Sunday 8 March 2020, 2nd of Lent, 8am, 9.30am, 10.45am
Genesis 12.1-4a Romans 4.1-5,13-17 John 3.1-17
Coronavirus is a real danger which we must take seriously. Hence the measures put in place here at St Mary’s to reduce the risk of transmission. But it’s not the greatest danger facing humanity.
A more fundamental peril was referenced in that most famous verse we have just heard – John 3.16. Perhaps like me you know it best in the King James Version, from having learnt it at Sunday School:
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’
It’s a verse which is justly celebrated for being a concise summary of the Good News. It has evangelical power in the sense that it conveys the heart of the Gospel in a simple and emotionally arresting way. It has been set to music, and very beautifully by John Stainer, in an anthem which the choir will sing during the administration of Communion [at the 10.45 service] today.
You may remember a few years back when, if you were watching sport or any major event on TV, there was always a chance a spectator would pop up with a strategically placed sign saying ‘John 3.16’. As though that in itself could sow the seed that might lead to someone’s conversion.
Perhaps it may, but this isn’t a verse which easily connects with people today. And I think a key reason is that few have any sense that they are in danger of perishing.
Yes, people know that they will one day die. They know that viruses can make them ill. But John 3.16 isn’t offering you immunity from either of those threats.
The next verse is nearly as well known: ‘For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved’.
Why though should an offer of salvation be appealing if you don’t sense any danger of perishing?
One way to think this through is to take a look at Nicodemus and his questions. He comes to Jesus at night, curious because of the miracles, acknowledging that God must be with him. And Jesus responds saying, ‘Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the kingdom of God’. ‘How can a man be born when he is old’ says Nicodemus. But Jesus doesn’t give an explanation – he repeats himself in other words – you must be born of the Spirit. ‘How can this be?’ says Nicodemus. Again, no explanation from Jesus. Instead, Nicodemus is told that he just needs to believe.
You have to sympathise with Nicodemus. Is it fair to ask for belief without understanding? Isn’t it a good thing to keep asking questions? Isn’t that what our education has taught us to do – to be critical thinkers?
Isn’t that how knowledge has grown, especially scientific knowledge – because people stopped attributing things like pandemics to gods and started asking questions?
There’s some truth in that, but it’s a mistake to think that science rules out faith or that faith rules out science.
James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest ever physicists, had Psalm 111.2 inscribed in Latin over the entrance to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge when it was opened in 1874. When the New Cavendish Laboratory was opened in 1973, Brian Pippard, a successor of Maxwell as Cavendish Professor, had the same verse placed over the new door in the Prayer Book translation: ‘The works of the Lord are great: sought out of all them that have pleasure therein.’
That’s where the electron was discovered, and DNA. Science is godly work. What is less godly is the idea that no knowledge falls outside its ambit. Take the beauty of the anthem I referred to earlier, or the thoughts we are having now, or the love which will move us to pray for people, or the moral sense by which we perceive injustice – are they all ultimately reducible to firing neurons or chemical reactions or mathematical equations? Do love, beauty, goodness and even truth, disappear when we follow the scientific questions to the limit?
Think of it this way. Imagine if the south wall of the church were transparent. Then we would see the wall of the Rectory garden. Imagine if the Rectory garden walls were see through. Then we would see the buildings on Hospital Street. Now continue that line of thinking ad infinitum. What do you see? The answer is ‘nothing’. If you can see through everything, then there’s nothing to see.
Now take that as a metaphor for our seeing in the sense of understanding. If we assume science can answer question after question, all the way down, what are we left with? Nothing. All the things we value most about humanity and the world dissolve into fields and forces which must themselves eventually dissolve, and so forth. To put it another way, we and everything else perish.
I’m not arguing that we put a limit on science, but that it is itself held by something greater. To picture this, again look around the church. We can perceive so much, but only because of the light. We can’t see the light. Even when we look at the lamps, we’re not seeing the light, we’re seeing the lamps. Light is what enables us to see.
Similarly, doing science is like our looking around, and it’s possible because of a light which is inaccessible to science, a light which enables us to think and be rational. And science is just one way of looking around.
That light we call God. We can’t see God neat, as an object. We can know God by faith, and by that light who is God we see and understand everything else. By God’s light we do science.
There’s another way by which we can dissolve the world. Another way of seeing through. Not science but cynicism. It’s another kind of questioning or critical thinking, and there’s a place for it. The problem is when it leaves nothing behind.
It’s possible to look at the Church and say, yes, often they are welcoming and they do some good work for society, but isn’t it all about controlling minds, getting people’s money, maintaining the power of the institution, or at worst abusing people.
I’ll be the first to admit that sadly there’s good reason through history and in recent times why people may raise those questions. But is it possible to see through everything about the Church in that way?
Or take political life. It’s possible to dig down into every statement and look for motives which may undermine the genuineness of politicians. We’ve enough examples of where it was right to do that. But where do we stop?
Even history – whether more distant or the facts about more recent events – it can be questioned until it seems we can all choose our own truth. We can find motives for people to tell a story a certain way – and we can therefore undermine a story’s truthfulness.
All that can seem clever, but the intelligent thing is to find the kernel of truth wherever we look, and be open to it. If we are suspicious of everything, if we can get behind everything and expose the real motive, it all perishes, including ourselves.
So we’re left with what Jesus said. He calls us to believe in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. You won’t get behind that. I can’t explain it to you. That’s the light by which we see everything, but we’ve no light to shine on the light.
You can respond by looking at me and saying I’m just a bunch of molecules doing what molecules do. You can say I’m just regurgitating the message which the Church has used to maintain its authority. We can apply those methods everywhere, but that way we all perish.
Or we can believe in the Son of God, the light who became visible, given to the world. In that light. we can recognise everything to be real and substantial. We learn to discover more love, beauty, truth and goodness – not dissolve them. We’re not to be naïve about the world and its hypocrisy and selfishness – we are to recognise that more readily in ourselves – but we look for the truth in people, we expect to build trust.
And we do all that because the rock bottom truth is that God so loved the world. Why? Because that’s who God is. Believe it. He wants you to share in his eternal life.