As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. — Fred Rogers
We are not theologians because we are particularly religious; we are theologians because in the face of this world we miss God. We are crying out for his righteousness and justice, and are not prepared to come to terms with mass death on earth.
But for me theology also springs from God’s love for life—the love for life that we experience in the presence of the life-giving Spirit and that enables us to move beyond our resignation and begin to love life here and now. These are also Christ’s two experiences of God, the kingdom of God and the cross, and because of that they are the foundations of Christian theology, as well: God’s delight and God’s pain. It is out of the tension between these two that hope is born for the kingdom in which God is wholly in the world and the world is wholly in God. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God…’ — Stephen Morrison, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English, Kindle ed’n, loc.323
What is a saint? A man, a Jew called Abraham Heschel once said that a prophet is someone who lives in sympathy with God, with God’s tears and God’s dream for the world in her heart.
Perhaps we can also say that a saint is someone who lives in sympathy with God.* In particular, a saint is a person who actively hopes in God’s promises, and who cries when God cries.
God does cry at the injustice and madness of the world. Shirley Erena Murray, a wonderful hymn writer from New Zealand, says
at love withheld,
at strength misused,
at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
In each of today’s readings, there are tears.
In Isaiah: ‘Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.’
In Revelation: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more….’
In the Gospel: ‘Jesus wept.’ When God becomes a human being, God sheds tears. A person who lives in sympathy with God will cry at what makes God cry.
You will see that there is a promise that these tears will be wiped away from our faces one day. God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes’.
That’s almost unimaginable; it’s really hard to grasp because for now, we are still in the midst of tears, in the midst of fears.
We are still subject to illness and weakness. We still disappoint ourselves and others. We can still find ourselves unemployed.
On a global scale, Trump still demonises anyone who won’t fit his vision of America; Britain still turns its back on Europe, imagining a ‘greatness’ that no longer exists; Putin still plots and schemes the deaths of his opponents; and Australia still forces children to rot on Nauru, ignores the plight of its Indigenous people, and scrabbles to get more coal from the ground. All while the earth’s climate changes, the seas slowly rise, and the land becomes uninhabitable.
Sometimes, I feel there’s not much to be optimistic about. I tremble at the thought of the world my three-year old granddaughter will inherit. What are we doing with the world?
Tears are a very proper response.
But we can be overwhelmed by our tears. Sometimes, it feels as though tears will never end. Yet God promises that one day, our tears will be wiped from our faces.
We read a passage from the Book of Revelation today. Our reading is almost at the end of that strange book, and God’s purposes are finally being revealed.
There is a new heavens and a new earth coming. A holy city comes down from heaven; it’s a cube with sides almost 2500 kilometres long.
What’s that about? Well, a cube is a ‘perfect’ shape. And 2500 kilometres is massive. Maybe it’s saying something about God’s power and perfection.
And this cubic city is ‘like a bride’. The church is the bride of Christ, so is the city really a perfect, huge company of people from all around the globe singing God’s praise?
Who knows? I don’t.
I’m pretty sure about one thing though. If you ask, Is all this literally true? I’d say No.
So if it’s not literally true, is it true at all? I’d say Yes. It certainly is true. God’s dream is to bring the kingdom of God to earth. That’s what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer:
Your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as in heaven.
We look for the day when God’s justice is done, God’s peace is felt and seen and known, when the law of love is the only law we have and need.
Will it ever come?
Right now, we may feel there’s not too much to be optimistic about, but there is hope. We are invited to hope in God. We can hope in God.
People talk about hope and optimism as if they are the same thing. I hope the weather improves tomorrow; I am optimistic that the weather will improve tomorrow. But you know what? Hope and optimism are not the same thing in Christian thinking.
If I’m optimistic about something, I have looked at the situation and I have reasonable grounds to expect something may happen. There are clouds gathering, and there’s that certain atmosphere around me that means I’m optimistic that there’ll be rain. My wife has put a lot of preparation into planting some new veges in her garden, and I’m optimistic that with the right care they’ll provide us with good eating down the track.
Christian hope, hope in the reign of God on earth, doesn’t come out of optimism. We can’t say that if there’s a change of government we will be one step closer to the kingdom of God. Every time we try to make the kingdom come sooner we get something wrong.
We actively hope in the coming kingdom of God. We don’t just sit on our backsides hoping. @SereneJones writes (Twitter):
I’m still enraptured by Bryan Stevenson’s @EDSatUnion lecture, and particularly by his repeated exhortation to maintain hope; ‘injustice prevails where hopelessness thrives’.
The Apostle Paul says we are ‘called to be saints’. (1 Corinthians 1.2) So we who are called, we who are just a little bit along the way to being ‘saints’, maintain hope in the face of injustice. And we do that best by doing justice now.
Therefore, we name this church as a safe place for all. We affirm and include everyone regardless of age, ability, gender, race, sexuality, or cultural background. We do that because we believe it reflects God’s justice.
Therefore, your church council has formally committed to opening this church to same sex marriage. We do that because we believe it reflects God’s justice.
Therefore, we feed the community lunch on Tuesdays, and give food out at other times. We do that because we believe it reflects God’s justice.
Therefore, We support asylum seekers. We do that because we believe it reflects God’s justice.
We do all this in hope.
The New Jerusalem has not yet descended from heaven. So we still shed tears at the injustices that happen every day.
And we seek to live in sympathy with God’s tears and God’s hope.
One day, the flow of the world’s tears will be replaced by the flow of God’s justice. As the prophet Amos says (5.24),
…let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
When that hoped-for day comes, our tears will be washed away.
* I am paraphrasing. It is more accurately put: ‘the fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos, a communion with the divine consciousness which comes about through the prophet’s reflection of, or participation in, the divine pathos. The typical prophetic state of mind is one of being taken up into the heart of the divine pathos. Sympathy is the prophet’s answer to inspiration, the correlative to revelation.’ http://www.mesacc.edu/~thoqh49081/handouts/heschel.html
Preached at West End Uniting Church, 4 November, 2018