s013g02 Lockleys Lent 2 24/2/02

"God so loved the world " John 3.16

It would be a good idea to keep Father Douglas in our prayers, particularly during these Sunday "in Lent" as the gospel readings are long ones from John. Today's, the encounter with Nicodemus is not too bad, but in the following weeks we have the encounter with the woman of Samaria, with the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus and finally the passion gospel on Palm Sunday.

These are stories of power and success - not about fasting and mourning at all; and it is significant that the traditional colour for Sundays in Lent is purple, for royalty, which also reflects this. Sackcloth &endash; a plain linen colour - is more properly associated with mourning and fasting. The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 tells us that Sundays in Lent are actually feast days. Monday to Saturday are the days of fasting. Hence it is good that we have a pot-plant which adds colour to the sanctuary on Sundays. Actually, of course, two Sundays in Lent actually have flowers as an integral part of their celebrations - posies on Mothering Sunday and palms on Palm Sunday.

So on the Sundays "in Lent" it is quite appropriate to have that chocolate, that glass of wine, that we were denying ourselves on the other days.

And to answer a question from a while back, I can find no reference to "Shrove Tuesday" in the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 or the "Deposited Book" of 1927. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the day is so named from the "shriving" of the faithful that occurred on that day - when they went to confession - though this is the only reference I've come across of going to confession before the season of penitence has even begun. Those parts of the Church for whom Confession is a more regular discipline are sometimes those who make the most of "letting their hair down" in Mardi Gras - perhaps they confess what they are about to get up to :-) Perhaps others can enlighten me.

It is good that we have these sizeable chunks of John's gospel in this time of Lent. It is hard to break them up into smaller portions and retain the sense of what is happening.

I started with the text: "God so loved the world " a favourite of many. Despite translations of the Bible resolving the issue, it is in fact unclear whether these words were spoken by Jesus or they are the words of the evangelist, St John, as he expresses his own understanding of who Jesus was and what he came to do. We have in English the devise of quotation marks to make plain what is direct speech, but koine Greek, the language in which the authors of the New Testament wrote, did not.

"God so loved the world " &endash; this is a very strong affirmation, and perhaps it needs to be, because in many places scripture seems to decry the things of this earth. So James writes, "Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God". James 4.4 And it is not hard to find similar expressions even from the pen of St John, for example, "My kingdom is not of this world" John 18.36. There is clearly a love-hate relationship, and it behoves us who are "of the world" and "of the Spirit" to try to make some sense of what is happening here.

One of the first things is to say that God is not capricious. If we know God loves the world, then this has been the case for all time and will remain for all time. God will not repent.

And it is not that God loves the world in the expectation that the world will do the right thing and love God back. If part of the world refuses to respond appropriately, God's love does not turn to anger toward them. I have heard some commentators suggest that God's love and God's anger are just opposite sides of the same coin. I would not worship a god for whom this is true, who it would seem that the precise instant we "stepped out of line" God's anger was there hiding all the time, masquerading as love. Such Jeckle and Hyde pictures of God are bizarre.

I recently watched the movie with the title something like: "It Was Either Him Or Us" - the story of a young girl in an abusive relationship with an older man. While the man generally was kind and loving, this was only when the girl devoted her entire attention to him. The movie detailed the jealous rages that followed any lack of attention. And I guess some can think of God in a similar way. Kind and loving most of the time, as long as we keep our attention fixed where it should be, but ever ready to consign anyone to eternal damnation who turns their attention elsewhere, even for an instant. A "god" such as this deserves our pity, not our worship.

"God so loved the world " &endash; this was the reason God sent Abraham to live amongst aliens, that God sent Jesus to live amongst humanity God spends eternity sending people to others, expressing divine love for all.

Indeed for St Paul, it is the essence of his faith that God "justifies the ungodly" in the words from the fourth chapter of his letter to the Romans. If we equate the world as composed of ungodly people, it is surely a gift of divine love that God should justify us and all people.

I was interested, at the recent ordination to "hear" again the words of Simeon, about the baby Jesus: "To be a light to enlighten the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel". Israel and the Church fulfils this glorious mission as we reach out in acceptance of others, not just ourselves and those who follow our traditions.

I was reading the sermon of a neighbouring member of the clergy recently, and this drew my attention to the passages of scripture about the tribes of Israel making sure that they completely exterminated the inhabitants of the Promised Land, lest they incur the wrath of God. He quoted the words: "When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. ... If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them." Numbers 33:51, 55-56. He made the point that this was precisely the paradigm that some of the european settlers had towards the aboriginal inhabitants in Australia 200 years ago. They were considered idolaters and had to be wiped out.

And then I read Psalm 74 1. "O LORD our God, why cast us off so utterly: why does your anger burn against the sheep of your pasture?" and 60.10: "Have you not cast us off, O God? You go not out with our armies." Perhaps it is precisely because we are not "good news" to others?

So what is this "world" that God hates. How do we find our way through this conundrum?

The answers are many. C.S. Lewis, in the last of his "Chronicles of Narnia", "The Last Battle" gives us one way of looking at it. The good Calormen meets Aslan after serving Tash all his life. Aslan immediately calms his fears, saying: "If a man swear by Tash and keeps his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash is his deed accepted." (page 155).

At some stage in life, we each have to make a choice of what we believe God to be like. There is in the Bible conflicting evidence, so that while we are right to look for guidance in the Bible, in the traditions and witness of the Church, in the actions of Christian and non - Christian - God does not and will not force us. We are given choice. I suggest we need to choose our God carefully.

And I choose a God who loves the world, a God who loves others besides me, and those who think like me, because I realise that I do not hold the fullness of God within my own understanding, and I realise that other people's perceptions of God illuminate my own. But this is a choice I make. I can commend it to others, but I cannot force anyone to agree.

I choose a God who loves the world, a God who loves others besides me, and those who think like me, because it is only then that the possibility of fighting over sectarian issues has the slightest hope of ever ending.

My choice of a God who loves the world, a God who loves others besides me, and those who think like me, is not an easy, comfortable choice - a good choice for those who like "sitting on the fence". Some fences I've tried to sit on have been very uncomfortable, and it is never comfortable when one realises one has to consider those others that God accepts as readily as one hopes God accepts us.

Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being born again, and as I said some weeks ago, the effect on the baby that is born, is that the horizons of the child are suddenly expanded. Previously constrained by the dimensions of the womb, the child is now free to begin to learn to run and jump and interact with the whole world. This is truly the action of the Holy Spirit who enables us to live amongst the real world, amongst all people, not cocooned by comfortable doctrines.

And Jesus' whole ministry was like this. He sat down and ate with others, indeed I would say that it was precisely because of this that he was crucified.

Jesus knew this freedom, whereas it seems the Teacher of Israel, did not - though we should never forget that John records that Nicodemus was there to help bury Jesus when Jesus' own disciples weren't.

And yet there is some truth in the passage from Numbers. The God we choose is not inconsequential. Our choice will come back to haunt us. If we choose a God who loves some but wishes us to exterminate others, that will rebound on us too - surely the evidence of centuries of conflict shows us that sectarian battles will ensue. Perhaps this is why Jesus makes it quite plain that "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above". If we are only concerned with our own continued existence, and "god" serves only to reinforce this, "God" will inevitably be hidden. And "our" can mean us as persons, us as a congregation, us as a diocese, us as a church and indeed us as a nation. It is this that we must exterminate, not just in others, but in ourselves as well.

Perhaps it is the ultimate and God given insight that God loves the world by allowing everyone to choose, that God loves others besides me, and those who think like me.

 

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