St Stephen's Lewisham

Sunday, 22nd July 2001


This is the third of four sermons intended for The Man (or Woman!) in the Pew, and it will look at the question, How can we know what God is like, anyway?

The man of today finds himself besieged by dozens of conflicting ideas. Someone, at the pub or work, says that all religions are the same and it's just a matter of choosing the one which suits you best. At Church he hears a preacher telling him that God is Love. If this means anything to him at all, it suggests something warm and comfortable, as if the God is like a hot bath at the end of the day. The next Sunday another preacher says that God is both infinite and incomprehensible, which suggests (to me at any rate) the very opposite of the idea of a hot bath Ė something like the Antarctic desert in the middle of winter: dark, cold and inhospitable.

Each of these ideas, has an bit of truth about it. The man in the pub is right when he says that many religions, especially the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam worship one and the same God; "God is love" St John says, though he uses other words like Light, Fatherhood or Word to describe him as well; and one creed says that God is both infinite and incomprehensible.

So the Man in the Pew is liable to get into a right muddle if he accepts uncritically everything he hears in church and pub;. if, however, he listens intelligently, reads his Bible and talks with fellow Christians, he will discover that we can and indeed should find out a great deal about what God is like. He can find out because God has chosen to reveal himself to us.

The word "reveal" much today, unless itís a newspaper "revealing all" about some personal scandal.. But "revealing" and "revelation" are both important words which describe some of the most exciting experiences in human life.

Here are some examples of revelation:, draw back the curtains in the morning and discover that the sun is shining Ė thatís a revelation; or imagine youíre looking through a pile of old papers and come across some long-lost letter or photograph Ė thatís a revelation. If a teachers discovers your child has an unsuspected skill Ė music, or carpentry or acting maybe Ė thatís a revelation. In each example the thing revealed Ė the sunshine, the photograph, and the ability Ė was always there. Revelation is what makes us become aware of them..

Thatís how we know God by revelation. God reveals something about himself, although that "something" has been true about him from all eternity. God, so to speak, "draws back the curtain on himself", or (like the lost letter) helps us rediscover something about him weíd lost sight of; or (like the teacher with the gifted child)., reveals a quality that nobody realised. The truth in each case was there all the time; itís Godís revelation that enables us to become aware of it.

Most of us have had such an experience of God. A beautiful landscape, "turns us on" or a painting or other work of art "speaks to us". Or we meet someone in whom holiness or the love of God shines out. Such experiences are rare, but they are all instances of Godís revelation of himself to us. God also reveals himself to us in prayer, through our power to think and reason, through the Laws he has given us. And from the beginning God has revealed himself through Prophets and Wise Men whom he has inspires to encourage us in times of difficulty, warn us when we go astray, and remind us of truths we have forgotten. Revelations of this kind are the common property of Christian Jews and Muslims..

However, itís only Christians who believe that God finally and perfectly revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us "[Jesus Christ is] the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person who upholds all things by the word of his power". More than that, as the writer says a few chapters later, he is unchangeable, which means that the truth about him remains the same from generation to generation.

Now everything we have said so far about revelation stands in complete contrast to the popular idea that God changes or becomes different from one generation to another. That's a serious mistake, which happens when people confuse the truth about God revealed truth with the images we use to help us understand those truths. The images can, and should, change as we grow in faith and knowledge; they are necessarily imperfect. But the truth about God does not change for he is perfection itself..

This misunderstanding Ė which stems from people confusing the actual truth on one hand, and how we explain it to people on the other, Ė is so widespread today that we need to have the difference between them quite clear in our own minds if we are to help other people understand it. The best way of seeing the difference is to look at the way our scientific understanding of the everyday material things which surround us has developed over the course of history.

Think of the pew you're sitting on. What itís made of? Well, of course, itís made of wood with metal screws and brackets to hold it together. Whether you ask someone today, or a hundred or two thousand years ago the answer would be the same.

But letís ask the question. What are wood or metal is made of? The answer you get today from a scientist would be very different two hundred, and even more different two thousand years ago. A scientifically-minded person in our Lordís day, who would describe himself as a Philosopher, would have told you that your pew, like all other material things was made up of four elements, earth, air, fire and water in various combinations. Because wood catches fire and metal doesnít they would say that wood contained more of the "fiery element" (or "phlogiston" as it was called) than the metal brackets.

But almost two hundred years ago people began to realised that the whole earth/air/fire/water business was mistaken. They discovered that all matter could be thought of as being made up of "atoms", tiny, indestructible bits of stuff grouped together in a particular way. So Daltonís Atomic Theory, as it was called, represented a great leap forward in our understanding of material things like wood and metal.

However, scientists went on from there to ask themselves "What are atoms made of?" They discovered that, atoms so far from being indivisible little particles like tiny marbles, were themselves made up of something much smaller, protons, neutrons, electrons, positrons and the rest. Scientists like Albert Einstein went on to say that matter really isn't the solid hard thing that it seems to be, but is more like energy than anything else.

Do you see whatís happened? The pew youíre sitting on hasnít changed from the day it was made, and the wood and metal in it are the same substance that carpenters have used for thousands of years. For most everyday purposes your pew may be said to be made of wood and metal. But in certain important respects mankindís understanding of what wooden benches are really like has altered out of all recognition..

Well thatís also true of our understanding of God. Ever since the creation He has been revealing himself to man using ideas which we can understand: Father, Creator, Judge, King, Lord, Spirit, Wind, Fire and Wisdom to name but a few. So in one way we have the same problem the scientists have: the more God reveals of himself the less we find we know about him: But thereís one all-important difference between natural science, which is about pews and screws and brackets and the science of God which is called theology.

The difference is that God has chosen to reveal himself finally and perfectly by becoming a man like us. Not a theory, not a definition, not an analogy but a person, namely Jesus Christ our Lord. Heís a person we can know, and love and obey and follow, but far more than this: heís someone we can actually receive into ourselves through the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion and therefore a person we can know at first hand and by personal experience.

God, in other words, has given us an answer to the question What is he like? which we can really begin to understand. For practical purposes the answer to our question, like the question about what pews are made of is the simple one. "Wood and screws" in the case of the pews, "Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith" in the case of God. "This is my beloved Son" says God, "listen to him". "Follow me", says Jesus.

For Jesus Christ alone is the Way the Truth and the Life. Nobody comes to the Father except through him. Thereís something altogether more exciting and terrifying about having to deal with a person rather than a idea or a definition. Definitions and ideas donít answer back. Jesus Christ can and does. Thatís why so few people want to have anything to do with him today. "Our God is a consuming fire" says the writer to the Hebrews. Those who play with fire are in serious danger of getting their fingers burnt Ė and not just their fingers!. But to understand that youíll need to hear my fourth and final instalment next week!.

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