This is a sermon for the third Sunday in Lent, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Isaiah 55:1-9.
I wonder where you each find God? It might sound like a silly or an obvious question, but I don’t mean it to be. I’ve heard all sorts of answers over the years; from people who find God in the beauty of music, or in nature, or even in the exertions at the gym.
For myself, while I need quiet times without distraction, where I most find God in a way which is dynamic and energising for me is in other people; especially when I can see other people connect with something which is life-giving for them, whether that’s growing in understanding, or doing something they love, or discovering gifts they never knew they had. Maybe that’s why I do what I do, because this work gives me the privilege of witnessing lots of those moments of other people connecting with something which transcends the ordinariness of life.
However… the reason I’m pondering where we find God, this morning, is because of the reading we heard from Isaiah, and his repeated appeal to the people of Israel to come to God, to have their thirst quenched and their deepest hungers satisfied. And if we’re going to heed that timeless plea, and come to God, then we need to have some idea of what coming to God looks like, for each of us!
Let me start with the basic and obvious and say that the Christian tradition offers us some reliable resources in that regard. In prayer, in Scripture, in baptism and communion, in the community of believers, we have experiences in which God has promised to be present to us; promises which the church has tested thoroughly over two millennia and found to be reliable. So all of those things are good, and I don’t want to sound as if I am discounting them in any way.
But… (you knew there had to be a but, didn’t you?)… there’s a danger in stopping there. Two dangers, actually. The first is the danger of thinking that these are the only ways in which we might connect with God, overlooking the presence of God in all of life, and depriving ourselves of potentially important aspects of our own spiritual development.
The second is the danger of thinking that people who don’t use these things, who are not part of the church, are somehow completely cut off from God. And, by extension, assuming that the rest of what Isaiah meant in his appeal to “come” was, “Come and be just like me. Pray how I pray, understand Scripture the way I understand it, and be in church as often as I am, and then you too will be a real Christian.”
I’m sure when I put it that way, you can see the problem with that kind of thinking. It limits God, shrinks Him down to being just as narrow and small-minded as me. Maybe we need to be reminded of the way the reading ends; with God saying that “my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
So what are some other ways in which we might come to God?
One important one is in caring for others. Remember how Jesus taught elsewhere that whatever we do for the least of the children of God, we do for him. It’s sometimes helpful to take that teaching and apply it in very practical ways. One of my favourite books, The Nun’s Story, describes how a nursing nun in Belgium taught her nursing students to use that teaching: “All for Jesus. Say it, my dear students, every time you are called upon for what seems an impossible task. Then you can do anything with serenity. Say it for the bedpans you carry, for the old incontinents you bathe, for the foul dressings you change. This is no beggar’s body picked up in the street. This is the body of Christ, and this suppurating sore is one of His wounds…” To their giggling amazement, the students found that it worked; to see the grosser aspects of nursing as caring directly for Christ gave them depths of compassion they didn’t know they were capable of.
Few of us are nurses, but all of us can find ways to come close to Christ by caring for others.
Another way to seek to come to God is to look for the places and the ways that God is at work outside the church, and seek to be involved with them. We know that although we live in a secular society, there is enormous interest in spiritual matters, and a genuine hunger for real depth. We can engage with the world with ears pricked for the signs that God’s spirit is stirring people to seek Him, and be ready to offer map and compass in people’s quest for more to life than the mundane.
We can also look at the movements for social justice and for care of the environment as signs that the Holy Spirit is at work even in the most unexpected places, pushing people towards the justice and mercy which are at the depths of God’s own heart. We can seek to be involved in those movements, attending events, reading and keeping informed, supporting as we can.
Ivan Illich was a Roman Catholic priest and social critic. He was once asked what is the most effective way to change society. Is it violent revolution or is it gradual reform? He gave a careful answer. Neither. If you want to change society, then you must tell an alternative story. As Christians we hold in trust one of the most powerful “alternative stories” in history; but are we telling it to our politicians, to our business leaders, to our academics? Or have we – even on a subconscious level – bought into the idea that it’s a myth, a fairy tale, something that’s nice for us to hold onto but powerless outside these walls? History says it’s more than that.
Make no mistake, the Holy Spirit is at work out there, beyond the church, actively stirring up the longing for a better tomorrow. The invitation to us is whether we’re going to come to the party or not?
So, almost paradoxically, coming to God might look for us a bit like coming and going. We come to church to find God in sacraments and in Scriptures, but we also go out to find God in other human beings, in social and political movements. And in that way, we discover that God is not nearly as limited as we are often tempted to think.
There’s a challenge there for us to do that coming and going in ways which are consistent, which hang together and have integrity. We don’t want to become double-minded, one sort of person in one context and another sort somewhere else. Rather we need to weave together the different elements of finding God so that (for example) our commitment to social justice is thoroughly Biblical, and our reading of the Bible is thoroughly just. It takes work on our part to get to that point.
But if, like me, you’re not satisfied with the way things are, and are hungry for a day when we’re much closer to the vision Isaiah and the other prophets hold out to us, then I think we need to do that work, and to take it seriously. And then we really will find ourselves close to God.