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Friday, 22 July 2016

Hatred: not God's landscape



Jeremiah 18.1-11    
Psalm 139
Philemon 1-25
Luke 14.25-35

From the 1920s to the 1960s Swiss protestant theologian Karl Barth dominated the face of theological conversation. Enormously learned, he wrote phenomenal numbers of words, theological tomes, essays and sermons, striving to reclaim Christianity from the liberalism by which it had been dominated in the nineteenth century.

In the nineteenth century the gospel had in many, perhaps most quarters, been reduced to little more than a message about being nice.  “Australia is not a very Christian landscape,” says one of the characters in a Peter Carey novel, capturing well the nineteenth century belief that Christianity was somehow about manicured green lawns and hedgerows, gaiters and lace bodices. The essence of Christianity had been reduced, observed Barth, to “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man,” with, as one or two theologians noted, a clear understanding that “man” meant the male half of the species.

Such a faith had nothing to say once WW1 ripped across the face of Europe. How was it possible to speak any more of a Christian culture when Christians had torn each other apart in the prolonged and bloody horrors of the European trenches? Barth recognized that the gospel of Jesus Christ was not some polite message about public niceties, but the vastly unsettling message that God had entered history in the bloodied form of Jesus on the Cross, and transformed the darkness of every Good Friday, every death or defeat in to the glory of Resurrection.

Barth also recognized that the biblical stories are of a God who remains beyond human manipulation. The events of Good Friday and Easter, by which resurrection hope is breathed into every human tragedy, are the initiative of God, not of men and women. We did not and cannot coerce God into saving us from our human plight. By the same token we cannot argue with the decisions of God.

Barth died in the 1960s, as the sexual and social revolutions were taking the western world by storm. Though he is a mammoth mark in the landscape of the 20th Century, he is by and large vastly unpopular in the 21st. His emphasis on the unquestionable nature of God rests uneasily in a world that is taught to question anything and everything. Yet his is the world of Jeremiah: the pot is not in a position to negotiate with the potter.

It may well be that Jeremiah has a powerful message for us in the 21st century. It seems – partly no doubt because of an instantaneous media – that the world we live in is a deeply troubling place. Politicians certainly play on it, believing no doubt that theirs alone is the plan that will make the world a safer and more economically prosperous place in which to live. Yet our world is not really a more frightening place than that of Jeremiah. His was a world in which life was at least as cheap as it appears to have become in the eyes of some international terrorist organizations. Yet despite the horrors around him, Jeremiah was prepared to believe in a God who was in control, a God who would be and do as God alone would choose to be and do.

In the years since the 1960s, it has become fashionable to argue, berate and even redesign God into a more comfortable image. Certainly, faced with the horrors of hostage taking in southern Russia in the last few days[1] it is hard not to feel anger or frustration at a god who seemingly stands back allowing children to be terrorized and executed by militants.

The God of Jeremiah is an absolute God; this was the god reclaimed by Karl Barth. This does not leave us an excuse to be complacent; we must do all in our human power to speak out and seek to stop atrocities here and abroad, and to bring compassion and relief wherever atrocities have occurred. We need to learn to dig deep in our pockets where aid is needed, as it will surely be by the families shattered by this latest Russian tragedy. This is at least in part what Jesus means when he commands that we should surrender all that we have in the service of the gospel, for what we are lucky enough to own is in any case not ours but God’s. But we need also to continue to make the leap of faith, to believe that even despite the unspeakable horrors that go on around s in the world, God is, and God is breathing hope into humanity’s deepest despairs.

Indeed the psalm that we read today effectively safeguards us from the risk of God-forsakenness. The psalm speaks of a God who lovingly knits us together, who knows therefore our deepest terrors and the deepest terrors of all human beings, even the children of Beslan. Though it must remain beyond our comprehension, the psalmist speaks of a God who knows even their deepest fears. The resurrection hope of Christianity speaks of a God who breathes light into even the deepest darknesses of Beslan, into even the tragic deaths of children.[2] It is that God we must struggle to rediscover and reprioritize in our daily lives.[3]


[1] The Beslan school siege began on Setember 1st, 2004.
[2] At least 330 people were killed, including 186 children.
[3] As  I post this it is the fifth anniversary of  the slaughter perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. Our prayers go out for those whose lives will never be the same.
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