Sermon - 27th May 2018
Scripture - Isaiah 55:6-13
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today is the day in our Western Christian calendar when we seek to do the impossible - we try to understand God. We know this is a task which is beyond us, and yet our human tendency not to be comfortable with a mystery leads us to keep trying to determine and to understand the boundaries of God’s existence.
We prefer certainties to mysteries, and some of us come from religious backgrounds where we have been promised certainties and absolute truths which never change.
Dealing with our need to understand God is a personal journey of exploration: no-one else can make this journey for us. We have no proof: we just have faith, insight and discernment to help us journey into the mystery of God, and it is a different experience for everyone.
God’s touch in our lives is deeply personal, and so I can only speak about it today from a personal perspective. I can only hope that my perspective connects in some way with your own.
The various patterns and structures of our faith tradition do give me a framework for my personal journey of faith and my experience of God as creator, God in Christ, and God as spirit. But the framework is a human creation intended to deal with what is essentially a mystery. It is a lens through which we can bring into focus parts of a bigger picture.
It does the same task as these spectacles on my face. They help me to see more clearly the particular thing I am observing at any one time, but there is a whole world around me which I don’t always recognise or understand and which I am not aware of for much of the time.
I have to live with some understanding of what I can see, but also with much uncertainty about everything around me that I can’t see but that I know exists. In the same way, my experience of God, and my awareness of God’s gifts to the world around me, also tells me to look beyond our human attempts to determine and to understand the boundaries of God’s existence.
I feel blessed to be born when I was, because our 21st century capacity to embrace new knowledge, to gain new insights, and to re-form our beliefs, is also a gift of God and something that I strongly believe we should explore.
I know that speaking of God in the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a human attempt to understand the nature of God. But I also know that these interpretations and insights from my faith tradition still speak to me in some spiritual way which supports my faith, and which leads me forward. I recognise that the lenses in front my spiritual eyes still bring some things into focus.
I can’t see the Holy Spirit, and I can never fully understand God who sends the spirit into our world and our lives, but I am aware of the living power of God in the world that I inhabit. I can recall times when God’s spirit has touched a life in an unmistakable way and has given strength for healing or change or transition.
I can think of times when the power of God has energised a large congregation here to celebrate our common humanity, to break down boundaries, and to make a reality of the love we share. And I can think of simple conversations between just two of us when the power of God has rested with us while one of us spoke and the other one just listened.
We may not be able to see the Holy Spirit, but my experience is that you can sometimes discern its touch, its fingerprints, when we are moving one step closer to God’s intention for our lives,
Most of my trips into the city centre these days are concerned with giving time to make the world a little better for people who need someone to walk alongside them and to hold their hand while they face fear and confusion.
One of the beauties of retirement is that much of the pressure to fight for your own status and interests tends to disappear, and you find you have time to follow those calls on your time to do other things, to share your skills, and and to offer any wisdom you may have acquired over the decades of your working life.
I had made very few plans when I retired, but slowly I became aware that the values at the centre of this congregation were beginning to take hold on where my time was being called upon.
My understanding of God moved forward as I learned more and more about Jesus’s own relationship with God which shaped his message and his mission.
I found that when I looked at the humanity of Jesus, and understood more about the political and social surroundings in which he lived and died, and when I stripped away all the prejudices, agendas and biases which were applied to the bible texts that have come down to us, I knew more than ever before that Jesus drew me towards God.
The guidance and encouragement of friends, the teaching of scholars, the pastoral care of various ministers over the years, and the love which is the hallmark of this congregation, all led me to find my own pathway towards God’s kingdom of justice and peace and they drew me into greater involvement in the mission and ministry of this church.
I can’t have a direct experience of the historical Jesus, and I can never fully understand God who inspired Jesus with such a life-giving gospel of love and inclusion; but I can be aware of symbols and insights from my faith tradition and from within the Christian scriptures which still speak to me in some spiritual way which supports my faith, and which leads me forward.
Our Christian tradition stretches back into ancient history and holds within it ways of thinking which are equally ancient. The Hebrew scriptures stretch back even further and cover a vast period of time during which a Jewish religious culture slowly emerged. The Jewish tradition is rich with images and interpretations of God, and these underpin the images and interpretations which Jesus and the gospel writers used as their religious language when the Christian tradition was beginning to take shape.
The interpretations within the Hebrew scriptures of God’s relationship with humanity, their collections of wisdom and songs of praise, anger, blessing and lament, their prophetic voices which spoke God’s truth to the secular powers of the day, all help me in my journey towards God.
I can never fully understand God from what is revealed in the ancient texts and ancient ways of thinking of my faith tradition. But they still have the power to speak to me, and in some spiritual way to support my faith, and lead me forward.
I hope some aspects of my personal journey also resonate with you in one way or another. Our Western tradition invites us today to move forward from our Easter experience, to live with purpose in the power of God’s spirit, and to celebrate the glory of God in today’s world. The traditional framework for our celebration is the familiar perception of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or as our opening hymn said, ‘God in three persons, blessed Trinity’.
But let’s also remember that our human theories are always exceeded by our own experience of God which invites us beyond the limits of our human understanding, beyond our theories and doctrines, beyond our certainties, and challenges us to journey into the mystery of God - the One, in Isaiah’s words, whose thoughts are not like ours, and whose ways are different from ours.
That journey is celebrated today in language and concepts from another time and another philosophy. But it is still celebrated every time we move forward in our experience of God. And it is made real whenever we walk together in love.