I wonder if anyone ever told you that becoming a Christian would solve all your problems. Sometimes this can be the message that is given as part of the invitation to faith. If you were to interview a group of Christians I think you would find they have problems like everyone else – sickness, financial difficulties, relationships which are challenging and so on. In the sermon at the Tuesday service in the Cathedral I explored the life of faith using the Bible passages for the day: Psalm 126, Deuteronomy 28:1-14, 1 Peter 4:12-end.
I have no doubt that you are bombarded by advertisements extolling the virtues of some product or other. We come across them on billboards, in magazines and newspapers, on TV, on the radio, on webpages, in junk mail, into our inbox, even thrust into our hands as we walk along the street. You can guarantee that whatever is being offered has been portrayed in the best possible light in order to entice you to buy. Advertising agencies don’t make megabucks for nothing.
I’m sure like me you look at some of these things and mentally say, ‘Yeah, right!’ I know for a fact that wearing the right perfume is not necessarily going to bring a handsome guy into my life, or that driving the right car will make me the centre of attention, or that going on holiday to the suggested destination is necessarily the right thing for me. I’ve tried the ‘just wipe it over and it will sparkle’ products and I still find that a fair amount of elbow grease is needed. And then there are the financial products enticing us to combine all out debts into one easy monthly payment. How tempting that must be in the current climate.
There are a couple of things to bear in mind with these advertisements. Firstly, it pays to read the instructions carefully. One of the help desks my husband Phil looks after takes complaints about cleaning products. I don’t know how the girls who take the calls keep their patience, or avoid laughing out loud at times. One woman had used a very caustic cleaning product on the ceramic hob on her cooker and then complained that it had eaten into the surface. Had she read the instructions, she would have known this would happen but instead she was demanding that the manufacturer of the product replace the hob.
The second thing to remember is to read the small print. It’s there that you will find the limitations of what is being offered, or the very restricted opportunities for redress, or the fact that your home secures the combined loan and that the interest rate is sky high.
Bearing this in mind, let’s turn to the passage from Deuteronomy. Here God seems to be offering his people so many blessings – in the city, in the countryside, many children, good crops, increasing flocks and herds, even your bread seems likely to be blessed. It sounds like a fantastic advert. You can imagine the pictures to go with it – idyllic country scenes, wonderful fluffy white sheep, contented cows grazing in vivid green fields, vines heavy with grapes, waving corn, and happy laughing children running everywhere. We know from Israel’s history that it didn’t seem to happen like this. There were good times certainly but also very difficult times, times of war and siege and deportation. Few of us can have missed the lament in the Psalms: ‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and yea we wept when we remembered Zion’.
The key to this sad state affairs is in the small print: ‘if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord’; ‘do all his commandments’; ‘if you do not turn aside from any of the words that I command you’; ‘do not go after other gods’. Anyone who knows much about the Israelites will know that they didn’t often follow the small print.
Despite this disobedience the Psalmist was able to affirm that God could restore fortunes and bring about joy and laughter. Weeping turns to joy as a result of God’s action. God can be trusted to sort things out.
But what of a person who actually did obey all God’s commands? My thoughts turned to Job. Right at the beginning of the book about him it says that he was ‘blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil’. Job so much wanted to serve God and be right before him that he offered burnt offerings on behalf of his children just in case they had done anything wrong. God commended Job’s righteousness to Satan. As Satan pointed out, Job had indeed had a richly blessed life. It seems that the promises in Deuteronomy had been fulfilled. God, however, wanted to prove just how righteous Job was, that it wasn’t just due to the blessings, and he gave Satan permission to blight his life. In a short space of time Job lost his sons and daughters, his servants, his livestock and he became covered in sores. He was left with his wife, but you could think that she was more of a curse than a blessing to him! His friends were convinced that Job was suffering because he had done wrong. They had definitely read the small print. Job was equally convinced that he hadn’t. In the end, Job had a chance to put his case to God and eventually realised just how little he knew of the big picture. As a result of remaining faithful to God, he received blessings in abundance once more.
One thing Job didn’t receive was an explanation of why he had to suffer despite his upright life and his many pleas to God for mercy and restoration. Greg Boyd in his book ‘Is God to blame?’ looks at a similar problem. He tackles the issue of unanswered prayer, something Job was all too familiar with. He pictured it as someone in a hut on the beach when the D Day landings were taking place. The person in the hut radios with a message requesting that he be rescued from his position in the middle of the attacks. His request is denied. He naturally feels let down and abandoned unfairly. What he doesn’t understand is what is going on elsewhere in the area. He doesn’t have access to the big picture that the generals have, of the needs of so many people, and so he cannot know what effect rescuing him would have. He can only see things from his own point of view.
In the film Bruce Almighty, Bruce is given the power to take over from God as he thinks he can do a better job. Pretty soon he finds that the relentless competing requests wear him down. He sets the God computer to say yes to everything. As a result chaos ensues. For instance, everyone wins the lottery so no one gets a big win but only a few cents. Bruce was not looking at the big picture.
When we read what Peter wrote in his letter he has a very different attitude. He expects that Christians will suffer and tells us not to be surprised. Instead of moaning ‘Not fair’ and ‘Why should it happen to me?’ he says ‘Rejoice!’. In Deuteronomy blessing meant everything going right in a beautiful land of plenty. For Peter the blessing is that the Spirit rests upon those who are suffering. He does not regard outward circumstances but the infilling of the Spirit in his Christian brothers and sisters. I guess for him that’s enough of the big picture. He can leave the rest to God. He turns instead to the behaviour of the Christians, something they can alter. He urges them to make sure they are obeying God’s commandments, just as God told the Israelites in Deuteronomy, just as Job did. Regardless of circumstances, their walk is to be blameless. In that way they will not be receiving punishment for something that they actually did wrong. Peter says effectively: ‘Get on with doing good and leave the rest to God, who can see the big picture’.
Today we remember St Dunstan who was an Archbishop of Canterbury and who restored the monastic life in England in the tenth century. There is no doubt he followed God’s way of living and also encouraged others to do so, promoting discipline, study and teaching. As a result he seems to have been blessed. He was made Abbot by the king and became chief minister and Archbishop of Canterbury under King Edgar. He used his position to work with his followers to reform the whole of the English Church. Even a saintly man such as this eventually fell from political favour. I suppose he could have chosen to withdraw and complain. Instead he continued to work as Archbishop, still preaching and teaching, remaining faithful in the things he could do and leaving the rest to God.
I think this whole area is a real challenge to us. Anyone who tells you that becoming a Christian will solve all your problems is overselling the product. Instead of listening to a dodgy salesman, let’s go back to the manufacturer. Jesus said to his disciples: ‘In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart: I have overcome the world’. The big picture is that we already know the outcome. Jesus wins. Our job is to live in obedience to him and leave the rest to God who can be totally trusted, regardless of the outward circumstances we find ourselves in.
Thanks be to God.