There is no bigger word in the world than the word “God”. For many in the Western World it produces an immediate allergic reaction. God, they would say, is a figment of our imagination that has been used to justify war, greed and the oppression of anyone who is different to us. It has produced intractable prejudice on every side: racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and, more recently trans-phobia.
In other parts of the world, the word ‘God’ has a different meaning. For those sympathetic to so-called Islamic State, it refers to an all-powerful being who rules by might and fear. He is darkness, not light.
But that is itself just an extreme distortion of a very different view of God expressed in the Muslim faith. Islam is, by origin, an Arab faith with a world-view that makes most sense when you look at it from the perspective of a desert culture. Its founder, Mohammed, rejected Christianity partly because he couldn’t relate to the image of God as light – as today’s Gospel says. To us, the image of light is a very powerful metaphor for good. But to a desert-dwelling Arab, the deadly sun means that light is dangerous. The darkness is when life becomes possible, so the moon, not the sun becomes the symbol of God’s goodness. And light is the symbol of death, whereas darkness is seen as life-giving. You can see that, from there, a very different view of God might emerge.
There are also the pagan views of God, expressed across the world in various ways. God might be seen as the forces beyond our control, so you have a god of the wind, a god of the sea, a god for this and a god for that. And if you add all that together, perhaps God is just the sum-total of all creation, the great mass of existence. That is a view expressed in Classical paganism and in its Eastern forms, Hinduism, Jainism and so forth. And there are those who try to find God as an amalgam of what every other faith believes – the Baha’i faith, for example.
Then you have the personal views of God: my god and your god. This is very popular today in the West – we all have our own spirituality and find our own way in life. But it was also evident in the early pages Old Testament, where every nation had its own god and Israel had hers. Only gradually did Israel come to believe that, in fact, there was only one God and therefore they had to share that God with all the nations – a view we still hold within Christianity.
So when you have a conversation with someone and use the word ‘God’ it’s a perfect recipe for talking at cross-purposes. The person you’re speaking to almost certainly doesn’t mean the same thing you do.
So what are we to make of such a complex picture? Some people are inclined to give up and not talk about God at all, even if they retain their own private belief. They would rather not talk about it because, as soon as they do, it becomes disorientating and bewildering. It’s almost impossible to talk about it without having some of their private beliefs challenged and if that happens, what happens to their faith? Would they lose it altogether?
I understand that fear because it’s one of the biggest fears prospective vicars have when they go to theological college. “What if, when we really look into this, it all unravels?” Digging deeper into the Bible and delving deeper into God challenges the beliefs we came with. People who’ve done it often describe it as ‘taking your faith apart before putting it back together again’, but the fear is that it won’t be put back together again. So perhaps it’s best just to stick with your own personal faith.
But the trouble is that a faith that is only based on our limited experience and understanding is shallow – dangerously shallow. Almost everyone I’ve met who has lost their faith has done so, not because they have dug too deeply, but because they haven’t dug far enough. Their faith was genuine, but its roots were shallow and that made it susceptible in a wild and confusing world.
So how can we find a firm footing for our faith? How can we build a strong faith that will endure? You’ll all know Jesus’ parable about the wise man who built his house on the rock and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.” How do we build our faith on a rock that will withstand the storms of life?
Well, part of the trouble is that we tend to assume that it’s our job to find God. And if you think that, the task will be very daunting. There are so many views of God that no-one has the time, let alone the brain space or the wisdom to sift them all and work out what the one true God might look like.
But the Bible says is that we are only half of the equation. In fact, it’s not just up to us to find God. Rather, it’s up to God to find us. And that’s precisely what he has done – in Jesus.
“Jesus is the image of the invisible God” – that’s what St Paul says at the start of today’s reading from Colossians. I suppose a modern way of saying that is that Jesus is God’s selfie. It’s as though he took a photo of himself and sent him to us, to say “look – this is what I’m like. This is who I am.”
So in Jesus, God reveals who he is. In fact, St Paul says “in Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In other words, God has revealed everything there is to know about himself in Jesus.
Now, in one sense, that might seem a rather uncomfortable thing to claim about Jesus in the modern world. To claim that Jesus reveals everything there is to know about God looks as though we’re saying that Christianity is right and every other view of God is wrong. But that’s not what we’re really saying. Just because Jesus tells us everything there is to know about God doesn’t mean that every Christian understands it! After all, we’re all Christians, but which of you could put your hand up and say “I know more about God than any of my neighbours, or any other faith”? You can’t, partly because I know you and I know you’d be massively overstating your Bible knowledge! And partly because you can’t know what your neighbour knows. St Paul also says that God has revealed himself through his creation from the beginning, so of course our friends and neighbours will know something of him too. And other faiths must also, therefore, have grasped elements of truth about God too.
But what we are saying is that Jesus is a firm footing for our steps of faith. We may not understand everything he tells us about God, but we can be sure that everything there is to know about God is revealed in Jesus. We don’t have to grope in the dark anymore, because God has made himself known to us in Jesus. He has stepped into the light so that we can see him: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world.” He’s taken his selfie and sent it to us. And we can have confidence that the closer we look at Jesus, the better we come to know him, the better we will know the true God. We will never, in this life, know all there is to know about him or understand him perfectly. He will always have mystery about him, but it is a revealed mystery. He has made himself known and we can know him.
And each of us here today can know God personally through Jesus. I don’t know everything there is to know about God. But everything I have come to know about Jesus shows me that he is a completely true and reliable rock on which to build our lives – in a number of important ways.
Firstly, he makes sense for our brains. The more you look into the Bible, the more you delve into his teaching, the more it makes sense of life. It is like a lightbulb going on, the light of the world, the true light which enlightens everyone. He makes sense of the Bible, he makes sense of human history, he makes sense of science and logic. As St Paul put it, “in Jesus, all things hold together” (v.17)
Secondly, he makes sense for our hearts. When he speaks, he speaks into the deep places of our lives, in a way you will know is light and truth. He tells us how to relate to others, how to cope when people mistreat us, how to cope with the storms of life. And when we enter into relationship with him, when we oil the rusty wheels of prayer and get them working at they should, we’ll know him. And we’ll know that he’s in it with us. That even though the winds and waves are beating against us, our little house will stand, because Jesus is in our lives, an eternal rock that is bigger and stronger than anything life can throw at us. We’ll know that he holds everything we hope for and everything we fear.
Thirdly, he makes sense of our spirits – because he changes us. In some ways the critics of God are right. We have often been guilty of using God to justify war, greed and the oppression of anyone who is different to us. But in my experience, that is only possible when we follow the god who is a figment of our imagination. It’s not possible if we follow the God revealed in Jesus. If your God is the one you’ve come to understand only from your own experience, it will be a god created by you – your beliefs, your attitudes, your needs. And of course that’s going to make it look as though god is only on your side. But the Bible constantly challenges us to have a bigger view of God: “through him, all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…all things have been created through him and for him.” Wow! Or think of psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
Over and over again, belief in Jesus calls us to acknowledge that we are not the centre of the universe. That we can only understand who we truly are when we stop looking inwardly at ourselves and look up to God. When we realise the sheer vastness of him, but recognise that in him ‘all things hold together’. That means we are connected, through Jesus, to one another, to the whole of creation and to God himself. To look to Jesus is not to look narrowly at the little club we call “Christians”, or to look just at our own inner lives and the tiny puddle of ‘stuff we know’. It’s to have faith that everything makes sense in Jesus. That, however chaotic it may appear to us, everything is knowable, everything is in control. And ultimately, that we are okay because we have been reconciled to God through the blood of his cross.
So our challenge today is to take a step of faith by stepping onto the firm rock of Jesus. Come and dig deeper, so that your faith can grow strong. Our Lent course is a fabulous place to begin. As will be our Holy Week services. Come with your own views of God, but more importantly come with the expectation that God might reveal himself to you. That might blow away your pre-conceptions about God; it might first take your faith apart before it puts it back together. But unless you’re the only person who’s got this life sorted, that maybe needs to happen. Have confidence that in Jesus all things hold together, that the closer we look into him, the more we understand, the more the light shines in the darkness of our lives and the more firmly we fix our feet on the rock-solid stepping stones of faith, a faith that is established on firm foundations that no storms of this life will ever destroy. Amen.
Preached: Crosby Ravensworth, Great Strickland, 4 February 2018