There is a saying that any old fool can go camping but that it takes a real fool to go camping in the rain. To put it another way, you only discover whether you can live under canvas when it starts raining.
Something similar applies to both the Christian Faith and to preaching. When everything is going well it’s easy to believe that God is all powerful and cares for us. However, when we face problems in our lives or in society we can wonder what is going on. It is at these times that we discover something far deeper about our faith and what we believe about God. Similarly, a preacher who cannot preach effectively about God at a time of crisis should not be preaching at any other time either. Those who preach have a duty to speak honestly about God in the current context whatever that context might be just as the Old Testament prophets, such as Jeremiah and Amos, spoke about God in the context of their own day.
So when we are faced with the largest global fatal pandemic in living memory, what are we to say about God? The answer, of course, will vary from person to person and from church to church depending on our understanding of God and the way in which He works in the world. Two examples of this are particularly relevant at the present time.
In one example, we find a church which speaks primarily of a powerful all caring God who looks after and protects His people. The problem here is that those who are new to the faith can wonder why God does not act to stop those who they know and love being affected. They might wonder what they have done wrong. This can result in the obvious question that if God is all powerful why doesn’t He act and the unhelpful suggestion that they are being punished.
In a second and quite different example, we find a church which speaks primarily of the suffering love of God who shares the experience of the human race through having lived as one of us in the person of Jesus. The problem which results in this case, again especially amongst those who are new to the faith, is that they might say that this is all very well but they don’t want sympathy. What they actually want is action for what use is a God who cannot or will not act.
This is a classic dilemma debated many times down the centuries. If God is all powerful but does not act then surely he does not love us and if God does loves us but does not act then He cannot be very powerful. Which is it to be?
The answer is actually neither for it is a false dilemma which, if it shows anything at all, shows that although the basic truths of the Christian Faith are very simple they are also very profound. For me, there are two ways to express the solution and they work together so that we need both of them to get the full picture. One speaks primarily to the mind and the other to the heart although once again that division is too neat and simple.
There is neither the space nor the time to explore my first solution here, except to say that although at first sight it seems to speak to the mind it speaks to the heart as well. However, the second solution gets right to the heart of what Holy Week and Easter is all about.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph and the crowds thought that He was going to usher in a new kingdom. By Maundy Thursday He was sharing a final meal with His disciples and telling them that one of them would betray Him. By Friday afternoon he was dead, handed over by His own race and crucified by the foreign military forces which occupied the land. If Jesus was divine as well as human why was He now dead? Why had God allowed this to happen? Indeed, on the cross, even Jesus shared these thoughts. His words have been echoed by millions of people from all walks of life ever since, including those who have never heard of Him.
‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’
It all seemed like an enormous mistake.
However, two days later, some women from amongst His followers went to His tomb and found that Jesus’ body had gone, presumably stolen. Then, as Mary Magdalene sobbed her heart out totally overcome with grief, a man appeared and from the way in which He spoke to her, she knew who He was. It’s a very moving account and you can read about it in Chapter twenty of John’s Gospel.
The resurrection of Jesus was a demonstration of both God’s love and God’s power as well as a sign of the beginning of God’s Kingdom, which has been lived out in the lives of those who have followed Jesus in the two thousand or so years ever since. But this kingdom, this power and this love were not the kingdom, power and love which were expected and yet the outcome has had a far more lasting impact than would otherwise have been the case. Although it would be wrong to pretend that coercion has never played its sad part, today hundreds of millions of people follow Jesus and do so freely, through their own choice and because they know that they can live in no other way.
In the end we come to realise that we need to know both God’s power and his suffering love and that they are not incompatible but actually two different parts of a far greater whole. We all have our own natural styles in how we approach these different aspects of the nature of God but what is important that we are open to both of them.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.