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.
preached twice, using different passages in the morning and evening.
Text from the morning sermon only is in green. Evening only is in
sermon coming up. Not only will it be online but I will publish the
exact text. I expect it to start some conversations.
idea. In part 1 we looked at God's
eternal qualities. We established a biblical view of who he
personal, creator, sustainer, judge and king.
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?
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?
to that. Big no.
let's, once again, do some theology. Some logos theos - words about
we say the father feels the tension between:
Triumph or failure?
Grace or severity?
Justice or forgiveness?
we mean is that we do.
we talk of God we find ourselves tense, nervous and under pressure.
we resolve our tensions with statements that make sense of these.
we say to ourselves, 'must hate sin and love the sinner.'
verdict on sin', we say, 'is death, but his verdict on Jesus is
wrath needs to be satisfied' we say 'so he poured it out on his own
needs a sacrifice' we say 'and Jesus is the one sufficient
sorts of statement have kept me company all my adult life as I lived
as a Christian.
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
making sense of the world through the mind and logic, gave us the
desire to make such statements.
and now post-modernism, presents a greater willingness to live with
morning someone reminded me that quantum physics relies on the
contradiction of particles being in more than one place at once.
writers and thinkers started questioning where the world was headed
and how we imagine God in such a world.
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
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
Jesus simply born to die? To replace our damaged organ, albeit our
soul or spirit?
the difference between Chalke's God and Ishiguro's future?
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.
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
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.
might need to re-imagine God. There
is failure in the garden as well as triumph.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
Rollins: How (Not) to Speak of God. SPCK 2006)
the difference between Rollins' God and the new political future?
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.
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.
don't like this warrior God any more.
might need to re-imagine God. We
don't like that sort of triumph.
Then we found a modern, western, world that began abandoning the
organised church and yet embracing eastern religions, ancient
spirituality, Druidism and paganism.
who liked candles but did not understand the light of the world.
who liked peace but who hadn't seen that we followed the prince of
peace, for we had hidden that.
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:
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.'
Armstrong: The Case for God. The Bodley Head 2009)
the difference between the new spiritual searching and Armstrong's
vision of the future?
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.
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.
might need to re-imagine God. He
seems to want us to fail.
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.
Genesis 3, without explanation, we have a serpent appear in a perfect
creation, representing the possibility of evil being inherent all
it OK to say that Jesus' ministry was a failure as well as a triumph?
it OK to say that if God is God we can leave it at that and agree not
it OK to say that sometimes things are bad and we won't get it?
it OK to say that we can't write a full theology of the atonement
without becoming gods ourselves?
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.
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.
Rudyard Kipling said:
you can meet with Triumph
and Disaster. And treat
those two impostors just the same...'