Sunday 17 • 30 Jul 2017

Genesis 29:15-28
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Rev. Chris Udy

Over the last few weeks
we’ve been reading and reflecting on
Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Rome –
and we’ve come to the point
where Paul brings together
his theology – his understanding of God,
his spirituality – his sense of himself,
and his cosmology – the way he sees
the universe unfolding.
It all comes together
in the passage we read today,
and it’s a beautiful and powerful statement of faith
but, unfortunately, one verse in that passage
has become something of a Christian platitude.

“We know that all things
work together for good
for those who love God,
who are called
according to his purpose.”

There are some who use that verse
to distance themselves
from the pain other people feel.
Sometimes they’ll even turn it upside down
to suggest that those who are ill, or poor, or sad
have somehow caused their own suffering -
that if things aren’t good
they must have done something wrong;
that they somehow deserve
their discomfort and pain.
Those who blame victims for their distress
also have a tendency to respond to suffering
by saying things like:
“What you’re going through must be God’s will.
God, after all, is in control;
all we can do is accept and endure.”
And the message behind that attitude is:
Don’t ask questions,
don’t get angry,
don’t disturb my comfort with your problems.”
“All things work together for good”.

Using that verse to distance ourselves
from the world’s pain and distress
is more than callous – it’s poisonous.
It traps people in their suffering;
it condemns them to remain
in circumstances that have nothing to do
with God’s hope or God’s intention –
and everything to do
with the greed and indifference
of people who take more than their share
of God’s generous provision.
God gives us life
in a world where there is more than enough
for everyone to eat, and drink, and find shelter,
and learn, and work, and live with dignity –
and the Bible is clear
that when we keep some people
in pain and poverty
while others steal and hoard God’s gifts for themselves
the world runs out of balance,
and we fall far short of the good –
the harmony and peace and hope
God intends for all God’s children –
we put at risk the good
God wants for the world.

‘All things work together for good’ – Paul says -
the world finds its balance,
and harmony, and peace,
not when we deny or ignore the world’s distress,
but when we see it, and address it,
and ultimately embrace it –
as God did in Jesus.
“For those whom God foreknew,” Paul continues
“he also predestined,
to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.”
Conformed to the likeness of his Son -
to be made like Christ.

A few months ago I mentioned Alan Jones –
not the noisy shock jock,
but the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco;
an influential teacher and counsellor
and spiritual director.
He describes the Christian life like this:
Being Christian
is not about obedience and submission,
it’s about following Jesus.
We aren’t called to memorise commandments
and masquerade at purity -
we’re called to live with and learn from
the pattern and template for humanity
we see in stories that describe
the life and work of Jesus -
and when we think about Jesus
we need to think in detail and concretely.
We begin with Christmas stories:
Jesus was born to a teenage mother
and a father who wasn’t sure the baby could be his.
He was born in an animal shed
because – according to the story –
his parents couldn’t arrange or afford better shelter,
and his life unfolded eventfully from there.
Jesus begins as a baby -
and as with all babies,
he was a gift -
a person of promise -
and, as all babies are,
he was also born into a bigger story –
a story of divine purpose.

Jesus had to live with
and learn and deal with his family history -
as all children do.
Jesus probably had some interesting discussions
in the playground about his parentage –
but, more than that,
he inherited family stories
about Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob,
generations of covenant and promise,
exodus and exile, brutality and betrayal.

Matthew says Jesus had an early glimpse
of significant purpose -
he knew he was different, and special -
and, like him, most children also arrive
at a moment of self-awareness -
an insight of unique identity.

Then came years of growth in obscurity -
some 30 years
that we know almost nothing about -
when Jesus learned about seeds and yeast
and carpentry and fishing -
he came to understand his heritage
and began to see signs of the kingdom.
And only after those silent and hidden years
came the shattering and wonderful
day of revelation that was his baptism.
He heard about John the Baptist
and came to be baptised
and there in the river
he heard a voice say
that he was a child of God,
God’s much loved son.
He came from the water a different person -
changed and transformed -
but also in confusion -
to be driven, as Mark’s Gospel says,
driven by the Spirit
into a time of temptation and choice and decision
and it was in that wilderness
that he had to make plans for his life and work;
how he would use his power.

You probably get the picture -
That’s the reality of Christian life – of human life.
There are years of obscurity,
moments of call and response.
There are days when it feels like
we’re wandering in wilderness -
lost and confused, trying to make good choices
without much to guide us.
We have seasons of exploration, success and power:
Jesus also travelled and healed and taught,
like us he had people who responded
to his vision and leadership -
and, also like Jesus,
we face times of opposition and challenge,
when a broken world’s authorities and powers
frustrate our efforts and undermine our work.
We will go through transfigurations,
when we catch a glimpse of God’s presence
in our lives and in our companions and in our work -
and there will be hard, dark days,
days of betrayal, and denial, and desertion.
There will be crucifixion, and dying,
and there will be resurrection.

Predestined to be conformed
to the likeness of his son.

Sometimes we see exactly where we stand
in that pattern of the life of Christ.
Sometimes it makes sense to say
“I’m wandering in wilderness,
working out my future -
or I’m in that midnight garden,
dreading tomorrow and its trial.
Sometimes we’re on a mountain top tasting glory -
sometimes living quietly in obscurity,
growing day by day - like the mustard seed.
But wherever we are in that pattern for life,
whatever season we might be living through
Paul’s point, in his letter to the Romans,
is that it’s all included:
sadness and suffering and confusion
all mixed in with mastery and wonder and glory.
And through it all, Paul always insists,
we are never alone -
nothing can separate us from the love of God -
no illness, no tragedy,
no suffering or persecution or poverty -
no event or accident or experience
means that God has abandoned us,
and nothing we can do
can remove us from God’s love.

Nothing can separate us
from the love of God -
and all things work together for good
for those who love God.

We are called to follow Jesus;
not because being Christian
protects us from trouble and pain –
either of our own or of our neighbours,
we are called to follow Jesus
because living by his pattern
brings all things together for good,
even when our experience of life
is shadowed by grief or evil.
Christian faith affirms for us
that suffering and sadness
are not signs of God’s rejection or disapproval.
There are good and necessary things
to be done for the world’s healing
that can
only be achieved
in the hardest and darkest of days.
and ‘there are things that can only be seen
through eyes that are crying’. (Oscar Ramero)

When Jesus wanted to give his friends
an image of the kingdom
he didn’t paint pictures of power
or promise his disciples rewards and success.
He told parables
about a tiny mustard seed growing into a tree;
about a woman using a small nub of yeast
to leaven all her dough;
he talked about people giving up everything
to find the one thing they most want,
and about a net
that catches up everything -
good and bad -
as the fishermen drag it to shore.
They’re not particularly dramatic
or even especially clear -
they describe the reign of God
emerging through ordinary events
and being revealed in all the varied experience of life.
But the parable
that most clearly and powerfully reveals
the kingdom of God –
God’s reign of justice and peace -
isn’t a story Jesus told,
it’s the life he lived -
and the truest, most revealing moment of his life
came through his suffering and death.
Through everything he did -
birth and ministry
and death and resurrection -
Jesus gives us a pattern for our lives
that not only gives life meaning and purpose,
but also involves us in God’s healing and saving work -
but it’s in his suffering - and in his death -
that we most clearly see God’s love and power.

The same applies to us.
God is present and active in everything we do,
and God’s reign – God’s kingdom –
is slowly being revealed in the way we live -
but it’s in the way we live through difficult days -
it’s through our response to sadness and suffering -
that God’s goodness, the love and power of God,
is revealed.
Suffering doesn’t mean
that we or our neighbours
have been abandoned;
nor is grief or sadness a sign of God’s judgement -
but when we see, and address,
and even embrace the world’s distress,
we will find we’re being led
into the deepest truths of life
and in those depths we find the treasure of heaven.