Sunday, 6 July 2014

God gets involved

This is similar, but not identical, to the sermon I preached on this Sunday three years ago.
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Two weeks ago, when I was last with you, we looked at the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and we saw how God was with Ishmael and his mother Hagar, even in the middle of the desert when all hope seemed lost. I don't know what you looked at last week, but if I'd been here, I'd have been talking about what's called “The binding of Isaac”, when Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, but God sent a ram just in time – did you know, because I didn't until I began reading around for these sermons, that Muslims think it was Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed, not Isaac? Or some do. And now, this week, we come to a nearly-grown-up Isaac, and his search for a wife.

Scholars seem to think that these stories of Abraham, which had been an integral part of the Jewish tradition, were collected together and written down during the 5th and 6th centuries BC –this, you remember, was when the Israelites were in exile, the Temple had been destroyed, and they had no king of their own. Only a very few Israelites were left in Jerusalem, and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and practice. So the various stories were collected and written down, possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.

Abraham himself is thought to have lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC. Apparently the earliest he could have been born was 1976 BC and the latest he could have died was 1637 BC. This was in the Bronze age –he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a flint knife.

When Robert and I were in Italy a few years ago we visited the town of Bolzano, where they have the museum where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored. You may remember that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago, having been preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years. The point is, this was even longer ago than Abraham – he only had a copper axe, as they hadn't discovered about bronze yet. But the things that were found with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his knife and so on, you could see just how they were used, and he was really a person just like you or me! That makes Abraham feel less remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried tools we'd know and so on.

Abraham had felt called by God to leave his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being civilized! However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter, cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Just the sort of food I like!

There was wine available, to make a change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich. They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found, from all one gathers.

The only thing was that without many trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance, instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in which to live. When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that remote, does it? They were people like us, and had similar tastes to us.

But Abraham had felt called to leave there, and to take his family and household and to live in the desert. And they had all sorts of adventures, and sometimes things went very wrong, but mostly they went all right.

And now Isaac has grown up and Sarah has died, and it is time for Isaac to marry. Abraham is urgent that he marry a woman from his own tribe, not a local Canaanite woman, who wouldn't have known about God, so he sends his servant back to Ur, to find a suitable relation for Isaac to marry.

The servant explains, rather earnestly, how he asked God to show him which the right woman was –would she offer to draw water for his camels, or not? That wasn't an easy task – camels, which can go four or five days without water, like to drink A LOT at one time, so she'd have needed a fair few bucketsful!

Rebecca's family would have liked a few days to get used to the idea, but the servant says he needs to get back as soon as possible, and Rebecca agrees to leave next day. So she and her various maidservants – one of them may have been her old nurse – got packed up and ready, and set off. And eventually they get home safely, and there is Isaac coming to meet them. And they get married, and live more-or-less happily ever after!

We sometimes get alarmed about arranged marriages these days; we know that in those communities where they're still more-or-less the norm, things can go horribly wrong – think of those so-called “honour killings” we hear so much about! Even in this day and age, it isn't always easy for someone to escape an abusive situation if they don't know where to go. But as I understand it, an arranged marriage can be every bit as happy and as successful as one where the bride and groom have chosen one another; we all know that you have to work at being married, whether you knew your husband for years beforehand or whether you met him a few days or weeks before the wedding – or even at the wedding!

I think Rebecca was very brave going off with Abraham's servant like that; she had no way of knowing who or what was awaiting her at the far end of the journey. The servant had bigged up Abraham's – and thus Isaac's – wealth, and had given her lots of gold jewellery, but was he telling the truth?

But one thing stands out about this story and that is that God was involved from beginning to end! And God led them all to a happy ending.

I wonder how much we actually believe that God is really involved in our lives? I know we say we do, but these Sundays in Ordinary Time are very much places where what we think we believe tends to come up against what we really do believe! After all, not all of our stories have happy endings, do they? Some do, many do, and for these we give thanks, but what happens when they don't? Does God get involved in our lives? And if so, how does this work, and how can we work with God to ensure a happy ending?

Well, the Bible definitely tells us that God is involved in our lives, and I am sure most of us could tell of moments when we were perfectly and utterly sure of this. But equally, most of us could tell of moments when we really struggled with it! Where was God when this or that bad thing happened? Does God really care? We thought about this a bit two weeks ago when we looked at Ishmael and Hagar in the desert. And we found that God was there with them, even though it hadn't felt like it.

Many of us have lived through enough bleak times to know that one comes out the other side. We know that, when we look back, we will see God's hand upon it all. God may not have led us to a happy ending, exactly, but we can see how God has worked all things together for good for us.

It's not a matter of God waving a magic wand and producing the happy ending we want; we all know God doesn't work like that. And it's not a matter, either, of God having set the future in stone so that nothing we can do can change things. Nor is it a matter of God simply sitting back and letting us struggle as best we can, although everybody feels at times that this is what is happening.

It's more as if God is working with us, moment by moment. Sometimes we – or other people – do things that mean the situation can't come out as God would have wished. God has a detailed plan for creation, but his plan for our individual lives isn't – can't be – mapped out in moment-by-moment detail since we are free to make our own choices. But God truly wants the best possible life for each one of us. The idea, I think, is to stay as close to God as possible, trying to be aware of each moment of decision and what God would like for us to do.

But, of course, as St Paul points out in the letter to the Romans, that isn't actually possible! We're a bit crap at actually doing the right thing, no matter how much we know we want to! It was impossible for Paul to keep the Jewish law in its entirety, no matter how much he wanted to. And although we know we're, and I quote, under grace not under the law, we do tend to find it easier to try to follow a set of rules and regulations than to follow Jesus! And, of course, we don't follow those rules and regulations perfectly – how could we?

But Jesus points out that his burden is light! Sometimes we don't feel as though it is. “Come unto me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!”

I am sure Abraham's servant must have felt incredibly burdened when he went back to Ur to find Rebecca. But the servant, at least, spent his time moment-by-moment in God's presence. He trusted that God would lead him, step by step, to the right woman and that God would bring the whole journey to a happy conclusion. “Come unto Me all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!” Abraham's servant trusted God.

I wonder how much we trust God? It isn't always easy, is it? Last week's story, how God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, was very much about trust. Abraham didn't even argue with God – he just went ahead and did as he was told, leaving it very much up to God to do the right thing! Even Isaac didn't struggle – he was a young man at that stage, not a small boy, and he could easily have overpowered his elderly father. But no – he allowed himself to be bound and laid upon the altar.And God did do the right thing, as it were, and produced the ram.

And now God did show the servant his choice of wife for Isaac. And so was born the Kingdom of Israel. We never know the consequences of our choices – they may be far more far-reaching than we expect. But we do need to practice involving God in our everyday lives, otherwise, when the crunch comes, we'll find it much harder than it need be to rely on him. “I will give you rest,” says Jesus, but if we don't know how to come to him for that rest, how can he give it to us? Amen.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Isaac and Ishmael

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I wonder how old you were when you first heard the story of Isaac and Ishmael. I can't have been more than 6 or 7 when it was part of my primary school Scripture curriculum. Of course, as a child you only notice the superficial parts of the story, and I don't think I've ever looked at it in any great depth before. But it's an important story, because it echoes down to this day.

So, then, Ishmael. The older child. The one Abraham conceived on his slave girl, Hagar, because he didn't see how else he was going to have a child – Sarah, he thought, was long past child-bearing. Hagar and Sarah didn't really get on – Sarah had been very jealous of Hagar when Hagar was carrying Ishmael, and Hagar, one gathers, hadn't exactly helped by showing she rather despised Sarah. Hagar had had to run away from Sarah when she was pregnant, but the Lord had come to her and told her to go back, and that he would make a huge nation from Ishmael.

And the years went by, and they all had loads of adventures which you can read about in Genesis, including fleeing from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and finally Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac is born. And now Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – some translations say he was playing, others that he was teasing or tormenting or mocking him, and we have no way of knowing what he actually was doing. He may even have been doing both – started off by playing, but unable to read Isaac's body language to know when he'd had enough, and ended up with Isaac crying, and Ishmael laughing at him, the way young people do with very small children.

And Sarah is absolutely furious. This had been a special party, to celebrate Isaac's weaning – he would have been somewhere between 2 and 4, I think, rather like Samuel was when he was taken to the Temple. Anyway, this special party, and now Ishmael has upset the boy and made him cry. Is it always going to be like this? And what if Ishmael really meant to harm Isaac?

You can understand Sarah's anger and concern, of course. She is well old to have a small child to look after, and this older half-brother is always going to be perceived as a menace. So for the second time she demands that Abraham send her away, and, heavy-hearted, he does so.

God tells him not to be too upset – his promise is to go through Isaac, but Ishmael is also Abraham's son, and so he, too, will father a vast nation. Ishmael is about 16 at the time. We know, because we are told he was 13 when they were all circumcised, and that was about a year before Isaac was born, so if Isaac is around three, Ishmael has to be 16. But the story makes him sound as though he was younger, and still very dependent on his mother.

Anyway, Abraham loads up a backpack for Hagar, and sends them both off. And they appear to have no idea what to do next, so wander rather aimlessly around until the water runs out. And then when Hagar is despairing, Ishmael resting under the one and only bush, God intervenes, and miraculously provides a well, or a spring, so they are saved.

According to some Muslim traditions, Paran, where they settled, is identified as Mecca, which is one of the reasons why it is a holy place for Muslims today. Because, of course, Ishmael is the father of the Arab nations.

I am not going to go into details about which tribes he fathered and which he didn't – the sources are unclear and nobody seems to really know. However, tradition has it that he had twelve sons, all of whom became tribes, and their descendants are, of course, the modern-day Arab nations.

Actually, you know, that's really depressing! Because if there has not been peace between them ever since, how many millennia is that, and what hope is there for peace today? People don't change! The tribes of Ishmael and the tribes of Isaac have never been able to live in peace. Just pick up your newspaper or go online and look at the BBC headlines. A lot of what is happening in present-day Israel doesn't get reported by the BBC, but I have a friend who keeps an eye on things and she often posts news stories on her Facebook page that don't make happy reading. The tribes of Ishmael are still outcast in today's Israel.

And elsewhere, as the news bulletins make horribly, painfully clear, they are divided among themselves. The awful situation in Syria, which is leaking out into its neighbours. It's too ghastly – there simply isn't an easy solution to be found. At least we can pray for the situation there – I hope you do pray for Syria, because the more of us who pray for her, the better. It's an impossible situation – but then, we believe that nothing is impossible with God!

So it's all very depressing, and it's a depressing story for a summer morning, isn't it? I wonder what, if anything, we can learn from it.

One of the things I do like about the story is that it shows the people concerned to be real human beings, with human faults and failings. Many ancient myths and stories depict the people involved as in some way super-human, all too perfect, or with amazing super-powers that they can call on in time of need. Genesis doesn't. The people here are human, they have human problems and human failings.

We can empathise with Sarah, I think. At least, I can. We can't, and shouldn't, excuse her behaviour – she was wrong to cast them out like that, and I expect she knew it. But we can understand why she felt the way she did, and why she reacted the way she did. She obviously had a huge problem with jealousy, and if Hagar was youngish and pretty and, above all, fertile, while she, Sarah, wasn't.... well.... And then with Ishmael playing with, or teasing, or mocking – according to your translation – the 3-year-old, who may have been over-tired after the party.... you can see where she was coming from. And she wasn't having “that bastard” inherit any of Abraham's wealth, thank you very much.

And Abraham, too. He has proved himself far from perfect – read some of the stories about him in Genesis when you have a moment. He twice introduces Sarah as his sister – she was, in fact, his half-sister – instead of clarifying that she was his wife, and nearly led important people into sin. And he didn't believe God that Sarah could have a child, which is how come Ishmael was conceived in the first place. But at least here he shows himself unwilling to let the family go. And he gives Hagar a backpack of food and water, and relies on God's promise to look after them.

And God does look after them, we are told. They were thrown out for no fault of their own, they were facing almost certain death in the wilderness, and then God was there, in the middle of the mess, providing water for them and ensuring their survival.

And because God intervened, Ishmael went on to become the father of many nations, just like his brother. Yet Ishmael wasn't the child God had originally planned for Abraham and Sarah, and his sons were not to be “the chosen people”, although I daresay our Muslim friends would disagree with us on that one! But God still looks after him. God is there, in the middle of the desert. God is there, in the middle of the injustice and unfairness that caused Ishmael and his mother to be cast out. God is there in the thirst and the heat and the despair.

And that is true for us, just as it was true for Ishmael. Ishmael was not a child of the covenant, but God still cared for him. The people of Syria, many of them, are not children of the Covenant – although there is a very strong Christian tradition there, too. But God still cares for them. We ask where God is in the middle of the Syrian disaster. We ask where God is in the middle of the brutal treatment of the Palestinians by the Israelis. We ask where God is in the middle of our own personal tragedies.

And the answer is the same as it always was. God is there, redeeming us, in the middle of unfairness and injustice and tragedy.

Perhaps you are suffering that way today – in a desert place where it feels as though God has abandoned you, and certainly everybody else has, and that you are going to die of thirst any minute. I don't mean literally, obviously, but there are times when it does feel like that, doesn't it? And yet God is always there. Sometimes God does intervene to improve matters. Other times, perhaps more often, things don't actually improve, but God gifts us with the skills and grace we need to cope with them. Hagar and Ishmael went on living in the desert, but they learnt how to do this on their own.

God never abandons us. When we call on him, he is there. Sometimes it doesn't feel like that – sometimes we really do feel abandoned, and that our calls are just echoing back from an empty sky. But that is only what it feels like, not what has happened. I don't know why it sometimes seems to take God forever to answer our calls – I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons we'll learn about in Heaven – but I do know he does answer. Sometimes “Be patient, be strong!” is the only answer – but the strength and the patience grows.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is not a happy story. But it does have one happy and shining outcome – God was there with them in the desert. And God is with us in our personal deserts, and in the global crises and tragedies of today. God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Trinity Sunday 2014

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 Today is, as you will have gathered, Trinity Sunday. It's a sort of last hurrah between the end of the special seasons, which came to their climax last week at Pentecost, and the endless weeks of Ordinary Time that will run between now and Advent, way off at the end of November.

So we had Advent last year, then Christmas, then Epiphany, and then a few weeks of Ordinary Time as Easter was due to be late, then Lent, then Easter, and recently Ascension and then last weekend Pentecost. And now Trinity Sunday. All the other special seasons are either about, or preparing for, significant events in Jesus' life, but Trinity is a bit different.

The concept of the Trinity isn't really found in the Bible – the bit about doing things in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is as near as it gets. It's really the early church's efforts to put things into words that don't really go. They knew, as we know, that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. But the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet we don't have three Gods, we only have one God.

That's basically what it's about, but it's very confusing. And the trouble is, most illustrations simply don't give you more than a tiny glimpse of it, if that. You can, for instance, say think of three tins of soup – maybe you have lentil soup, mushroom soup and chicken soup, which are all different but all soup. But that doesn't really help, as soup is soup, and whatever flavour you drink. Some people like to think of an egg – the yolk, the white and the shell. Or an apple – the core, the flesh and the skin.

My own preferred illustration is of water, ice and steam – all H2O but very different from each other and used for different purposes. Water is not ice, and water is not steam; ice is not water, and ice is not steam; steam is not water and steam is not ice. But water is H2O, ice is H2O and steam is H2O. Water is about drinking and washing; ice is about skating and cooling injuries. Oh, and cooling drinks, too, of course. And steam is about clearing your head when you have a cold, and showing you that the kettle is boiling.... So it is quite a good illustration.

But even that is merely a tiny glimpse of what the Trinity is all about. Maybe we shouldn't even try to explain the Trinity – it's what's called a mystery, meaning that while we can get a good working image of what it's all about, we know that it isn't more than an image and our conception may well change over time. We'll never know exactly what it's all about, because we are not God!

But, as St Paul points out, we can think of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit! That makes it easier, I think. We might not understand how we can have three Persons, as the technical term has it, in one God, but we can understand a little about the Grace. We will close this service, as we close so many services, by wishing one another God's grace in these very words.

I wonder, then, what we are actually wishing each other. Again, when you start to unpack it, it isn't as easy as it looks. After all, what, exactly, does “Grace” mean? We think we know – we have a working model of it – but again, it's one of those concepts that really doesn't go into words, as so many of the things of God don't. Oh, we say glibly that it's “God's riches at Christ's expense”, and of course that is very much part of it, but it's only part of it. Grace is about all that Christ gives to us in the package we call “salvation”. We can't earn grace, we can only accept it as a freebie. It is everything that Christ poured out for us on the Cross. And it is that that we pray for one another!

And then Love. Again, how can we put this into words? We know what love means – we think. But then, we love strawberries and we love our children and we love our spouses or partners, and it's not the same sort of love, is it?

If you want a general definition of love, one can say it is the condition whereby the happiness and safety of the beloved is of greater concern than your own. The happiness and safety of the beloved is of greater concern than your own. That, of course, can't apply to strawberries! And I would have difficulty in applying it to our love for God, I think, wouldn't you?

But I have no difficulty whatsoever in applying it to God's love for us. God's love for us is quite beyond our imagination. It is constant, unremitting. God loves each and every one of us as though we were unique. It doesn't matter who we are, or what we have done, or whether we serve Him or not – God loves us. In a way, our prayer ought to start with the love of God, for it is from that love that the rest stems. If God didn't love us, he would not have sent Jesus, nor the Holy Spirit.

Some of us here this morning have children, maybe grandchildren. Anybody have great-grandchildren? Well, I don't know about you, but I do remember that when my daughter was born, I began to have a glimpse, just a tiny glimpse of what God's love for us is like. That was a very long time ago, and I am a grandmother now, but I still remember it. That realisation that this, this is something a tiny bit like how God cares for me! Amazing!

So, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and then, of course, the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Some translations say the Communion of the Holy Spirit. You notice it's “of” the Holy Spirit, just as it is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God. The Holy Spirit sends, among other amazing things, fellowship, communion. Both with God and with one another.

Yes, of course, we are friends. And there are always going to be people in the church we are more friendly with and less friendly with, if that makes sense. But by our very human nature, we're going to like some people more than we like others. That's okay. But we are given the gift of having fellowship with everybody in the Church, whether we like them or whether we don't. We can sit beside them in worship, we can pray for them and their concerns, we can lift them to the Throne of Grace. And that is the gift of the Holy Spirit here.

And we can also have fellowship with God. That sounds even more amazing, doesn't it? Fellowship with God himself, the Creator. The Father – Jesus said to call God “Father”, and what better day to remember it as it's Fathers' Day. But I know that isn't helpful to everybody, if they have had a poor relationship with their own father, for instance. You may prefer a totally different name for God, and that's okay, too – and often, your preferred name for God changes as you travel along your Christian journey.

We know the Old Testament was full of different names, from the plain basic “El” that meant “The Lord” – you still get this in names like “Michael” or “Rachel” or “Gabriel”, or any of those Bible names that end in “El”. They all mean something about God – Michael, for instance, means “Who is like God?”, which is a rhetorical question because nobody is! Gabriel means “Strong man of God”, and so on..... Anyway, names for God – the plain basic “El” that I mentioned, and then a lot of other ones – shepherd, judge, redeemer, king, rock. Or there is “El Shaddai”, which has several different possible meanings, including God the Destroyer, or even God with breasts – but is mostly used to mean God Almighty.

And talking of God with breasts, there are a few feminine names for God, which you may or may not find helpful, including Lady Love, and Lady Wisdom. Some people refer to the Holy Spirit as “She”, on the grounds that the Hebrew word, Ruach, is feminine. Do so if you find it helpful, but if it irritates you or feels gimmicky, then don't.

I seem to have wandered rather far from “The fellowship of the Holy Spirit”. But today isn't really a day for understanding, you see. It's much more of a day for rejoicing. Someone years ago said it was a day to celebrate the whole Godness of God, and I rather like that definition. We will never even begin to understand who God is, and that's okay. We know that we have a loving Father in God – or whatever other title we wish to use. We we know that we have a Redeemer and a Brother in our Lord Jesus. And we know that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, who enables us to grow into the person God created us to be, and who gives us all we need, and more beside, to become that person.

And then, there is the fact that it is a mystery. That we can't understand or explain it. And that's great, too! So let us rejoice, and give thanks to God. Amen.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Thomas Gives Permission

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Today is one of those rare Sundays when we have the same Gospel reading every year;
the story of Thomas.
Doubting Thomas, we call him in the West, which is really rather unfair of us, as if it were the only thing about him that mattered!

This story, of course, begins on the evening of the Resurrection.
According to John's account
and yes, it does differ a little from some of the other accounts, as he puts in far more detail
the first person to have seen the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene.
She had gone to the tomb very early,
and found that it was empty.
And while she was weeping quietly in the garden,
Jesus had come to her and reassured her.
Peter and John had also seen the empty tomb,
but had not yet met with the risen Jesus,
and the account isn't terribly clear as to whether or not they realised what had happened.

Anyway, that evening the disciples are together,
and Jesus comes to them, as we heard read.
He reassures them,
and reminds them of some of his earlier teachings,
and then, apparently, disappears again.

But Thomas isn't there.
We aren't told whether he hadn't yet arrived
or whether he had just left the room for a few moments,
gone to the loo, or to get pizza for everyone,
or something similar.
But whatever, he misses Jesus.
And, of course,
he doesn't believe a word of it.
The others are setting him up.
Or it was a hallucination.
Or something.
But it couldn't possibly be true.
And for a whole week he goes round muttering,
while the others are rejoicing.
Goodness, he must have been cross and miserable,
and the others must have been so frustrated that they couldn't help him.

And then Jesus is there again,
with a special word of reassurance,
just for Thomas.
He gets his side out, showing the wound.
Perhaps Thomas would care to touch it?
This isn't ectoplasm,
it's proper flesh.

Thomas can take Jesus' hand again,
just as before.
And Thomas bows down in awe and worship.
So what can we learn from the story of Thomas?
I personally find the story a very liberating one.
From Thomas,
I learn that I have
permission to wait,
permission to doubt,
and permission to change my mind.

Firstly, then,
Thomas tells us we have permission to wait.
That sounds odd,
but don't forget it was a whole week until Jesus put him out of his misery.
It must have been a pretty endless time,
feeling sure that his friends had got it wrong,
wondering who was going mad,
them or him.
But Thomas put up with it.
He didn't abandon his friends,
he didn't run off and do something different.
Instead, he stayed with them and put up with the pain and confusion and bewilderment,
and ultimately Jesus put everything right.
The Lectionary celebrates this every year on this Sunday;
it is the anniversary of the day when Jesus came to Thomas and put it all right for him.

A whole week, though.
Imagine that.
It must have felt like an eternity of doubt,
of confusion,
of bafflement.
The others were all totally convinced they’d seen Jesus,
and as far as Thomas was concerned, they’d all run quite mad.

So often we want things now.
If we are unwell, or grieving,
we want instant healing –
we want the confusion to be resolved.
What was that old prayer:
"God, give me patience, and I want it now!"
An addict trying to give up cigarettes or drink or other drugs
wants the craving to go away.
Someone who is ill or injured feels terrible and longs to feel better.
We don't like to experience bad feelings, obviously,
and we want them to go away. Now.
We also don't like to watch someone else experiencing bad feelings.
We might try to deny their feelings,
telling them they don't feel like that.
Or we might try to tell them they are wrong or wicked to have those feelings.
I’ve heard people say that if we have asked for healing,
we should then proceed to deny we feel ill!
When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, I'm told one of the most difficult things is when friends want you to be “over it” by now.

It is hideous horribly difficult to watch someone else suffer,
and we develop these strategies of coping so that their suffering doesn't rub off on us.
Also, of course, we don't like to have negative feelings because somehow we think we are failing as Christians when we do.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s gone to Church in a bad mood but with a sweet smile pasted on, and a “Fine, thanks!” in response to anybody who asks how we are.
We don’t like to admit we aren’t feeling wonderful –
in fact, we may even have been told, as I have in my time, that it’s a sin to feel less than one hundred percent on top of the world one hundred percent of the time!

I think one of the things the story of Thomas gives us is permission to have bad feelings.
Permission to feel confused, or angry, or bereaved, or muddled, or ill, or craving, or whatever.
Permission to wait to feel better, to allow it to take its time.

Thomas also tells us we have permission to be wrong, and to doubt.
Thomas was wrong.
He thought that Jesus had not been raised.
But it wasn't the end of the world that he thought so.

All too often, I think that if I am wrong,
if I am mistaken,
if I make a nonsense of something,
it is the end of the world.
I confuse making a mistake with a deliberate sin,
and think that God and others will condemn me for it.
But no,
look what happened to Thomas.
Far from being condemned,
Jesus comes to him specially to prove he is alive.
To show Thomas that the others hadn't gone totally mad.
Jesus was extra specially kind to Thomas.

It is encouraging, isn’t it?
We’re allowed to doubt –
it’s not the end of the world if we find something difficult to believe!
So often we try to suppress our doubts,
to pretend that we believe everything we’re supposed to believe, all “our doctrines”,
feeling that if we wonder for one minute we’ll be condemned.
Or maybe our experience of Christ’s love is so very different from that of our neighbour’s that we wonder if it’s really valid at all.
The thing is, when that sort of thing happens,
when we suddenly wonder whether our faith is all a big nothing,
or when we wonder if we’ve got it right,
then the story of Thomas tells us not to worry.
As the prophet Isaiah tells us,
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
“This is the way; walk in it.”

It’s okay to experiment with our faith, with our expression of our faith, and even, sometimes, with our whole lifestyle.
After all, if our faith doesn’t actually affect the way we live, it’s not much good –
but maybe we have allowed it to affect us to the point that the only people we know are Christians,
maybe even Christians who think exactly the same way we do?

The point is, if we get it wrong, Jesus will come to us, as he came to Thomas, and help us get back on track.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t hesitate to put on his Barbour and Wellies and go to find us if we get ourselves a bit lost.

So Thomas gives me permission to feel awful and
permission to make mistakes and to doubt.
But it would be wrong to leave it at that,
without looking briefly at the third permission Thomas gives us,
and that is to change our minds.
The thing is, Thomas was mistaken when he believed that Jesus had not risen from the dead.
Okay, fine.
But as soon as Jesus showed him he was wrong,
he changed his mind.
He fell down and worshipped the risen Jesus.
He felt ghastly for the whole week between Jesus' appearing to the rest of them, and Jesus appearing to him.
And that's okay.
But when Jesus did appear,
he forgot all about feeling ghastly,
he didn't get cross and go "Where were you?" or anything like that.
He just fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.

It doesn't matter if we feel awful for any reason.
It doesn’t matter if we get it wrong.
What does matter, though,
is if we are given the opportunity to correct ourselves,
or to put things right,
and we fail to take it.
Thomas didn't do that.
Thomas admitted he was wrong,
and he fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.
When we are shown, as Thomas was,
that we have made a mistake,
the thing to do is to put it right.
They do say that the person who never made a mistake never made anything, and that's very true.
But the point is, it is only by correcting our mistakes that we can make progress.
If we stay stubbornly convinced that we are right, and everybody else is wrong, we won't get anywhere.
We won't be freed to go on with Jesus.

Thomas is supposed to have gone on to found the Church in India.
He couldn't have done that if he had gone on being convinced he was right and everybody else was wrong.
He admitted he had been wrong,
and thus was free to put it behind him and go on with Jesus.

Are you able to do this?
Are you able to wait for clarification when things seem to have gone wrong?
Can you wait, trusting God that you will feel better in due course?
Can you live with your doubts and confusion,
perhaps opening the door to becoming a bigger person through them?
And can you put it all behind you and say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Bones and bandages

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“Son of man, can these bones live?”

Today’s readings are, of course, about resurrection.
About returning to life.
Ezekiel in the valley of the bones,
and Jesus with his friends in their distress.

Can you imagine a field of bones?
We’ve all seen skeletons on television, of course,
and some of us may have visited ossuaries on the continent,
which are usually memorials to soldiers who fell in the first world war,
and they put the bones of soldiers who have got separated from their identity into the ossuaries to honour them.
Robert and I might visit the one near Verdun at the end of our holiday next month – we've been there before, and it's very impressive.

And the older ones among us may remember seeing pictures of a huge pile of bones in Cambodia after the Pol Pot atrocities of the 1970s.

I think Ezekiel, in his vision, must have seen something like that.
A huge pile of skulls and bones….
“Son of man, can these bones live?”

And, at God’s command, Ezekiel prophesied to the bones,
and then he saw the skeletons fitting themselves together like a jigsaw puzzle,
and then internal organs and tendons and muscle and fat and skin growing on the bare skeletons.
I’m sure I’ve seen some kind of computer animation like that on television, haven’t you?
But for Ezekiel, it must have been totally weird,
unless he was in one of those dream-states where it’s all rational.

But once the skeletons had come together and grown bodies, things were still not right.

Do you ever watch those television programmes where they try to build up an image of the person from his or her skull? They are very clever about it – the most recent one I saw was a reconstruction of Richard III's head, but I think it owed more to a famous portrait of him.

The trouble is, of course, that it never looks much like a real live person, but more like those photo-fit reconstructions that the police build up from people’s descriptions of villains.

And I never think the dinosaurs that they show you that they have reconstructed from computer graphics look very alive, either.
They are very much better than they used to be, which wouldn't be difficult, and computer animation has come a long way in recent years.
The trouble is, though, that it is only a computer animation.
They are not films of real animals, and it does show, rather.
I was watching a children's programme with my grandson the other day, and I was impressed with how much these things have improved in recent years, but they are still not quite like real animals.

The difference, in both the head reconstructions and the dinosaur programmes is that there is no life.
No spirit, no personality looking out through the eyes.

And that’s what Ezekiel saw in his vision –
there were just so many plastic models lying there, no life, no spirit.
Ezekiel had to preach to them again, and they eventually came to life as a vast army.

And then Ezekiel was told the interpretation of his vision –
it was a prophecy of what God was going to do for Israel, which at the time seemed dead and buried.
God was going to bring Israel back to life, to breathe new life into the nation, and put His Spirit into them.


I’ll come back to Ezekiel in a minute, but for now, let’s go on to the wonderful story of Lazarus.

The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible.
Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper –
and because he lived in Bethany,
some people have also said that he was married to Martha.
We don’t know.
The Bible isn't very clear about which Mary was which,
apart from Mary the Mother of God,
and it certainly doesn't say that Martha and Simon were married to each other, although both of them probably were married.
We do know that Martha and Mary were sisters,
and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus.
We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord –
whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one isn't clear
But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well,
a home where he knew he was welcome,
and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died.

In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary are one and the same person,
as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been,
some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with.
Now she has repented and been forgiven,
and simply adores Jesus,
who made that possible for her.
And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household,
possibly rather on sufferance.

But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.
Back then, this simply was Not Done.
Only men were thought to be able to learn,
women were supposed not to be capable.
Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn.
They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile.
And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”, thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out,
and some would say we haven’t succeeded, even now.

Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that,
was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion.
Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him.
He might have felt extremely uncomfortable,
and it’s quite possible that his disciples did.
Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.
But Jesus replied:
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God.
Jesus was happy enough with bread and cheese, or the equivalent;
he didn’t want a huge and complicated meal.
He wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed,
the teaching that only he could provide.
He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too,
but Martha wasn’t ready.
Not then.

But now….. now it’s all different.
Lazarus, the beloved brother, has been taken ill and died.
It’s awful, isn’t it, when people die very suddenly?
I know we’d all rather go quickly rather than linger for years getting more and more helpless and senile,
but it’s a horrible shock for those left behind.
And, so it seems, Lazarus wasn’t ill for very long, only a couple of days.
And he dies.

It must have been awful for them.
Where was Jesus?
They had sent for him, begged him to come, but he wasn’t there.
He didn’t even come for the funeral –
which, in that culture and climate, had to happen at once,
ideally the same day.
The two women, and their families if they had them, were observing the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva”,
sitting on low stools indoors while their friends and neighbours came to condole with them
and, I believe, bring them food and stuff so that the bereaved didn’t have to bother.

But Martha, hearing that Jesus is on his way, runs out to meet him.
This time it is she who abandons custom and propriety to get closer to Jesus.
And it is she who declares her faith in Him:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ,
the Son of God, who is come into this world!”

And Mary, too, asserts that if Jesus had been there,
Lazarus would not have died.
But it is Martha, practical Martha, who overcomes her doubts about removing the gravestone –
four days dead, that was going to smell rather, wasn’t it?
But she orders it removed, and Jesus calls Lazarus forth.

And he comes, still wrapped in the bandages they used for preparing a body for burial.
When Jesus is raised, some weeks or months later, the grave-clothes are left behind, but we are told that this didn’t happen to Lazarus.
The people watching had to help him out of the grave-clothes.


Of course, I think the point of these two stories –
and the point of linking them together in the lectionary –
is fairly obvious.
Life comes from God.
In Ezekiel’s vision, God had to breathe life into the fitted-together skeletons,
or they were no more than computer animations,
or dressmakers’ dummies.
And it was God who, through Jesus, raised Lazarus from the dead.
Without God, Ezekiel’s skeletons would have remained just random collections of bones.
I think that this was a dream or a vision, rather than something that actually happened, but it makes an important point, even still.
God said to Ezekiel that just as, in the dream, he had breathed life into the skeletons, so he would breathe new life into the people of Israel.

And the story of Lazarus, of course, foreshadows the even greater resurrection of Jesus himself,
a resurrection that left even the grave-clothes behind.
Lazarus, of course, will have eventually died permanently, as it were, when his time had come;
Jesus, as we know, remains alive today and lives within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

So what have these stories to say to us, here in the 21st century?
We don’t find the idea of a fieldful of bones coming together and growing flesh particularly special –
computer animations have seen to that.
And we don’t expect to see the dead raised –
more’s the pity, in some ways;
maybe if we did, we would.
Then again, that doesn’t seem to be something God does very often in our world.

But I do think that there is something very important we can take away with us this morning, and that is that it’s all God’s idea.
Our relationship with God is all his idea –
we are free to say “No, thank you”, of course,
but in the final analysis, our relationship with God depends on God,
not on us.
I don’t know about you, but I find that really liberating –
I don’t have to struggle and strain and strive to stay “on track”.
When I fall into sin, I am not left all by myself,
but God comes after me and gently draws me back to himself.
I can just relax and be myself!

Our relationship with God is God’s idea.
It is God who breathes life into us.
It is God who brings us back when we go astray.
It is God who helps us to change and grow and become the people we were created to be, designed to be.
It is God who breathes life into the dry bones of our spirituality, who calls us out of the grave, who enables us to grow and change.
Amen, and thanks be to God!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

For God so loved the world

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“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
They are such familiar words, aren't they. The absolute basis of our faith – they are pretty much the heart of what it means to be a Christian. But, of course, like all of these things, it's really hard to unpack what it originally meant. We all have our own interpretation, of course, and who's to say we're wrong?

But let's look at the whole passage, first of all, before trying to look more closely at our text, since it's a well-known fact that “a text without a context is a pretext!”

Nicodemus seems to have been an older man, prominent among the Jews, a Pharisee. Maybe the local equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, or of Westminster. Certainly well-known in his community, and very much looked up to as a religious leader. But, for him, something was missing. He was beginning to realise, perhaps, that he was coming to the end of his life here on earth, and wondering what his religion had to say about this. And now there is this new young teacher going the rounds, doing miracles, really seems to be from God. Nicodemus begs a very private interview. He can't be seen to be too closely associated with Jesus, although he does, in fact, stand up for him in the Sanhedrin, and helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare his body for burial. But at this stage he doesn't want to be seen to be too interested in what might, after all, prove to be another cult.

But it wasn't. Jesus tells him that he doesn't just need to be physically alive, he needs to be spiritually alive, too. He must be born from above, born anew, born again – the word used translates as all those things. And Nicodemus doesn't understand. Perhaps he's not really used to thinking in spiritual terms, or perhaps it totally doesn't make sense to him. So he blanks it. “How can you enter your mother's womb a second time?” But Jesus explains that this second birth is of the Spirit. We need to be born spiritually, to recognise that we are more than just animals, to allow God's spirit to work in us.

And Nicodemus says, “Yes, well, how do you do this?” and the answer, of course, is through Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”


You note, of course, that this is all God's idea! It's not something we humans can do. We may or may not have our own interpretation of the phrase “Born again”, but I think we all agree that it's something that God does, not some­thing that we do. Had God not sent his only Son, Jesus, then it would not be an option for us. But Jesus came, we are told, out of God's love for us.

And our response must be one of believing. Again, people differ, sometimes, as to what degree of belief actually “counts”, whether it is a mild intellectual assent, or a total commitment to the exclusion of anything else, or somewhere in between.

For some of us, “being a Christian” is kind of like being pregnant – you either are or aren't, there's no two ways about it. Others see it as a journey, a process, starting, perhaps with a tiny step of faith, an intellectual assent to the fact that God could exist, that Jesus perhaps is God's son, and so on. And gradually growing more and more into our faith, going through various stages, and gradually, perhaps over many years, developing a mature and wonderful faith, and becoming the sort of Christian we all look up to and admire!

It's a bit of both, isn't it. Many of us will look back to a moment when we first said “Yes” to Jesus – perhaps we even remember the date and the time! For me, it was the tenth or the seventeenth of October, 1971, I can't remember exactly which. Sheesh, was it really that long ago – help! But loads of people don't have a datable conversion – it happened so gradually that they simply can't point to a date and say “before then I wasn't a Christian; after it I was.”

But even those of us who did have a definite date which they remember as their conversion, it didn't happen in a vacuum. It might have felt, at the time, like a total bolt from the blue, something totally unexpected, but when you look back, it probably wasn't.

Let’s take John Wesley as an example. We remember the date of his conversion, on 24 May. Remember what he wrote: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

A not untypical conversion experience, perhaps. But Wesley was already a minister of the Church. He had been on missionary trips in the USA, and he had been searching and searching for the faith that he knew existed, but that he himself couldn’t find. One of his counsellors – I forget who, offhand – had told him to “preach faith until you have it, and then you will preach it because you can’t help it”. So for John Wesley, that experience on Aldersgate Street was very much a part of his Christian journey. Would anybody really say that before it he was not a Christian? I don’t think I would, and I’m not sure that Wesley himself did, either!

And another thing to notice is that although Wesley was searching and searching for the personal faith he knew was a reality for so many, it was, in the end, God who gave him that faith. Wesley didn’t manufacture it himself. He wasn’t working himself up at an emotional revival meeting. He was just sitting listening to a sermon on the Epistle to the Romans! And God acted.

I’ve seen that happen, too. I remember once, many years ago, a group of us were sitting in a cafĂ©, singing Christian songs, when quite suddenly the words we were singing became real to one of the group in a totally new and different way. I’ve long since lost touch with that person, and have no idea whether she still follows Jesus or not, but I will not forget how it suddenly became totally real to her. 

But that young woman had been coming to Church, and joining in our fellowship, for several weeks. I can’t remember whether she’d been a churchgoer at home, or university, or whatever – this was in Paris, and a great many young people came to the church to meet other English people.

I did, myself, for that matter! And for many years I assumed that I had not been a Christian before I went to that church, and heard someone preach on “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”.... but, when I looked back, I realised that in fact, I had experienced a call to preach some years earlier than that, when I was about fifteen! And I had been a regular attender at Church – usually because I had to, because it was required when I was at school, but also at the voluntary mid-week Communion services the school held occasionally, where I acted as a server. I know my Confirmation was very real and special to me, too. I reckon that what happened that October evening was a huge milepost on my Christian journey, but it was a milepost on the road, not the start of that journey!


Of course, the start of a journey to faith is just that, a start. Like Abraham and Sarah, from our first reading, we have to carry on. Jesus told Nicodemus that we need to be born from anew, but it’s always so sad when people have a baby who simply doesn’t develop and grow, but remains an infant throughout life. As Christians, we need to be open to allowing God to grow and change us, to become the people he created us to be, the people he designed us to be. Abraham was told to get up and move to the land God would show him, and God would bless him abundantly, in a way that perhaps would not have been possible had Abraham remained in Ur. And we know how Abraham believed God, and he and his brother Lot got up and travelled, leaving a very comfortable and civilised life in Ur to become nomads, travellers. And were blessed enormously by God, despite all sorts of trials and tribulations, times when they lacked faith, times when they sinned, all sorts of awfulnesses.

But there again, it was God’s idea. Abraham didn’t just suddenly decide that he’d abandon his settled life and go off into the desert in the hope that God would bless him for doing so. God told Abraham to go, and that if he went, he would be made great.


Sometimes, we who are Christians forget that it’s all God’s idea. We act as though our relationship with God depended totally on us. It doesn’t. It depends far more on God. “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” God has far more invested in the relationship than we do, no matter how committed we are. God loves us far more than we love him! And God’s love is constant, unremitting, and never, ever grows cold. We can be very variable in our faith, but God never changes. There are times when we move away from God – and you can practically see the Good Shepherd donning Barbour and wellies to go off in search of us!

Of course, there are those people who say “No” to God. As C S Lewis once said, if people go on refusing to say “Thy will be done”, eventually God will, with great sadness, say “All right, have it your own way!” But that, I think, does not apply to any of us here. We have said “Yes” to Jesus, we have said, like Martha, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, who has come into this world.”

And we know, deep in our hearts, that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

In the beginning, God

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I seem to have published this before I preached it, which isn't something I tend to do! Without checking the formatting first! Ah well.... Listen to the podcast, as I am not sure how closely I stuck to my script!

Our first reading today was that lovely poem that begins the Bible, that tells how God created order out of chaos. It's a lovely poem, one of my favourites.

You start with the absolute blankness, nothing. I don't think we can ever experience that sort of nothingness here on earth. Even if you all shut your eyes tightly, you can still hear and smell and taste and feel. Although some people have gone through what they call "sensory deprivation", which sounds as if it's very nasty indeed. Some people do it voluntarily, to prove a point, but for others it's quite literally torture. I suppose that might give us a glimpse of what it was like before the world was made. Although even sensory deprivation, unless you have it in space, doesn't turn off gravity!

 And then gradually, day by day, order forms out of chaos. First the light - not yet the light of the sun or moon, but an unspecified light. Then the sky, then the land, then vegetation, trees, plants, seeds, grasses. Then on the fourth day the sun, moon and stars, on the fifth day the birds and the fish. And on the sixth day, firstly the land animals and then the pinnacle of creation, human beings.

 "So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them". And on the seventh day, that great Sabbath rest that we have such trouble either understanding or implementing.

 The chorus of the poem, at the end of each stanza: "And God saw that it was good." "And there was evening and there was morning, the whatever day". It is a lovely poem, isn't it?

 Incidentally, nothing here about the man naming the animals, or the woman being created from his ribs, and them being placed in a garden – that is another story, I suspect a separate one, that comes in the next chapter. This poem is self-sufficient. And it is true. I don't mean literally true, of course – we know that the actual history of how this world came into being is told, firstly by astronomers and then by geologists and those who study tectonic plates and so on, and finally by naturalists and geneticists.

 But it is true in other ways.
 It shows how God is intimately involved in creation; it shows how pleased God is with that creation;
and it shows how we, in our creativity, are made in God's image.

The story shows how God is intimately involved in creation. Well, yes, that goes without saying. But I think it does bear repeating, because all too often, we act as though God created the world and then left it to get on with it. But those who wrote down this story – and I suspect they were writing down a tale that had been repeated and repeated and repeated for generations – those who wrote down this story did not, I think, believe that. For them, God was intimately involved in every detail of creation; why would He abandon it? No “God of the Gaps” theology for them.

 It's not always easy, when we know that we share much of our genetic material with earthworms and other animals; we know that it is the characteristics that enhance survival that are the ones apt to persist down the generations. Mind you, when it comes to some birds, the characteristics that their mates seem to prefer are more decorative than practical!

 But sometimes, I know, we wonder how much God has wound up his creation and left it to get on with it! But our Gospel reading reminds us that God is still involved in creation, providing food for the sparrows and clothing for the flowers; we are told that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. And we know that the poem shows God is still intimately involved in our lives today and that we are able to have a relationship with Him – or why are we here this morning?

 So yes, God is intimately involved in His creation, and God is pleased with that creation.

 Every stanza of the poem ends “And God saw that it was good”. God was pleased with what He had made. Sometimes we forget that, don't we?

 I know I used to, years ago – I got so used to the idea of myself as a sinner that I somehow forgot that, actually, God meant to make me – I, and the rest of humanity, wasn't some kind of dreadful mistake on God's part! It's all too easy, I find, to get into the mindset where God only tolerates humanity because of what Jesus did – rather than God loving his Creation so much that it was His idea to send Jesus to fix what had gone wrong. God doesn't hate his Creation because, through humanity's fault, it became flawed and broken – rather the reverse; God loves it so much that he fixed it!

 I sometimes wonder, don't you, what creation is like on other worlds, other planets. There has been endless speculation about this; we know now that Mars is mostly desert, but scientists are still looking for traces of life, although they don't think there was ever intelligent life there.

 But before we knew what Mars was like, people speculated, and some really good stories were written about potential Martians, and what they might be like. And, indeed, on what people from all sorts of other places might be like. But all too often, our authors have created them in our own image. They might be bug-eyed monsters, in fact, they frequently are – but it is the word “monster” that is significant here.

 It was, I think, C S Lewis, among others, who drew attention to the fact that other civilisations might not have fallen, as humankind did. In an essay from 1958 entitled Religion and Rocketry, he says that if animal life exists on other planets, and if any of those animals are self-aware, rational beings like us, and could be argued to have souls, as we do, then are any of them, or all of them, fallen as we are? And if so, what provision has God made, as He undoubtedly has, for their redemption.

He quotes a now-forgotten poem, Christ in the Universe, by Alice Meynell, which I rather like, so I'm going to read it to you:

With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us.  These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.

But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.

Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.

No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.

But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.

O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.

 Lewis comments that it is just as well that the distances between stars is so vast that it is unlikely we shall ever meet beings from other planets. Given humanity's record of dealing with people from other places, he doesn't think we would be very good at dealing with them, whether or not they were the bug-eyed monsters of pulp fiction or a race of wonderful, unfallen people, of whatever shape, who are able to worship their Creator and to know Him in ways we cannot. Or whether they have been redeemed in some totally different way. We will never know.

But what we do know is that God reckons that His creation is very good. And where it is no longer good, He has redeemed it. God is pleased with His Creation.

So, then, God is involved in His creation;
God is pleased with His Creation;
and God created humankind in His own image.

 Earlier, we looked and thought about some of the things that we have made. Few other animals make things. Some do make tools – apes certainly do, and some species of bird. And some birds, the Australian bower-bird in particular, make beautifully-decorated bowers to attract their mates.

 But by and large animals are not creative in the way that we are – they don't bake cakes and decorate them, or knit themselves sweaters, or weave fabrics that last beyond a brief nesting season. It is, I think, in our creativity that we are made in God's image.

 God thought of the whole of this universe – or is it “these universes”? I am never quite sure. And in our turn we have thought of most extraordinary things – just look around you when you leave this place.

 Some years ago now I happened to be visiting my parents when someone who had been given permission to use a metal detector on some of my father's land came to call. He was showing us some of the things they had found in the field, ranging from a brooch that had been lost off a Roman cloak to a button that had come off a railway-worker's uniform. I held the brooch and could see how it was made – much more interesting than just seeing them laid out in display cases in a museum, when you really can't tell what they are supposed to be. Human beings had made all these things.

Some years ago we went to Bolzano, in Italy, and saw Oetzi, the so-called Ice Man, whose preserved body was found in a glacier about twenty years ago. The artifacts found with his body were wonderful, too – a copper axe, among other things, and shoes and other clothes. Even five thousand years ago, people were making things!

We have gone on making things down the ages, right down to the cup of tea we made this morning! Some of the things we've made we could wish we hadn't – guns and bombs and other tools for killing people with. Other things, we are very glad we did – respirators and iron lungs to keep people alive, for instance.

 But all our creativity, whether we have used it for good or for ill, harks back to that of our Creator. And like God, we need to look at what we make, and be sure that it is good. God is still involved in His Creation; God is pleased with what He has made, and God has gifted us with creativity in His image. We may well misuse that creativity, but it is still in God's image.

So, my sisters and brothers, let us praise our Creator in the words of hymn no 699: Lord of Creation, to Thee be all praise.