Sermons from St Faith's
Visiting Uncle George
Dennis Smith, January 22nd, 2012
“Jesus came into Galilee,
preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled
and the Kingdom of God is at hand’."
“George was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who
described his as very loving, a great friend of the family, very
powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to
visit good old uncle George.” He lives in a formidable mansion, is
bearded, gruff and threatening. We cannot share our parents’
professed admiration for this jewel in the family.
At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. “Now,
listen dear” he begins, looking very severe, “I want to see you here
once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will
happen to you.”
He then leads you down to the mansion’s basement. It’s dark and
becomes hotter and hotter as we descend and we begin to hear
unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle
George opens one. “Now look in there, dear,” he says.
We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little
demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those who had failed
to visit Uncle George or to behave in a way he approved. “And, if
you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go”
says Uncle George .
As we go home, Mum leans over us and says, “And now don’t you just
love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?”
And we, loathing the monster, say, “Yes, I do,” because to say
anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace.”
What I’ve read to you is an extract from a book by the Jesuit
Priest, Gerard Hughes, an “identikit” of God drawn from some of the
many conversations he has had over the years as a university
I’m sure our picture wouldn’t coincide in all respects with this,
but it does show the difficulties and problems we face when we begin
to think about God. Of course Fr Hughes presents this as a distorted
and damaging picture, and his book is written to help people to grow
to discover a more wholesome, creative idea of God: a vital task if
we are to have a firm and lively faith.
I think it helps if we begin from the conviction that it is hard to
speak about God, but of vital importance to our faith that we do so.
The essential fact about God is that we do not know who or what he,
she or it is.
That great medieval theologian of the church, Anselm, described God
as “that Being of which nothing greater can be conceived”. The
reality of God is indeed shrouded in mystery. This was accepted from
the beginning and was especially important in Greek philosophical
thought. God was so different from us that what he was could only
described in contradictions.
We are mortal – therefore God is immortal. We are limited in our
knowledge – therefore God is unlimited, or omniscient. We are
created – therefore God is uncreated. And so on. God doesn’t suffer,
is infinite. Everything we aren’t, God is.
This basic understanding of God has been challenged, especially in
the last hundred years or so. This change has been most noticeable
in discussions by theologians of the suffering or possibility of
God. Traditionally it was felt that God couldn’t suffer, since that
was a capacity confined to weak and imperfect humans. But a
generation which lived through two world wars and saw the
concentration camps could no longer live with a God who was above
all this mass of raw human pain.
God, if he is the God of love and not some detached monster, MUST be
involved, MUST be alongside his people, MUST be there, sharing the
dereliction and the hopelessness. And verses from the gospels,
especially the Passion Narratives, gained a new significance in
Christian – and Jewish, thinking.
So we have come to understand that God is the incarnate God, the
suffering God, the God – with – us, the the God we can place our
trust and our love in. But it needs to be emphasised that God still
inevitably remains different and distant from us, or to use the
jargon phrase, “transcendent”. This thought is forced on us not only
as we think philosophically but as we live. We know that our lives,
and our world are inadequate and imperfect. We know that God cannot
be a part of this damaged world, or limited to it. All that we
instinctively believe about God would become meaningless if he was
just a phenomenon of our world. He is other than us.
The only possible reaction to him is one of awe and worship, the
response of the publican in the parable, who kept his distance and
could only stammer out his repeated cry for mercy. We must begin
with the ‘otherness’ of God, but we are led to realise that God is
not only other, but other in relation to us. The incarnation, his
coming on earth as the Christ means that he enters into a
relationship with us, his people.
This relationship is a fact of our existence, we can do nothing to
change it however determined we may be to rebel and reject. We are
made by God, the distant transcendent creator, and we are redeemed
by God, the God-Man, Jesus. It is this tension which is the place
where we live our spiritual lives. It is the source of all our
It’s an uncomfortable place to be. This discomfort arises from the
requirement to change. God is calling us to become something else
from what we are, to discover a wholeness and fullness which is the
goal towards which we move. And change is painful. So knowledge of
God, then, is not something thought but experienced. The key
experiences have to be those in which unashamedly we find ourselves
living in this uncomfortable tension.
What kind of experiences do I have in mind? First, there’s prayer –
the expression of our relationship with God. Prayer isn’t a
requirement to say certain set forms of words or to confidently set
before God our immediate needs knowing that he will obligingly do
what we want. Prayer is simply the state of consciously being before
God It’s time set aside, time when we don’t try to achieve anything,
time when we have to live with that most uncomfortable of conditions
– silence. We force ourselves just to be there for God.
St. John of the Cross taught that our prayer has little good
effect as long as we are enjoying it or finding if fulfilling. If it
brings us peace or reassurance then we are probably praying because
of the enjoyment we get from it. But when we feel nothing enjoyable,
get no pleasure, then we can no longer be praying because of the
delights of the experience, that we start praying for God’s sake,
not our own. This switch of emphasis from our selves to God is a
mark of spiritual growth. It’s true prayer. So, as a result, God is
sometimes spoken of as darkness, because in this experience there’s
no room for the light of knowledge. We have true knowledge of God
when we recognise that there’s no way that we can have true
knowledge of God.
I think this is also why people sometimes testify that it’s through
some of the most painful of human experiences that they come to a
deeper faith. Bereavement, illness, loneliness, coping with long
term disability in someone we love: these are sometimes experiences
which bring God, because they are experiences which break the
familiar patterns, and the human emptiness which results can be
mysteriously filled and become a different kind of emptiness.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to say that there is a great
emptiness at the heart of each one of us. An emptiness which was
God-shaped and could only filled by God.
We are here in church today, surely, because there’s something in us
that recognises this. We want God. Not human friendship, or
beautiful music, or social activity, but simply God.
This does, I’m sure, sound harsh and uncompromising. A far cry
perhaps from the warm, comforting “Father” of the preaching of
Jesus. But if we stop to reflect, we realise that it’s the only way
that the good news of the gospel can become the good news of God’s
love. We begin to reach out to God because human love, human
knowledge, and human hope are not sufficient and do not bring
lasting or real peace.
Please don’t think that I’m criticising the pictures or ideas of
what God is like which all of us build up.
There’s nothing wrong in imagining God to be an old man in a throne
on the clouds, nor in speaking of him as the deepest level of our
personality, or in any other way that makes sense to you. The
mistake comes when we identify our picture of God, with God himself,
and confuse imagination with reality.
Any picture of God is like a scientific hypothesis. We work out our
explanation, then we use it until it’s no longer adequate. We find
points where it ceases to explain the phenomena we observe and then
we need to move on to another model. Meanwhile the God who is the
final reality behind all of our thinking and imagining is always
It is a voice which beckons us forward and leads us on; sometimes
moulding and shaping us painfully; sometimes he is touching us
gently and caressing us, but never allowing us to rest content with
our half-completed selves.
And now to that same mysterious God be ascribed as is most justly
due, all honour, might dominion and power both now and for ever
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