Lead me in the way that is everlasting
Our COVID-driven time of withdrawal from busy-ness has provided many challenges to how we live our lives. For me, and I suspect many others it has highlighted the role relationships play in who we are. As we lose these daily or weekly connections to family and friends, slowly much of our being becomes diffused. I think how splendid it was when our daughter brought the grandchildren over and they stood in the driveway and we stood in the garage entrance and we talked and shared and laughed at what, at the serious level, were really trivial things. But these minutes made our lives fuller and more real somehow.
In a similar fashion our time of enclosure might well have challenged our relationship with God: Perhaps threatening it, or strengthening it or changing it in some way. Without our church services perhaps our faith became less real as well? Did God seem to drift away as we were restricted to our houses?
Today’s readings all relate to our relationship with God, and our present circumstances provide us with the opportunity to reflect on this dimension of our lives, and, in the space COVID has provided, perhaps develop this relationship a little more.
Now sermons are traditionally supposed to introduce and develop three points; so you will be relieved to hear that I am going to develop only two today!
The first relates to God’s general relationship to the world. And for this we turn to Jacob’s story and to the wonderful Psalm.
Jacob had a second hand belief in God. He had heard about this God and knew of his relationship with his father and grandfather – but it was head knowledge, not heart knowledge. As it has been truly said – God has no grandchildren, only children. And then Jacob, who was on the run and whose world had come crashing down around him, had a dream! In this he discovered the great truth that God is deeply involved in the world; not far away in heaven and uninterested. As Jacob says: ‘Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” And he was awe struck. And so he calls the place Bethel, which means the house of God - God was right there!
He further discovers that God involves himself in the lives of people. He is personal not impersonal. Jacob discovers, as many have since, that such a confrontation with the majesty, the wholesomeness of God, causes radical changes in one’s view of one’s self. He discovers God is calling people to be more than they have been.
If you know the story of Jacob you will know that up to this point in his life he had been a mean-spirited, double-crosser, out to cheat his brother every way he could. But if we read the next paragraph of his story we find changes beginning; we find a very-different individual emerging from this confrontation with the reality of God. In the paragraph following today’s reading we find Jacob saying “If God will be with me and keep me in this way that I go … so that I come again to my father’s house in peace then the Lord shall be my God.”
How have we taken the opportunity of our world being turned upside down by the threats implicit in the COVID plague and of our lives disrupted by a time of withdrawal, to seriously review our perceptions of God? Is he a distant Grandparent or someone with whom we have a living relationship? Have we realised that he can be just as real in our kitchen as in our church building? Have we taken this time apart to make this relationship more real? Has this time shaken our comfortable views that God is a tame God, one who lets us do exactly what we want? One who looks as we want him to look, and asks of us only what we want him to ask.
Dawkins and Hitchens, those splendid fundamentalists of atheism, most recently have mocked this kind of Christianity – they say ‘humans are not made in the image of God; we conveniently make a God in our own image’ A nice manageable God, one we can get along without getting too challenged – a delusion they would say. To a greater or lesser extent they are right. However, unfortunately for them and lucky for us, there is a God who is real, not a delusion, and who breaks out of the nice safe box we try to confine him in! Like Jacob we can be awestruck by this God who is not what we expect, or perhaps want. Our lived experience shows us that God is a great deal more than a delusion – no matter how we try to control him and make him such. As someone has ruefully said when confronted with this reality: ‘God is a tiger, not a pussycat.’
A thousand years after the time of Jacob we come to our Psalmist. Over these centuries, the Hebrews have experienced and reflected a great deal more on the nature of God and their relationship to him. Our Psalmist takes what in Jacob was an inchoate insight into the nature of God and fills it out and makes it clearer. In the beautiful Psalm 139, the psalmist says:
‘O Lord, you have searched me out and know me: you know when I sit or when I stand, you comprehend my thoughts long before.’
And again: ‘You have encompassed me behind and before: and have laid your hand on me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me: so high I cannot endure it.’
And finally he responds from the heart: ‘Search me out, O God, and know my heart: put me to the proof and know my thoughts. Look well lest there be any way of wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.’
So with Jacob and with the Psalmist we are called to lay our hearts before the great God and pray to be pure as he is pure. A wonderful challenge for our time and situation! Are we brave enough to pray: ‘Search me out, O God, and know my heart: put me to the proof and know my thoughts. Look well lest there be any way of wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.’
My second point follows on from the first. We move forward a further thousand years and hear how Jesus and Paul respond to this plea.
Here we find the great promise of Christianity in our desire to respond to the pleas of the Psalmist: is there any wickedness in me? and, Lead me to the way that is everlasting. While using different imagery, Paul describes the before and after reality we saw in Jacob. Paul calls the old way of living as ‘living according to the flesh’. And the new way as being ‘led by the Spirit of God as children of God’. We are no longer weeds in the wheat field as Jesus says waiting to be weeded out as irrelevant to the future. We are called to be the children of God and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. The Spirit of God is there to work with our spirit to deal with the issues the Psalmist fears. Search me out, O God, and know my heart: put me to the proof and know my thoughts. Look well lest there be any way of wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.
The big step forward then is the understanding that we do not need to get it right in our own strength. We can, as Paul says, be led by the Spirit of God as children of God. To be filled with the wholesomeness of God is our goal, and if we work with the Spirit we will make progress towards that goal. There are many ways to work with the Spirit aren’t there? One of these however is to find the time and space to sit in quiet and listen to what the Spirit shows us of ourselves and then helps us to heal these wounds, to confess these errors, to set new goals for ourselves.
As the visit from our grandchildren made Chris and my lives fuller and more real, so can our relationship with the true God rather than our domesticated version add dimensions, and so reality, to an otherwise warped existence. To become more real all we need to do is to be drawn into truer image of the reality of God.
To return to the Dawkins and Hitchins view of reality for a moment. They believe there is nothing but the material world, so, no hope, no right or wrong, no way forward as there is nowhere to go to but what we make for ourselves. Pointless lives of futility. We find in today’s reading, Paul’s response to such a world view (which was common in his day): ‘Creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the Glory of the children of God.’
The futility of the effects of COVID on our community then is not the last word: we can have hope, there are such things as right and wrong, there is a meaningful future for the children of God.
To finish then. I think that COVID has provided us with a context to further develop our faith in new and exciting ways. While each of us can take hope from Paul’s words, perhaps now is the time for each of us to come before God with the Psalmist and pray: Search me out, O God, and know my heart: put me to the proof and know my thoughts. Look well lest there be any way of wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.