In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
When we talk of divine things, we almost always use images. For we need pictures to help us imagine realities which go beyond words. Today’s Psalm, for instance, praises God for his protection. The Psalmist says God is light, a shelter, a rock- all great images for how God is the ultimate protector.
This is a song of confidence. We all need to be confident about some things, or we could not live. For if our confidence goes, there is trouble. Yesterday I saw a money expert advising people who are going to Greece to take plenty of cash, because confidence is declining fast in the Greek banks. People are taking their money out of them, because they are no longer confident that their money is still safe. Confidence is essential in banking. If people lose their faith in a bank, the bank is done for.
I mentioned the word ‘faith’ there. Having faith in something is another way of saying we have confidence in it. Everyone -even those who do not have a religious faith- has faith in some things. I let the church pay my stipend into a bank, because I have faith that the bank is not going to go bust. When I was a wee boy, I had faith that my parents would look after me. If I fly in a plane, I have to have faith that the pilot knows what he’s doing. When I was a wee boy, I had faith that my parents would look after me. I choose to have faith, yet it can never be certainty. The bank might go bust. Some parents are unworthy of their children’s trust. And sometimes your pilot is mad- although that is highly unlikely, so unlikely that it won’t stop me flying to my summer holidays this year.
Even people who do not claim to have a religious faith still need to have faith. Richard Dawkins might admit that he has faith in science. Actually, we all have faith in science nowadays, because otherwise we would never get into a plane, or undergo an operation. Science is reliable, trustworthy- and we ought to have more faith in scientists.
This week Pope Francis issued an encyclical, which has reminded us that science is telling us the world is great danger, due to the harm we have been doing through pollution and our misuse of the world’s resources. He wrote, ‘The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’- because we are such a throwaway culture. And he states, ‘A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system’. Francis reminds us that we need to be listening to the best scientific evidence as we grapple with issues like climate change- we need to listen to the scientists.
Yet Francis writes as a Christian. As a Christian, he reminds us to listen to the scientific evidence. For Christianity and science are not at odds, as people like Richard Dawkins claim. In fact, modern science is in many ways a result of the Christian belief that God is behind all nature. As we research into nature, we are discovering something of the nature of God.
Sir Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century developed a theory of gravity, upon which the navitagion of today’s spacecraft is still based. In his book on Opticks he wrote,
Whence is it that Nature does nothing in vain, and whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world?… does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent and omnipresent… (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations 574.1)
Newton thought that as he explored nature, he was learning about the God who created it. It’s an attitude summed in in a line of the nineteenth century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’. We are set in God’s good creation, and we dishonour God- and cause ourselves a great deal of harm- if we continue to turn our world into an immense pile of filth.
‘All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above’, says the hymn. And the Bible teaches us that God is the creator of all that exists. So even for people in an age of science, putting faith in God makes sense. What Catherine and Anna did today at St Stephen’s makes sense. For when we confess faith in the God of Jesus Christ, we are saying that the we are putting in confidence in the one whose world.
When our banks nearly collapse a few years ago, the cash machines stayed open because behind all the banks in Britain there is a lender of last resort, and ultimately trustworthy bank, the Bank of England. For the government is the ultimate banker. If people don’t have faith that the currency and the financial system is backed by the government, then the banks will begin to totter. I happened to be at a reception in 10 Downing Street in September 2008, at the height of the banking crisis. It was hosted by an Education minister, but it was suggested that the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who was in the building at the time, might put in an appearance. He never did, and I recall someone commenting that he was probably busy upstairs trying to keep the cash machines working. Less than a month later, the government put £500 billion into the banks to keep them going and had taken over many of them. Fortunately, nobody believed the UK government would allow the banks to collapse, or, indeed, go bankrupt itself, although we are all now paying for the colossal sums it took to keep the banks going.
The government is the lender of last resort- the ultimate banker beyond the banks. God is the creator behind the creation- and our last resort. For God is the one in whom we can ultimately have confidence in.
Yet that does not mean life will always be easy for people of faith. Believers may trust in God, but that does not mean that bad thing don’t happen to them. We will have storms to weather- but we know that God will be on our side when the storms come. The Psalmist says,
When evil people attack me and try to kill me,
they stumble and fall.
Even if a whole army surrounds me,
I will not be afraid;
even if enemies attack me,
I will still trust God.
The Bible is realistic. It doesn’t deny that the people of God will not be attacked by their enemies. People will scoff and laugh at our faith, will look for ways to undermine it. But in the midst of all that, the Psalmist says that, whatever he faces, ‘I will still trust God’. After all, as St Paul says, ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ (Romans 7.31). If you have God on your side, the enemies of God seem pretty puny by comparison.
One of the things which strikes me in my work is how people respond to crisis in their lives. For some, a crisis can shake their faith in God. But for many believers, although crisis might lead to a painful reassessment of their live and faith, their basic trust in God remains. Everything else might collapse, all else might be called into question- but even when people suffer pain, illness, distress or loss, there is still a sense that underneath it all one thing remains strong and certain. How often to people say to me things like, ‘I don’t know where I’d be without may faith’.
Jesus expresses this in vivid imagery with the story of the two house builders. The wise man builds his house on a rock, and when the wind and floods come, the house remains standing. There will always be winds and floods. Faith does not immunize us from difficult day. But when they come, if we have built our lives on God, we shall overcome. The Psalmist says his God will ‘make me secure on a high rock. So I will triumph over my enemies around me’. That is just what faith feels like. You are on something solid.
But Jesus reminds us of those who have less sound foundations. Building your life on anything except God is like a man who builds his house on sand. ‘The rain came down and the floods came up, And the house on the sand fell flat’ as the old song puts it (Junior Praise 252).
Many of us put our faith in the idea that material things will make us happy. That is very precarious- not only for ourselves, but for the world. Pope Francis said this week ‘Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction’. And we see that happening before our very eyes. Some of the poorest countries of Africa and rich in minerals, but are blighted by appalling corruption and violence. The rare minerals are essential component in our lifestyle, needed for electronics such as computers and mobile phone. We may enjoy a bargain at the shops, but, you know, someone, somewhere is paying for it. We’re all enjoying cheap petrol and the moment. But who can deny that the troubles of the Middle East are bundled up with the West’s needing their oil? No wonder people are willing to cross the sea in rickety boats, or even, as was reported a few days ago, cling onto airliners in an attempt to come to Europe for the sake of living in peace and getting out of poverty.
Consumerism is a sandy foundation. Only when we take the spiritual seriously, when we put our faith in the God who created all things, can we truly be safe and secure. ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’ says the Psalmist- the one who illuminates the world properly, helps us see things as they are, guiding us to calm waters and safe havens. No wonder St John called Jesus ‘the light that shines in the darkness’. For Jesus teaches us that God our creator is a God of love, a God who wants the best for all his people. To walk in the way of Jesus Christ is to walk a safe and secure way, a way which will also be a blessing to others.
200 years ago this week, on the battlefield of Waterloo, Ensign James Grant Kennedy, aged just 15, was given his Battalion flag and sent to march in front of them as they advanced toward the French. He was shot down, and then the Battalion tradition tells us:
A Sergeant, whose name is unknown, went forward to recover the Colour but could not release Kennedy’s grip on the Colour pike. He therefore lifted Kennedy onto his shoulder and carried the body and the Colour back into the Battalion’s line. The French Commander opposite was so impressed by this act of gallantry that he chivalrously ordered his troops not to fire on the Sergeant.
That is a dreadful image from a dreadful day- a dead 15 year old carried off a battlefield. And yet is does remind me of how often people of faith speak of being carried through the troublesome times by their God. And even in death, God will not forget us. For those who can confess faith in Christ, God is our salvation, the ultimate ground of our security, a rock, a light, a protector- in this life and the next. We need not be afraid!
St Paul put it this way: ‘We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. Thanks be to God!
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo