Sermon: St Aidan’s, Sunday, 5th June 2016

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 5th June 2016

Rev. Paul Weaver

“THE GOD WE BELIEVE IN”

(1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17)

What kind of God do you believe in?

The question occurred to me as I reflected on today’s Psalm. Psalm 146 is full of enthusiastic praise for the Lord. The Psalmist not only praises the Lord himself: he wants those who read or hear or sing this Psalm to join him in praising the Lord, and in trusting the Lord.

“Put not your trust in princes”, he says. People of mere flesh and blood cannot save. And in this extended election campaign, I find myself more often being reminded of the frailties of our princes, our political leaders, than of good reasons to put my trust in them!

In contrast, the Psalmist points out that the Lord is the Creator of the universe. He is faithful and worthy of our trust. He establishes justice and righteousness and provides our daily needs. He liberates and heals and supports those in need. And his care reaches not only the elite, but also the foreigner, the struggler and the vulnerable.

And so the Psalmist calls on all who hear his words to praise the Lord, who is king for ever. And is it not right to honour and trust a God who is like that?

The problem, of course, is that our experience of life, and our observation of life in this world, do not always seem to confirm the Psalmist’s picture. Is life really as the Psalmist presents it? We are only too aware of the suffering and violence and oppression and injustice in the world. Is the Lord really as wonderful as the Psalmist’s glowing picture suggests? Is he really as active, as “in control”, as the Psalmist tells us? Could it be that the Psalmist is indulging in wishful thinking, perhaps sounding enthusiastic in the hope that this will submerge his doubts? There are many who would suggest that the Psalmist is mistaken, even deluded. It was true then: it is certainly the case now!

Once upon a time atheists were respectful to believers, and even showed respect for the idea of a Creator God. But nowadays there are many who openly mock people of faith and deride the idea of God. To these people – I call them evangelical atheists – believers deserve to be treated as fools. Many of them insist that faith in God is not only foolish: they claim that all religion is dangerous and harmful, and are always ready to pounce on the failures and mistakes of organized religion to demonstrate their point.

Of course, not all people who see themselves as atheists are as aggressive as that. Many simply explain that for various reasons they do not share my faith, as the husband of a dying woman explained in detail to me the other day. I could acknowledge the story he told me, the reasons he had come to his unbelief, even though I came to the opposite conclusion.

There are some chaplains who might have debated with him at that point: tried to show him that Christianity was true, and that he should believe. But I didn’t do that. I respected the reasons why he had come to his conclusion, and the personal pain which was associated with his lack of belief. Maybe the right time will come up to explore issues of faith with him, but at that time I felt he needed to know that I didn’t condemn him for his lack of faith, and that I was still willing to stay with him and support him in the difficult journey he and his family were taking. He wasn’t ready for debate or for correction. Hopefully I was able to demonstrate to him something of the care and patience and understanding of God, and that I think is more helpful to him right now.

Of course, we all come to issues of faith and meaning with our own presuppositions, our prejudices, our stories and our agendas. We must be realistic about that.

And we must be honest about the fact that the Christian’s belief in God, and the Christian understanding of Jesus, cannot be literally proved. Nevertheless I am convinced that there are good reasons for believing the Christian message, for believing that the Gospel does indeed make sense.

But I know that it is quite possible to present the Christian message to a person who seems quite reasonable, to helpfully answer every question they might have and every objection they might raise, and fail to convince them. We can’t unanswerably prove the truth of the Gospel.

Each of us makes our own spiritual journey. For many of us I imagine that faith has been part of our life since our childhood days. Nothing major has happened to overturn that faith, although we may have had our spiritual ups and downs as we have journeyed through life. Perhaps some of us have had particular turning points when Jesus has come alive to us in a new way: we might call them conversion experiences. Some of us may have had major spiritual battles at particular points of our lives. We hold our faith now for our different reasons. But ultimately our faith will hold because it makes sense, because our faith impacts positively in our lives, and because we sense that God is indeed at work in our lives.

The faith that the Psalmist describes is demonstrated in different ways in today’s Bible readings. For the widow of Zarephath, it was through the wonderful continuing supply of food when it looked as though she and her son would die of starvation. The Lord miraculously “gave food to the hungry”, as the Psalmist said.  He not only provided for his servant the prophet Elijah: he upheld the widow and the fatherless, people who were outsiders.

Or take the Gospel story of Jesus. He arrives at the village of Nain, and sees the funeral procession for this young man whose mother would in the future be alone and very vulnerable indeed. Jesus offers not just sympathy, but something far more powerful. He raises the young man from death, ensuring not only that the woman is not alone, but that she has someone who will ensure that she is provided for in the future. Once again we see God at work through his servant – in fact, his Son – providing for the needy and the struggler.

Or what about Paul? Here indeed is someone whose life was taken by God, and turned upside down – or perhaps turned right side up! This was Jesus, Paul’s enemy, taking him by the scruff of the neck, and changing the direction of his life, and revolutionizing his understanding of God and his purposes.

Paul’s message about Jesus was not simply the product of rational evaluation or even an emotional crisis. He insisted that his Gospel was God’s true and authoritative message, provided by the Lord himself to one who sought to destroy those who bore witness to it.

And this was a Gospel for all people, not just those who thought they were God’s favourites. It was a message of forgiveness for those who know they fail to live the lives they should; of hope for those who struggle through life; of provision for our deepest needs; of love and acceptance for those who feel cut off.

Well, what kind of God do you believe in? Perhaps you find it hard to believe at times. Perhaps you just aren’t sure. God doesn’t usually force himself on us, and sometimes faith is not easy.

Our readings today present a God who cares and provides for those in need, a God who honours those who love and obey him even when it is difficult, a God who brings life out of death, a God whose Son shows us the way to life, a God who speaks through the message of Christ and through the scriptures. This is the God in whom we believe: the God whose Son Jesus Christ we trust and follow

Although we will continue to have questions and uncertainties, I am confident that it still makes sense to believe in the God who is revealed through the pages of the Bible. And I believe that the answers we have through the scriptures are far greater than the questions that may come up about whether the Christian faith is for real.

I believe in the God who created this world and who keeps on providing for our needs. Evolution may well describe the process of creation, but we believe that behind that process there is a Creator. I believe in a God who usually does not impose himself, who works quietly in the world and in his people, but who has chosen particular people such as Paul to communicate the message of his power, his purpose and his love.

So today we come to express our faith in God who made us, who loves us, who has shared our life, and who has brought us forgiveness despite our sin. This is the God who invites us to trust and follow his son Jesus Christ.

Our faith may have its doubts, its questions and its weaknesses. But God is greater than those limitations, and he calls us into his kingdom through his grace. And in his grace, he calls us to trust and follow his Son Jesus Christ, through whom we find life and hope and eternal love. Amen.

Paul Weaver