creation conflict myth, lending support to the view that the phrase you have established might because of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger is another reference to the act of creation.[iii]

 

 

3       When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
            the moon and the stars that you have established;
4       what are people that you are mindful of them,
            human beings that you pay attention to them?

Rolf Jacobson comments:

What sort of ecstatic event or experience has caused the psalmist to cry out in praise? The answer is given in the first full stanza of the psalm. As v.3 indicates, the psalmist has wandered outdoors at night, gazed up at the heavenly wonders, and been moved to praise the Creator…[iv]

We have all felt this at one time or another. We’re walking out in the country at night, and we look up at the sky and see the countless numbers of stars spread out across the heavens. We see the vastness of creation, and as 21st century people we are even more aware of just how vast it is, stretching out for millions of light years, millions of galaxies, far vaster than anything we can ever imagine. We also think about the vastness of time: 14 billion years since our universe came into being through the big bang – about 4.5 billion years since our earth was formed. For the great majority of the history of our planet we humans were not even here; we arrived at 3 seconds to midnight. We are tiny in terms of our size, tiny in terms of the length of our existence as a species, and almost infinitely tiny in terms of our individual span of life.

Donald Coggan says,

In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?[v]

But I’m reminded of a well-known anecdote about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: man is the astronomer”.

Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, and eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

Commenting on the psalmist’s mention of ‘the moon and stars that you have established’, Jacobson adds:

Many in Israel and among her neighbours worshipped the heavenly bodies as divine bodies. In this pagan conception, the heavenly orbs were endowed with sentience, power, and identity. Here, they are merely objects that testify to their Creator’s glory – indeed, the psalmist belittles them by calling them the works of your fingers.[vi]

“What are people that you are mindful of them, human beings that you pay attention to them?” The author of Genesis has the answer, of course: human beings are made in the image of God and are of tremendous significance to God. And the psalmist goes on to reflect on the creation story and what it means in terms of humanity’s place in the world.

 

5       Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
           and crowned them with glory and honour.

The familiar translation of the King James Version has ‘For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour’. The NRSV footnote indicates that the Hebrew word for ‘God’ here is ‘elohim’, a plural word, which could be translated ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘divine beings’, or ‘angels’. The note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says, ‘God, better, ‘heavenly beings’ (Heb “elohim” [lit. “gods”]. …As the heavenly world is ruled by heavenly beings, so the earthly world, parallel to it, is ruled by earthly beings’.

So we have here an enormous leap in the writer’s imagination. In the previous verse he was stressing the smallness of human beings; compared to the vastness of God’s heavens, they are tiny creatures indeed. But now we see that God assigns them a very different position; they are still lower than the elohim, to be sure, but only ‘a little lower’, and God who has ‘set (his) glory above the heavens’ (v.1b) has also ‘crowned them (humans) with glory and honour’. The glory of God has been shared with his human creations; we are made in God’s image and we reflect God’s glory to the world around us. Small, yes, but far from insignificant!

Jacobson comments:

Far from being insignificant, human beings are but a little lower than heavenly beings. Indeed, the king of creation has made humanity into royalty who are to govern creation responsibly. What is notable about the start of the second stanza is that even though the topic is the worth of human beings, the poet stresses the actions of God. In each of the four lines that comprise verses 5-6, the subject of the verbs is God: You have made, you have crowned, you have made them to rule, and you have set. What gives human beings dignity and value is not anything that humans have done for themselves, but rather something that God has done for them. Our worth comes to us from outside of ourselves (extra nos). That which God confers upon us is the key to our status, not that which comes from inside of us.[vii]

Perhaps a Shakespeare quote is appropriate:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![viii]

 

6       You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
            you have put all things under their feet,
7       all sheep and oxen,
            and also the beasts of the field,
8       the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
            whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Here there is a conscious reflection of the language of the first creation account in Genesis chapter 1:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:26).

The one who naturally has dominion over the works of God’s hands is God himself; he has made everything, and everything owes its continued existence to him. Furthermore, as far as we can tell there is absolutely nothing to be gained, in the strict sense, for God to delegate this dominion to his human creations. God is quite capable of looking after everything that he has made; indeed, he could probably do a much better job of it, even if human beings had not fallen into sin! So we can only speculate that it was for our benefit, not for his, that God chose to delegate this job to us. ‘Yahweh God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15 CEB). As we humans developed our skill and ability to take care of God’s good creation, the growth would be ours; we would be growing into maturity as the mature adults God had longed for when he created us. For this reason, it seems, he shared his glory and dominion with us: so that we could grow and become all he dreamed for us to be. Jacobson comments,

Any person who has been around small children may be helped to relate to the message here. Children do not only want to be helped and provided for. Children want to help, to contribute, to be valuable to the household. They want to do things themselves. The powerful message of this psalm is that God does not merely care about human beings, but values them so much that they are given a role in God’s economy.[ix]

‘Whatever passes along the paths of the seas’ (v.8, NRSV) seems a little strange; maybe the meaning is ‘not just the fish, but all the sea creatures that travel through the sea’. It seems unlikely that human commerce on the sea is in view here; that would give the strange meaning that humans have dominion over their own sailors (and why only their sailors?). So I think it’s better to stick to a non-human meaning here: not just fish, but also whales and shellfish and everything that lives and moves in the seas.

Jacobson points out that there is an interesting special movement in the poet’s language here. Through the first six verses of the poem, the poet has included a subtle motif of vertical descent: ‘above the heavens’ (v.1b) > ‘heavens, moon and stars’ (v.3) > ‘but a little lower than heavenly beings’ (v.5a) > ‘crowned them’ (a reference to the head) (v.6a) > ‘hands’ (v.6a) > ‘feet’ (v.6b). Having come down to the earth, the poet now changes direction and moves horizontally outwa4d from human society: ‘Sheep and oxen’ > ‘beasts of the field’ > ‘birds’ > ‘fish’ > ‘whatever passes the paths of the sea’.

The first animals, sheep and oxen, are the domesticated animals that share space in the midst of human society. The trajectory described then proceeds outward until it ends in the sea, which in the ancient near east was conceived as the place of chaos, least hospitable to human society. But that is all the more reason to marvel at the assertion made here in Psalm 8: the fish of the sea and even those mysterious creatures that pass in the depths of the sea are realms of human responsibility! God has placed even these wild and unknown creatures under our care! [x]

 

9       O Yahweh, our lord,
      how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalm ends with a repeat. This is the first hymn of praise in the psalter; Psalm 1 is a reflection on the blessedness of the one who meditates on the Torah, and Psalms 2-7 are complaints, both individual and communal, about human injustice, oppression and sinfulness. But this wonderful psalm turns to God in praise, and addresses God directly, in the second person: ‘You’ (other psalms of praise don’t do this; they speak of God in the second person: “O come, let us sing to Yahweh’ (Psalm 95:1). CEB Study Bible says, ‘Psalm 8 is unique among the songs of praise because it addresses God directly; that is, it is actually a prayer of praise’.

Jacobson comments:

Most of the Psalter’s hymns begin with an imperative call to a congregation to praise God. Psalm 8 begins differently – with an exclamation of praise spoken directly to God. The first word out of the psalmist’s mouth is ‘LORD’ (‘Yahweh’). No other hymn begins in this fashion. To begin a psalm with God’s name is a characteristic way for a prayer for help to begin; this connection is appropriate, for as a prayer for help begins with a passionate cry for help, this psalm begins with a similarly passionate cry of praise. The import of this nuance is that Psalm 8 is not just a poem about God. Psalm 8 is a poem about God and us and about our relationship with God.[xi]

It’s also notable that the previous psalm, 7, ends with the words ‘I will give to Yahweh the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ (7:17). A person praying the psalter all the way through will make this commitment – ‘I will…sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ – and then go immediately to ‘O Yahweh our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (8:1).

Summary
I think that this psalm is about the glory of God and the glory of humanity. It is a prayer of praise addressed to God, who has set his glory far above earth and heaven; the entire creation, from the moon and the stars in the heavens to the lowliest babies and infants in the earth, joins in praising and worshipping this glorious God. But this glorious King of creation has invited human beings to reign with him; he has given us dominion over all living things. So far from the glory of God diminishing our own glory, it enhances it: this unimaginably great Creator has called created and called us to be his fellow-workers! We are his children, and like a good parent he involves the children in the work of the house!

So what is the psalm calling us to do? It is calling us to worship God as the creator of all, and it is calling us to be faithful in our work as stewards of God’s good creation. Science helps us in both these callings: it gives us a bigger picture of the immensity of the created world (and therefore, by extension, of the greatness of the Creator), and it also gives us a better understanding of the world and how we can care for it, as God has called us to do.

References

[i] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone Part I, Westminster John Know Press, 2013, p.27.

[ii] Donald Coggan, Psalms 1-72 (The People’s Bible Commentary), Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998, p.38.

[iii] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Eerdmans, 2014, p.123-4.

[iv] Jacobson, p.123.

[v] Coggan, p.38.

[vi] Jacobson, p.123.

[vii] Jacobson p.124.

[viii] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[ix] Jacobson p.126.

[x] Jacobson pp.125-126.

[xi] Jacobson, p.122.

Bird-Watching and the Breathtaking Personalism of God

Yellow_Warbler_-_Prince_Edward_Point_National_Wildlife_Area_-_Ontario_CanadaBig thank you to my friend Rick Rice for referring me to this excellent article about the impact of language on our ability to notice individual details in the created world around us. As a birder, I was of course attracted immediately to the way the author used her experience with bird-watching to illustrate the point she was making.

A few years ago, as a freshman in college, I was out in the woods late under a full October moon. My classmates, who were drinking in the hut across the field, hollered at me to come back and join them. I shot back gaily, “I can’t! I’m talking to the moon!”

Indeed, I had been standing there enraptured, with my neck craned back at a right angle, and getting stiff, too. Most of this flower-child act, to be perfectly frank, was designed to catch the attention of a certain long-haired senior. It didn’t work.

Now I pass my days as a stay-at-home mama to a son who’s a far stride more genuine than I am, since he actually is enraptured by everything. In the midst of caring for him, I recently decided to do something just for me, something I love — so I took up bird-watching. Goodness knows I do enough standing at the window and saying, “Bird. BIRD. Look, a bird!” (Enraptured Son is easily distracted, so the birds have already proven themselves to be an ally.)

Quickly, “look, a bird” has changed to, “look, a brown-headed cowbird and his wife!” Suddenly, there are birds everywhere I look. (I have to be very firm with myself when I’m driving.) The broader category of “bird” has been replaced with a hundred sub-categories. Now I am seeing that this one flies in scallops, that that one prefers to eat off the ground. This one keeps going back to the marsh, and then way up to that treetop. That one would rather run and hop than fly.

Somewhere in the middle of all that information, they stopped being “bird” and started being “you.” You’re awfully territorial! You’re smaller than a mouse! You can’t sit still for a second, can you? Would you turn around so I can get a look at your belly? Oh look, when you open your wings up, there’s red and yellow!

You are lovely.

Read the rest here. And please do read it; it’s well worth it.

 

The God Who Suffers with Us (a sermon for Good Friday)

The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel has written a powerful book called Night, in which he tells the story of his childhood experiences in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald. He was not quite sixteen in the spring of 1944 when the Gestapo arrived to deport all Jews from his little town in Rumania. On arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women were segregated and Elie never saw his mother or sister again. In the book, he describes in harrowing detail the sufferings of the inmates at the camp. Perhaps the most awful experience of all was when the guards first tortured and then hanged a young boy. Just before the hanging Elie heard someone behind him whisper “Where is God? Where is he?” Thousands of prisoners were forced to watch the hanging (it took the boy half an hour to die). Then they were compelled to march past, looking the dead boy full in the face. Behind him Elie heard the same voice asking “Where is God now?”

It was experiences like these that led a group of learned Jews in Buchenwald to put God on trial for neglecting his chosen people. Witnesses were produced for both the prosecution and defence, but the case for the prosecution was overwhelming. The judges were rabbis. They found the accused guilty, and they solemnly condemned him.

Seventy years later these questions about God and suffering have not gone away. Today many people in the world live in enormous suffering.

Some of this suffering is inflicted by human beings on each other. The most recent example, of course, is the savage brutality of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria; we’ve all seen the stories of merciless killings and beheadings, torture and rape and all sorts of atrocities. But this is just the latest case of our inhumanity to each other; the last thirty years have given us many more. All too often, the response has been more violence: people killed by the so-called ‘armies of freedom’ in bombings and military campaigns intended to stop people being killed by tyrants and dictators. But at the end of the day, people are just as dead.

Some suffering we inflict on ourselves. For instance, those who choose to drive too fast endanger their own lives – and, unfortunately, the lives of others as well. Those who abuse alcohol and other drugs cause themselves all kinds of suffering.

But there is a huge pool of human suffering which seems to be completely outside our control. We think of the earthquakes and other natural disasters in recent years, and the millions of lives that have been devastated. We think of the deaths each year from cancer and other deadly diseases. We think of children born with conditions like cystic fibrosis, condemned to short lives full of pain and suffering. And we’ve only skimmed the surface of the enormous ocean of suffering in the world today.

To thinking Christians, this fact of human suffering is the most difficult challenge to the truth of the Christian faith. You’ve heard the question many times, I’m sure: ‘If there is a loving God, then why are these things allowed to happen?’ Some of the most talented thinkers and writers in Christian history have struggled with this question, including in our own day C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey.

I’m not going to attempt to give a comprehensive Christian view on this subject, but I do want to point out to you today that the story of Good Friday is very relevant to this question. On Good Friday, as the Apostles’ Creed says, Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. And if, as Christians believe, God has come among us as one of us in Jesus, then this changes our view of how God relates to us in our suffering.

Let’s explore that thought for a few minutes. Some religious traditions have a strong doctrine of a god who is totally removed from the sufferings of the world. On this view, God is devoid of emotion and untouched by pain and grief. Some of the Greek philosophers took this view. Their reasoning was that if we can make God sad, then in fact we can control God, and this can’t be true. And it has to be said that some people today take great comfort in this idea that God is far above all the dirt and pain of the world, unaffected by it in the light and peace of heaven.

Other religious traditions have seen suffering as a punishment sent by God because of human sin. The idea might be that suffering in general is a punishment for the sinfulness of humanity as a whole. Or it might be that particular cases of suffering are seen as punishments against specific individuals because of their sins. This idea is very common today. You still hear people say, “What have I done to deserve this?” The assumption behind that question is that bad things are sent to us by God as a punishment for our sins.

Some people have abandoned faith in God altogether. They cannot believe in a God who stays safely in heaven and refuses to do anything about all this suffering. This view is sometimes called ‘Protest atheism’.

But the Christian faith has a different angle on this. As I mentioned, it flows from our belief in the Incarnation – the idea that in Jesus, God has become a human being and lived and died as one of us. If this is true, then God is not far removed from the sufferings of the world. In fact, God has firsthand experience of suffering.

Let’s think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings Jesus experienced in his lifetime. There was doubt from the beginning about who his real father was, and sometimes this fact was thrown at him as an insult by his enemies. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working class family and no doubt experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father, Joseph, at a very young age, and so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family, who even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.

This death on the Cross was the height of God’s identification with us in our suffering. Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.

But not only was there the physical pain, excruciating as it was. It went further than that. Like us, Jesus also experienced a sense of the absence of his heavenly Father in his sufferings. As far as we can tell from the gospels, Jesus had never felt this before, but on the Cross we hear him crying out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So even in our sense of abandonment by God we are not alone; Jesus has tasted that experience too.

No, the suffering of Jesus on the Cross does not explain human suffering. But it does reveal God as willing and able to allow himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.

Some of you may have read Joni Eareckson’s books telling of the work God has done in her life since the day in 1967 when she broke her neck in a diving accident at the age of seventeen. She has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair and was often tempted to abandon her faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilised in a Stryker frame with no control over any of her bodily functions. Then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realisation was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her.

Many years ago I came across a little story called The Long Silence. In this story, at the end of time billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped an angry young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a concentration camp. “We endured terror, beatings, torture and death!” In another group a black boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no other crime but being black”. In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault”.

Far across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he or she had suffered the most. A Jew, a black, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! “Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges. Let him be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be horribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it”.

As each leader announced their portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. But when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

The writer to the Hebrews says ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).

We began with the story of a dreadful hanging in a concentration camp, and the question of an anonymous spectator, “Where is God now?” But I didn’t finish the story. Elie Wiesel recounts how, when he heard that question, he heard a voice within him answering “Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows”. And when we ourselves suffer, it is the weakness and scars of Jesus that strengthen us, because they tell us of a God who suffers with us.

In his book The Cross of Christ, John Stott says,

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing around his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark over human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours.

I wonder if you know this poem by Edward Shillito? He was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and, in many cases, severely traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. Here it is:

If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn though the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

Note: I received a more than usual amount of help with this sermon from John Stott’s excellent book The Cross of Christ.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ (book review)

51bca9zR2xL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_An excellent book for the most part. Dave and Jon Ferguson focus on the parable of the Prodigal Son under five headings or ‘awakenings’ – the Awakening to Longing, to Regret, to Help, to Love, and to Life. Also running through the book is the idea of the Thirty Day Wager: the daily prayer ‘God, if you are real, make yourself real to me’.

The five sections of the book each include several chapters built around the theme of the five awakenings. But there are also daily resources – a question to ponder, guidelines for journaling, and a prayer based on variations on the wager. I understand there are also DVD resources available.

The book is enriched by many stories of people who have experienced God’s help in their lives. Refreshingly, not all of the stories have happy endings (a couple of the cancer patients died, for example). The book is also permeated throughout by a sense of God’s grace – reaching out to people in their brokenness and failure with the opportunity for a fresh start.

I think this would make a fine resource for people who are not yet believers, and also for Christians who long for a deeper sense of God’s presence in their lives.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ on Amazon.ca.

‘Finding Your Way Back to God’ web page.