Today the sermon asks, “How do you recognise God?” In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples God will send them a helper: “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” It seems as if the followers of Jesus will naturally recognise God. The question is, how will they do that?
How many times have you had the experience of failing to recognise someone, simply because that person is not where you might expect him or her to be, or doesn’t look as you expect them to look? Some of you may know that in another life I bred Cocker Spaniels on our farm property near Portland. One day I took two of them to a dog show at Hamilton. During the show a man went past me leading a huge Irish Wolf Hound. It was a cold rainy day, and the man was wearing a ‘Driza-bone’ coat, an Akubra hat and gum boots. All of a sudden he turned around, greeted me by name, and acted as if we were old friends. I thought he was vaguely familiar, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember who he was. Yes, familiar scenario to some of you.
For a while I was just too embarrassed to admit that, so we chatted on about dogs and the weather, until curiosity overcame my embarrassment. I asked him, “Where did we meet?” He thought that was hilarious. “I knew you didn’t recognise me. I’m Matthew from the bank!” The only other context I’d ever seen this man was behind the teller’s counter, dressed in a business shirt and neck-tie. On that day he simply was not where I expected him to be, and he didn’t look anything like I expected him to look.
Today I’m suggesting that for many of us, it’s a bit like that with God. We’re pretty good at identifying God in great soaring anthems in church, or in beautiful scenery, or even in the smiles of family and friends. Perhaps it’s those kinds of expectations that make it hard to recognise God in other contexts. So let’s consider how we might recognise God in three different scenarios.
In that conversation between Jesus and his disciples, Jesus promises that God the Holy Spirit will be with the disciples. “This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.” Why is that?
Well, John the gospel writer lived at a time when the Roman Empire and Roman religion were the dominating influences in his world. But the Romans imagined God very differently from the God revealed by Jesus. Roman religion was based on the idea of a contract between deity and human. The Roman gods were believed to look kindly on the scrupulous observance of religious rites to many different gods – in thousands of temples all over the Empire. That was seen as the reason for the successes of the Roman Empire.
So how could the Romans have recognised ONE God, who loved unconditionally, and asked for nothing in return but love?
We may think that our religion is superior to the religion of the Romans. But it may be that sometimes we also fail to ‘see’ and ‘know’ God.
Three possible examples.
Firstly, how clearly do you recognise God in a CRISIS? Crises come in all stripes and colours, including personal crises. Perhaps in the workplace. The media is full to overflowing with examples of the way many people have been overlooked or deliberately discriminated against. They could be about racism. They are often about the abuse of power - the employee who is bullied, or simply overlooked when promotions or pay rises have been handed out. Or the employee who is subjected to sexual abuse by someone more senior in the workplace. These days many women are speaking out against abuse that has been suffered in silence in the days when no one would listen to them.
For us, the most unforgivable sexual abuse has taken place in the church, where vulnerable people ought to be safest.
And even though we know that many of those who’ve been the subject of sexual abuse in the church or in the workplace, are now receiving proper recognition and compensation, there are many more whose legitimate grievances are still to be given the justice they deserve.
So where is God in all of this?
Before the whole issue in the church came to crisis point, the church’s attention was focused primarily on shoring up the institution. As a wise person once said, “Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God on earth. But what happened? The Kingdom of the Church.” But the victims are now being heard. The voice of God has finally been recognised in the voice of the powerless. The rule of love as taught by Jesus is being reinstated as paramount.
Sometimes it’s in the midst of a crisis, precisely when we think God must be completely absent, that God becomes most clearly recognisable.
Secondly, how clearly do you recognise God in nature? The Apostle Paul certainly did! In Romans 1:20, he writes: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” It’s easy enough to recognise the beauty and power and mystery of the Creator in things like a rain-forest, a beach, or a sunset. But there are other more commonplace ways where God is revealed in nature.
When I was a student minister I sometimes visited a single woman who had suffered for many years from multiple sclerosis. I’ll call her Jan. Jan had been a writer and school teacher, but she had to give up work and was more and more dependent on her sister Susan, who lived with her. Gradually Jan was becoming more and more depressed, and very introverted.
But one afternoon when I called on them Susan answered the door with a wide grin on her face. She was obviously very excited about something. She said, “Before we go and see Jan, I have something to tell you. Jan has someone else living with her now. An angel has come to stay with her.”
Well, that left me speechless, but Jan’s smile was even wider than Susan’s. “Come on in and meet my angel”, she said. “His name is Bill and God sent him to me.”
In fact, Bill was sitting on Jan’s lap. He was a thorough mixture of dog breeds. His great-grandparents may have been poodles, but since then his family line had branched out through the houses of terrier, cattle dog and perhaps dachshund. Susan had found Bill sitting by their front gate. They rang the Council and the Lost Dog’s Home, but he had no identification chip and no one claimed him. So they kept him.
Since then, Bill and Jan had been inseparable. Bill had given her unconditional doggy love and loyalty. It brought her out of her long night of depression. She lived for about 10 more years, and went back to writing short stories and conducting classes in creative writing. Bill was never far from her side, and Jan remained totally sure that the unconditional love of God had come to her in that small “furry angel”. I wonder how many of you recognise God in the furry companions you have in your home? And these days hospitals and residences for the aged have programs where doggy visitors are welcomed. We know how much they assist in God’s healing of body, mind and spirit.
Thirdly, how clearly do you recognise God in the discoveries of science? At the time John’s gospel was written, the Roman world was full of superstitions and omens of good or evil. Some of them had to do with the treatment or prevention of disease. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote about a certain Servilius Nonianus, one of the leading citizens of Rome. Poor old Servilius was terribly worried about losing his sight. As well he may have been. But to prevent this he wore a lucky charm around his neck, consisting of the two Greek letters alpha and rho. The Roman Consul Mucianus had the same fear of losing his sight. He hoped to prevent it by carrying with him a live fly wrapped in a white cloth. Pliny the Elder reported that both methods were very successful in preventing the men from going blind. There was no connection between issues of health and Roman religion – only with superstition.
On the other hand, the gospels tell us that Jesus was vitally concerned about the health and healing of humanity. From very early times, Christian monasteries and hospices and eventually hospitals, illustrate the Christian belief that God encourages humanity toward physical and mental wholeness. We could spend all day listing ways that God’s loving purpose has been realised in the discoveries of medical science. The latest being the amazingly fast development of vaccines against the COVID-19 virus.
But where else? How easy is it to recognise God in other kinds of scientific research? The Genesis creation story is focused exclusively on planet earth of course, and our own solar system. And we can certainly recognise God in the life and beauty of the earth.
But how do we recognise God in the unimaginably vast, dark, cold reaches of space? We believe God created the whole universe, but we tend to think it’s only earth that reflects the beauty of God’s love. Before the Hubble space telescope was put into place, and all kinds of other telescopic arrays on earth, scientists assumed that the background colour of the universe was beige. But we know now that even the most distant galaxies are lit up by a glorious array of colour. We’ve all seen the images. The God who creates beauty on earth is recognised more and more in the discoveries of science.
When Jesus told his disciples God would be present with them as the Spirit of truth, he made the connection between truth and love. Those of you who want to know the truth about God will love one another. You will find God in that love.
We know that God is present in the whole of life, not just in the realm of religion. The key to recognising God is to ask this question: “Where is love in this situation?” In times of crisis where help is freely given, in the beauty of nature great and small, in life-affirming discoveries of science: when you discover love at work, you will have recognised the source of that love, which is God.
To end, I’ll quote from a hymn written by the English writer Donald Hughes. The last verse speaks of God like this:
Still in humility
we know you by your grace,
for science’s remotest probe
feels but the fringes of your robe:
Love looks upon your face.