I have a friend called Ken. We do stuff together. I have other friends too, but one day, for some reason, it struck me with some force that Ken really likes me. You'd think that would be obvious, wouldn't you? But not to me. A whole lot of my childhood conditioning says to me, "Why would anyone like you— especially a bloke?" But Ken… likes me. I can't tell you just how much that means to me… and how flat out freeing and healing that has been.
But we are here to talk about how we relate to God. Some of the very earliest stories which our civilisation is built upon are pretty sure that God… does not like us. The story of Noah's ark— you know, the one where God kills everyone in the whole world, except for 8 people? — that story is built upon an older story called the Enuma Elish. And in that story the gods hated people. In fact they only created people to do all the dirty work of the world, and then they decided to destroy them all. (Marduk created human beings to "free the gods from menial labour" ) We were made by the gods to be slaves.
The bible has been trying to undo that feeling that we are the slaves of the gods, or of God, and to undo that feeling that God does not like us, ever since. For example, everyone had heard the story of the Enuma Elish, but in retelling it in Noah's flood, but the bible tries to undo it; God made a world which was good, it tells us; God has promised never to destroy the world in a flood again; remember that when it begins to rain and you see the rainbow in the sky, because that's the sign of God's promise. By contrast, one version of the old flood stories like the Enuma Elish had the gods destroying the earth on a periodic basis!
But we've never quite been able to believe that God loves us. In the Book of Job, God says to Satan,
‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’ (Job 1:8)
And Satan said, "Well, of course he's well behaved. He's like a dog in the kitchen. He's got cupboard love. He knows what side his bread is buttered on!" Something like that, anyway.
And so the God lets Satan rip Job's life apart. Not just testing him, either. It says at the beginning, that Job
would rise early in the morning and offer burnt-offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’
Job did all the right things. But for the sake of a bragging match with Satan, God abandons him, and his children. Within a page there is tragedy after tragedy, and here is the last one:
[A servant] came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.’
Whatever else Job may be about, people tell these stories because they have, deep in their hearts, a fear that God really does not love them. In fact, they fear that God hates them in some way. So we have the story of Uzzah who reaches out to stop the Ark of the Covenant falling over and God strikes him dead on the spot. God is not safe.
In the book of Micah, a voice cries out, what do I have to do to make God love me?
6 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? —
— Did you hear that? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression!??
Shall I sacrifice my child to keep you happy, God? People could never fully believe that God loved them. They even thought that to keep God happy you should sacrifice your child to him. The place we call hell (Gehenna) was a valley just outside Jerusalem where the children were sacrificed.
God says to the one crying out:
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6)
Love kindness… walk humbly with your God… walk with God? — that's almost like a friendship!!
But even now, I think we have a lot of trouble believing that. People tell me that God is "dealing" with them: I've sat with someone who has been, as we say, 'going through hell,' and they've told me that God is dealing with them; they deserve it; they're sure of that.
And I've had folk tell me— folk who are regular, faithful, long term church attenders— that they are sure they are going to hell. I'm talking about people whose faithfulness I admire. I was in a church recently where above the altar there were huge, almost life size, paintings of people burning in hell.
What I'm saying is that many of us, maybe most of us, have a hard time believing people really like us, and under that, deep, deep down, there is a part of us which suspects that God does not like us either. This is far too common. And I've emphasised this today because I think we underestimate just how much this affects our ability to be close to God and to feel God's love for us.
I want to say to you that it breaks God's heart to know we feel like that. God would wish to hold us close and comfort us like the best granny in the whole world comforts a little child who knows, beyond all else, that Granny loves her unreservedly.
I want to say, especially, that God is not angry that we have this fear of God. We don't have to deny it.
And I want to say that if you have the deepest sense of God loving you… that you are blessed beyond measure.
How can we know God love us? Well, it's as Jesus said in today's reading:
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
Jesus is our friend. That means Jesus likes us….
We could change the words of one of the favourite hymns of the church!!
What a friend we have in Jesus
all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer
Jesus is a friend who likes us
And walks with us evr'ywhere.
Trust this friend who really likes us
take it to the Lord in prayer…
In the text it says "I no longer call you servants…."
The Greek word for servants at that point is often translated as slaves. Servants are really a kind of slave, made to do the menial work of the world. But Jesus says you are not slaves, not servants, but my friends.
There has to be a catch, right?
There is a catch, Andrew! It says "You are my friends if you do what I command you." He's not really a friend. We have to do the right thing, or he'll drop us like hot cakes.
But do you see it? This is my commandment:
Love one another. Love one another as I have loved you.
He is saying…
Like each other. Just learn to like each other. Just the way I like you.
It's not really a command at all. It's a promise— you can hear it like this:
If you seek to like each other, if you become friends…
then you will discover that I am your friend too, and that I always have been your friend.
And I want to introduce just one verse from John Chapter 14, just a part of one verse, where Jesus says to Phillip,
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (14:9)
Do you see what that means?
I like you. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Therefore you know that the Father likes you; God likes you!
In fact, God has always liked you, and always liked all people, and only wants good for you. "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete." (15:11)
We get a bit snarled up about the love of God. We even sometimes talk about the "stern love of God," who might say "This hurts me more than it will hurt you…" hmm? But Jesus' coming to be with us is, as one of the theologians says
a strong statement that the divine [love] for us is one of liking us, here and now, as we are. Glad to be with us. And that means the one who looks at us with love is … looking at us with the delight of one who enjoys our company, who wants to be one with us, to share in something with us…" (James Alison on being liked pp107-8)
Here is the Good News for today: Be not afraid: God likes you. God is your friend. God wants only good for you. Amen
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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