27 FEBRUARY 2011: EIGHTH AFTER THE EPIPHANY
I spoke with my son in Christchurch yesterday. Many of you have family and friends over there. We were all so fortunate that they survived the earthquake on Tuesday. The suddenness and horror of it all stopped our hearts for a while. D spent most of yesterday distributing food and water to some folk who didn’t have access to any, and digging silt out of blocked drains and doorways.
Durham Methodist Church, where D and M were married was badly damaged in the September quake and its aftershocks; now it’s been reduced to rubble. The tragedy is that three folk who had started rescuing the pipe organ last week, were trapped and killed when this earthquake struck.
D’s current church building is fine. But this morning they met in the parking lot of their local library. People are a bit skittish about gathering together indoors with the ongoing aftershocks. Walls and roofs aren’t very safe anymore.
Christchurch is obviously the tragedy that’s closest to my heart at the moment. But there’s Egypt, and Libya, and Bahrain; Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe. Closer home, there’s HIV/Aids and cancer, there’s loneliness and depression, and a whole host of intensely personal struggles that we perhaps face alone.
Can we cope? Will we get through? Will our children or grandchildren know peace?
DOES GOD CARE
Perhaps the deepest of our questions are contained in one that A J Gregory asked in her book, Messy Faith, “Does God care?” or put differently, “Will God take care of us?” When all else fails around us, when our lives implode on us, when we’ve lost all sense of direction, all sense of purpose, all hope, “Will God take care of us?”
Of course, we know the answer to that question. When we are here, together, we can encourage one another and tell each other with confidence, “Of course God will take care of us. He loves us; God loves to look after us. We are his children.”
But when we are alone, facing the monsters that attack us, the powerful forces that destroy our confidence and our hope, what then? When we face the reality of our illness; when we are weighed down with the pain of our struggling children; when we see power and greed driving our country and its people to despair, what then? When we are faced with the loss of a minister we depend on, or a close friend, and an uncertain future confronts us, what then? In the night time, when reality stares us in the face and dares us to be hopeful, then the question is not so easily answered.
DOES GOD EVEN KNOW WHO WE ARE?
“Will God take care of us?” Our confident “Yes” becomes a plaintive, “I’m not so sure; I wish he would.” And another more desperate question forces itself to the front: “Does God even know who we are?” We sense our smallness in the great scheme of things and, instead of rejoicing in the wonder of God’s great love for us, we think, “I’m an ant; I’m a grain of sand, unnoticed, uncared for, trodden underfoot. Does God care? He doesn’t even know I exist.”
Perhaps you’re riding a wave of confidence at the moment; perhaps you’ve never experienced such despair? Praise the Lord for that, because there are many here today and countless others outside the church for whom this is a real and pressing question, and many have given up asking whether God cares, because they are as sure of God’s distance as you might be of his closeness.
YES HE DOES!
So we ask, “Does God care?”
The answer given in the magnificent passages of scripture we read this morning, is a resounding “YES”. God not only cares, we are told, he will take care of you; he will bring you back from the horrors of exile, Isaiah tells us in chapter 49. Those who are prisoners will be told, “Go free!” Those living in darkness will be called into the light. Hunger and thirst will be a thing of the past. The road will be straight and clear ahead of you, and you’ll be led along it “by one who loves you”.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, that God cares so much that I don’t have to worry what others think, God alone is my judge. And when God judges us, he will only have words of praise.
And Jesus tells us, in our Matthew 6 reading, that we need have no worries; God loves us so much that he even takes care of our food and clothing needs.
It’s easy to enjoy the rich language of these passages and kind of shrug off the incredible promises they contain. We read them and we find ourselves saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice, God taking care of everything? No more struggling with illness; no more wrestling with our studies; no more worrying about what to wear or what we will eat until payday. No more queuing at Pep Stores or waiting for specials at OK Bazaars; God has opened up accounts for us at Woollies and Edgars.” And then the unreality of it all seeps through and we find ourselves thinking, “Yeah, right!”
But there is something here that brings these promises out of the realm of make-believe and wishful thinking, back into reality and good news. It’s the element of relationship. You see, we are not being told, “Step back from the struggle of your life, fold your arms and watch God at work.”
Isaiah and Paul and Jesus are not portraying God as a Superhero who only needs us to get out of the way and he’ll sort it all out for us, and clean up the mess.
That may have been how God worked in the time of Noah. He seemed to say to Noah, “Get out of the way; get on the ark and stay there. I’m going to fix this mess.”
But, God told Noah, “Never again.” Perhaps because of the inherent nature of our sinfulness and perhaps because of God’s desire to bring all of creation into relationship with himself, rather than simply “clean it up”, God said, “Never again.” And, beginning with Abraham, God entered into a covenant relationship with his creation. He said to Abraham, in effect, “From now on, I will not intervene in creation without your participation, and you will not find your purpose and fulfilment outside of a relationship with me.”
Mind you, it took 25 years to mould and shape that relationship with Abraham, but through that relationship, God said, all nations and ultimately all of creation would be blessed.
So, in Isaiah 49, God says, “Because of you, people will praise me.” And again, “I will make you a light to the nations so that all the world might be saved.”
Of course, these verses are truly fulfilled in Jesus. Through Jesus, his life, his death and his resurrection, the world is saved. But this is not just about Jesus. This is about all of us. Jesus comes to live in us and through us. Through you and through me, God is saving the world; through our lives and, yes, through the thousand deaths we sometimes seem to die in a day. God’s Spirit breathes new life into us with every breath we take; God is saving his world through you and through me.
This isn’t about God as Mr Fixit, taking over. I know we cry out for that in the darkest night sometimes; but this is about our partnership with God: our broken wounded lives in his loving caring hands, healing us and saving the world.
A JOURNEY FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Roland McGregor, an American Methodist minister, writing about these passages, suggests that this is a journey from the inside out. We are used to looking at things from the outside and judging life by what we can see. If I’m healthy and prosperous, if my car hasn’t broken down; if my children are getting good grades, if there’s food on the table….then all is well. But God is saying to us through Isaiah, through Matthew, through Paul, and through the Psalmist, that though these outward things are huge and sometimes overwhelming, they are only part of the picture.
ON OUR WAY HOME
What if we changed our perspective? We so often think of ourselves as being abandoned in hopeless situations, alone against the worst life can throw at us, trying to protect ourselves, desperate to find a sheltered spot for a moment. Isaiah sees it differently in Isaiah 49. He says we are on our way home; we’re not hiding, we are on our way home. And we’re being led by one who loves us. We may not know the way, or how to cope with the journey, but our destination is home; home as we have never known it, a home that is more welcoming more restful than we have ever experienced, where we belong more truly than anywhere else.
IMAGINE A DIFFERENT WORLD
People around us so often shape our lives and our thinking. We squirm under their criticism. We want to commit ourselves to God, but the world around us says, “Whatever”. We want to believe, but the cynical world says, “Yeah, right.” Negative vibes destroy our confidence and we doubt the one who loves us. But in 1 Corinthians 4 Paul says to start from the inside. Imagine a different world; imagine becoming so wrapped up with the one who loves us, so focused on this journey he is leading us on, that the criticism and cynicism of the world fades into the background and becomes irrelevant. God’s judgement, God’s praise, is all that matters. My friends, if we can imagine that world we will begin to experience it.
FOCUSED ON GOD’S KINGDOM
Food and clothing take up so much of our time and energy. But it’s not just those things; we strive after love and companionship, confidence and security. So many things we fear, so many things we long for and worry about. It’s hard to ignore the brokenness we feel inside and the brokenness we see around us. In Matthew 6, Jesus doesn’t tell us that food and clothing aren’t important. He says that in the midst of your hunger, in the midst of your nakedness, imagine being so focused on God’s kingdom, on building God’s family, that nothing else matters nearly so much anymore.
Friends, let me encourage you to change focus this week; to begin to let go of negative thoughts and negative talk. Focus on the one who loves you and who journeys with you. Instead of giving time to those who would pull you down, focus on the good things God has to say about you. Instead of wasting your energy worrying about the things you don’t have, make some time this week to celebrate the relationship you have with God, and what that might mean for you, for your community, and for your future.
Let’s make the words of the Psalmist our own:
“LORD, I have given up my pride and turned away from my arrogance. I am not concerned with great matters or with subjects too difficult for me. Instead, I am content and at peace. As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my heart is quiet within me. (People of God), trust in the LORD now and forever!” (Psalm 131 GNB)
(A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on Sunday 27 February 2011)
- Christchurch earthquake tragedy (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- “Lets Love Each Other!”: Christian Maori Leader on Christchurch Earthquake (tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com)