What would it look like if God was in charge?
That’s the question I often used to ask in a previous job. For instance, if I was visiting a church youth group and wanted to get them talking, I might say: If God was in charge here, what would be different?
Teenagers would come up with cute answers. Somebody would say, ‘Well, we’d have better coffee for a start.’ Or ‘Perhaps he’d organize some decent music instead of this rubbish’. But after a while they’d settle down and get more serious. And the answers would tend to slide in one of two directions. Some would go for the maximum: Well, if God was in charge we’d not be here – we’d be upstairs somewhere singing along with the angels. Others would settle for a cautious minimum: if God was in charge, perhaps people would be nicer to each other. And then the crunch: if God was in charge perhaps Dad wouldn’t have died of cancer last year. If God was in charge maybe Mum wouldn’t have lost her job. Or, some of them, looking wider: If God was in charge there wouldn’t be a refugee crisis. We wouldn’t be preparing for nuclear war. He’d sort out the Middle East . . .
And at that point some would quite naturally draw the conclusion: if God really was God, none of this stuff would be happening in the first place. Therefore – cue the rattle of tin drums from shallow modernist atheism – therefore there isn’t a God! He doesn’t exist! It’s all a con. The novelist Kingsley Amis was once asked whether he believed in God. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘and I hate him.’ Illogical but understandable. Many in our world feel let down by the God they used vaguely to believe in.
And into this puzzling question, like distant music we hadn’t quite forgotten, come the words of an ancient prophet: the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad and rejoice; the desert shall blossom like the rose; say to the anxious, Don’t be afraid – your God is coming to save you; the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing. And when you have that music in the background and the story of Jesus in the foreground (as we did with our two readings this evening), the question of whether God’s in charge or not suddenly gets focused on healing – as today we are focusing, commemorating St Luke. Does God heal? If so, why doesn’t he do it all the time? Why are there still – yes! — pandemics? And what are we supposed to make of it all in 2020, hanging as we are on to the coat-tails of the western Christian tradition? How (for a start) are we supposed to pray?
It comes as a shock to many people that the four gospels were written precisely to answer that question, What would it look like if God was in charge? By way of answer, they tell the story of Jesus, and they say: this is what it actually does look like. The gospels are all about ‘the kingdom of God’, and God’s kingdom or kingship isn’t about another world to which we might escape from this present one. God’s kingdom is precisely his ‘in-charge-ness’. Jesus was addressing the first-century Jewish world that had lived for centuries on the promises of Isaiah and the rest. Those prophecies were not offering pie in the sky when you died. They were promising the healing and transformation of the present world. The point was not that people would leave this world and go somewhere called ‘heaven’ instead, but that the life, the love and the power of ‘heaven’, of God’s domain, would become a reality here on earth.
And the gospels portray Jesus as saying, in a dozen different ways: Here! This is what it’s like when God takes charge! He’s having a party with the riff-raff. He’s telling strange stories about a farmer sowing seeds and getting a surprising crop; about a father running down the road to welcome his disgraced son; about a king throwing a great party and all the principal guests turning their noses up at the invitation. And Jesus is going about bringing healing and hope to all and sundry – and now, in this evening’s reading, commissioning seventy surprised followers to go and do the same. And as they go, and bring healing, they are to tell people, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’ – in other words, this is what it looks like now that God is taking charge.
If this is what the gospels are saying, two questions arise at once. They pull in opposite directions – often a sign that the truth is something more mysterious, not exactly half way between but perhaps triangulated with them.
First, does this really mean we have to believe in ‘miracles’? Yes and no. The word ‘miracle’, in today’s culture, usually indicates a god who is ‘outside’ the processes of the world but who reaches in for a moment, does something bizarre, and then goes away again. When people say they believe in miracles – and particularly when they say they don’t believe in miracles – that is usually the picture they have in mind. But that’s not what Jesus thought was going on. Rather, God the creator, always at work mysteriously within his battered but still beautiful world, sometimes acts in unexpected ways. The New Testament speaks of ‘powerful’ or ‘unexpected’ deeds; of ‘paradoxes’. God’s powerful presence is suffused within the world, the hidden music that interprets and sometimes brings healing and hope to ordinary events.
And actually healings do still happen. There are, no doubt, plenty of charlatans about. The phrase ‘faith healer’ has a decidedly dodgy ring. But I know, and I suspect most pastors know, people who are alive today despite the doctors having given them up as hopeless – because people prayed them through the illness and out the other side. The early Christians saw this kind of thing as a genuine sign, an advance anticipation, of the new creation which Isaiah promised. These are glimpses of new creation.
But this sharpens up the second question: if God can and does work in these mysterious ways, why doesn’t he do so for everyone, all the time? This is a sharp question for me. In the summer of 2015 two old friends of mine were both diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In both cases wise and devout church members were praying for them. Both had excellent medical treatment. One made a remarkable recovery, and is alive and well today. The other died within six months. I don’t have a theory for this. But we should resist, on the one hand, the cheap-and-chattering atheism that denies all divine action in the world, and on the other the tidy-minded theologians who allow God to act in the world but only if he does so in democratic egalitarian fashion, the same across the board.
The story of the gospels, after all, isn’t like that. It’s about the true God coming incognito into his own world, in one specific place and time, in order eventually to transform all. This – according to the gospels – is how God was and is taking charge of his world. So what might that mean, not least in the midst of a shocking pandemic?
The point of the gospel stories, bringing to a head the prophecies of Isaiah, is that when God takes charge he does so, not by sending in the tanks, not by cleaning everything up at once, but precisely by sending Jesus; or, we should say, by coming in our midst in the person of Jesus. God doesn’t sort out the mess by pressing a button or pulling a lever upstairs. He comes down to the place of sorrow, shame, sickness and death and takes the worst of it upon himself. This story is so dark, opaque even, that theologians and preachers are often tempted to turn it into something more obviously believable. That doesn’t work. St Paul said that the gospel was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’, and that’s still how it appears. But, as he went on to say, ‘for us who believe it is God’s power and wisdom’.
And once that power and wisdom has come into our world, he then calls followers – twelve, then seventy, then a great multitude, including ourselves – to go out into the world and produce in turn fresh glimpses of new creation. That job won’t be complete until the great Advent, the moment when heaven and earth will at last be one. But in the meantime God calls some to be doctors, some surgeons, some nurses and other medical professionals – like Luke himself, it seems – because God’s work of healing is always with the grain of creation, and includes what we think of as ‘normal’ medicine even as it often goes mysteriously beyond it.
The point is this. The God of the Bible intended from the start to work in his world through faithful, obedient, humans. The idea of God either blasting the world out from above or remaining aloof was always a false either/or. What will it look like when God takes charge of the world? It will look like human beings who combine all the training they can get in their own fields with all the prayer they can muster in their own hearts, going in obedience to God’s call, empowered by his Spirit, to the dark and sad places of the world, to bring light and hope right there.
A tail-piece. The early church, tasked with effecting glimpses of new creation, gave itself not only to the care of the poor and the sick. They gave equal attention to the work of education. These things together are part of the way in which, gently but firmly, God was and is taking charge of his wounded and weary world. And somewhere between education and healing we always find music. Those of us who have loved this place and its choral tradition for many years can give our own testimony to the fact that here, too, we have found a measure of healing. Here we too have enjoyed glimpses of new creation.