Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Faith in God for 2009

The start of a New Year has an air of expectation, an air of excitement to it. My new diary has a nice clean feel to it. It is a time for making resolutions, as the children have been exploring in their Sunday Special, it is a time for new beginnings.

But this year there’s something else in the air as well.

Concern, Anxiety, Apprehension.

The scale of the collapse of the global economy is something my generation has not witnessed before. It’s the uncertainty of the future that gives rise to levels of concern, anxiety and apprehension that perversely become part of the problem.

Having visited Palestine and Israel last April, and planning to take a group this April, I somehow find myself feeling for the people of Gaza so much more. Over Christmas we have been thinking of Bethlehem, a city walled in. To bomb a population of 1,500,000 in a small confined area, that’s completely walled in with no means of escape for anyone is beyond belief. Far from countering the terrorism that has to be condemned it fuels it for another generation. Where will it end?

What a way to start a New Year!

I want to suggest two things about God that speak directly to us at the start of this New Year, two things that address all those mixed up feelings that are in the air at the moment.

First, in the words of the song we sing with the children, our God is a great big God.

That’s something I want to come back to over and over again throughout 2009. I want to come back to that conviction about God in the context of two very specific things that are being celebrated this year.

For some of Christian faith, the celebration of the bi-centenary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species will be seen as a threat. It will be taken as the opportunity for others to celebrate their a-theism.

I see it differently. It fills me with awe and wonder to witness the different stages of evolution and find brachiopods and oystershells in the quarries of Cleeve Hill, Ammonites on the beaches around Lyme Regis, Trilobites on the West Coast of Wales and those wonderful dinosaur footprints from a quarry in Oxfordshire that have been moved to the wonderful Oxford University Museum of Science. The God I believe in is greater than anything we can ever see in the wonderful world of nature – our God is a great big God is the way the song puts it. Another way of putting it is to use a phrase coined by St Anselm … God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Think of the immensity of geological time and the shifting of the plates of the planet, the origin of species and God is greater than all of this.

How tragic that people of faith have felt threatened by the discoveries of science. This year also sees the 400th anniversary of the occasion when Galileo first used a telescope. At the time there were those who felt their faith threatened. I find it the other way round … I like at Venus in all its glory dominating the western sky in the early evening, and then Orion standing majestically in the late evening sky. And I marvel at the immensity of the universe. UNESCO and the International Astronomical Union has designated 2009 an International Year of Astronomy. I hope to be doing another astronomy evening with the cubs – who knows we may even have clear skies! An I'll be refreshing the Astronomy Page on the Church Web Site.

All over the world the aim will be to “help citizens of the world rediscover their place in the universe through the day and night time sky, and thereby engage a personal sense of wonder and discovery.”

The awe and wonder of the night sky, of the universe. And the God we believe in is greater.

That’s not just theory. It does you good – to see things from the wider perspective. Get up on to Cleeve Hill sense the immensity of this age old planet of ours, and see how small we are .. and sense the greatness of God.

Look up into the night sky and sense the wonder and awe of God – this is the God we believe in – this is the scale of things to remember.

It puts things into perspective.
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? 2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber
Psalm 104:
1Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great.You are clothed with honour and majesty, 2 wrapped in light as with a garment.You stretch out the heavens like a tent, 3 you set the beams of your* chambers on the waters,you make the clouds your* chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, 4you make the winds your* messengers, fire and flame your* ministers.
5You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. 6You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 7At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight. 8They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them. 9You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth.
10You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, 11giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst. 12By the streams* the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. 13From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
24O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

But there is another dimension to the God I believe in and that is just as important as 2009 unfolds.

This ‘great big God’ that I believe in came to be alongside us, with us in the messiness of the world, born a babe, he grew to be a man who took time to be with the humblest of people in the messiness of their lives. He had time for the woman who had been caught in adultery. He had time for little Zacchaeus. He had time for the man suffering from leprosy. Where he saw need he met that need and brought healing to people’s lives.

He mapped out a way of love that he saw would transform the lives of individuals, the lives of families and the wider world too. He extended love across the boundaries that divided his world. He humbled himself to serve others without counting the cost. And it cost him his life in the cruellest of deaths.

But death did not have the last word. On the third day he rose again. His risen presence is here as we meet together in his name. His presence is real wherever people hear his words and act on them. He asks us to do the smallest things to 'real-ise' his presence and his love.

That gives us a responsibility. It is important for us to be practical in the help we can give in the things we can do in response to the fears and uncertainties 2009 brings to us.

At our Church Meeting on Thursday we shall hear of some practical initiatives being taken by churches working together in the town – a response to the needs of businesses in the town through some form of co-ordinated chaplaincy, that extends to the night time life of Cheltenham as well – maybe through Street Pastors serving on the streets of the town. But the need for us as churches to own that initiative.

An initiative to provide emergency accommodation for people who are without a home. Again working with the other churches.

Practical things for us to do and to think of – ready to give mutual support as people face difficulties in employment. In health care too.

My Christian faith brings me face to face with a great big God who fills me with awe, humbles me and puts my concerns and anxiety into perspective.

But this great big God has time for the least important, the most insignificant and he wants me to do the little thing that can make a big difference.

Those two dimensions of God are brought together for me in a surprising place – the Lido entrance to the hospital.

There a new sculpture has appeared. It’s called Ammonite Spa. It’s a pity that we are in the wrong place for finding such wonderful ammonites –but it brings to my mind the great big God I believe in from time immemorial.
That sculpture stands over against the Good Samaritan with the story on two tablets and the inscription on the base, Go and do thou likewise.

The Great Big God who asks us to do the littlest of things to bring his love into our world.

And he does not leave us alone – he equips us with a power and a strength from beyond ourselves that can enable us to see things through come what may.

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