Sermon at Evensong on the Second Sunday before Advent 2018

If our God is able…

The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon in Residence

Sunday, 18th November 2018 at 3.00 PM

The roar of the flames is still to be heard in the distance; and the all-pervasive smell of destruction is strong. Ashes swirl in the wind, as people search helplessly, hopelessly for loved ones who are missing. Houses, schools, shops, churches, offices, cars and buses – all the everyday stuff of human community – gone, utterly consumed by fire. And many, many deaths.

The terrible results of the devastating wild fire in California are shocking. A tinder-dry forest, high winds, a stray spark or whatever – and whole communities of people, flora and fauna are utterly razed to the ground. We can and should ask how such things can happen: climate conditions, a lack of understanding on the part of the authorities, a human failure of imagination in the face of an unforeseen threat …. Who knows?

But it is only human also to ask why such things happen. And if we are believers, to ask why God allows such things to happen. Is God not willing to intervene and to save? Or is God, perhaps, not able to act on our behalf?

The traditions expressed in the stories and teaching of the biblical books are not afraid to grapple with these issues. There are clear examples of God’s willingness to act on behalf of his chosen people. Moses is commanded by God to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, to a new life in a land promised to them by God. When the success of the enterprise is threatened, God gives a helping hand: the Red Sea is parted for the Israelites, and the pursuing army destroyed. When salvation is at stake, God proves willing and able to act.

Equally, when God’s reputation is at stake, he seems to be willing to act. When the Israelites are exiled in Babylon, God provides prophets – Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah among them –to inspire the people afresh and to goad them into action. God is not to be mocked or ignored by those who choose to oppress God’s people.

But sometimes, it is true that God needs to be persuaded to act. Moses pleads with God not to destroy the people when they have been disobedient. Remember the Golden Calf? At Moses’ heartfelt request, God eventually relents. The people are not destroyed for their betrayal of their God. The divine law is given once again, and the people are allowed to continue on their journey to the land they had been promised.

Even Jesus himself occasionally needs to be persuaded to act with compassion towards those in evident need. The Syro-Phoneician woman is desperate for her daughter to be healed. Jesus at first refuses to help – she is a foreigner, and not Jewish. Yet she pleads with him, and he responds to her in her need. Her daughter is healed.

So, the Church has always taught that God wills the good of his creation, and of his chosen people in particular. But there appear to be limits to what God chooses to do. Jesus does not heal everyone. He does not put the world to rights, though he is tempted to do so, on more than one occasion. Jesus rejects the temptation to take all power and authority, to rule the world – if only he would deny the God of Israel. Later, Jesus rejects all attempts by some of his followers to proclaim him king. That is not to be Jesus’ way. He is instead to surrender himself to those who fear him and wish him dead. Jesus rejects any shortcuts to assuming the authority that is rightly his. He wills the good, but only achieves it through suffering and self-offering on the cross.

We are left with a conundrum. God may be willing to act for our good, but all too often it looks to us as if God is not able to act for our good. We are taught that it is in the nature of God to be both willing and able to act for the good of God’s creation, but in truth, God doesn’t always seem to do so – at least not in ways that we can recognise. Bad things happen to good and bad people alike. We are left to bear the brunt of natural or human-made disasters, diseases, accidents. And God’s apparent inactivity, we are told, is a mystery – known to God alone.

Which brings us to that fiery furnace, an arrogant king, and three young men, part of whose story we heard read to us earlier in this afternoon.

King Nebuchadnezzar has made a huge golden statue of himself, and at the behest of some of his courtiers has commanded that everyone should worship the statue, on pain of death if they do not do so. The courtiers are jealous of three young Jewish men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who have risen to become senior civil servants in the King’s administration. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego quietly ignore the King’s command to worship the golden statue, and are summonsed into the presence of the King to be given a choice: worship the statue, or be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. The men’s reply is very revealing:

“O Nebuchadnezzar … If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3. 17 – 18)

“If our God whom we serve is able….”. The men, and the author of the book of Daniel, recognise the reality of the situation: God may not be able to rescue the young men. But even so, they will not reject God. The response to a tyrant who demands that a person of faith should deny their faith, is simply to remain faithful to the last; and to leave the outcome of the matter in God’s hands.

The book of Daniel was written at a time when Jewish communities were undergoing terrible persecution. The question of whether God was willing and able to act on their behalf was a very real one. And the philosophical answer to the question remains a mystery in the story of the furnace and beyond. What people of faith are given instead is the encouragement to be truthful about our experience, and to be faithful in the face of what may be, in human terms, certain death.

The outcome of the story of the fiery furnace is, of course, a happy one for the three young men, if not for the people who stoke the blazing fire. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego survive their fiery ordeal, with divine help. King Nebuchadnezzar is made to see the error of his ways, and to recognise the authority of the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – each of whom is then further promoted in Babylon. The story does not relate what happened to the jealous courtiers.

So the phrase “If the God whom we serve is able….” is an honest human statement of the unknowable in the face of total destruction. We hope and believe that the God whom we serve is able to act for the good of all creation, and for those who have faith in God. But our hope and belief should not be dependent on results, however much we may desire it. Instead, we are reminded by the story of the three young men that we are set a daring challenge: always to keep faith in God, and then to act as if that faith is fully justified –whatever the outcome.