Where is God?

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During difficult times, such as we experiencing now with the Coronavirus, many of us find ourselves asking, “Where is God?” And even, “How can God allow such suffering in the world?”

This question is formally called ‘theodicy’ – the doctrine of how a good God can allow evil in the world. Theologians have grappled with this question for centuries. Augustine generated a solution that is widely accepted by the church, illustrated in the graphic below (from https://www.slideshare.net/SharanpreetKaur/augustines-theodicy).

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But such answers provide little comfort when we are in the midst of suffering. These are intellectual and theological answers, not pastoral answers. Over the years, as I have grappled with this question in my own sufferings and particularly in responding to the suffering of others, I have reached two main conclusions:

First, God is always immanently present in our suffering. When God the Son incarnated into the human named Jesus of Nazareth, God fully entered into the human experience, with all its ups and downs. Ultimately, God experienced even death, on the cross, an experience God had not had until this moment. We read in John 11 of Jesus’ grief at the grave of Lazarus – he was genuinely distressed and saddened by the death of his friend and by his witnessing of the grief of Lazarus’ family.

Jesus was then, and always is, present in the midst of suffering. Where is God? He is right here, sharing our grief and pain, standing with us in the darkest of times. He is by no means far off and emotionally disengaged.

Second, while this is usually of little comfort in the midst of suffering, God repeatedly shows the capacity for bringing good out of bad. This does not make the bad good. No! The bad remains bad. But god has the capacity to give birth to good through bad. Paul assures of this in Romans 8:28, when he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We this most dramatically on the cross. Humanity murdered, executed God the Son. This was a fundamentally bad and depraved thing we did. And yet through this, God gave birth to salvation for humankind, reconciliation and forgiveness for all who would seize it.

God is always working to bring good out of bad, giving us the capacity to transform darkness into light. This is not about persuading ourselves that a bad thing is actually good, but rather about being open to something good emerging out of the bad.

As we continue to journey through the crisis of COVID-19, which looks set to get worse before it gets better, I encourage you to keep turning towards God. I encourage you to ask the “Where is God?” question, because God wants to engage us honestly and sincerely with this tough question.

May God journey closely with you during this difficult time.

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To be saved

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Our Gospel reading for today is the rather curious passage from Luke 20:27-38, which involves a convoluted story about a woman who was married and remarried to seven brothers in succession, with the hope that one of them would impregnate her. The question asked of Jesus by the Sadducees was which of them would be her husband at the resurrection. It is a rather awful story, filled with patriarchal beliefs about women, marriage and child bearing.

I did not feel God leading me to preach on this passage today.

However, the point of the story is of interest. Jesus affirms that there IS a resurrection, that there is an afterlife, and that it will be wonderful. And this affirmation of Jesus – that life does not simply end when our bodies die – prompts us to think about salvation and what it means to be saved.

For that, we turn to our Second Testament reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 (I’ve bolded some of the key words):

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[b] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

What do we learn about salvation from this passage?

  • First, God chose us – God called us. Salvation is always God’s initiative. And God chooses and calls every person into fellowship with God. God’s mission is to reconcile the WHOLE world to God’s self, under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-14). When God calls us, God calls us by name. It is personal. God wants YOU personally. It is not just that God wants to save everyone, like some anonymous conglomerate of humanity. No! It is that God’s has chosen YOU personally, by name, and called you to be in fellowship with God, to be saved.
  • Second, we are saved through two main actions (according to this passage):
    • First, we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. When God calls us, Holy Spirit comes and resides in us. Spirit makes a home in our hearts, comes and lives inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:19). God works to transform us into the image of Christ, from the inside out, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
    • Second, we are saved through our belief in the truth. And what is this truth? Jesus Christ is truth (John 14:6; John 8:31-32). We can do nothing to attain salvation; salvation is in its entirety the result of Christ’s work, through creation, his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of God. We can’t add to this. All we can do is respond to the truth of it. And ‘to believe in’ something or someone is much the same as ‘to trust in’ someone or even better, ‘to entrust ourselves’ to someone. We entrust ourselves into the truth of Jesus.
  • Third, the result of this salvation is that we get to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not so much that we become glorious, but that we bask in the radiance of God’s glory. We can be confident that when we die, we enter into the enjoyable and wonderful presence of God. Jesus spoke about this in our earlier reading (Luke 20:36): “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
  • Finally, because of all of this, we are encouraged to stand firm and hold fast to our faith. Sometimes, maybe often, our faith is frail and feeble. Sometimes life gets on top of us. Sometimes we succumb to sin. Sometimes pain, suffering and illness burden us. Sometimes evil in the world – violence, hatred, exclusion, oppression, poverty and injustice – overwhelm us. In these times, especially, God calls us, urges us, to stand firm in and to hold fast to Christ.

In Paul’s final words in this brief passage, he offers a blessing. I liked this blessing so much, we read it four times during the service, twice as a blessing, with my hand outstretched. I again stretch out my hands to you in blessing, saying:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

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Dying to live

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I am still reeling at the destruction of Notre Dame through the fire yesterday. That cathedral was a symbol of God’s presence in France, and its burning reverberates powerfully with me. The burned church evokes images of Christ’s death on the cross. Like the cathedral, Christ is damaged and destroyed. Its devastation leaves an empty shell. We are shocked, dismayed. How is this possible?

But in John 12:20-36, Jesus talks about his own death, not as something to be avoided, and not even as something inevitable, but as something necessary, intended, perhaps even desirable. He uses the analogy of a seed, that must die in order to produce more seeds.

And he also says that we who follow him, must similarly die; that if we love this life on earth too much, we’re in trouble; that we need to hold on to it just lightly. Instead, if we follow him, through death, we will be with him in glory.

He raises the question of what we have to die to today. Of what in our lives needs to burn to the ground, so that something new can spring forth.

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Feature image: Interior of Notre Dame following the fire on 15 April 2019, CNN.

Looking up, looking out

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We live in a world that seems to be doing not very well. Globally and nationally we face many challenges. And many of us face personal challenges as well. These can wear us down, challenging our faith, leading us to wish we could escape all of it.

In such times, most of us look up. We look up toward heaven, towards God, and wish that God would fix things up. “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” says the Psalmist (121:1). Paul writes at length about this in 2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:5. He reminds us that the world and the body we live in are transient – they last but a short time and then are done. So, he longs for a more permanent world – heaven – where we can dwell for eternity with God, and where we will be doing considerably better than we are now.

So, we look up for a better future. We look up for life after death. We look up for an eternal reward. We look up for justice. We look up for comfort and solace. We look up for hope and courage.

It is good for us to look up.

But God also calls us to look out. God is not in the business of escapism. God is not inviting us to run away from or ignore or avoid the difficulties that we are facing in this world. Rather, God wants us, calls us, to be a co-worker with God in bringing into being the Kingdom of God in our midst. This was the ministry of Jesus – “the Kingdom of God is near”. Looking out means to look around us, to look at the world as it is, to really see what’s going on. Jesus always had his eyes wide open and was looking out. In English, to ‘look out’ for someone also means to care for someone.

We hear this sentiment in the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), when Mary begins to understand what God was doing through her, and the way she was participating in birthing the Son of God, who would order the world, turning tables, balancing books, righting wrongs. These were present things that Jesus would do, and Mary recognised that she was a participant in making this ministry possible. Mary was looking out at the world and seeing the role she and her son would play in confronting evil.

We hear this also in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), where Jesus prays not that we may escape to heaven, but rather that heaven will come to earth: “Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. The rest of the prayer is about present realities: daily food, forgiveness, reconciliation, holy living, protection. His is a looking out prayer, not a looking up prayer. This prayer is about looking out at the world as it is.

Looking up and looking out are important Biblical principles for Christian living. In South Africa, during the years of struggle against apartheid, the Anglican church (which I’m part of) applied this principles. Our church services – sacramental, liturgical – are designed to help us look up to a God who is majestic, powerful, compassionate, gracious. We come to church, into a beautiful service, to escape the ugliness of the world outside; we come to church to look up. But, the Anglican church was also instrumental in undermining and eventually toppling the apartheid government and its laws; our church was looking out. THIS is what church is meant to be: Looking up and looking out.

Suffering and Glory

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Jesus provides us an example of faithful journeying along the path that God had set him, a path which lead into and through suffering. He follows this path, trusting that God is present and enabling, and believing that it is a path that leads to glory.

Jesus encourages us also to follow such paths, to understand the meaning and value of hardship, and to trust that through these experiences we will reap a reward of honour and glory.

Such insights are particularly meaningful as we journey through Lent and approach Easter, when Jesus pays the ultimate price for our sin.

This message is based on John 12:20-33.

Seeing from the Cross

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Today is Good Friday – a poorly named day in my view. It should be Dark Friday. The Passion Week is transformed to good on Easter Sunday, but not before. There is nothing good about Friday. But my opinion is unlikely to change centuries of tradition!

Today, at my Anglican community church in Irene, South Africa, we participate in a three-hour service, from 12pm to 3pm – the hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It is a kind of vigil, like the women who kept watch as Jesus hung there. It is one of the best attended services at our church, and most people stay the full time. Today, we used the Seven Last Words of Christ to structure our service. The priest, deacon and lay ministers shared the preaching. I preached on the passage from John 19:25-27, where Jesus says “Woman, behold! Your son. … Behold! Your mother.” (my translation).

The central thing that stands out for me is that Jesus SEES his mother and his friend (thought to be John, the disciple). And seeing them and their need, he invites them to SEE each other (the Greek for ‘behold’, or ‘here’ in other translations, means ‘Look!’ or ‘See!’). So, in this sermon I suggest four layers of meaning:

  1. The passage foregrounds the humanity, dignity and worth of women, as central to the story. We need to stand against patriarchy, violence against women, the silencing and marginalisation of women, the exploitation of girl children.
  2. The passage speaks about Jesus’ commitment to family and to intimate relationships. We need to invest in these relationships, in the domestic, because this is of interest to God.
  3. The passage suggests the great potential of the church to recreate the world. We should examine our own churches, asking if we are really doing what God wants us to, are we being who God wants us to be?
  4. The passage advances God’s concern and love for the whole of humanity. God sees us, knows us, recognises us, loves us, champions us, cries for us. And we should also.

Wishing you a blessed and joyful Easter 2016.
Adrian

P.S. I struggled to find a picture that depicts what Jesus would have seen from the cross. The arts are almost entirely focused on Jesus on the cross – rightly so. But I found this one by James Tissot, a French painter, painted in c. 1890. For those receiving this by email, you won’t see the featured image for each of my sermons. Follow the link to my blog to see them.

When the World goes Mad

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Sometimes, the world seems to be going mad. On the morning of the day I preached this sermon, two terrorist attacks in Brussels left 31 or so people dead. IS claimed responsibility. Attacks like these, like the multiple attacks in Paris in 2015, make us afraid and want to withdraw from the world. Fear sets in. Muslims and Arabs seem dangerous. The world seems a threatening place.

In South Africa, we face increasingly racialised discourse, from all sides of the political and racial spectrum. Some people are calling for doing away with reconciliation and an increasing emphasis on racial identity and distinctiveness. These conversations elicit fear and uncertainty, prompting us to withdraw from each other into our safe comfort zones.

Jesus also experienced a world going mad. As religious leaders becoming increasingly threatened by him, his actions and his popularity, they set up traps to discredit and marginalise him. They plot to kill him. Indeed, they succeed in murdering him.

But through all this madness, Jesus does not withdraw, he is not cowed by fear, he does not avoid. Instead, Jesus continues to engage, to move towards, to step across boundaries. From where does he get this confidence in the face of considerable odds? He gets it from a confidence that his authority comes from heaven, from God. He knows that he is living out God’s will for him – to reconcile all things together within God’s family.

And so he remains steadfast. As we also need to remain steadfast. To not be cowed or afraid or marginalised. But to continue to live out the faith that we have inherited. A faith that hopes and trusts in a powerful God. A faith that engages and connects. A faith that steps across boundaries and embraces. A faith that loves.

Mark 11:27-33