If nothing else will elicit a blog post from me, you can count on my blogging when I have a sermon to post. So in case you were worried that I had run off to the Canary Islands, or disappeared with a fortune in jewelry, or dropped off one of the bits of the map where you can see dragons and sirens and tritons, none of those exotic things have happened. I’ve just lost the habit of blogging.
But I did draw the preaching assignment for today, and it included one of my favourite difficult verses — ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other. / I form light and create darkness, / I make weal and create woe; / I the Lord do all these things’ — on which I immediately was determined to preach. If I had more time, I would have brought in the incarnational aspect of the problem of God’s role in woe.
Not everyone was pleased with the resulting sermon, though those dissatisfied kindly used words such as ‘thought-provoking’ and ‘interesting’. A number in the congregation did specify vigorous approval, though, which is about what I aspire to. It’s set out in full in the ‘continue Reading’ section below.
Now, though, I have to hammer out a fifty-minute lecture on Solomon, his wisdom, his love life, and his successors, then dash back to church for Evensong, then stumble home to collapse in a heap before waking up early to give the Solomon lecture.
And Nate’s wedding is coming close!
Isa 45:1-7 / Ps 96:1-9 / 1 Thes 1:1-10 / Matt 22:15-22
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the Lord do all these things.
+ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.
You may not have been listening just now, so let these words sink into your ears for a moment. Listen to them; absorb them; face their disturbing import. God claims responsibility for the darkness in our lives. God creates woe. Poverty, exploitation, brutality, suffering: “I the Lord do all these things.” Scripture and the tradition of the saints and the teaching of the church all unambiguously teach us that the same God who brings us miraculous joy and profound peace cannot be separated from our bitterest grief — and that we are called to love and trust this God.
I will admit to you that this is a tall order. Most of us prefer not to come to terms with this side of God; we think of our comfort and happiness as a special gift from God, but our unhappiness and brokenness come from somewhere else. It would be too tough to love the God who presides over a world as callous and unfeeling as this. One need not go out seeking calamity to find abundant sadness in the world. One can hardly imagine anything harder than expecting us to love the God who points to this incalculable misery and says, ‘I the Lord do all these things’.
Indeed, many of us know people who deny God for just this reason; they say that if in fact there is a God, then they want no part of a God who could bluntly claim involvement in the suffering we encounter. The psalmist may be right to suggest that ‘The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God,” ’ but we have to admit that at least such a fool is coping directly with the agonies of the created world. Those believers who put on a bright-eyed, steel-nerved determination to see no evil are even more foolish than the atheist. The wilfully cheery, happy-clappy positive-thinking believer has ignored God’s own words: ‘I form light and create darkness. I the Lord do all these things’.
So if it’s folly to reject God, and even greater folly to pretend that God isn’t entangled in this world’s evils, what are we to believe? More important, how are we to feel about our God? How shall we love the darkness-maker? How are we to trust the God who offers us woe?
I have heard these questions before — time and again, in my office, in hospital rooms, funeral homes, living rooms and waiting rooms — and I have always felt overwhelmed by the task of comforting the grieving hearts who challenge me with these intense questions. My own life has barely been touched by the kind of soul-searing tragedies which have afflicted my colleagues, my parishioners, my students, my friends — so that my responses to you, and to Isaiah, grow out of listening and thinking and praying. But I can’t tell you that I know on the basis of having walked through the valley of the shadow of death by myself. And if I had, your shadows are not my shadows, and I’m not so presumptuous to suppose that the resolution of your troubles lies in my wisdom.
But so far as I can tell, it’s precisely when we’re confronted with the cruelest heartbreak that we need Isaiah’s God. When Isaiah reminds us that way back in Book of Genesis, God made the light and the darkness, when Isaiah reminds us that God refuses to slough off blame for our suffering onto some semi-divine super-villain, Isaiah is at the same time promising us that the God on whom we call is greater than any of the troubles that beset us. Nothing that we encounter, for good or fort ill, was created anywhere other than by God; and nothing that we encounter falls outwith God’s capacity to uncreate.
So it just won’t suffice to wave our hands and assure one another that there’s a reason, or that it’s all for the best. On no sane meaning of ‘the best’ can we presume to say that aids, or famine, or earthquake, or depression, or torture, or any of the myriad of terrors that harrow human souls, are ‘all for the best’. ‘Man is born to sorrow, as sparks fly upward’ — that’s not ‘for the best’, it’s how things are. It’s how things are in the world God created for us, that God and no one else created.
And that’s why it’s so very important that we acknowledge that now and always we rely on God not because God brings us only unicorns and double rainbows and bouquets of flowers, but because the God who made a world with earthquakes and disease and famine and despair in it promised that if we stick together — if we stick with God, and maybe even as important as that, if you and I stick together, if we refuse to let any force on earth drive us apart — that we will arrive at a particular kind of goal.
We usually picture that goal as something good on our terms. We imagine happiness, or being united again with loved ones from whom time or geography or misunderstanding have riven us. We imagine having all we can eat, or cerulean blue skies. We may imagine that we can fly! But all of these, however marvellous they may sound (and I’m holding out for the ‘flying’ one) remain within our capacity to imagine. We dream up good things, the very best things we can — but God purposes us for something greater still. The life that God promises is not simply indefinitely prolonged mortality. The health that God designed us for is not simply robust adulthood. The peace that God holds out for us is not simply lack of violent conflict, nor even universal jollity. Our faith confesses a fundamental trust that although we are fearfully and wonderfully made, we are not the judges of our own best interests, we are not the judges of our sisters and brothers, and we are certainly not God’s judges.
It is only a God who exceeds our imagination, our judgment, whom we can trust to bring us to the goal we seek. A God whom we do not fully understand made the world, and in that world made the things that go awry and wound and torment us, from midges to malaria to misery of every sort. The spiritual forces of wickedness against which we contend, the human forces of evil and cruelty that instil us with bigotry and hatred and cold-hearted disdain, these we ought not suppose to be an actual army of God’s opponents who stand any chance of overthrowing God’s way for the world; rather, we should recognise them as the symptoms of a world out of balance, a world whose imbalance we may exacerbate just as much by good intentions as by malevolence. We cannot save ourselves; that doesn’t lie within our capacities. But we can, by sticking with one another and with God, we can edge closer to the balance, the harmony, the brilliant blazing glory that only God could create.
‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’. God sees us trying to make a world more to our liking, where God’s creation produces only nice things — but God says we need to know the difference between trying our best (on one hand), and trusting that we can make everything right (on the other). The first is our divine calling, indeed it is our sharing in the work of the Holy Spirit as we live together as the Body of Christ. The second partakes of idolatry, of putting ourselves and our discernments in the place of God — and dear friends, that never works out well.
‘I form light and create darkness’. And in God’s hands, light and darkness spin and whirl, alternate and flicker, in a supernal rhythm to which we stretch to attune ourselves. ‘I make weal and create woe’, and weal and woe warp and wobble into broad, sweeping cycles of abundance for all creation in the face of which we yield our fierce determination to exercise control. ‘I arm you, though you do not know me’, and equipped by a God we trust, even though we cannot control, we turn loose the Spirit’s power to reconcile, to humble, to harmonise, and to raise up, and equipped with a power not our own we rejoice and give thanks.
From a God who is greater than our imaginations, we learn to glow with the freedom of people who know that we all face woe, we all are dying, and that our misery and even our deaths cannot stop us, that the God who makes life and death will call us beyond the bounds of life and death. The God who makes weal and woe will call us beyond the bounds of weal and woe. The God who creates light and darkness will call us beyond the bounds of light and darkness. God promises to go before those who walk in this freedom, to level mountains, to smash down the bronze doors, to cut the iron bars. When we come to God clothed in the free grace that God has given us, God will bring us along through the darkness, through the woe, to blessings unlimited by mortal imagination, blessings endless and glorious in the heart of our creator God.