Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Too-clean Windows – Sermon 27th April 2008

Acts 17:22-31

I remember hearing a very strange story somewhere about a supermarket that was sued because the windows were too clean. This may sound like one of those sad, silly stories about people who love to sue.

I don’t suppose that it felt that way, though, to the soul who didn’t see the spotlessly clean window, and stuck her head through it. She hurt herself. Maybe she had a point. Maybe the store did, and she should have been more careful.

Here’s a related thought. There is no severer test for a Minister than to stand in front of a primary school class. A P4 is maybe the most demanding audience in the world. Old enough to ask some really serious questions, not quite old enough to appreciate that not having all the answers is par for the course for adult humans. This is about the age at which we still believe that grown-ups could – and therefore should – have all the answers, and the three words I don’t know are the sound of a hero crashing down from his pedestal.

I was once asked, by a P4 child, “Why can’t we see God?” I’ve been asked that question many times. Often by adults, who were seeking reassurance. Now often when an adult asks a question like that, they mean something like “I find faith very hard. Sometimes it seems impossible. I just need some evidence that faith really is possible for someone not entirely like me. For an adult human being…”

When a child asks “Why can’t we see God?” what they mean is “Why can’t we see God?” A Minister – or any adult – who doesn’t realise that is going to crash and burn.

“Why can’t we see God?” I took a deep breath, and said “Because if we could see God, we wouldn’t be able to see anything else.” And that is the classical Christian answer. We’d been talking about how God is everywhere, and I guessed that part of what the question meant was “If God is everywhere why can’t we see God?” And it seemed that I was right. We had quite a good discussion in the class about that.

And something else that came out of this discussion was also very useful. For me, anyway.

How many times in a family conversation does something like this come up?

We really should go and see Bert and Senga.

Well, they haven’t come to see us for ages…

No, but we should go and see them.

Well, the road’s the same length from them to us as it is from us to them…

It’s common sense, isn’t it? The distance is the same from A to B as it is from B to A. For us, anyway. But what if it’s not like that between us and God?

What if it’s possible for God to be near us, but for us to be far from God?

There’s a set of ideas coming together here.

If God is everywhere, why can’t we see God? Because if we could see God, we wouldn’t be able to see anything else.

What if it’s possible for God to be near us, but for us to be far from God?

Either this is meaningless, or it explains a lot…

If we could see God, we wouldn’t be able to see anything else. If we were confronted with God at every turn, we would never be able to make the choices that are our response to his love. In fact, in a very real way, we would never really be able to love God, never be able to respond to his love with a love of our own. God loves us, we say. But we know that real love is love that leaves its object free, that creates freedom for its object. I love my children, and it’s necessary for me, in order to love them properly, to give them freedom to grow. And that means taking the risk that they won’t do what I tell them to, what I want them to. Risk is a part of loving. And ultimately, loving means taking the risk that you won’t be loved back.

Yet still loving…

If we could see God with absolute clarity, we would be forced into loving God. We would be overpowered by what God is, and by God’s love for us. For us to be able to respond to God’s love with our own real, free, meaningful love, we have to be given space in which to live and love. We have to be at a distance from God. We have to live in a world in which…

Now are we going to say that we have to live in a world in which it’s possible not to see God? Or a world in which it’s impossible to see God?

Have you never had the experience of asking where God is, in a certain situation? Of feeling the pain of a circumstance – maybe your own, maybe of someone you know and love, maybe something that happens in the world out there, something you see on the news, read about in the papers? And asking Where is God in all this?

Is it that we live in a world in which it’s impossible to see God? That God is hiding from us? Playing some sort of cruel, heartless game? Maybe you’ve felt that. Maybe you’re feeling it right now. Don’t censor these thoughts. Don’t cram a lid on them because you think it’s not right, not pious, to think like that. If you think that God is hiding from you, bring out the thought and look at it.

Because if you don’t, you’ll turn the thought back on yourself. You’ll start blaming yourself for not being able to find God in this. You’ll swing to the other pole of the question, and you’ll start thinking “If this is a world in which it’s possible not to see God, then it should be possible to see him… And if it’s possible to see God, and I can’t, then it must be my fault…”

A lot of people think like that. A lot of churches are organised to make people feel like that. If you can’t see God in a situation, it’s because your faith is weak. And so I pretend that I can see God at work where I haven’t a clue what’s going on; I pretend to be rock-solid certain, and I judge people who aren’t very harshly; I contrast their “wishy-washy liberal” faith with my own; and because in the secret places of my own heart I, too, wonder where God is in all of this, I tell my doubts to shut up, and I hang out with people who pretend to be able to see God clearly, and this helps me pretend that I can see him clearly too.

And so we divide ourselves into two groups – of people who are angry at God for playing games and hiding, and people who are angry at themselves because their doubts terrify them.

So which is it? Do we live in a world in which it’s impossible to see God? Or do we live in a world in which it’s possible not to see God, which means that it’s possible to see him, which means that we’re to blame for our lack of faith if we don’t?

Or is there a third possibility?

Go back to the story of the woman who sued the supermarket because she stuck her head through a window that was too clean.

Do we live in a world in which God is always there, but we usually look straight through him?

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city… I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands… since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth… so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.

It’s all there! Everything we’ve been talking about this morning. Paul wants the Athenian leaders – the High Council of the Areopagus – to see a God they’ve been looking straight through as surely as though he was a too-clean plate glass window. ‘In him we live and move and have our being’. And the whole human race, in all its different ways of life, “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us.”

It’s just as we said, in that riddle about us being sometimes far from God, but God never being far from us. This passage keeps reminding me of that game children play. “Warmer…getting warmer… hot… HOT.. oh, getting colder.. no, freezing…” – when the thing that’s being sought is only a few feet away, at most. But it’s invisible, not because it can’t be seen, but because it hasn’t been named.

The unnamed God – the God of the insurance-altar the Athenians had built. The God who is everywhere – in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

But where to look? That was the Athenians’ problem. Athens was stuffed with shrines and altars, places where people sought to get – and give – a glimpse of a god or goddess, a divinity, they had conceived of, an experience of existence surrounded by the uncanny, the miraculous, the gracious or the terrifying.

But Paul stops before the altar of the God they haven’t seen. The God they’ve looked straight through. The God whose transparency enfolds us, couldn’t be nearer to us – yet leaves us free to look straight through him.

How do you see a plate-glass window?

Two ways. Sometimes it glints. Sometimes it sparkles in the light, and even reflects you back at yourself, so that you can see something of the truth about yourself. That’s one way – the glints of truth that reflect back unexpectedly from a world looked at through God.

That’s the philosophers’ way. That’s the way the giants of Greek thought understood God. Plato and Aristotle had long since explained all the godlets of Greek myth as no more than human faces reflected in the great, clear truth of the one God of reality.

But there’s another way – with windows, at least – to discover the unseen reality. It’s the way the woman took in our opening story. You can lean forward until you bump your head.

Suddenly – the glass is there! In fact, if you mark or crack it, it becomes much more visible!

Are we saying this method works with God? Well, it’s suggestive, isn’t it? God who is revealed in pain and brokenness…

William Temple, probably the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury in the twentieth century, talked about “bourgeois pantheism” – the faith of people who “believe in a God who does everything in general, but nothing in particular…” That’s what the Athenians were like. And when Paul starts talking about things that have happened, things that God has done – and by implication things that have been done to God – the Athenians don’t want to listen to him any more.

The Gospel was hard for the Athenians. It tells of a God who is to be found at a point when a human life – a specific human life – is broken. That God was to be found in a particular brokenness, and in a particular mending. And that maybe it’s where there is brokenness and in the mending of brokenness that God is always to be found.

And in pain. Back to our windows; you bump your head against something that you didn’t know was there – but you know now!

And this is where it gets silly to press these wee pictures, these analogies, too far. We’re not talking about supermarket windows. We’re talking about God. God who couldn’t be nearer to us, however far away we are from him. God who leaves us free, free to see everything else in the world, free to choose, free to love. God who is there, yes, sometimes in the sparkle that catches our eye when we look at the world, and find that we are looking at the world through God. God who is there in that dim reflection of the truth about ourselves that we sometimes catch, which shows us as we are, tells the truth about us, and still shows us that we have our place in the world.

But also God who is seen most clearly in the bumps and the marks and the brokenness – in the real things – that life is all about.

Can we look at real life and see God? Because that’s what faith really is.

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