Sunday, September 25, 2016

'Course He Isn't Safe, but He's Good

'Course He Isn’t Safe, but He’s Good
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 18, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 John 1: 1-5
Isaiah 44: 24-28

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.

My anthem today echoed, mirrored those words. . . I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus. . . in him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike. Here John writes in his epistle, that this is the message we have heard from him, and that we now proclaim to you, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” But we find that there is darkness. There are things that we just don’t understand about this world and how it works. There is pain that we feel, that we see others feeling, empathy that we feel for the struggles that our brothers and sisters are going through, and we cannot help but wonder why. Today with Isaiah we proclaim the creation, proclaim that the creation of everything that is, is God’s. . . that this world is the handiwork of God, and that God is good. We hold up God as the creator of all things. We hold up God as all powerful. Good, all powerful, creator of all things, and somewhere in our mind wonders. . . if those three things are true. . . if they are each true in themselves. . . held up. . . evident to us in the miracle of creation. . . testified to us by the Bible again and again. . . memorized and taught in Sunday School and catechism. . . we can’t help but wonder in our less faithful moments. . . why then is our world not good. We have disease, senseless violence, pain and distress, injustice, bad things happening to good people, good things happening to bad people, suffering, hunger, corruption, greed, crime, cancer, drugs, even maladies we cannot explain to the most innocent of us all. . . those in the womb who have not even breathed their first breath are not inoculated against the pain that we see in the world. It drives us to our knees, screaming out why, God, why? Why is this? Why must such things be? And it challenges us on a deep and honest level.
At this time in the year I am teaching my students origin myths. . . and I use them, these stories of how the world came to be, to teach the basics of world views. I want my students to be able to understand works of literature we will read later in the year. I want them to know how the author of the work sees the world at its most basic level. So far we’ve looked at two different ones. The first a polytheistic worldview, that of the Greeks, the poet, Hesiod’s Theogyny, a Greek Word for a title which means simply, “The Birth of the Gods.” In that worldview the problem of pain is easy. . . it is easy to explain. . . the gods are not good. . . they are fickle, they are cruel, they do not care at all about people, Zeus didn’t even create human beings, they were made by another, in an act of defiance towards Zeus, so you can imagine what that means about humans. . . the world is simply a collection of personified gods and goddesses each with their own natural force to manage, waging wars against each other in perpetual conflict, and human beings are hanging in the balance, precarious to say the least, and therefore all of the evil and bad that humans face is easy to explain.
But then we read Genesis 1, and Genesis 2, 3. . . and the problem of pain and suffering is harder to understand. Genesis 1 shows an all powerful God, speaking things, speaking the entire world into existence. Let there be light, and there is light. . . and the same God who speaks light into existence, proclaims that light to be good. The Hebrew word for creates, is the word, “BARA” and no one can BARA other than God, the word doesn’t work for anyone else. And the poetic image of God’s creation is him separating the waters, holding back the waters, and creating space, space for his creatures, to live and not just to live, but to thrive. . . his first commandment is to Be Fruitful and Multiply. . .  he pulls back the waters, and brings order to the chaos. . . these are the images painted by the poetic Hebrew words of creation. . . God separating the water from the water, and bringing order. . . order, which is the opposite of Conflict.
So this is where I was with my students, this past week. . . one night for homework, I had them go outside and find something in nature, in the natural world that is evidence, that all the world is, is conflicting forces. . . I got things like trees growing next to each other. . . the larger one shading the smaller one from the sun, their roots fighting for nutrients. . . the coolness of the wind fighting against the hot rays of the sun. . . the water slowly eroding the shore. . . one kid wrote about the mosquito they slapped from their neck while they were looking for something. All good stuff. . . Then the next night I asked them to go outside and find evidence of order in the world. . . evidence of a greater plan. . . evidence that there is a benevolent all powerful loving God pulling light out of darkness, and setting the conflict, the chaos, into order. . . I was amazed at what I got. . . I got the food chain, and the cycle of life, which I took to mean life and death. . . birth and death. . . it made me think about my niece, she had raised some pollywogs, to tadpoles, to frogs. . . and then they took them to the park to let them go. . . and as the little fellow was swimming along. . . a fish came up and slurped him up. . . in one big gulp. . . I guess there is always a bigger fish. . . and she looked at it and started singing. . . from Lion King. . . It’s the circle of life. . . this is what I got from these boys about proof of order. I was hoping I’d get some poetic notions like I wrote in the poem read at DeAnna’s and my wedding, that there was this cool breeze, and that caused these two doves to huddle close to stay warm, that even though there was cold, and discomfort, out of that came love and need and caring for each other. . . Or I thought I might hear about the myna bird and the rhino. . . or that other bird the lives in the crocodiles mouth cleaning his teeth. . . or the fish that does the same for sharks. . . that there is more to the world than the strong devouring the weak. . . but glimpses of the meek inheriting the earth, and the last being first and the first being last. . . no I got the male black widow being devoured by the female after helping with egg fertilization. But they are right. . . that in its own way is an ordered system. . . not just born out of conflict, but born out of set and delicate patterns. . . harsh patterns, but patterns. . . and it put the poems I chose for today in my head as things I wanted to touch on . . . two poems by William Blake. . . both coming from his collections usually meant for children. . . his “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” The Lamb from Innocence. . . and the Tyger from Experience. . . because this gets at it really. . . God. . . the nature of God. . . and the nature of the nature God created. . . both. . . including both the lamb and the tiger: Let’s look at them.
Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee 
Gave thee life & bid thee feed. 
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice! 
Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee 
         Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
         Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb: 
He is meek & he is mild, 
He became a little child: 
I a child & thou a lamb, 
We are called by his name.
         Little Lamb God bless thee. 
         Little Lamb God bless thee.

There is the innocence of creation. . . the kindness. . . the gentleness. . . for that is a part of the natural world for sure. . . and a part of the nature of God. .  but there is more. . .

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

It poses that question. . . what immortal hand or eye dare frame they fearful symmetry. . . that kind of perfection. . . beauty, strength, a perfect stealth, powerful killing machine. We went on to read Genesis 1 and 2 in class, and the boys kept wondering why would it be that God would create the snake. . . if the snake would lead human beings so hopelessly and desperately into sin and degradation. . . even death. . . why put us through that?
Many have looked at the 20th century, with its world wars and devastation, its pollution, its loss of faith, its falling into a postmodernism where the validity of all that had been held fast as fact for centuries is doubted and questioned. . . with all of that going on. . . feeding the fire. . . wondering how could a good God allow such things to happen. . . how could an all powerful God allow such things to happen. . . it has made people doubt the three great truths we posed earlier. . . God is Good. . . God is all powerful. . . God creates all things. . .  cut out any one of those and the problem of pain is solved. . . God is not good. . . like the Greek Gods. . . there may be power up there. . . but it can’t be benevolent. . . it can’t be good. . . God is not all powerful. . . there is a God. . . God is good, but he just can’t do anything about the pain. . . he isn’t strong enough to stop it. . . or lastly. . . God didn’t create the world. . . doesn’t create the world. . . ie. There is no God. And it may just be the pain you face is more personal than the global. . . the pain that you are suffering is deep loss. . . pain. . . the unimaginable. . . and it can lead you to that point where you question any one of those three ideas. . . God is Good. . . God is all powerful. . . God creates all things. . . it can be difficult.
But yet we are all here this morning. Here we are gathered together. . . and we hear ringing through our heads this morning. . . In him there is no darkness at tall the night and the day are both alike. . . and here we are. . . the world would say that we ignore these questions, that we fear these questions. . . that we don’t take these questions seriously. . . but rather go to church because we always have. . . that we put on our rose colored Sunday Morning glasses, and choose not to think of such things. . . we read our Little Lamb, who made thee. . . and we fill our lives with hugs and happy thoughts, and we ignore the struggle we face. . . blinded in a denial of reality. . . that is what the world would say. . . but here we are, and now we’ve posed these questions. . . where do you stand. . . what do you think. . . why are you here? Why believe still in the goodness of God. . . even with your eyes wide open. . .
In him there is no darkness at all the night and the day are both alike. . . there is that chorus again. . . that refrain again. . . does it help us. . . one thing the Bible shows us is we are not alone in these thoughts. . . if  you wonder about the problem of pain. . . there is a ton of pain in the prophets. . . the kingdoms, which was originally the one kingdom promised by God are destroyed. . . outside invaders destroy the two kingdoms piece by piece. . . the Assyrians to the northern kingdom of Israel. . . the Babylonians to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. . . Jerusalem is burned, razed, destroyed. . . and ancient warfare, as you probably can imagine is a brutal thing. . . probably what  you can imagine times ten. . . and the remnant. . . the survivors of the destruction find themselves exiled in the invaders great city. . . Babylon. . . and you better believe there is doubt. . . there is fear. . . there is questioning of the goodness of God, the power of God. . . the idea that God exists at all. . . but in come these prophets. . . Jeremiah. . . Ezekiel. . . Isaiah to name a few. . . and look at what Paula read this morning from Isaiah. . . after again saying that idol worship is worthless, this prophet is testifying again to the creatorship, the reality, the power, the goodness of God.
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who stretched out the heavens alone,
    who spread out the earth—Who was with me?[e]
25 who frustrates the omens of liars,
    and makes fools of diviners;
who turns wise men back,
    and makes their knowledge foolish;
26 who confirms the word of his servant,
    and performs the counsel of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
    and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
    and I will raise up their ruins’;
27 who says to the deep, ‘Be dry,
    I will dry up your rivers’;
28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
    and he shall fulfil all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem. ‘She shall be built,’
    and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”

In other words. . . God is great. . . God is the creator. . . and all those wise men. . . all those foolish diviners. . . all those who claim to know the truth. . . the whys. . . the wherefores. . . they all don’t know a thing. . . God’s truth runs deeper. . . And then this bit about Cyrus. . . and Cyrus is important because he goes on about Cyrus into the next chapter
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and ungird the loins of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed:
“I will go before you
    and level the mountains,[a]
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut asunder the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I gird you, though you do not know me,
that men may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe,
    I am the Lord, who do all these things.

All those promises are still true. . . it doesn’t matter how dark it gets. . . God is the light. . . in him there is no darkness at all. . . but who is this Cyrus. . . do you know? He is the king of Persia. . .another of the great empires of the ancient world. . . the one who destroys Babylon. . . can such a one be the instrument, the anointed tool of God. . . can you imagine what that would be like if it would happen today? I can’t. . . a foreign ruler being the chosen deliverer? I think we would jump the faith ship before such things could happen. . . but this is the message Isaiah brings. . . and it all comes to pass. The Persians displace the Babylonians, and the Persian policy of local religious toleration allows for the reconstruction of the temple. . . and the reconstituting of Jerusalem. . . but the people would still be waiting of a King, Messiah. . . but he would come three Empires later. . . and he would fall into the freshly washed hands of a Roman Governor and his cross. In him there is no darkness at all the night and the day are both alike. ..
I can’t answer the why and the wherefore officially, at least not from here, because I don’t know. . . I have some faithful theories. . . mostly having to do with the amazing power of love and what it can do in the world, what I’ve seen it do. . . but I really don’t know how to answer the problem of pain. . . other than to say that even with the pain in the world it is possible that the world is still Good. . . and that a Good God is in control of it after all. . .
Alexander Pope put it this way. . .
ALL are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent:
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part;
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns
As the rapt Seraphim, that sings and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small—
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all....
All nature is but art, unknown to thee:
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see:
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.

John wrote it that God is the light shining through and out of the darkness. . . in him there is no darkness at all. . . William Blake said that he made both the lamb and the tiger. . . History shows him making the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. . . Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and Pilate. . . My niece Julianna, sang. . . It’s the circle of life. . . and my students saw it in the food chain and the cannibalistic male eating black widow spider. . . and it is there in the Cross and the Empty Tomb. . . I took the title of this sermon from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. . .
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

There are many things we don’t understand. . . God made both the tiger and the lamb. . . but he became the lamb amidst the tigers. . . not safe, no, but Good.