The Mothering God (Deut 32:18, Hosea 11:3-4. Matt 23:37, Is 66:13)

We all have or have had mothers. Every person here was formed inside a woman, protected and nourished by her.

 

As babies we all needed constant care. Somebody, some mother, fed us, cleaned us, clothed us.

 

It is part of the nature of human beings that we are utterly helpless for a long time after we are born. We depend completely on our mothers to an extent even greater than other mammals and for longer, for years.

 

We can’t really imagine what it’s like to be a baby, but I’m going to ask you to try. Try to imagine knowing no language, being unable to walk, crawl, or even to sit up; being unable to control your bodily functions, to pick up and even to focus your eyes. That’s how it is to be a new born. There is almost nothing you can do for yourself.

 

In the strange world of the very young baby there is one element that stands out and is the very centre. His or her mother. It’s thought that babies can recognise their mother’s voices from within a few days, or at most weeks, of birth. Babies’ sight is blurred and almost useless, except at the distance of about a foot that separates their faces from their mothers’ during feeding. It seems that they can recognise her face at around 6 weeks, while still unable to distinguish any other object.

 

We’ve all observed the way a very young child needs to know where his or her mother is. Feels safe so long as she is in sight.

 

This primary bond, of mother and child, is of a special and irreplaceable kind. There is nothing else that is like it. It is hard to argue with those who have said that this relationship lays the foundation for everything we will become.

 

The Biblical language and imagery about God is overwhelmingly masculine. The terms we are offered for God include Lord and Father. Jesus is the Son. It speaks of God as King. Nowhere do we find Lady, Queen or Mother as names for God.

 

We need to be careful that we don’t allow this to make us forget that when God creates human beings in the image of God he creates them male and female. Neither can claim to represent God alone. Somehow both reflect and show forth God’s nature and God’s rule, in their combination.

 

So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that motherhood, that most feminine and most important human role, is shown to reveal aspects of what God is for us. In Deuteronomy we hear that God gave us birth. The prophet Hosea tells us that God held Israel by the hand, teaching him to walk. Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wing and in Isaiah God promises to offer the comfort a mother offers.

 

The total dependence of a tiny baby on his or her mother is a good image of our relationship to God, in all sorts of ways. We can’t know the world the way God knows it, nor is God’s knowledge just an improved version of ours. Without words, without fully functioning senses, with no experience and no ability to use arms and legs the world of a new born is completely different from that of an adult. So it is with us and God.

 

But we all know that as babies grow all does not remain as straightforward and as harmonious as it is in those early months. The passages we’ve heard express the hurt and disappointment parents so often feel as young people seem to forget and to spurn all that’s been done for them. “You were unmindful”, God says, “you forgot”. “He doesn’t know or even care that it was I who took care of him”. Jesus laments that he wants to protect Jerusalem, “but you wouldn’t let me”.

It’s all too easy to recognise and to identify with both sides in this litany of pain. Children, and we are all children, need to establish their own lives, make their own way, become their own people. Parents, and many of us are parents, have to accept that what their children will become adults who are unlike them, who live differently and have values unlike ours. This can be difficult and can cause great hurt and damage where the bond breaks down and understanding fails, especially when the world is changing as fast as it is today.

 

Our passages remind us that the Biblical story is one where all humanity is in the position of a child who has taken all a mother can give and then turned their back on her. We have forgotten, we haven’t cared, about the care we have been given. We don’t visit or even call, we don’t send flowers or cards, we no longer share our triumphs and disasters, nor do we accept the protection we are offered.

 

On this mother’s day I hope that all of you who have mothers living have remembered them. I hope those of you who are mothers have been remembered. And I hope too that we are all properly mindful that God feels a mother’s love for us, that we are offered comfort by God of the kind a mother offers. We have no need to earn that love or that comfort, any more than any child has to earn their mother’s love, but what would we think of a child who ignored it, or didn’t return it?

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Acts 2:22-24 (What is a human being?)

Jesus was a man accredited by God, Peter says.

 

Last week I argued that when we think about Jesus being God we shouldn’t try to think about how that can be made to fit with our existing ideas about who and what God is; instead we need to change our ideas about God, to take notice of what’s revealed in Jesus. This week I want to look at what it is to be a human being, given that the Jesus we’re told about in the Bible is a human being. I want to say that anything the man Jesus does, says or thinks is human, including walking on water and healing the sick, including loving our enemies and selling all we have and giving the money to the poor, including turning water into wine and especially including not knowing the day or the hour when “these things” will be realised.

 

As some of you know I’m currently fascinated by what has been described as the “second golden age of television”. Many cultural commentators argue that in the last 15 years or so television drama, driven by the new model of subscription channels, has been able to do extraordinary things that would not have been possible before. Shows like The Sopranos, about a Mafia boss, his family and his psycho-analyst, Mad Men about the advertising industry in the 1960s, The Wire, on drugs crime and policing, or Breaking Bad, about a chemistry teacher trying to make a fortune illegally after his diagnosis with cancer, are said to represent a new and important cultural phenomenon.

 

Over the last few months I’ve become fascinated by another part of this new wave of drama, its science fiction and fantasy programmes. Among these the most well known and highly regarded is Game of Thrones a fantasy set in a world where a war very like the War of the Roses rages but with a range of magical additions, including dragons and reanimated dead people who attack the living, but currently there is also The Walking Dead, which follows a group of survivors after a zombie apocalypse and among the shows which are not finished but have high critical status is Battlestar Galactica, which focuses on the resistance to a successful attack on humanity by the Cylons, robots created by humans which turn against them.

 

What’s interesting for me about all these programmes, apart from the fact that almost all of them are deeply concerned with religious questions approached mostly in non-Christian terms, is that driving a lot of their development is the question: “what does it mean to be a human being?” In them people are put into situations of conflict and danger with creatures that are like human beings in different ways but which are not human beings. Often two things happen: on the one hand mistakes are made about deciding which non-humans should and which should not be treated as if they were human, which should be given the rights and consideration we give one another, mistakes either of wrongly including them or of wrongly excluding them. On the other hand some people prove not to be worthy of the status of person, they act so badly as to lost their right to be treated as people. In exploring these possibilities over many episodes and a variety of situations television drama can challenge us to think about what it is to be fully and properly human.

 

This is also one of the main themes of the Bible. Early in the first book of this massive collection we are told that God made us in his image to reign over the living things of the earth. Most of the story of the Bible is concerned with our failure to live up to what we were created to and God’s attempts to help us to realise our true nature. Like a long running TV drama it traces the development both of its characters and of their situation. In this case the central character is God and his main relationship is with his chosen people, Israel, and through them with the human beings who are the focus of his love and concern for all creation. This relationship reaches its climax in Jesus, who represents at the same time the whole of Israel and is also God himself. In Jesus everything is changed in the re-creation of the human race in the one Paul refers to as the second Adam.

 

In this second Adam, this Christ, the man Jesus we see humanity perfected, we see ourselves as we are intended to be and as we will be.

 

To return to the television programmes I referred to earlier they are right to worry that we don’t know how to tell the difference between what really is and what is not really a human being. They are right to suggest that often we don’t deserve the honour of that name, of the name of the creature made in the image of God. When we abuse our powers and our abilities, when we take the sovereignty we have been given and exploit and mistreat other people and the animals with whom we share life, when we behave as if our appetites justify actions that fail to respect creation, then we become less than human. They are right, too, to suggest that in order to deserve the name of human being we have to extend our concern and our fellowship beyond our biological species. To be “sovereign” in the sense Genesis means requires that we recognise all life as belonging to our community. We are sovereign not over mere things without rights. The Biblical ruler is bound by responsibilities of justice and righteousness to those he or she rules.

 

To say that Jesus is a man is to say that we are, until we come to be like him, are less than human. This is not an absolute thing, in being less than human we are not inhuman, we remain bearers of the image of God, but we are works in progress. This again is a common theme of the shows I’m talking about. Nobody stands still, we are all in movement towards or away from being fully, perfectly, human. This movement is one we make in community and through our interactions with others. As we learn to love and to care, to really see and to know one another we learn to be human. As we learn to manipulate and exploit, to use and abuse others we become less human. Above all as we enter into relationship with Jesus, as we come to know and to love him, we experience what a person, a real person, is.

 

That friendship with Christ has many aspects but central to it is the life and witness of the Church, his body. That’s why what we are and do here is so important. Jesus is the one through whom we can be brought to be what we are made to be and it is in this place that he reaches out and draws us to him. As we eat the Lord’s Supper he comes to be be with us in this most central human action, sitting down to eat together. He invites us into his household so that we can see what we are to be,

 

in his name, in the name of the Father and in the name of the Holy Spirit,

 

amen.

Jesus is God (Potters Bar 9 Mar: Phil 2:511 and John 1:1-18)

Sometimes, when people say they don’t believe in God, the right response is to ask them to tell you about the God they don’t believe in. When they do you may find you don’t believe in that God either. It’s important for those of us who proclaim or rely upon faith in God to remember that God is not the same thing as our idea of God. The being we imagine or project isn’t the same as the being that the word “God” or the name “Jehovah” names.

 

I have sometimes thought that I’d like to start using God’s name more in worship and in preaching, to remind us that the Lord we meet in the Bible and in our life as the Church isn’t an abstract idea, an entity known only by deduction from what he does, but a person, a someONE who chooses to enter into relationship with his people. But then I remember that we do use his name, we use it a lot. God’s name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the one anointed. Jesus, the orthodox and historical Christian faith says, is God.

 

The classic statements are from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which are the first full council of the Church on the one hand and the last one recognised by most Protestants on the other. The Church was being torn apart by arguments about who and what Jesus was, how his followers should understand him. So in 325 AD all 1800 bishops in the Church were invited to Nicaea to decide whether Jesus was of the same kind, the same nature, as God the Father, or had been created by him as he created everything and everybody else, which was the position of a popular teacher called Arius. Arius held that while Jesus was greater than all other creatures, was the Son of God, unique and supreme, he was other and less than God the Father. Arianism denied that Jesus was God and asserted that there was only one true God. At Nicaea this position was decisively rejected and the full divinity of Jesus affirmed.

 

This caused no end of subsequent difficulty, though, since it was also agreed that Jesus was fully and completely human. He wasn’t just God in disguise as a human being he actually was a human being. At the Council of Chalcedon 126 years later in 451 AD the bishops were assembled again, for the fifth time in fact, to decide how we should make sense of Jesus being both human and divine. Various positions that were felt to allow one of these natures to be lost were rejected and a formula agreed that would keep them both.

 

Nicaea said that Jesus was God in the same way as God the Father and Chalcedon added that he was also human in exactly the same way as you and me. For many people this remains a puzzle and a stumbling block. What can it mean to say that a particular man and nobody else is God? This seems absurd and ridiculous. If we arrive at acceptance of the existence of a God of some kind this God will probably be something quite different from us, all present, all seeing, all powerful, unchanging and perhaps rather distant, at any rate not much like a fragile, limited, mortal, human being.

 

For me the importance of the Nicene-Chalcedonian teaching on Jesus isn’t first of all what it tells us about him, although that is important. It’s what it tells us about God and about our ideas of God. It tells us that our ideas about a distant God who is separate from us are wrong, that God is not a distant and indifferent, super-rational and remote being above and beyond our concerns and our problems.

 

If we want to know about God we shouldn’t start from a set of abstract thoughts inside our own heads, we should accept that God has always cared about human beings, has tried and tried to establish the relationship with them that he wants, that we are made for, that we need if we are to realise ourselves and be happy as we should be happy. The story of human being is the story of a covenant, almost of a marriage. At every stage God is reaching out to us and if we want to know about him we need to pay attention to what’s revealed.

 

This is true from Adam, through Noah, to Abraham, through the people of Israel to Jesus, through the apostles to the Church, with its councils and structures, to this place here and now. God is striving to find and to form us, his people, to show us his love and his way and to shape humanity to represent and relate to him in creation.

 

The climax of this effort is God actually coming to meet us, to become one of us, the Word made flesh, Jesus. In Jesus God shows us what God is, fully reveals the divine. It isn’t that we should try to work out how we can make the divinity of Jesus fit with our idea of what the Father is, it is that we should try to work out what God’s telling us about himself and about us and about how we stand in regard of one another by being Jesus. What must God be like if God is like Jesus?

 

Well first of all God must really care about us a lot. If God is willing to suffer our fate, even death on a cross, as the letter to the Philippians says, in order to help us out he must feel that we matter.

 

Secondly God must be involved with the history of the world and struggling to make it come out right. The God who comes in Jesus simply can’t be the almighty sovereign who pre-ordains everything. Jesus doesn’t look like that at all. God must be a healer and peace maker who wants justice and abhors war. God must be passionate and vulnerable, feeling pain and hurt by the suffering of others. God must be prone to outbursts of anger, to periods of doubt, to sorrow that leads to tears. In the Bible we see all of this in Jesus and Jesus is God.

 

Thirdly God must have the power, still, to overcome failure, suffering, even death. In the resurrection we see that God can take a human being past death into new and transformed life, into triumph and glory. It isn’t that at the end of the story Jesus sheds his human form and returns to being God. The resurrected Jesus, to be Jesus, must still be human. In him we see what God can do and will do for us.

 

Fourthly we see that God has now given us a way to be united with him in a real and very complete way. Through the life of the Church, through baptism and the communion meal, we can be united to Christ, can be in him and he in us. The God who is present in history didn’t go away when Jesus ascended to heaven (whatever that might mean to us, a subject for another day). Through the Holy Spirit Jesus promised still to be with us and so he is.

 

All of this is hard to reconcile with our usual picture of God, but there it is, that’s how he is revealed to us in Christ. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians:

 

Christ Jesus: being in very natureGod,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very natureof a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

 

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Mar 2014, Brookmans Park)

We’ve all been frightened, I imagine. Maybe some of us have been in situations where we were in real fear for our lives. It’s strange how hard it is to remember what that kind of terror is like. I have been really frightened a few times and when I think back those moments seem very clear and calm, as if they happened to somebody else. I know I did feel fear but I can’t recall what that was like.

 

This is one of the things that makes it hard to really imagine the scene we’ve heard described in Matthew’s gospel. We’re told that the Peter, James and John were terrified but being that scared is one of those things that you have to be in the place and time to know about. Even when we’ve been terrified ourselves we can’t imagine it afterwards. Fear is immediate and beyond language and thought, it is a thing of the body.

But what is it that the disciples are so frightened of, in this story? Why does the voice they hear cause terror? After all its message is hardly one you would expect to have this affect on them. “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Since these three have been following Jesus everywhere and hanging on his every word, have given up everything to do so, you would have thought these would be words they were delighted to hear. Listening to Jesus has become their life, hearing that God is pleased with him should delight them, surely.

The reason they respond as they do is that they know that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, they know that this fear is well founded, that direct contact with God is deadly, that to see his face is to die. Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom because God is the most dangerous being there is. They are not terrified because of what the voice says but because of who it belongs to. They are terrified of God.

We might think that this is wrong, after all God is love, we say, and love isn’t scary, but I’m not sure. If we’re serious about God, then perhaps we should be frightened of an encounter with him. After all if we meet God then we will be faced with the truth about ourselves and I wonder how ready we are to face that. Face to face with God there is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. He, after all, knows us better than we know ourselves and knows all the ways in which we fall short of the perfection he demands of us. To look into God’s face would be to look into a mirror that doesn’t lie and reveals everything, under the clearest and least forgiving of lights. That is something to be frightened of.

Those poor men’s terror isn’t the end of the story, though. Jesus comes to them, touches them, says: “Get up, do not be afraid”. They rise to their feet. It is over. They have been in presence of God, faced the moment of trial. They have not been destroyed, they live to go on. Jesus is with them and he takes care of them.

In this story, of the ordeal of Jesus’ three closest disciples, we have an image of what Christ is for us. He enables us to come into the presence of God and survive. It is possible, with him, for us to hear the voice of God, which tells us to listen to him. We can encounter the innermost truth of what the world is and what we are and go on in it.

Underlying all our fears, I believe, is a fear that we and everything else, are worthless and meaningless. Even the human fear of death is most of all a fear of futility, of failure, of finding that all our efforts, our feelings, our strivings, are without value. We try to find reassurance in our relationships with other human beings, but if we have no value then surely so do they. It is this fear that comes to its conclusion in the meeting with God. If it is true, and I say it is, that everything that has value has value because God gives it value, then meeting God is the ultimate test. There is no delaying the reckoning then. Do I matter? Am I important? Is there any point?

The great danger is that in that moment the answer will be “no”, because it really might. If we have failed to be what God created us to be, God’s own image, his representatives in creation, then there really isn’t any point to us. God made us for something, as something, and if we’re not that then we’re no more use anything else that can’t serve its purpose. That’s why human beings are right to be afraid of God, why that fear is the beginning of wisdom.

The good news from this story is that in Jesus God has decided to solve the problem on our behalf. Listen to Jesus, God says, and what Jesus says is “Get up, do not be afraid”. In Jesus humanity is perfected, the image of God brought to completion. In him, whose face shines like the sun, God’s image illuminates all our kind. Through him we are all made ready to face the Lord.

In my twenties, while I was beginning to grope my way towards Christian faith, I experienced numerous periods of extreme anxiety. During them I would be afraid of fear. I felt that I might become so afraid at any moment that I wouldn’t be able to stand it. Then one evening, when I was alone in my flat, I experienced the intense and overwhelming fear that I had been so afraid of. It didn’t last long and at the end of it I was still there. I never felt afraid of fear again.

In its small way that was a little like what the disciples went through on top of that mountain. They were terrified that to meet God would be to be destroyed. Then, with Jesus as their guide, they were brought into God’s presence and at the end they were still standing, still walking, still talking, above all still listening to their master, the son, the beloved.

The fear of God is the fear of a fate worse than death, of coming to a knowledge of ourselves that exposes our total failure, our absolute lack of worth, our turning away from the purpose God has given us, a knowledge that must plunge us into despair. This fear is one all sinful human beings are bound to feel, even if most of the time we repress and avoid it. That is why the Old Testament can say that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. In the events on the mountain top, though, we see that Jesus gives us a way through and past that fear. In following him, listening to him, being touched by him we can see our humanity raised up to perfection and God’s hand reaching out us in love. “Get up”, Jesus says, “and do not be afraid”.