Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts on Sunday 12 November 2017
Where are we up to in Romans, this book that is a long argument about how the reason for hope and joy in our lives is the love of God in Jesus NOT obeying an angry God?
We’ve heard about Paul being unashamed to say he is a follower of Jesus and of his passionate longing to know God which made him accept being humbled by Jesus and utterly wrong about obeying the law as the way of salvation.
We’ve heard that although we will die, if we trust God that’s not a scary thing
We’ve heard that doing good things is hard work but that’s what we are called to do with God’s help.
These are all amazing things.
And here in today’s reading Paul breaks out into poetry, because he is so overwhelmed and passionate and knocked out by his vision of God. He’s straining for the words to talk about how much God loves us. It is an amazing vision. It’s deeply personal and close and warm and loving.
What is our vision of God? When I try to think of God I go dizzy. I think about what kind of being has made the complexity which is this universe, which we don’t understand. I think about the complexity which I carry round every day in my body which we don’t understand. I just go dizzy and feel like Job faced with God thundering at him ‘where were you when I made the universe?’ A bit scared. Well actually I – and you! – were in the mind of God, astonishingly and incomprehensibly. As the psalmist said, you have known me, you know all my days (Ps 139)
What is our picture of God? If we were to describe God what would we say first? A demanding person who we feel we fail all the time?
Paul is aware in every fibre of his being, his mind, his body his heart, that God is not the God of keeping rules. God is as he is in Jesus who showed us that the way of love is THE foundational principle of the universe. Paul draws a picture in fireworks of the explosive multi-dimensional love of God. This love made God, the dizzying God of creation, fold and squeeze herself into the tiny limits of a human body, which felt pain and loneliness and hunger just to show us the way of love, and save us when we fail to live in the freedom we have been given. So often in the bible this tremendous God announces her arrival with the words ‘don’t be afraid’ because we are created in love. We are loved by, and matter beyond measure to, the creator of the universe. Pray over that for a week and see what happens.
But we don’t live very much in the consciousness of this amazing love. Because, as Paul says there are things which can make us feel that actually quite a lot separates us from the love of God on a daily basis. What did I experience this week? Well we heard about Ntambe being under a deportation order. Where’s the love of God in that? but more to come…We heard about more random shootings by troubled Americans where people’s lives are ripped apart for no reason. The horror stories from the Middle East and from North Africa never stop. The abuse of women in Westminster revolts us. Where is God’s love in this?
When Paul talks about what or who can separate us from the love of God, he isn’t talking about the things which we cause to ourselves. He’s dealt with our deliberate self sabotaging actions, by talking about the love and forgiveness of God and our need to follow Jesus by focusing on doing good, on being wheat and salt and light in the world. He’s talking here about two sets of things: the things which happen to us through our following Jesus, and the just plain random things which happen in the world and which we bump up against. It may be a car crash or cancer, flooding the house, or depression, or loneliness or constant pain or poverty. And he also talks about principalities and powers, and today we remember the way in which the evil of war, sparked by fear and greed, is always with us, and what it cost so many people. The principalities and powers he talks about here take many forms. And where is God in all this?
Bad things happen to good people all the time. I don’t for one instant believe that these things are sent to ‘test’ us or to punish us or to purify us or just to torment us. The problem is how to frame them in a way which allows God’s love to be in them. And of course we know that Jesus also suffered. We don’t focus much on Jesus as a suffering lonely hungry unhappy person but the gospel writers do speak of him weeping and being hungry and tired and finally betrayed for no good reason. Bad things happened to him as to us.
If we are never ever separated from the love of God in Jesus, how does that work?
I’ve been led in this to read a book written by a Jewish Rabbi whose son suffered from premature aging and as a result died as an old man at 14. His father didn’t know how to cope and wrote a book, to help himself and to give his son the years which he might have expected and didn’t have. He explores how we make sense of the persecuting things in our lives.
One of the ways in which we experience the love of God is through community and through prayer. The rabbi writes ‘Human beings are Gods language’. We can bear suffering longer if there are others around us, who communicate just by being there. If you are asked to hold your hand in very cold water for as long as you can bear it, you can do it longer if there are others cheering you on!
We are God’s language, her Word on earth to bring comfort and the love of God. To be salt and light, defenders of the oppressed, the comforters, the ones who do that vital thing of making people feel they matter and that there is some meaning when meaningless things happen. I read an article this week by a journalist bemoaning the fashion for ‘thoughts and prayers’ on face book and twitter and saying that it also takes hard work. Yes. And we have that seen this week with Ntambe, that hard work supporting the oppressed works! So does the quiet work of taking food to those who are ill, or even being faithful in prayer for others. Jesus isn’t here but we are and we are called to be his language on earth. Of course those who die alone are not separated from the love of God and we have countless testimonies from the stoning of Stephen under the approving gaze of this same Paul, to so many ordinary Christians in our own day and age. I would put in a plea here for bible study or at least finding a book which teaches you something. We are books to each other as we share our faith too.
Another way we experience the love of God is to believe that this event which is getting you down is not something you did to yourself. As long as it isn’t! We sometimes have a nagging voice accusing us of being responsible and it may not be true or the responsibility is so tenuous that it’s mad to believe it. We can say ‘God hates what is happening as much as I do, but because creation is not perfect as well as people not being perfect, it has happened.’ And we can choose how to respond. We can say ‘it’s not fair’ and indeed it probably isn’t and God knows this too. But God in the crucified and resurrected Jesus stands with us and nothing separates us from this.
I want to share something here which I’m a bit shy about and I only say it because I shared it, only once, with a devout Buddhist friend and it seems to have stuck with her. I have increasingly come to understand that for me and for those who I work with sometimes, the collapse into hard times is always something of an invitation to share more deeply with God. God doesn’t want suffering, let’s say that loud and clear, but it can be redeemed. Jesus’ invitation is to know both him and ourselves more clearly, to know that when we hit rock bottom Jesus is still there with us, in whatever form. And often that form will be us. But dear God – and I say that very reverently – it takes faith to see it sometimes in the darkness and we need to help each other to know that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Finally the thought that has really stayed with me over this time of preparation is this: If we are loved this much what can we not do? Over and over you read about successful people saying ‘my dad or mum said I could do anything and they believed in me and I believed them’ . They were more than conquerors because they knew they mattered. Do we really believe we are loved this much?