Sermons from St Faith's

The Hiddenness of God
Fr Dennis Smith, June 2008

Those who take holidays in Scotland will know that the magnificent and mountainous island of Arran lies in the Firth of Clyde.

You get to Arran nowadays by McBrayne’s car ferry from the small, and now rather sadly decayed seaport town of Ardrossan. Over a century ago the minister of St. John’s church, Ardrossan, invited a fellow minister, the well known scholar and poet, Dr. Chalmers Smith, to come and preach at a special service.

In his invitation he emphasised the splendour of he view of Arran from the manse windows. On the evening of Dr. Chalmer Smith’s arrival, however, Arran was obscured by torrential rain. The following morning dawned bright and sunny, but Arran was still obscured, this time by thick shining mist. And as Dr. Chalmers Smith sat in his room and reflected on this experience, he realized that what had happened was rather like his awareness of God. He knew Arran existed, but was hidden from him. It was his faith that God existed, and was also hidden from him. So he took out pen and paper and wrote the well known hymn which is often sung:

“Immortal, Invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes
Thy Justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love,
All laud we would render, O help us to see,
Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.

And the theme of the Hiddenness of God which is expressed in that hymn appealrs in the very first chapters of the Bible: “And the lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul.” Then that ancient story of the creation in the Book of Genesis continues: “The Lord God created an help meet for him for it is not good that man should be alone”.

Then the story goes on to suggest that at the very dawn of creation God and Man moved about together in easy personal communication with one another in the Beauty of the Garden of Eden. But then follows the revolt of Adam and Eve; their great act of disobedience to the Will of God, and so the destruction of that personal communication. “And they head the voice of the Lord God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day and Adam and his wife hid
themselves from the presence of the Lord God.”

There then follows that strange sad picture of the Lord God searching about in the Garden to see where Man is hidden and trying to talk to him through the undergrowth.

At the very beginning of the Bible a great tangled barrier has arisen between God and Man. God has become the Hidden God. The writer of the Book of Genesis blames this on Man. On his own evil and wilfulness. The story continues with Adam and Eve, the representatives of all mankind, being forever driven out from the place where they had known and walked with God.

That is the ancient story by which the Bible tries to explain a reality of human experience; the Hiddenness and the Mystery of God. This theme of the Hiddenness of God recurs again and again in the Bible and in later Christian
experience, right up to the present day. When in the Book of Exodus, Moses draws near to God to receive the Tables of the Law, the Lord said, “Behold there is a place by me and thou shalt stand upon a rock and it shall come to pass that while my glory passeth by I will put thee in a cleft of the rock and I will cover thee with my hand while I pass by and thou shalt see my back parts but my face shall not be seen.”

And when Elijah, in fear for his life, fled to Horeb, the Mountain of God, he beheld: “The Lord passeth by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the
Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice,” the voice of Elijah’s own inner spiritual awareness.

And as we might expect, this there of the Hiddenness of God continues throughout the psalms of the Old Testament: How long, O Lord, will thou hide thyself, for ever? Wherefore hidest Thou thy face and forgettest our misery and trouble? Lord why abhorrest Thou me and hidest Thy face from me? Why standest Thou so far off, O Lord, and hidest thyself in times of trouble?

And when we pass to the New Testament, the theme of the essential Hiddenness of God continues: “No man hath seen God at any time” wrote St. John. In later Christian experience this theme of the Hiddenness of God recurs again and again, perhaps most strikingly in that spiritual classic of the fourteenth century call “The Cloud of Unknowing”.

“Try to penetrate the darkness which is above you. Strike that thick cloud of unknowing with a strong dart of longing love and on no account whatever think of giving up, for by love he may be gotten and holden; by thought, never.”

And in the twentieth century, did not C. S. Lewis ask why it has to be that against even our most desperate and anguished prayers the gates of heaven always seem slammed shut by a God silent and hidden?

The Hiddenness of God is all too true to the reality of Christian spiritual experience. This fact greatly troubled the distinguished preacher and scholar, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, for many years the paster of Riverside Church in New York, until one summer he had an experience of great insight and importance which I would like to share with you. He wrote this:

“Recently I visited once more my summer cottage which is on a small island off the coast of Maine and fell in love again with the sea. Now I don’t know the whole sea which encircles the world. I have never sailed across the Pacific or the Indian Oceans. I have never seen the Antarctic Sea where pioneers press their perilous way over the polar ice pack. Wide areas of the sea are to me quite unknown. But I know the sea, for part of it is close to me. It washes around my island. I can sit beside it and bathe in it and sail over it and be sung to sleep by the music of it. The small part of the sea which is real to me is part of a much greater reality.

So is God. He is so great that in his mystery and power we can think of him only in symbolic terms, in picture language. As the great oceans of the world are real to me by the water around my small island, so God is real to me by what little I can see of Him and and of His ways.” Fosdick concludes:

“You must see God where you can, accept the fact that as human beings limited in awareness and intelligence we cannot see the wholeness of the God who is csreator and sustainer of the universe. See God where you can. Accept such glimpses and intimations as are real to you.”

The late Professor of Biblical Studies, William Barclay, was able to see God in the great mystery of order, structure and purpose in the universe; so complex a creation points to a creator.

Others have seen God in the beauty of nature, in great music and great art, others have seen God in holy places; others have seen God in great and sacrificial lives; or in the wonder of children, or in the eyes of a lovers; others in the
faces of the poor, the hungry and the oppressed. Sunday by Sunday, in worship and in teaching, the Church affirms the centrality of our belief in God.

“See God where you can”, wrote Harry Emerson Fosdick and where down the centuries many, many millions of people have, above all, seen God has been in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus ~Christ, who in reply to a question by the Apostle Philip replied quite simply: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.”

An affirmation developed by Saint Paul when he wrote: ”God who commandeth the light to shine out of darkness hath shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

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