Monday, March 10, 2014

Sermons from March 9th

I preached the first in our Lent series yesterday. I tweeted that if preaching is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable then this one definitely fell in the latter camp. As a result I think I will be starting an 'Is it OK?' group to sit in a pub once a month and re-imagine, or at least re-visit, precious doctrines. Probably in the summer.

I preached twice, using different passages in the morning and evening. Text from the morning sermon only is in green. Evening only is in red.

Difficult sermon coming up. Not only will it be online but I will publish the exact text. I expect it to start some conversations.

Series idea. In part 1 we looked at God's eternal qualities. We established a biblical view of who he is.

Separate, personal, creator, sustainer, judge and king. In part two we look at some of the tensions involved in seeing God from our human perspective.

We have called the series, which we will follow through Lent, 'Triumphantly Painful'. We have played with many titles. Also 'Balancing Act'. The Father feels these tensions:

Triumph or failure?
Grace or severity?
Justice or forgiveness?
Obedience or rescue?

Or does he?

Thing is that my understanding, my human grasp of a supreme being, does not include the idea of one who struggles. I cannot believe God feels tense, nervous, pressure. What kind of a God is it who wakes up feeling worried about what he has done?

No, to that. Big no.

So let's, once again, do some theology. Some logos theos - words about God.

When we say the father feels the tension between:

Triumph or failure?
Grace or severity?
Justice or forgiveness?
Obedience or rescue?

What we mean is that we do.

When we talk of God we find ourselves tense, nervous and under pressure.

And we resolve our tensions with statements that make sense of these.

'God', we say to ourselves, 'must hate sin and love the sinner.'

'God's verdict on sin', we say, 'is death, but his verdict on Jesus is resurrection.'

'God's wrath needs to be satisfied' we say 'so he poured it out on his own son.'

'Sin needs a sacrifice' we say 'and Jesus is the one sufficient sacrifice.'

Those sorts of statement have kept me company all my adult life as I lived as a Christian.

And slowly, nigglingly, they have failed to satisfy me as modern Christian writers - yes, Christian writers - have unpicked them, re-imagined them and invited me to look again, see again, think again.

Rationalism, making sense of the world through the mind and logic, gave us the desire to make such statements.

Modernism, and now post-modernism, presents a greater willingness to live with contradictions.

This morning someone reminded me that quantum physics relies on the contradiction of particles being in more than one place at once.

So writers and thinkers started questioning where the world was headed and how we imagine God in such a world.

1. The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, in his book Never Let Me Go conceived a world where a group of children were raised for a specific purpose - to be cloned and available to replace the organs of their twin should the need arise. And readers cried foul. This must never happen.

Christian writer Steve Chalke started asking questions about substitutionary atonement - the idea that Jesus died in my place. You often have to have a really good phrase or saying to get noticed if you are stirring things up and the one he found was this 'cosmic child-abuse'. This, he said, is what it would be, if a parent gave a child's life for anything. And Christians cried foul. You can't call God this.

Was Jesus simply born to die? To replace our damaged organ, albeit our soul or spirit?

What's the difference between Chalke's God and Ishiguro's future?

And we look at Hebrews and we note something very odd. This writer saw a father beating his son as a good thing, a discipline, a way of life.

And we look at Genesis and we note something very odd. This writer saw describing God as one who punished, disciplined, inflicted pain, threw people out as normal. For that is how fathers dealt with wayward children.

And we know better. We have moved on. I repent of smacking my sons. I was one of the first of the new generation to begin to realise it wasn't the way forward.

We might need to re-imagine God. There is failure in the garden as well as triumph.

2. In our world we began to see attempts at harmonising contradictions failing. People want to take decisions at the most local level possible but don't want a post-code lottery when it comes to serious medical treatment. People want to identify nationhood with the smallest ethnic people group possible, making for lots of new, smaller countries. Yet we want to be part of a big joined-up world as unity is safer.

Then theologians such as Pete Rollins, who works amongst Northern Irish Christians pointed out that you can't harmonise all the contradictions in the understanding of God.

'The Bible itself is a dynamic text full of poetry, prose, history, law and myth all clashing together in a cacophony of voices. We are presented with a warrior God and a peacemaker, a God of territorial allegiance and a God who transcends all territorial divides, an unchanging God and a God who can be redirected, a God of peace and a God of war, a God who is always watching the world and a God who fails to notice the oppression against Israel in Egypt.

'The interesting thing about all this is not that these conflicts exist but that we know they exist. In other words, the writers and editors of the text did not see any reason to try and iron out these inconsistencies - inconsistencies that make any systematic attempt to master the text both violent and irredeemably impossible.

The result is not an account that is hopelessly ideological, but rather a text that shows the extent to which no one ideology or group of ideologies can lay hold of the divine. The text is not only full of fractures, tensions and contradictions but informs us that fractures, tensions and contradictions are all we can hope for.'

(Peter Rollins: How (Not) to Speak of God. SPCK 2006)

What's the difference between Rollins' God and the new political future?

And we look at Hebrews and find reference to a great cloud of witnesses - all the heroes of the faith from the Old Testament - who fought and struggled for a little people group who became a nation. People who were warriors, murderers, violent men and adulterers who are commended for their faithfulness.

And we look at Genesis and find reference to a serpent. It represents the possibility of evil built into the creation God had made, fighting against it. A creation that has to be protected from human inquisitiveness by a warrior's flaming sword.

We don't like this warrior God any more.

We might need to re-imagine God. We don't like that sort of triumph.

3. Then we found a modern, western, world that began abandoning the organised church and yet embracing eastern religions, ancient spirituality, Druidism and paganism.

People who liked candles but did not understand the light of the world.

People who liked peace but who hadn't seen that we followed the prince of peace, for we had hidden that.

And theologians such as Karen Armstrong, with her monastic background, took us back to ideas of mystery and suggested that not understanding everything about God is OK:

'When we contemplate God, we are thinking of what is beyond thought; when we speak of God, we are talking of what cannot be contained in words. By revealing the inherent limitation of words and concepts, theology should reduce both the speaker and his audience to silent awe. When reason was applied to faith, it must show that what we call 'God' was beyond the grasp of the human mind. If it failed to do this, its statements about the divine would be idolatrous.'

(Karen Armstrong: The Case for God. The Bodley Head 2009)

What's the difference between the new spiritual searching and Armstrong's vision of the future?

And we look at Hebrews. And find that the prince of peace suffered and it is he who we are to follow. The 'perfecter of our faith' (Hebrews words) endured opposition.

And we look at Genesis. And find that telling great stories to explain the evils of our world - pain in childbirth, male dominance, hard work cultivating land - are premised on the basis of a God who wants to avoid people living for ever like the gods do.

We might need to re-imagine God. He seems to want us to fail.

When Job's story was told his suffering was great. His friends attempts to rationalise it hopeless. The best thing they did was sit in silence with him for a week.

In Genesis 3, without explanation, we have a serpent appear in a perfect creation, representing the possibility of evil being inherent all along.

Is it OK to say that Jesus' ministry was a failure as well as a triumph?

Is it OK to say that if God is God we can leave it at that and agree not to understand.

Is it OK to say that sometimes things are bad and we won't get it?

Is it OK to say that we can't write a full theology of the atonement without becoming gods ourselves?

Well that is the mysterious place that this 40 years a follower of Jesus has reached. Neither word, triumph or failure, does justice to that dead man on a cross. It's not good enough to say his father punished him. It's not good enough to say he defeated his enemies. It's not good enough to say the Bible has all the answers.

It is, as the saying goes, better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but a new theology of God the father, for me, needs to include some mystery and some silence.

As Rudyard Kipling said:

'If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same...'


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

could you change the green text to a darker green? The colour is almost impossible to read on my screen.