Preached on Sunday, 04.02.2018
By the Reverend Dr Norman Shanks
Just after New Year we had a message with greetings from friends in the United States whom we’ve known for a number of years. We met them in Atlanta, Georgia; they have visited Scotland several times and are planning to come back again this summer. They live in North Carolina now and in the message, after telling us their latest news, our friend said, Praise be to God, who is in control of this mess we have in our country. It [feel]s totally unreal and out of control. A President who tweets orders, etc. and prides himself [on advances, etc.] that he has NOTHING to do with [to forward] good works, kindness, intelligence, smart politics, care for the “others” in our midst [or who are here] and he threatens to get them out, so we can be without color, or burdened by those who can’t help their situations of poverty and illnesses ——-and no concerns about the trillions of guns available – at Walmart or wherever – so that anyone can have easy access! Well, I’ve gotten started, haven’t I? We do pray for guidance from our Savior, who has promised that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We just have to seek, find and live in that Kingdom.
That’s a little insight into how people with a social conscience and concern are feeling these days in the United States – and the commitment of people of faith who are struggling to make sense of what is happening and how best they can bring about the change they are looking for. But I’m interested also in the theology that underlies that statement – Praise be to God, who is in control of this mess. This line of thinking is precisely what is reflected in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah – the notion of an all-powerful, all controlling God – who spreads out the heavens like a curtain – a tent to live in, who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing, [whose] understanding is unsearchable…. There’s an extent to which this image or understanding of God is incredibly reassuring and comforting. God the protector, our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble, who will not let our foot slide or slip. But it seems to me it’s not quite good enough: it doesn’t really chime with our own experience of life’s problems, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered – about God’s responsibility for and relation to the suffering, need, pain, oppression and conflict in today’s world, about personal lives that go off the rails, people who lose their footing through no fault of their own, about the difficult, even tragic circumstances that people experience, which we all know of whether directly or indirectly.
Around the same time we had the email from our friends in the United States a card came to us from friends down south with the awful news that their son-in-law had committed suicide. He had had an apparently successful career and happy family life but went into hospital a week or two before Christmas; he was a loving husband and devoted father and leaves behind four children aged 5 to 11. How can this sort of occurrence be made sense of? Where does it fit in with our take on what life is all about – the meaning and purpose of existing; our view of God and the relevance of faith to the world around us and the sort of situations we find ourselves in?
The big ‘how and why’ questions of life, the search for meaning and purpose, the attraction of anything, anyone who appears to offer something that will make our lives better, more fulfilling, happier is what drew people to Jesus. There’s a tendency within most of us to look for certainty and security – the easy answer, the neatly packaged bundle of beliefs; but of course it’s not quite as straightforward as that: homespun wisdom will only take us so far; there is no single, simple formula or panacea to get us through the hard times. Too often the packages fall apart under pressure when the walls of our lives crumble; bad things happen, even to good people: tragedy strikes, relationships break down, money runs out or whatever. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus does not carry with it the assurance of an easy prosperous life free from problems; nor is it about doctrinal creeds. It is about what we do with our lives, how we face up to what happens to us, where our priorities lie. The good news of the Gospel is about compassion, justice, forgiveness and joy – God’s very nature, God’s loving purpose for the world, God’s way in which we are called to follow – a way that is likely to be full of surprises and may well be costly and demanding.
We must remember too that the Gospels are not a historical account of the life and teaching of Jesus, accurate and literally true down to the last detail. They are not a verbatim record of what Jesus said and did; not the words of God but the Word of God – creative reconstructions with the purpose of spreading a message of good news – a deep truth that has stood, will continue to stand the test of time. There may be significant differences, even internal contradictions about what the Gospels say about particular incidents and events; but it is clear that they were well and truly rooted in experience at the time; there is a fundamental consistency of theme and thrust: this man Jesus was extraordinary. People flocked to listen to him, to see and hear him, sometimes to touch him or be touched by him: he embodied God’s loving purpose, he healed people, his message uplifted their hearts, provided encouragement for their lives. This was no superficial celebrity cult: his presence was charismatic in the fullest sense – God’s Spirit flowed in and through him. No wonder, as our Gospel reading said The whole city was gathered round the door; everyone was searching for him; or as it says later, People came to him from every quarter.
In and through Jesus people heard, saw, felt, were touched by the utter unquenchability of love, light and life in all its fullness, by the resourceful, relentless, resilient, reliable reality of God. His attraction and his authority lay in his authenticity; word and action were all of a piece; he was the real deal. His words, his influence, his very presence were compelling, empowering, sustaining, instilling courage faith and cheerfulness, encouraging resilience.
Twenty-five years or so ago, when I was working at Glasgow University, I had a couple of visit to Lithuania to take part, under the aegis of the Craighead Institute, in some lay training, adult Christian education. As a memento of that work I was given this little wooden figure. It is an image that I have discovered had origins in northern Germany in the 14th century and became especially popular in Lithuania and Poland during the time of the Communist regime and the Russian occupation. Big and small sculptures and other depictions of this image were evident all over Lithuania when we were there – in religious settings of course but also by the roadside and in other public places. I was told it was called Dreamer Christ; but I’ve discovered that it’s known more generally as ‘The pensive Christ’, in Germany as ‘Christ in Distress’, and in Poland as ‘Christ sorrowful’. It’s Jesus before his crucifixion , with his crown of thorns, contemplating his plight and his future no doubt with a huge mixture of thoughts and emotions. But I prefer the Lithuanian version – ‘Dreamer Christ’ – which reflects the perpetual dream of the people of faith, the hope of a better, brighter future beyond the current experience of the darkest times, and speaks of not a God who is control of everything, who makes even bad things happen, but affirms instead a with-us God, the encouraging companionship of God, the strengthening and supportive power of God’s grace, the assurance that light shines through every darkness, that love and hope triumph over despair and hope, that life is stronger than death, and through the miracle and mystery of God’s grace, sufficient for all our needs, even in the direst adversity, the hardest times we are not alone. Amen. Thanks be to God.
Affirmation of Faith
We are not alone: we live in God’s world.
We believe in God who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus – the Word made flesh –
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the power of the Spirit.
We are called to be the church, to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect for creation, to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.
In life and death, in life beyond death, God is with us.
We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.