of St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, NAPIER
3rd Sunday in Lent
(February 28th) 2016
1 Corinthians 10.1-13
As one colleague mused to me over the past week, the readings today are ghastly. To some extent the musings of Paul and the story told by Luke wrestle with one of the great questions of faith: where is God when all turns to custard? But they are part of much longer constructions, and it’s like one of those literary or music exams when you are given a tiny slice and asked to explain the passage in the context of the whole document. Paul seems to be wrestling with what is known as theodicy, where is God was nasty things happen, but we might ask today if a natural disaster is a direct action of God, or whether tragedy is not a part of a far deeper and more complex web of sin. Perhaps Isaiah’s redirection of emphases is closer to the mark: “why do you spend your money on that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”
I’m not a party political animal, or at least not from the pulpit, or I might ask serious questions in the context of this passage about New Zealand governments who spend allegedly millions of dollars on canvassing support for a new flag, US political structures that spend billions selecting one or another narcissist or big business bunny to run their nation and the world, or Australian governments that refuse even and at the very least the overtures of a New Zealand government to show a miniscule of compassion to the world’s most vulnerable people. As narratives of hatred grow on the continents north of us, and may yet grow on our own angelic islands, I have wondered aloud if we could call down a bit of a key-hole nuking display by the God who in Luke’s and Paul’s first century eyes causes towers to fall and serpents to munch on the lives of the unpleasant.
But it is Isaiah who this time provides a deeper perspective, an easier passage if you like that does not need thousands of words or musical constructs to explain its own significance. Seek the Lord is the kernel of his message, and the message of the two or three figures we call Isaiah: seek the Lord so that whatever befalls you the Lord will embrace you with the warmth of love that transcends all injustice, all suffering, all failure.
Paul and Luke knew something else, of course. They knew that the Lord and the search for the Lord is malleable and pliable in human hands. Seek the Lord, but as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are demonstrating on that other scary side of the world, the temptation is always to find, instead of the Lord, a reflection of our own bigotries, and name him or her as God. To some extent, as Freud and other psychologists rightly or wrongly made clear, we all do. The challenge is to make sure that our infantile longings do not become the sum total of our faith: that when we seek the Lord we seek not a figure recreated in our own image, but revealed only and exclusively in the cruciform shape of Jesus the Christ.
Which means what? For Paul, and I fiercely believe he is the theologian par excellence of the gospel, it means that the whole self-sacrificial, justice proclaiming, love-challenging birth and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the be all and end all of all that we need to know of God. Jesus, as he is made known to us in word and breaking open the word, and sacrament and saturation in the sacraments, is the litmus test as to whether we are recreating an infantile fantasy in the sky or are being challenged and transformed, individually, lovingly, then collectively by the immeasurably great Creator.
But this God of the Cross is no namby pamby infantile pet. This God cuts down fig trees. By this neither Luke nor I mean that God strolls around nuking those who don’t get it right. Were this the case I could fairly confidently say that the verbal vomits of Donald Trump would have been silenced years ago. No: just as the intricacies of creation become greater with almost every scientific discovery, so the machinations of God’s dealings with humanity become more and more intricate with every analysis. I suggested last week that Trump and his hatreds may well be the endgame of a western world – not just the USA – that has long since forgotten how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with its God, and is now being surrendered by that same God to the crushing fall of a tower – symbolically even Trump’s tower – of self-interest and greed. As economies and ecologies collapse we are seeing a world handed over to the hardness, the sclerosis of its own heart as we the West spit on the bodies of refugees and desecrate the environment of vulnerable species.
Similarly in the crumbling of church infrastructures, administrative and physical, we are seeing ourselves broken because of our infantile fixations on shibboleths, on self-preservation, aesthetic and administrative excellence, our obsession with being the hospital with no patients of Yes, Prime Minister fame. Like the first century Temple, whose fall Jesus foresaw, we must all but certainly fall, metaphorically, before in the dark time that will come we can be again the light of the resurrected Christ.
But we – or our successors – will be that again, for the promise of God was and is always “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Individually we may feel that God has left or is leaving the building, but God has dropped enough hints that this is not so, and it needs only our cries to bring divine light back into your heart, my heart, and the hearts of the world around us. God is faithful, and will not let us be tested beyond our ability to endure; the way out of the time of trial though may well begin on our knees, where the Spirit of God can again make her whispers heard.