Images of God

Sermon at St James Colwall, Trinity 10 2016

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light was good.

Well, I expect you can recognize this quotation and can find it too – at page 1 of your Bible. It's actually a beautiful passage, describing the process of creation and which people have set to music and depicted in paintings, the most famous of which is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and painted by Michelangelo. Now I wonder how many of you have actually seen this. I haven't, although I have seen a reproduction. Each panel in the roof is painted with a scene from the days of creation and culminating in the creation of man, the most famous of the paintings, an absolutely iconic image of God and Adam with a lightning flash between them.

But beautiful though it is, it is complete rubbish. From a scientific point of view we know quite a bit about the creation of universe and the steps of evolution last for thousands of millions of years, not days. I suppose most people realize that Genesis is mythology and to talk sensibly about it is a question of deciding how to interpret the stories it tells. The first thing to say is that God does not live on a cloud any more than man does. But such is the power of the image we very easily sink into these terms and as a result make God much less than He really is. Muslims forbid the depiction of any form of the deity and I think they are quite right to do so.

Nevertheless, we do need to talk about God, and we can do that by looking at His creation. We see that creation is good, and more than that, that creation is there for a purpose. Some people think of creation as entirely meaningless, it just happened. I don't buy that. It seems to me to be far too large not to have a purpose. Unfortunately, just because of that, there is no way that we can totally understand that purpose – it is beyond our comprehension – but when we cannot understand anything we can still have a faith that can take us beyond our difficulty.

The book of Job provides us with the prime example of that problem. As you know, Job is happy and wealthy until one day he loses everything he has, health, his family and possessions. At this point his friends arrive, the so-called comforters, who basically (and at great length) say you must have done something wrong, so you had better confess your sin and repent. But Job will have none of this: he is sure of his ground and says so in those beautiful words we use in the funeral sentences: "for I know that my Redeemer liveth, and on the latter day shall stand upon the earth."

God meanwhile, has been listening into the discourses and decides they have all got it wrong. “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth; when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" In other words, what do you know about it.

The thing is, we are limited and can sin without realising it. For example, our attitudes to women and children are different now from what they were in Old Testament times. Harsh treatment then was understandable, but it was still sinful. It takes the Sermon on the Mount for us to start to see that we have some way to go before we realize how much God’s standards might differ from ours. Job was sinful, and so are we.

So we should always be prepared to question our actions, but that still leaves us with events which are difficult for us to come to terms with and which cannot be laid at any one’s door. Take, for example, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which caused great loss of life in Indonesia and other places in the Far East. Should that be regarded as an act of God? After the event, someone surveyed religious attitudes to it, the most striking one being the attitudes of the Muslims, encapsulated in the phrases, “the Lord has given: the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Personally, I would regard this as just one more of those things that are an inevitable outcome of creation. It is simply not possible to create the world in a way which does not have this possibility of destruction in it. It is up to us find ways of ameliorating these inevitable unwanted outcomes. So we should bend our minds towards tsunami warning systems rather than cursing God.

In fact what is interesting to see is that we can participate in the work of creation and can positively add to it. Whenever we heal an illness, make the world safer, or add to the productivity of the environment we are doing God’s work. And you all know that by working together we get to know each other better. Improving the world therefore, is a way of knowing God and that should be motivating enough. So, let’s go and do it!