Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Day: The God who risks



The Gospel story of Jesus being born in a stable was so good that it tore a hole between the fabric of earth and heaven, lying alongside us, that was so big that a myriad of angels burst through it with uncontrollable joy, singing at the top of their angelic voices at what had just taken place.

So when did Christianity stop being such good news? 

When did self-identifying as a Christian become embarrassing?  I have friends in other religions who are proud to follow their beliefs.  So when did Christianity stop being Good News?  No birth in history has had such a long lead up to it as the birth of Jesus, and few continue to make ripples around the world for two thousand years. And yet across the western world, still the numbers fall and people turn away from the church because there are far more fun things to do on a Sunday morning than go and sing some hymns and listen to some bloke in a dress drone on for two hours about something incomprehensible.

When did it stop becoming Good News? 

Was it, do you think, when we started mixing up the church and the state, as far back as when the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, and the church started oppressing those who disagreed with it? Maybe, but that is ancient history now. What difference does that make to us?  Well maybe more than you think. You see it marks the way in which Christianity keeps being used as a vehicle by others to obtain and then hold on to or validate power. Christianity is too often a means of control, of telling people how to live, whilst those who do the telling keep having leaders who are exposed as not being terribly good at doing what they're telling everyone else to do.

So if I tell you that knowing the Spirit of God is alongside me and within me, freeing me up to be the person I was created to be from the very beginning, and helping me, slowly, slowly, to overcome the worst of my faults and become more human and outward-looking, and less self-centred, well hey that's Good News isn't it?  But then if I explain to you that the best place to experience that is in an organisation that wants to tell you how to live, will prescribe for you exactly what you should and especially what you shouldn't believe, an organisation that wants some of your money, essentially an organisation that looks like it might want to control your choices, well then that's when it doesn't seem like such Good News.

And it isn't. 

The church shouldn't have that kind of power and control. Jesus was born powerless, of parents about to become refugees in Egypt. That should be the role model. A priest is to offer help, assistance, to pray for and with you. Any more than that feels like trying to control people. My reason for being here is to help you engage with the One who takes a risk on you just as he took a risk on me.

You see, if I'm honest, that's what I think the Good News that comes at Christmas is all about; the God who takes risks with people. Now think about this for a moment. Lots of you are parents. When you took the decision to have a child or to adopt a child, you took a risk. When you get pregnant you have no idea and no control over what happens next.  Nature takes over. The growing baby inside you consumes as much of the mother's resources as it needs and the mother's body willingly gives up those resources. It's a foreshadowing of what is to come because good parents will go on and on, through every day of the rest of their lives, wondering what they can do for their children.

And it's all because you took a risk. My parents took several risks and they ended up with three children who were alike and yet so totally different, able to try their patience in oh so many different ways. Becoming a parent is taking a risk.  And of course you seek to guide and help your children find their way into the world, but a wise parent knows from very early early on that you cannot exert complete control over a child.

Now think for a moment about what it must have been for God the Father choosing to bring Jesus the Son into the world and hand him over to two completely na├»ve individuals, one of whom, Mary, was probably only about fourteen. Isn't that the ultimate in taking risks? But this is what God does, over and over again, throughout history. 

God takes risks, God doesn't seek to control us.

So you get King David, of whose line Jesus is eventually born. David the little shepherd boy whom God referred to as a man after his own heart. God took a risk on him, and by and large it paid off, until he committed adultery, got another man's wife pregnant and then arranged for her husband to die in battle. But even after suffering the consequences, God took him back and showed him a way forward.  In fact it was a child that he had later, Solomon, with the woman whom he stole, who went on to become known as the wisest king Israel ever had. God takes risks and helps us through the messes of life. Isn't that Good News?

I could tell you any number of stories from the Bible or, if we were wanting to be brutally honest, from our own lives, of when God has taken a risk on us, and we've messed up, and he's still been there, still been alongside us, still helped us find a way through and out the other side. God takes risks, and being born as one of us was taking the greatest risk of all.

Of course there will be some with a more philosophical mind who will tell you that God takes no risks because he's outside of time and can see everything from the beginning through to the end, to which I would answer, give me half an hour and I will show you a multitude of times in the Bible, and a few convincing philosophical ideas where God was surprised or changed his plans. Why? Because when God takes risks, they are real risks.

So Jesus being born was taking a risk. Being born to an unmarried teenager in a country where that carried the penalty of stoning was taking a massive risk indeed. But God takes risks because you and I are worth more to God even than our own children are to us.

This church here will not try and control you. I will not tell you how to live. I might encourage you in various directions if you ask me, but I'm as likely to screw up as anyone else. That's what sin is by the way; the human propensity to screw things up. But I know that God takes risks, so, will you take a risk?  Will you take a risk that maybe, in the mess of all its control issues and financial worries, that the church might actually be entrusted with a fundamentally important piece of Good News; that the God who risks wants to take a risk on you?

This, ultimately, is the good news of Christmas, that the love which God has for God's whole creation is so strong that God took the risk of emptying out all of that power and glory in order to be one of us, so that God could gather us up into the kingdom that is being created, one by one, as we respond.

I am not embarrassed to say that I'm a Christian. I might be embarrassed sometimes about the organisation I work for and the pronouncements of some of its bishops and leaders. I might be embarrassed that it follows equality rules that seem not to have progressed since the dark ages.  I might be embarrassed that it genuinely does need real money to run. But I'm not embarrassed to be a Christian, because God took a risk on me. And at Christmas, the birth of a tiny baby shows he's willing to take a risk on you too.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Midnight: Humility and Awe



Christmas Midnight

The problem with the word ‘Awe’ is that in the modern West we tend to precede it with two other words, ‘Shock and...’ ‘Shock and awe’ has become the phrase used by Western military commanders to describe a way of waging war on a country they expect to be completely unprepared and unable to defend itself against the onslaught.  It has become a tactic of overwhelming force that treats another country with contempt. But I want to suggest to you that this is the wrong way of understanding awe. This is to put ‘awe’ in terms of human power and maybe arrogance. If we are going to properly understand Christmas we have to put away the phrase ‘shock and awe’ and replace it with ‘humility and awe.’

To comprehend the miracle of what has taken place we need to look first at ourselves and understand something of what we are. So I’d like you to hold your hands wide open and facing each other about 5 or 6 inches apart.  In the space between it is possible to fit your human brain, that spongy, fragile, blancmange like thing which is the place where most of your conscious mind resides. I say, ‘Most of’ because the scientific jury is still out on whether the rest of your body may also have contributions to make to that sense of ‘Me’ that we all have.  Certainly those of us who do any form of meditative exercise know that it’s possible to move your sense of awareness around the body. But to all intents and purposes that lump of matter that can sit between your hands, to put it colloquially, ‘That’s you, that is.’ It’s not much really is it. Yet it is an outstanding piece of biological complexity.

Within your brain you have some 86 billion neurons, those are the nerves that do the thinking. Something like a quarter of the energy you generate from the food you eat goes into running the brain. Yet the numbers become more astounding as we go. On average each neuron connects with seven thousand other neurons.  That means you have something like one to five hundred trillion connections in your brain. It’s no wonder that we haven’t yet been able to duplicate it with silicon chips or quantum computing. You are an amazing thing, 140-200 pounds of self-aware animal. It is an astoundingly wonderful thing to be human, to feel alive, simply to be.

But if we’re not careful we can lapse into solipsism, that sense of self-importance that semi-defines western culture. Sometimes we need to gaze out of the train window at the houses going past, or at the drivers and passengers alongside us or coming towards us on the motorway, or at the airliner flying over our heads and remember that every single one of them is an ‘I’.  They all ‘exist’ same as you. They all have their loves and fears. They all have their hopes and ambitions. Every one of them is a part of the same lineage that we all share, trailing back to some distant African ‘Eve’, and we are all different yet all the same in our experiences of ‘I am I’. And there are not thousands; we could get our head around that.  We’re not even millions; we are billions, billions of individuals all around at the same time, all being aware of who we are. The numbers begin to mount up beyond our capacity to imagine, and then we need to think that every thought you have, every thought they have, every hope and dream is known and cared about by the one we call God and who calls himself ‘I am’ who is being itself.

I don’t even know all my own thoughts, let alone any of yours, and yet in his later life the one whose birth we celebrate tonight says that not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without God knowing about it. In order to get our heads around this and feel the appropriate awe we need to come back to that mental image of our brains held between our hands.  That’s it; that’s all that you are. The reason you can’t get your heads around God knowing all that God knows is because we can’t do that. We are so very limited. Even with all of those connections in our brains, we are so little, so tiny, and we have such hyper-inflated ideas of ourselves that we can scarcely begin to comprehend the magnitude of this God who we worship.

We cannot imagine a God knowing as much as that because we can’t do it, and because we can’t do it, we assume that he can’t, and thus, atheism, it seems to me, is born from a rational arrogance.  Yet when you look down at an ant crawling around on the floor, do you wonder if it’s interested in Eastenders? Do you ponder its ability to comprehend quantum physics? Of course not. We accept the difference between the ant and the human to be so vast that understanding is not possible. Yet we rarely scale up from ourselves to think big, to think really big. Maybe awe frightens us.  Yet humility and awe are such a part of Christmas that, unless we start thinking about the size of God in comparison to our minuscule nature, and recognise it for what it is, we are not going to be able to recognise what has taken place here in our tiny world.

You see an awareness of the number of humans is only the start of it. Once we start upscaling we can start thinking of the number of stars in our galaxy, which is between two and four hundred billion, many of whom we know to have planetary systems.  And scaling up from there we begin to think in terms of two hundred billion galaxies in the visible universe, each containing, on average, a similar number of stars to our own. We can’t get our heads around the number of individual human stories in our county, let alone the nation or the world, and yet there is a mindblowingly large universe out there with billions upon billions of planets, many of which may also support self aware life.

And we, in this tiny corner, have the audacity to say that one being created all that; that one being is fully aware of all of that. It’s no wonder that people think Christians are nuts, irrational, contemptible and stupid. Yet I want to suggest that to adopt such a position is an arrogant one, one which forgets that, try as we might, we are actually very little, vanishingly small creatures.

How could we possibly comprehend how one vast Being manages to create, sustain and be aware of it? Of course we can’t, and that’s the whole point of awe. It is an emotional gift which says, ‘I cannot get my head around this purely because it is not possible for a human to really take this all in. Yet it might still be possible.’

And at Christmas that has to be our starting place because only then can we begin to imagine what it must take, what it must have meant, how incredibly, unbelievably important it must have been for the mighty creator to allow the part of God's self that is named the Son, or the Word to be emptied of all that power and ultra-awareness and to be born a human birth with a tiny little brain, initially too small to be able to knit together a coherent divine thought.

That’s the true miracle of what we’re celebrating tonight. It doesn’t matter whether you start with a question of how he did it, whether Mary was a virgin, whether all the Gospels tell it how it actually happened. What is truly important is that it did happen. And only once we can comprehend the magnitude of what God accomplished in that emptying out of himself can we ask the question, ‘Why?’

The only force capable of making that kind of emptying out possible is the love of a Creator whose experience of reality transcends anything we can begin to imagine, who was willing to do that in order that we can be in relationship, that we can speak the same language and realise that we are wanted, each and every individual one of us, we are desired by God more for who we are as people than we can take in.

So did it happen? I believe so. 
And humility and awe are the only two emotions than can make sense of it for us.
Merry Christmas

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Third Sunday of Advent : Good news is not always nice news.


Reading
Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’


And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’


As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’


So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Address
We’re very lucky in this church. Over the last few years we’ve had five people offer themselves for Reader ministry, and it’s been a real privilege to walk with each of them as they’ve wrestled with whether this was something God was calling them to do, giving them space to try it out and preach a couple of sermons to get a sense of whether there was a vocation waiting to be explored. Part of the fun of this, from my perspective anyway, has been the assessed sermons when I, and several others in the congregation, have to listen to the sermon with a critical ear and then write comments on it from a specially prepared sheet that comes from the diocese. Basically we get to mark someone's sermon!

And on that sheet there is an array of questions, and one of those questions is always ‘Where was Good News to be found in this sermon?’ Where was Good News? Suffice it to say, the Gospel reading we have today is not one of the passages that they get asked to preach on, because when John the Baptist starts speaking we have to ask the question, ‘Where is Good News here?’ Now it seems to me that Luke is an absolute master of irony (I'll explain what I mean in a moment), but I don’t think he even means to be. I'll explain what I mean in a moment, but first, listen again to the accusatory message he records John as sharing. He starts off by shouting at the crowd, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’

Great start. Could you imagine that coming from an Anglican evangelist? I am so very careful to try and say ‘We’ and never ‘You’ when I’m preaching. I am very aware of my own shortcomings so I don’t dare say, ‘You awful, dreadful people. You despicable sinners. You vile worms.’ Maybe I’m just too English, too polite, too scared of putting my parishioners’ noses out of joint. But that doesn’t seem to be a worry for John. He has no parish share to worry about, no people he has to keep ‘onside’. He feels completely free to say whatever he wants to the gathered crowd. So he starts by calling them a brood of vipers. Then he warns them that unless they do good deeds to show they’ve changed their minds about how to behave, they had better consider themselves to be trees about to be felled. And he just doesn’t let up.

After giving some very practical advice on how to live properly, by giving away what you don’t need, (there’s an anti-capitalist message if ever I heard one), by telling the truth and being fair in business, he ups the ante even further, pointing towards the one who is to come, explaining that he himself is not the Christ, but that they had better be very afraid of the one who is coming. Why? Because the Christ is coming with unquenchable fire to burn up that which is useless. And then, after all of this ‘turn or burn’ preaching, we get the ultimate in irony when Luke writes, ‘And with many other words Luke preached the Good News to the people.’

Good News? Good News? What’s good about that? To paraphrase one of my all time favourite films, that’s not Good News, that’s ‘Oh God, Oh God, we’re all gonna die!!’

And John just doesn’t know how to stop. He goes on in the same condemnatory way until he criticizes King Herod and is arrested and locked up for doing so. Where is the Good News here?

Well it is there, and actually you don’t even have to dig down very deeply. You have to recognise that there is a difference between Good News and nice news. We need simply to ask ourselves why God has sent John the Baptist. Principally he is there to prepare the way for Christ. In other words he has to get people out of the ruts they’ve got into. He has to instil in a nation the understanding that something momentous is about to happen for which they need to be ready. To do that he has to tell them how it is, with no holds barred. The people have to be shown the reality in order that they can begin to appreciate the predicament in which they find themselves. It’s a harsh message but it’s a necessary one.

Sometimes people talk to me about a dying relative, and they ask me whether they should tell them the truth about their situation. My feeling is that you should always tell people the truth about these matters, because how else can they begin to prepare themselves? It may not seem like Good News, but it’s all relative. There's a difference between Good News and nice news.

If something difficult or challenging is coming, or likely to come, you want to tell people about it so that they can make their plans about how to deal with it. John knew what was coming on the people; he was, after all, a prophet. This was his job, to warn people of what’s coming. It becomes Good News because it gets people in the right frame of mind to do something about it, but it brings us to an interesting place in good old English middle of the road Anglicanism.

When I was a curate there was a Baptist church up the road from us. It was lively and often more full than our church. Partly it was the style of music and the type of worship, and partly it was the preaching. They had a no-holds-barred minister, and people lapped it up.

Why is that? Why do we like to be told how awful we are? It’s a good question and not one that I feel qualified to answer. Is that what you want from me and the other preachers? Do you want us to tell you all how awful you are? We would of course point the fingers at ourselves too, but is that what you want?

You see there are several sides to this. They may have had a full church, but I can also tell you about the friends I have who went to churches like that, who were told over and over again that they were miserable sinners, and who left, ultimately, because there was nothing but condemnation. Some of the people in Forest Church feel that way, that it’s the only place they can feel safe to worship Christ without someone shouting at them about being a miserable sinner. Some of the people I've met in other religious and spiritual movements are there because of this kind of preaching in the church. And, interestingly, some of the people who came to St. Andrew's, where I did my curacy, came there because they had left that other church, having been condemned by the leadership for their life choices. In fact one of the most curious things about all of this is that churches like that declare themselves to be Bible-based churches, and yet a report out this week has shown that people who actually read all of their Bible, rather than just the popular bits, tend to be quite a long way out on the liberal end of the Christian spectrum, because that's what they find in God's word!

But sometimes we need to call a spade a spade from the pulpit, and it can make it very difficult to bring a balanced message when you absolutely know that what feels heavy on your heart is going to upset some of your congregation. But there's a difference between Good news and nice news. You see it can also become incredibly easy to avoid the reality of our predicament. If all you ever hear from us is, ‘Carry on chaps; you’re doing a great job of being Christians’, then that is really not going to help you at all. Nice news changes nothing, it just makes us feel good, perhaps at a time when we should be feeling bad.

We will be completely unprepared to face God if we don’t sometimes talk about the need for change, just as the Spirit speaks in to our hearts too, to convict us of where change is needed. James 3:1, reminds those of us in the pulpit of the burden we carry with these words: 'Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.'

But preaching the hard teachings always comes with a risk. In any demographic there are going to be things which congregations think should be no go areas for us as preachers, which, to be honest, tend to be the ones we get most called to speak about. I know that I have upset people in the past with some of the subject matter of my sermons, and I am not, for a moment, saying that we always get it right in what we preach, but sometimes we feel very strongly that the Spirit is saying something to us and we have to find the words to convey that. So much of the Bible speaks strongly about possessions and justice so maybe we should preach that strongly. Some things have to be said. Good news is not the same as nice news. That also means that we have to take notice of what John the Baptist says when he tells us to get rid of any excess to someone who is having to go without, because he’s right. And we have to be prepared to hear the things that hurt and upset us, because if we don’t then we will be unprepared to face God at the end of our lives.

So let me lay some groundwork for after Christmas. Let me be a bit 'John the Baptist' in preparing the way for an important message. One of the greatest problems the Church of England faces at the moment is money. I hate talking about this because I hate to come over as us trying to fund an organisation when the reality is about trying to be the presence of Christ in the parish. But in a few weeks we’ll start to tell you just how bad our finances are in this church. Some of you will be thinking, ‘You must be kidding; we’ve heard about the legacy you’ve been left. We know about the farm house you have to sell.’

But maybe you don’t know the deficit we’ve been running at. Maybe you don't know how far down we've had to run our reserves to keep going. Maybe you don't know that we've had to rely on one or two huge donations to keep going these last few years. Maybe you don't know that, even if carefully invested, that great gift we've been given will just barely allow us to keep operating as we are. Maybe you don't know how much some of us want to invest in children and families work but are struggling because the congregations are not giving enough and even the legacy we hopefully have coming may not bridge the gap.

So maybe I should preach nice, warm, welcoming, everything's OK sermons so that more people will come and feel happy. But I'm not convinced that's what John the Baptist would have done. But that is always going to be the tension between running a parish and being an itinerant preacher. I think, though, that I speak for my colleagues in the pulpit when I say that what we most want to do is to try and tell you what the Lord lays on our hearts when we preach. It may not always sound like Good News, and we may not always get the translation right, but anything which challenges us to draw near to God is surely Good News really.

And good news is not necessarily nice news, but Good News means something can be changed.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Advent Sunday - Panentheism and the Wrath of God


The reason for this particular focus is a promise I made to the congregation about how we should respond and what we should think about the place of God in a world filled with terrorism.  It's not something that makes me doubt the existence of God, but it forces us to think hard about how God may respond.
Apologies that there are three readings.  These were the ones set for last Sunday evening and they make sense of the topic at hand.

Readings
Joel 3:9-end
Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war, stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up.
Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.’

Come quickly, all you nations all around, gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord. Let the nations rouse themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the neighbouring nations.

Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.

Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake.
But the Lord is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. The Glorious Future of Judah.

So you shall know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.

On that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water; a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord and water the Wadi Shittim.

Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the people of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood. But Judah shall be inhabited for ever, and Jerusalem to all generations. I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for the Lord dwells in Zion.

Revelation 14:13-15:4
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them.’

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, ‘Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.

Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.
And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
‘Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgements have been revealed.’

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


The Wrath of God

Parental anger seems like a good place to start...

Most of us, if we are lucky enough to have been brought up in a happy household, will have one abiding memory of that time when, as a child, we pushed one of our parents just a little too far and their anger, their temper, snapped. Maybe we got a smack, or maybe we were shouted at. Whatever it was, it left an impression, an abiding memory, of that time when we went too far, when parental resolve to be reasonable was pushed beyond the limits.

Maybe you weren't as lucky as I was. Maybe there never was much parental resolve. Maybe you had a parent who was utterly unpredictable so that an action would be fine one day and intolerable to them the next, a method of control that I've known psychologists refer to as 'Mad Dog'.

Whichever way around it is, for most of us there is a memory of a mental disconnect, of a moment of shock when the love that we thought we could rely on turned an angry face on us and our world was changed. It may very well have been our fault. As children we often know that we are pushing the boundaries. But the memory still remains with us.

And maybe your experience of childhood is far worse, and even now you're still, on a very deep level, struggling to understand the idea of an all-powerful yet all-loving God who wishes to be known as Father, or Mother in some traditions.

I believe that these experiences may well be at the psychological root of why it is that we find talk of God's wrath to be extremely difficult to cope with. I know many Christians, including some clergy, who simply believe the Bible to be wrong about this aspect of God; that God is only loving and forgiving and that all people will eventually come to rest in him. I respect that point of view, even though, as I hope I can show, I disagree with it.  I also have friends who have left the church over this because they have been subject to the kind of 'Turn or burn!' abusive rhetoric that annoys and upsets me intensely. No one should ever be scared into conversion, and neither should the fear of God, or rather of hell-fire, be used to control people.

Whichever way around it is, I think the wrath of God is a problem for us partly because of our personal experiences and fears, and also because it's not something that we teach from the pulpit much these days. But the First Sunday of Advent's theme and readings leave us little choice, and in the face of the headlines in the papers over these last weeks and months, it's high time we took a look at this.

***
As a Christian I am a Panentheist. ["A what?"  Read on...] 

It's a compound Greek word which literally translates as 'All-in-God'. Essentially it declares that all things are in God, and God is in all things. It differs from pantheism that declares that 'All is God', because panentheists believe that God also has a separate existence from the created order. When they start thinking about it, most Christians would probably think of themselves as Panentheists.  Why do I bring this up on Advent Sunday? It is because here we are faced with two readings that focus on the wrath of God and only one that focusses on hope, and because I want to focus on God's wrath since it is only in understanding that, that we can understand the value of hope.

You see when we turn on the news, or read it online or in the newspapers, we have a choice. We can, if we want, simply change channels. We can put the paper down. We can click away to another site. When we read stories of homosexuals being thrown off tall buildings in so-called Islamic State, or of a young man and his girlfriend killing his step-sister for his own gratification, or of a government that seems hell-bent on making life a misery for the weak and the poor, or any number of other real-life horror stories we can turn away.

But if God is in all things, and if all things are in God, then God cannot turn away. 

God has to live with it all day every day, atrocity mounted upon atrocity; cruelty upon cruelty; lie upon lie, and because it is all happening within the universe within which God is fully present, God can't change the channel, click to another site or pick up a good book instead.

God gave us freedom of choice and placed us within a universe that has freedom to grow and develop, but in my faith I believe that God also is all-pervading, seeing, knowing, experiencing our choices. God cannot, will not, turn away.

People say to me, 'How can you suggest that a God of love can be a God of wrath?' but if you are a panentheist you find yourself thinking, 'If God is a God of love, how then can he not also be a God of wrath?' How could he not want to act?'  I can only imagine a supreme act of will power is staying his hand now for the sake of those who may yet turn to ask for forgiveness. God and the angels play the long game, but they have abiding memories.

Yet at the same time we fear what it might mean to us if he is angry with us. We are influenced by the memory of parental anger and so we fear the same thing might be coming to us from God. More than one Christian has explained to me how this talk of God being angry leaves them terrified of what might happen to them if they do just one thing wrong; that God is waiting to pounce.  However, I think that this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding; that we are equating anger and wrath when in reality they are two very different things. If we can disconnect anger from wrath and look instead at this wrath through panentheistic eyes, then perhaps we can better understand what is happening, and why we need not be living in fear.

Anger is a proper parental response to a wrong doing that needs correction. I'm not now talking about the loss of temper I mentioned at the beginning, but instead that controlled anger a parent uses which lets a child know, in no uncertain terms, that something that they did was unacceptable. As Christians we can expect that kind of correction from time to time because our behaviour will sometimes warrant it.

But wrath is different... 

...and wrath is not God losing God's temper

Wrath is the response to an onslaught of evil that will not respond to correction. If we are to live without fear we need to disconnect those two concepts in our experience of God as God's children.

***
When people have related the stories of their lives, of abuse within the home or family, I've felt a deep anger at the injustice of how one with power dominates the powerless, and so I find myself wondering at how it must seem to God, to dwell within each home, within the scope of the abuser and the abused, to know the pain first hand and to weep the tears of hopelessness in the darkness.  We often say, 'Why doesn't God do something?', and I suspect that God is also saying to us, 'Come on, take responsibility and you do something – I am treating you like adults, behave like them.' However, tonight's readings and the general theme give us a taste of what is coming; that there is a time coming when God's patience runs out, and what I called 'the long game' above is played out.

But what are we to do with the belief in God's wrath and how are we to live and preach a Gospel in the light of it? Let's have a very brief look at each of the readings to guide us.


Joel is a difficult prophet to preach about because we know so little of the context in which he preached. Even dating him can't get within much less that a 150 year period of time. The book as a whole seems to revolve around a plague of locusts that devastated the land but which Joel then used as a pictorial image to call the people back to God in repentance.  This particular passage, which is difficult to understand, nevertheless contains the shocking antithesis to the commonly used reading at Remembrance Sunday which talks of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. But here the story is reversed; here we have the preparations for war against God's people with ordinary farm labourers making weapons out of their tools.  But the over-riding narrative is of judgement using the wine-press as an image of God's wrath, and this is the imagery that the book of Revelation picks up.

There we have a story of two harvests. The first is a reaping harvest, of bringing in that which is good from the earth. The second is one of wrath, of the objects of God's wrath as being like grapes that are trodden, and of the flowing of blood, a symbol of death and destruction. And yet even this is not the end of it, for it's declared that there are still seven angels with seven plagues of God's wrath.

Now to be honest it is not the in-depth study of these passages that is important. There is little way of knowing the minutiae of what is being described in either of them. But what is necessary is that we recognise both of them affirm the wrath of God as a reality, and we then have to decide what we do with that imagery.

What I want to suggest is that these two readings affirm the wrath flowing from God's justice, whilst the Gospel affirms God's mercy and our hope. Justice and mercy walk hand in hand. Humanity is offered both. Persistent abuse of power simply cannot be ignored by God because it takes place within the universe of which God is 100% aware. Nothing is missed. Indeed you or I may personally be called by the Spirit to be God's hands in bringing a cruelty to an end.

But where there is no turning away from the evil that one person brings on another, then there is a final judgement, which I believe to be a final destruction. I don't think hell is of an eternal torture – even in wrathful judgement I don't believe that to be within God's nature. But I do believe that God is willing to utterly destroy, without possibility of return, those who persist in their ill treatment of their fellow humans.  I therefore think that the story of hell is one of annihilation, of the end of hope for those who refuse mercy and forgiveness. Did you know, incidentally, that forgiveness is not a concept you'll find in all religions? It is given a prominent place in Christ's revelation of God's nature, but there are a lot of religions that have little or no concept of it.  But forgiveness requires a turning of one's back on the hurt that has been doled out to others. Where no space is left for mercy; where no sign of repentance or sorrow is seen, there is wrath and a final destruction.

So yes, when we look at or hear the horrific stories of what is taking place across the world, places where we seem powerless to be able to help, there is still a judgement to be faced, and a wrath that goes beyond anything we can imagine. [Just once, as a teenager, for a very brief moment I sensed something of God's holiness, and was terrified by the awesomeness of it.  It made me realise we have little idea, from a human perspective, of what facing God is like.]  But please do not mix divine wrath up with God's parental anger when his children need correcting; the two are very different indeed.

Never forget St. John's commentary on the coming of Christ that, ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.' God offers mercy and forgiveness, something that Christ made clear for us.  The overarching story of Christianity is one of hope being offered to those who, in their own strength, could not stand before the naked power of God, and a Way being offered to those who would like to know as they are known.

Conclusion
I think that there is a fundamental difficulty at the heart of western Christianity which is a belief that God is an angry God at heart, waiting to pounce on us the moment we do something wrong. Many of my friends who have left the church, and others who struggle to stay within it, wrestle constantly with this. There is a sense that God feels affronted by our behaviour.  Yet I think that if we adopt this panentheistic view that God cannot turn away, then I think God's wrath stems not from what we do wrong, nor even from whether we ignore him or not; after all God doesn't need us. He loves us, but he doesn't need us. No, I think God's wrath towards humanity is birthed within our behaviour towards each other.

This also fundamentally alters our understanding of the cross. If you have an angry God who is angry against our sin, then you can justify God needing sacrifices to stem his anger, and ultimately needing the ultimate sacrifice of his own Son, because only then can his anger be channelled on to one eternal individual; Jesus as God's lightening conductor.

That model provides this image of God barely able to contain his rage; that sense of 'I am sooo angry I have to break something really valuable.' But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God; that is to make God in our image, when it's surely the other way around. The Christian fundamentalists have this so very wrong.

Instead we have a God who offers his very self to us, to show the lengths to which he will go to draw us into his own family. We have a God who is not looking to burn with uncontrollable anger at anyone who dares cross him, but is instead unable to turn away from what we do to each other, and who assures us that, ultimately, there will be judgement for the wicked, the abusers, the power-hungry and all those who deliberately inflict pain on others.

I can't tell you, for example, how that means we should respond to so-called Islamic State and the atrocities they commit. I can't say whether my beliefs as a Christian mean we should go to war. But I can say this: I fear for the innocent on the ground who will simply be in the way of the war machine that we will probably inflict or at least aid. And I fear that war just keeps breeding more terrorists. Pouring petrol on a fire is rarely the best way to put it out. Maybe we are walking in to a trap, a hope that we will respond exactly like this and thus breed yet more terrorists.

But what I do know, as a panentheist and a Christian, is that God cannot turn away from the evil that is being done, either there or here. As I said on Remembrance Sunday, we should never think God is on our side, but neither should we be in any doubt about what is written throughout scripture, that God sees, and there will be a judgement, but judgement may fall just as hard on anyone who kills the innocent and robs their children of a future.

May we be for ever preserved in his mercy through Christ, and may we never cease to pray for our enemies.
[Postscript - for those who wish to pray about this there will be a vigil in the church on Sunday 6th Dec, this Sunday, from 4 until 5.]