Read Romans 8:26-30 and Mark 10:13-16
How can I face the future, with all its dark, unknown events?
How can I pray?
How can I feel God?
How can I be a good enough Christian?
I wish that somehow being a Christian would sort of somehow really make sense and ring true for me!
These are common feelings and concerns that arise for us on various occasions, especially when we don't feel very good about ourselves as Christians. And I think that the two readings we have heard today may say something to these concerns.
But, to begin, we need to unlearn some of what is often said about them! We need to here the readings again, and afresh. So what I want to do is first of all tell what I have often heard people say about these reading... things which I think are unhelpful... and try and re-interpret them.
So, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it. Now I think sometimes we have been taught to hear that saying we must have a simplistic, (almost naive), unquestioning kind of faith. A sort of "the bible said it, I believe it, that settles it" kind of approach to things. And that means we feel guilty when we have doubts, or problems with things of the Faith and the Bible... so we push them down out of the way. And because we don't deal with them we often get very insecure about our belief.
There are some problems here. Children may be innocent, but they are not simplistic in their faith. Neither do they have unquestioning faith. They do a lot of profound thinking, and deep and challenging questioning.
The other night my son (6) was reading the story of Moses out aloud in my study, before he went to bed. As we walked up to the bedroom he said, "You know, I'm not sure I believe that when Moses threw his stick on the ground that it really did turn into a snake."
And I said, "Well, maybe the story gets told that way because people thought it would show how strong God is."
"Yes," he said, "because God is mighty and powerful." And we went on to have a discussion about the nature of God, and miracles, and 'magic' tricks, and so on.
The next morning I had to wake him up. He climbed up into my arms for a hug, said "Good morning, Daddy". Then he yawned and stretched, and as though the night had never happened, he said... "Actually, I think that story about Moses is pretty silly. If the first Pharaoh liked Joseph so much, how could the next Pharaoh forget him so easily?" Now we can see that the lad had a bit of the detail wrong... but it was as though he had kept on thinking all night. The conversation continued without a break.
At six he is asking searching questions, doubting the exactness of the biblical stories, wondering about the nature of God, and so on. And it's not just because he is the minister's son. Most children are like that, whether about the Bible or other things.
A simple child-like faith does not fail to ask questions. It faces all the hard issues. This is a simple childlike faith: we can simply say God loves me, instead of taking two hours and too many big words to say the same thing. But it also means we have still faced all the hard questions.
The other thing we have done with those words whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it is to often think they have only to do with belief. They also have to do with how we act... and I'll come back to that, at the end.
All things work together for good for those who love God.
This saying from Paul has been terribly abused. It's been used, for example, as an excuse to avoid reality. Imagine the person who says it her children as they suffered the abuse of their father. "Never mind, all things work together for good for them that love the Lord." It is easier to say that than face the reality of his abuse, and then to face the difficult challenge of what to do about it. We can hardly blame a person, but by saying that, and doing nothing, that person continues the abuse, and takes part in it. She passes it on to the children.
A person once said to me as they watched the senseless suffering of their spouse go on for months, and as they faced indignity and degradation in their illness, "Why won't God leave her alone and let her die? What did she do to deserve this?" And I think they were being a lot more honest than those who glibly say, "Well, all things work together for good for those who love the Lord."
We only ever have the right to say all things work together for good for those who love God, when we are speaking in confidence or hope about our own lives and situation. It is not an article of faith we can demand of someone else. Said without the greatest of care, it can be one of the cheapest and most unfeeling, and least helpful, things we can say to someone in the midst of their suffering.
I want also to comment on verses 29 and 30. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined.... and those whom he predestined he also called... and those whom he called he also justified....
Historically, we have used these verses as a handy way to account for those who do not believe. It meant, we thought, that God did not predestine some people to be saved, and therefore they would not ever be saved. And soon the church got into the habit of treating some people as less important because they were not of the 'elect'. It says, let us remember, those whom he foreknew.... surely God, if God is God, foreknew all people. God has foreknown all people, and predestined and chosen and called ALL people. Some have resisted, but let us never treat some as though they were not called by God.
I think we have often imagined Romans as a book where Paul sat down and carefully worked out a theological argument and did first, second, and third drafts before typing it out. And we have assumed it is all careful systematic theology, like a scientific paper. But it's not like that at all. It shows clear evidence that he was pacing up and down, dictating to a scribe. We've got the first draft, overstatements and all. And it's full of anger, and excitement, and pain, and poetry and joy.
And the verses we are looking at today in Romans 8, are not a forensic statement. That is, they are not meant to be read as an objective, scientifically tested and proven statement about the nature of God and the universe. They are hymnic. They are a cry of praise to God who is overwhelming him. He is getting carried away as he dictates his letter to the scribe. Those words beginning All things work together .... are a hindsight statement, made at a time when Paul is feeling all the love of God, and has forgotten for the moment his pain and suffering and doubts. If you like, they are heavenly pillow talk... the late night love poetry which has forgotten the fight and the anger just before tea.
Carl Strehlow, the Lutheran missionary to Hermansburg, was a man of great faith. Yet it is said that when he was travelling in agony down the Finke River, ill, and on a journey on which he would die... he stopped in the dry bed of the river, took his Bible, and hurled it away into the bush. I reckon that there were times in his sufferings when Paul would have done the same... and if we had said piously, "But Paul, all things work together for them that love the Lord..." well... there is enough evidence in his letters to suggest he would have told us where to go! And good on him, because such a statement is a cheap way to fob off and avoid the pain and reality and depth of a person's suffering.
But for both of them, Paul and Strehlow, there were times when the full weight of God's joy overwhelmed them and they could say that all that had happened to them had been wrought by God for good.
The Good News of Jesus is that if we will enter the kingdom of God as a little child, we will experience those times when we say for ourselves....
we won't say it for someone else,
but we'll say of a certainty, with joy,
"Yes... all things work together for good for me... it's as though God had it planned from the beginning of all creation.... it's as if he did it all for me... it was all predestined to happen."
How do we achieve that promise of Good News?
Let us come back to the first words of the Romans reading for today. The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And God who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints, (that's us....,) according to the will of God.
This, says one scholar, says that the divine in us prays to the Divine above us. And perhaps it's just as well, because we really don't know what the future holds, and what is for the best, and how we should pray.
Yet, as one hymn says...Deep in the human heart the fire of justice burns. There is deep in us all a God-created longing for right and for good. There is deep in us all an inarticulate prayer.... a prayer for the good which we cannot express. Paul believed the Spirit of God hears and knows what is truly appropriate in those prayers in each one of us, and brings them to God.
My most profound experience of prayer, and the deepest healing I have felt, has not come from beautiful words. It has not come from theologically correct and well constructed phrases. It has come from the sighs too deep for words. It has come from feeling, and owning, my pain, my anger, and my fear, and my joys.
Prayer has not been good and worked well from putting them all into polite words, but from kneeling, and crying, and seeing the mind's eye images of my feelings.... even the feelings of "God I don't believe in you"....and saying with all that, "God, here am I. God hear me. God have mercy."
I think it has been letting God see the raw wounds of my soul, rather than coming to pray respectable and neat in my best suit, hiding the real me. It's like a little boy, who instead of trying to be brave and strong, goes to his mother's arms, and cries it all out with a total childish loss of dignity... and is healed.
God-in-us knows our every need. When we are polite and try and hide it all from God... when insist on being dignified and proper, and not shout and dance and laugh and cry as we did when we were little children... there is some sense in which we cut ourselves off from God.
God prays on, knowing our every need. But we in our properness and reserve, are refusing to let the prayer be answered. Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it. The Kingdom of God is now!
The book of Romans talks a lot about the law. But it is not a legal document. It is about freedom from law! It is undignified, enthusiastic, excessive and full of overstatement. In many ways it is childish!
We are not all swing from the chandeliers type people. Some of us are very reserved. But we all feel. We all feel deeply. And to have a childlike faith... to enter the kingdom of God like a child, is to bring our feeling to God... just as a child does.
It means to bring our hopes, our fears, our anger, our doubts, our disbeliefs, everything... to God.... just as a child does. It means to let ourselves truly feel them in God's presence without pretence, and in the end, like an innocent little child, without shame.
And then not only will the Spirit intercede with sighs too deep for words... but we will be open for the healing answers to our praying. And there will come times when in our joy... and perhaps even at time of great sadness, we will be overwhelmed. And we will feel, "Yes, God does work all things... God knew me from the beginning... God has worked all things together for good for me." Amen.
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