Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
This week’s readings are all about spreading the message – the euangelion – the good news of Jesus Christ with which Mark begins his Gospel. A little earlier in this chapter we heard:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (Mark 1:15)
This language always makes me think of the man walking down Oxford Street holding the sign saying “the end is nigh”.
When Paul was writing his letters and the evangelists were writing their Gospels the imminent end is what was expected – the eschaton – the end of days was at hand.
Christ the messiah had come ushering in a new world; the only way to salvation in the coming Armageddon was through him.
However, given that we are still here 2,000 years later and the world has apparently not yet ended, it is necessary for us to rework that message and determine for ourselves in our time – What is our Gospel?
This seems especially relevant today when we are under some pressure as Christians to both defend ourselves as people of faith and differentiate ourselves from other peoples of faith whose activities we would disown.
Have you noticed how the news at the moment seems to be dominated by religious issues?
Whether it is good news like the Church of England appointing a woman as a bishop;
Interesting news like whether we are “playing God” by allowing mitochondrial donation;
Bad news like Islamists burning people in Syria;
and all of this is the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo atrocities in France.
In this world of rapid change and huge shifting populations, questions about who we are and what we doing – spiritual questions – have never been more prominent. The amount of news coverage given to people commentating from religious perspectives must be driving the atheists mad.
And so, into this environment, enter confessing atheist, Stephen Fry, who railed against God this week because God has created a world that has pain and misery built into it, epitomised by “bone cancer in children”
Fry believes that such a creator must be “utterly evil”, “a maniac” not a loving parent as depicted in Christianity.
Suffering is indeed a profound problem for a view of the world as created – why create something with suffering embedded in it? What sort of creator does this?
The Bible recognises the problem and does not shirk from depicting this view of God. As we heard this morning Isaiah describes God as “he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers” and in lines which Fry might have written,
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (Isaiah 40:24)
However, in the Old Testament and in traditional Christian doctrine, it is human beings themselves who are responsible for the Fall and thereby all of the evil and suffering which they must endure. The world of the Garden of Eden was perfect until it was ruined by a choice made by Adam and Eve.
I think this story points to an important truth – in order for us to have the freedom to make our own decisions in the world then the world cannot be perfect, following ordered, perfectly predictable lines. Instead it has to be messy.
There is a comparison to be made here between predictable Newtonian physics where things move in predictable straight lines and the fuzzy edges of quantum mechanics where things wobble and are displaced. Our world operates at both levels – the predictable and the random.
It is in this messy, quantum world that we have sunsets caused by dust in the atmosphere, pearls caused by grit in an oyster shell and human freedom enabled by the underlying randomness of much of life. Without this randomness all is predictable and we are not free.
Similarly, diversity of people requires chance and mutation – otherwise we will all be the same. And it is this same mutation which has allowed the evolution of 8.7 million species on this planet which causes genetic defects – like mitochondrial disease and bone cancer.
Genesis 1:27 tells us that God made mankind in his own image – again I think this points to an important truth though the reality is that we also make God in our image – we anthropomorphise God projecting onto God the characteristics that we want God to have.
In this way Stephen Fry has made a god in his own image – controlling, paternalistic, arrogant, flawed.
Fry seeks perfection – perhaps he has a problem with imperfection – perhaps that is something in his own personality.
In the Middle East violent people have created a violent god who encourages them to go and fight – beheading and burning
We make God in our image but the real God is unknowable – that is one of his defining characteristics
So what then is the Christian Gospel in the face of this unknowable God?
What is our Gospel?
As Christian people we follow the view of the unknowable as revealed by Jesus Christ
Jesus, who called God ‘Father’ equating our relationship with that of parents and children
That we are like God when we love one another – as a parent loves its children
That God is not distant and ruling – but involved and suffering with us
That God is Love
What greater proof can there be of this than that he came and died as one of us
How unlike an arrogant maniac to put himself in a position of weakness, to die a horrible death, tortured upon a cross? Not at the hands of God but at the hands of human beings
The Christian God is intimately involved in human affairs.
What then is our message – our Good News?
Simply this: that God is love
God is not a distant mad scientist watching us in a petri dish to see how we turn out
God is involved like a parent at a school sports fixture – willing his children on – but unable to intervene because that would be to break the rules of the game and nullify the match.
Moreover, God’s proposition to us is that suffering is bad and he has given us the power to do something about it
Don’t blame God for the World Wars and their millions of casualties – these were killed by human beings and were not even wars of religion.
Don’t blame God for creating cancer in children – the child with bone cancer is loved as much if not more than any “normal” child
Blame yourself if you do not use the freedom you have been given by God to do something about this suffering
That is why I was happy to see the passing of the Mitochondrial donation bill this week which was labelled by some as “playing at God”
Because this is precisely what the God revealed by Jesus Christ has called us to do.
To get involved, to be loving
To heal the mother in law of Simon Peter (as in our Gospel reading)
To cross the road to help our neighbour.
To cast out the demons of those who want to see God as the author of all misfortune while ignoring their own responsibility
So do not blame God or leave it to God
God has given to us the power to act
And we will rightfully be condemned if we do nothing with that power.
Sermon given by Chris Hancock, St Mary’s Headley. 8th February, 2015