Sermon Delivered by the Reverend Paul Burt http://www.missiontoseafarers.org/index.php/for-seafarers/ports-worldwide/dubai
Christ Church Jebel Ali, 8 November 2013
Guidance (Matt 26: 36 – 46)
Our subject this week is guidance. And as our entry point into what might be said about guidance I’m going to take Jesus’s example as we see it most graphically portrayed in the two incidents which sort of ‘book end’ his earthly ministry – the Temptations, and his prayer in Gethsemane.
If we take guidance to refer to a person facing a time of serious decision making with big consequences these two events certainly qualify. The big question looming behind his experiences in the desert was ‘How am I going to carry out this ministry to which I am called – through spectacular stunts, the methods of power politics, or through some other way ordained by God’s will?’
When it comes to the crunch he quotes Scripture – not in the sense of proof texting I would suggest, although superficially it looks like that. It is clear that Scripture was the world he inhabited and quoting it at times of stress and perplexity was something that came naturally out of extreme familiarity. I mention this as an aside, but it’s worth noting that this is a practical example of what I was talking about in our thinking on ‘Why and How to read the Bible’ a few weeks ago, where I described the importance of ‘indwelling’ the biblical story. Clearly Jesus did.
So Scripture is a resource for guidance when big decisions are being contemplated, but not as a directory from which to read off tailor made instructions, or even as a catalogue of real life examples to be easily transposed into 21st century terms.
Scripture is more like a pair of spectacles through which you look at everything else. It sharpens up what would otherwise be out of focus. It is the interpretive medium through which everything must pass. Through it we come to know what kind of god God is and how he engages with the work of his hands as he brings it to the completion that it is his will that it should attain, through the glorification of his Son and the perfecting work of his Spirit.
Having glanced at Jesus’s temptations I want to say a bit more about what we understand guidance to be before we move on to Gethsemane and his anguished prayer.
In trying to express the particular form that God’s relationship with us takes when it involves his guiding us it is almost inevitable that we will fall back on analogy – word pictures. That is entirely proper and nothing to be apologetic about. We can’t always deal in dry abstractions just because they promise accuracy. After all, Jesus used word pictures all the time. So what would be a good analogy for God as Guide?
Is he like a military commander at HQ organising and directing his troops who are in contact with him by radio – and for ‘radio’ read ‘prayer’?
Or is it like him being a call centre operative? You phone the call centre when you want advice on troubleshooting your malfunctioning internet connection. In other words, you’ve tried sorting out your own life, unsuccessfully, – now you are consulting the expert.
Or is he a kind of glorified cartographer – the supplier of the map that shows us how to find our way through life? It’s then up to us to hone our map reading skills….
And so on. I’m labouring this point about what the model is that you work with when thinking about how God engages with you and your dilemmas because it seems to me that it is too easy to get taken up with ways of thinking that owe more to simplistic analogies like the ones I have given, than to what God has actually revealed about how he engages with his creation. Word pictures in this connection are unavoidable, and useful to a degree, but they are not all sufficient.
So before we invest too much in analogies, which at their best are only partially accurate, and at their worst are downright misleading, we need to look again at the main principles which govern our understanding of God and his relationship with his creation. I say ‘his creation’ because we are part of creation, and the particulars of how he deals with us must therefore be part of his wider dealings with all that he has made – notwithstanding the fact that as human beings we occupy a special place in that economy.
The great principle that underpins all genuinely Christian thinking about the created order is that it is not God. In putting it like that it seems, at first, that I haven’t said much. So let’s unpack it a bit. What I’m talking about is the idea that in creating God brings into being something other than himself. That is to say, creating involves space, real space, between the Creator and what he creates. Therefore, by giving something else its existence he is also conferring on it its freedom. Freedom to be itself, we might even say become itself, because it is not him.
This may not seem such a remarkable idea to us but in the first centuries of the Christian era it was radical, because the dominant ideas about how God or the gods related to what we call the natural order did not allow it freedom – quite the reverse in fact. The two most popular ideas concerning the relationship between the natural order and the divine were Fate on the one hand, and Pantheism on the other. Fate decreed that there was no real freedom in the natural order. Things happened as they did because they were fated to. Or, if there was divine activity going on in the outworking of the affairs of the world it was because of the influence of the gods – of the sky, the sea, the forest, the harvest and so on. But if the rains, sunshine and storms are divinised, as they are in Pantheism, the gap between the divine and the natural order disappears, and nature, again, has lost its freedom to be itself.
Interestingly, this idea of God and Nature being the same thing is making a comeback through simplistic versions of environmentalism and green politics today where in the absence of belief in God the only absolute is a loosely defined ‘Nature’.
Something of the importance of this point about freedom can be gained from reflecting on our own experience of creating – most obviously in the primary sense of pro-creation – having children. We know instinctively and from experience that the relationship between a child and its human creators – its parents- is at its healthiest when the child grows into the freedom that its otherness promises. And from the parents’ point of view ultimate satisfaction in parenting only comes about when our children attain real freedom from us.
Forgive me for indulging in a burst of grandfatherly pride – but only last week my daughter expressed great joy and excitement when her 10 month old daughter started standing on her own feet – quite literally of course. There in that snapshot you have most of the theology of creation and freedom that you could want!
But, I hear you say, but…… if we say that God’s dealings with his creation are defined by his giving creation its freedom, and we preserve at all costs the gap between God and everything else, doesn’t that make him too remote? Are we saying that he doesn’t actually participate in the detail of any particular life? Does a particular life simply unfold without reference to God’s providence or sovereignty? Does our freedom to be ourselves consign us to too much independence?
Simply articulating such questions implies that there is more to be said. How does God engage with us and fashion an outcome to our stories that accords with his perfecting purpose? Or, saying the same thing but in simpler words, ‘How does he guide us?’ Is there a corresponding principle in his dealings with creation (and therefore with us) that balances or completes the principle of freedom in creation – the freedom that left to itself could just as well terrify as comfort us?
Well, in Christian thinking there is something that fits this bill, and I am going to identify it in this way. In most worldviews the biggest event that there is or ever could be is the event of creation itself. All other events – from licking a stamp, to eating a doughnut, to marrying a husband or wife can be categorised from the trivial to the significant, and each category has plenty of members or examples. But the event of creation, in most philosophies, is in a category in which it is the only member or example – by definition.
There is no argument with any of this from a Christian perspective, except in one respect. Christianity agrees that creation must occupy the category of significance that is the pinnacle of the pyramid of all types of event. But it goes on to say that this category has not one member or example, but two. It says that the event which is equal in standing to the creation itself, and which therefore must influence our thinking about creation, is the Resurrection.
In other words, God creates, and he re-creates – and the freedom in creation that proved to be a liability is turned by the resurrection into an opportunity.
And this is the crux of the matter. In talking about the resurrection we are deep in the heart of what we mean by ‘guidance’, because what we see in the resurrection is God’s trademark or signature way of dealing with his creation in its travails and its lostness – in its need for guidance into its promised perfecting. He is the God who makes all things new (Revelation 21:5), who brings hope out of despair, triumph out of disaster, and life out of death.
So although there may be times when in his gracious dealings with us he vouchsafes special wisdom or particular insight that leads to what seems to us to be a disaster averted or a danger circumvented, these are not ‘signature’ events or definitive models of God’s guidance. When Jesus prayed in Gethsemane no doubt he hoped that some sort of divine intervention along the lines of a ‘Get out of jail free’ card would result – but even while such hopes rose within him the voice of the Spirit decreed a better way – the way of God’s will.
And from the human perspective what did that way look like? Like a carefully programmed and spiritually uplifting pageant in which all the players dance to God’s heavenly score; a wave of righteousness on which Jesus could surf to the triumphal establishment of God’s kingdom? Is that how you would describe the drama of Jesus’s arrest, trial and crucifixion?
I think I would prefer to describe it as an unholy mish-mash of conceit, prejudice and self interest – a depressing catalogue of moral failure; from Judas’s treachery, to the self serving political machianations of the Chief Priests, to the cowardice of Peter, to the timid governance of Pilate. What allows us to see that cess pit of human failure as the agency of God’s will is the resurrection.
So the principle is this. Nothing, not even the worst godlessness of the human heart, not even death itself can thwart God’s ability to make all things new – to fashion the new thing for the sake of his loving purpose. What looks to us like utter failure and hopelessness (as it did to Jesus on the cross – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) is, from God’s perspective, simply the raw material of his recreating purpose. What appears to us as the wrong turning in the crisis of decision making, having looked for guidance into a better way, turns out to be simply what God now works with as he brings to bear on our circumstances the perfecting power of the resurrection.
And the spin off from this realisation is that there is no longer any need for anxiety. Guidance becomes not a desperate search for the Holy Grail of the only true path, dependent on seemingly superhuman resources of piety and prayer, but a quiet confidence that God will indeed make all things well with whatever we faithfully present to him – and our freedom becomes no longer the excuse for extending the gap between ourselves and God, but the opportunity for closing it, until the time when we see him face to face, and guidance has finally done its job.