Student Carol Service - Don't throw out the baby with the bath water - Hebrews 1:1-9
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the many reasons why I am a Christian and not, say, a Hindu or a Muslim or an Atheist is because of the presence of suffering in the world. Or to be more precise, the reason I am a thorough going, no-nonsense, supernatural believing, thinking Christian is because at some point in our history God became a man and suffered himself in order to do something about suffering and sin-which is what Christmas is all about. A religion or even a philosophy like atheism, which does not make some sense of suffering is difficult to take seriously because it either ignores or explains away one of the great mysteries of life- human suffering.
Take Hinduism. At the heart of Hinduism is what is called monism, a fancy word which means that ultimate reality –Brahman or god with a small ‘g’- is impersonal and is all that exists, and what we experience as reality is really an illusion- maya. Here, Brahman or ‘god’ is said to be like dreamer and our world the dream. Now think about the implications of that when it comes to matters of good and evil, suffering and pain. It means that they too are part of the dream- there are no moral absolutes of right or wrong, no objective good and evil. One Western Zen Buddhist, Alan Watts, likens it to a play. He says that on stage you see the ‘good man’ fighting the ‘bad man’ although you know that backstage the actors are best of friends. And likewise he says only in this life do we believe good and evil, suffering and pleasure to be distinct, but backstage God and Satan are really the best of friends, indeed Brahman contains good and evil and is beyond both of them. And within the dream of maya, we experience samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth and suffering which is a result of our karma, until eventually, we dissolve into nothingness. I don’t know about you but I can’t buy that. For one thing, while for many people suffering is a nightmare, it is far from an illusion. Secondly, if it is an illusion and a result of karma, you then get locked into a kind of fatalism, why try to alleviate an illusion- whatever ‘will be will be’? But thirdly, what kind of god do we have here that dreams this nightmare which produces child abuse, the holocaust and tsunamis and for whom there is no ultimate difference between good and evil? That kind of god does not draw from me worship but, to be honest, contempt.
Then there is Islam. How is suffering viewed here? Well, like all else that happens in this world it is the will of Allah. Here is Najm al-Din al-Nasafi the great Muslim theologian: ‘God Most High is the Creator of all actions of His creatures, whether of unbelief, of obedience or of rebellion; all of them are by the will of God and His sentence and His conclusion and His decreeing’. Do you see what you are left with? A cold, distant god who relates to his creation by his law issuing in a kind of fatalism from which there is no escape.
And does atheism fair any better? Not really. In one lucid logical moment, Professor Richard Dawkins lets the cat out of the bag of his position which ends up denying suffering as an evil altogether when he says: ‘‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. And we dance to its music.’ Can you imagine telling a raped woman that the rapist merely danced to his DNA? You tell the victims of Auschwitz that their tormentors merely danced to their DNA? You see, any belief can be argued, even the belief of atheism, but not every belief can be lived out.
But with the person of Jesus we meet a different God entirely- a God who does understand, a God who does care, a God who comes up close and personal, who does something about our mess. So let me ask: just who is Jesus and what difference does it make? Well, one of the early Christian teachers who wrote a letter which appears in the Bible called, ‘Hebrews’ spells out the answers as clearly as anyone can, he writes, ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.’ Do you get that? Jesus is God as a human being. That’s his identity - the ‘exact representation’ of the Father. Now God is certainly powerful, forming and upholding this incredible galaxy of ours with its 160 billion stars, together with 150 billion other galaxies. Now such a God we might think couldn’t possibly be concerned with the suffering on such a tiny planet as ours which is nothing in the vast scheme of things. And that would be a fair thought to entertain if it were not for the fact that the real God is personal- and persons care. How much does God care? He cares enough to become one of us- ‘In these last days God has related to us by ‘a Son’- that is Jesus.
Just think for a moment about what this means and then you will see how Christianity is unlike any other religion on earth. We are talking God as foetus. The creator of life being created. God being given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, a stomach and a spleen. He would have stretched against the uterine walls and floated in the amniotic fluids of his mother. God had come to earth- that’s what we are talking about. And when he came, it was not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conqueror, but as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter. The hands that first held him were calloused and grimy. The first smells he had were of cow urine. No silk. No hype. No party. In fact had it not been for the shepherds, there would have been no reception at all. And were it not for a group of stargazers, there would have been no gifts. You see God became a real human being. Think of how the angels must have felt watching with wonder as the Almighty learned to walk. And while he was doing all of this, he was still God doing ‘God things’-like keeping a universe in motion and bringing new stars into being. This is the way the 4th century North African Bishop, Augustine tries to capture this utterly stunning idea: ‘He lies in a manger, but contains the world. He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality. He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers. In order that weakness might become strong, strength became weak.’ Doesn’t that simply take your breath away? Doesn’t that make you want to ask: what kind of God is this? He is a God who suffers that’s who.
Of course this was only the beginning. For thirty-three years he would feel everything you and I have ever felt. He felt weak. He grew weary. He burped and had body odour. His feelings got hurt. His feet got tired. His head ached. Later on in his letter, the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tested in every way, just as we are-yet he did not sin.’(4:15). When I find myself struggling, wondering if anybody really understands, I can say, ‘Yes, there is and his name is Jesus.’ Do I feel weak and like giving up? - So did he. Do I cry and feel moved by sickness and death? - So was he. What a God! And this means so much to a world like ours which is overwhelmed with endless troubles and pettiness and despair.
There is a legend about a man caught in quicksand. It is a caricature, no doubt, but as with all caricatures it contains a element of truth. Here is this man struggling, sinking deeper and deeper to his death. Confucius saw him and remarked: ‘There is evidence that men should stay out of such places.’ Then Krishna came along and said, ‘No matter, it is all Maya- illusion.’ Mohamed commented, ‘Alas it is the will of Allah.’ But when Jesus saw him, he knelt down and said, ‘Brother, stretch out your hand and I will pull you out.’ There you have it; Jesus comes down to pull us out. Because he is human he can call us brothers and sisters. Because he is divine he has the power to rescue us from the quicksand of death from which we cannot by our own efforts escape.
To have someone who sympathises with you in your sufferings is a wonderful thing to have isn’t it? Well, here we have a God who can do it perfectly because he has been through it all himself. But the fact is we need more than sympathy, we need help. We need to be brought back in touch with the God who has made us. We need someone to deal with the sin in the world which leads to so much suffering. And in Jesus we have such a one. Having made clear who Jesus is, the writer to the Hebrews goes on to say what Jesus has done: ‘After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.’ He is talking about the cross, that God subjected himself to the evil and pain of the world at its worst on Calvary’s hill, bearing the brunt of that agony himself. Sin and suffering are entangled in this world which is so messed up, that the tangle was undone at the cross- the barrier we have erected between ourselves and the God who loves us, he broke down, by paying for our sins in our place. That is God in Jesus. He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us to make us into his children so that in eternity we might not suffer any more. God loves you and me that much.
The little playlet called ‘The Long Silence’ says it all:
‘At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with cringing shame – but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?”, snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”
In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black!”
In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.” Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.
How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.
Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind.
Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.
At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.
For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.’
So please don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater of religion. The Christian faith is different. It all began some 2,000 years ago with God in human form- a baby. It lead to a cross and then an empty grave and this same Jesus is alive tonight and invites every one here to share in his forgiveness and life transforming power. And you know what? All you have to do is ask.
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