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Bible readings:


Proper 12 Year C (June 19, 2016)                                   St James', Peace River

A long time ago, someone asked me if I could sum up what I thought the Good News was about, in just one sentence. My answer went something like this: “The world is the way it is, only God is here too.” The first part of that is not necessarily good news – the record of our religion, or indeed any religion, is full of people trying to find a way to deny that the world is the way it is, or pretend that it is some other way, or to stop thinking about it altogether. There are too many hard things to face, not least of which is our own contribution to the world being “the way it is”. How much happier we might be (we think) if that wasn't what was ultimately real.

But when you add the second part of my suggested summary, “only God is here too”, the significance of the first part becomes clear, and it starts to look a lot different. First of all, it both force and enables us to accept the world in front of us as real just the way it is – however much we might wish it were different – because it is in the world the way it is that we meet God. The way we experience the world leads us to believe, and know, that something isn't quite right, something must be missing. But the Good News is that the missing element isn't to be found in nostalgia for some imagined way the world used to be, or wishful thinking for some imagined way that it might turn out. The missing piece actually is here in the present, because God is here right now, despite everything: and if it weren't for our discontent with the world the way it is, we might never know that.

I hope that my own way of expressing what the Good News is, has some basis both in reality and in the Bible which our faith is rooted in. I think it does. For me the clearest expression of it is in some words of Jesus from the end of the gospel of John, when he is teaching the disciples what they need to hold on to after he is physically no longer with them. “In the world you will have trouble,” he says, “ but take heart! I have overcome the world.” In the light of what is about to happen – Jesus' arrest, crucifixion, and death – this is not a way of saying that Jesus can make all the trouble go away. Instead, it is him saying that none of the hurt and wrong and loss and defeat that we experience in life, real though it is, ever has the last word. Because he is there through it all, and the last word is his.

I see that reflected in many of the individual stories contained in the Bible, including two which were read to us today. First we had another chapter in the story of Elijah, who has been fighting an uphill battle to expose the corruption of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. In fear for his safety, and ready to give up, he holes up in the desert and prays that God would let him lay down his mission and his life. That's when we have this wonderful sequence of images of nature's terrifying power: a tornado-like wind, and earthquake, and a firestorm. That is how we tend to imagine God acting in our world and answering our prayers, with power beyond the human scale. But God was not in the earthquake, wind, or fire; God was in the sound of sheer silence. The still small voice that says, I am still here.

There is a similar contrast between noise and quiet, power and peace, in the gospel episode about the man with the legion of demons. In our video culture, our mind's eyes focus on the drama of it all: the bizarre behaviour of the man hanging out naked amongst the tombs; the spookiness and scariness of the claim that “many demons had entered into him”; the shocking destruction of the great herd of pigs as they carry the evil spirits away over the cliff. And maybe also the comic relief of the townsfolk who come out and say to Jesus, “If this is what your miracles look like, could you go and do them somewhere else please!” But the real power and presence of God is illustrated in the scene that they find when they arrive, which our own mental cameras might easily miss. “They found the man out of whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” In this oasis of calm, we are reminded that no matter what else is going on, in the midst of it, God is there.

So many of the other gospel stories repeat this theme, whether it is Jesus sleeping through the storm on the sea of Galilee, or weeping at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, or telling the religious authorities “Before Abraham was, I AM”, or meeting Mary Magdalene in the garden on the resurrection morning. He does not deny the reality of fear, or suffering, or conflict, or grief, or death; rather, he is to be found in exactly the places where those things are happening, and in him, God's presence and God's character are revealed. And because Jesus was found in those places, and demonstrated that we can trust God to be present in every aspect of real life as we really live it – we understand that the same thing happens in our life stories as we observe in the stories of the gospel.

Mostly, we know that looking back. You can look back at perfectly normal, ordinary, everyday human actions and interactions, and realize with the benefit of hindsight how God was there when they were going on. Moving to a new place, starting a new job, meeting someone who would turn out to be a permanent part of your life – these things can happen to anyone, and in a sense they “just” happen, but they also lead us to see that God is at work and involved in all those things that just happen.

But the same is true of the darker side of life, as we come to see that even those experiences which led us at the time to wonder if God was even real, turn out to be moments when God was inhabiting our despair, our rage, our loneliness, along with us, in exactly the way that Jesus once did. We know that to share a difficult time with someone else doesn't make it go away, or even make it “better” in the way we usually use that word, but it does make it different, more bearable, and perhaps adds a meaning it wouldn't otherwise have had. And when we realize that God has been with us, even when no one else was – that changes things. Even the times in our lives we would most want to forget, turn out to have a value beyond anything merely ordinary, because they are moments in the heart of God, moments when God was determined to share with us the hardest, loneliest and most painful things we have ever done.

It's not just about looking back, though. What you know is true when you look back, is something you can believe or at least hope to be true as you look forward. Will God be there with you tomorrow, or on the last day of your life, or on every day in between? You bet! And it is the assurance we gain in experiencing that “the world is the way it is, only God is here too,” which enables us to look for that missing something which lies underneath the moment when it comes towards us, whether it is a moment of fear, or struggle, or illness or even death. Will God be with me in that moment? The only answer I have is to live the moment and find out, but the reason I can even ask the question is that in Jesus, God has shown how he intends that the answer will always turn out to be, “Yes.”

It's that promise which speaks in the sound of sheer silence. It's that promise which is fulfilled when the possessed man is sitting quietly at Jesus' feet. It's that promise which I experience time and again in pastoral encounters with people who are going through upheavals in their lives, and which I've felt for myself in the times when it was my life that was being up-heaved. In the very centre of all the frenzy, and the worry, and the frantic busy-ness, and the disorder, there is an island of peace, where God is with me, where God is with you, putting it all into a different perspective. Not taking away the challenge of living, not answering any questions about “why this is happening”, but creating a space in which the question is worth asking, and the challenge is worth facing.

We all need to know that. Fathers need to know it – I certainly did, in the very first days that I had a child to be a father to, and not everything was exactly as perfect as it was supposed to be and I couldn't understand why; but what I could understand was that God was not leaving me and my family alone, but was right there with us – and still is. Graduates need to know it – it is the one promise we can send you off with, not that you will succeed at everything you set your hand to (because the world doesn't work that way), but that in everything, both your successes and failures, God will hold you in his heart as someone infinitely valuable and worthy of God's love and support. And on this national aboriginal day of prayer, people of all cultures and races in our country need to know it too, that God was there with those who suffered injustices in the past, and will be with us as we try to find our stumbling and costly way into a future where that past is in the process of being redeemed and set right.

But maybe most important of all, for those of us who already know in some way that “God is here too”, are the people around us who don't know it, and haven't heard it, and are so deeply mired in the world being the way it is, that they can't even imagine it. Remember how the message that the world is simply the way it is, with no hope for it being any different, is not good news – not for the vast majority who are living at the sharp end of that world, nor for the minority who do pretty well out of the world being the way it is, but for whom even that apparent success has no final security and no ultimate meaning. Only a God who is here can change that. Let's make sure people hear that's who God really is.