There are times when God seems to speak very plainly to us, through what we read, what someone says to us, something that happens. I had one such experience and was not sure who the message I received was actually for. That being the case I decided to share what I had experienced with those at the 2pm service on Thursday and with those of you who are reading this blog. I pray that it may bless someone.
The readings for the service were Genesis 22:1-19, Psalm 116:1-7, Matthew 9:1-8. My reflection follows.
I had a very unusual experience today – well, certainly unusual for me. I met with my spiritual director and he was uncharacteristically insistent that I begin to consider again exploring a call to ordination I had some years ago. Those who know me will be aware that the process of selecting people for training to be priests in the Church of England came to the conclusion that I was not a suitable candidate. That was nearly two years ago. It was a painful episode and not something I am anxious to repeat, though I have told God that if he makes it plain that I should go through the process again, I will.
Now the meeting with my spiritual director was not the unusual happening but it did set me thinking as I drove for an hour to get home. Several scripture references came to me and I thought about them a lot. Just as I was nearing home another reference was niggling at the back of my mind. I couldn’t pin it down at first: ‘Something is the Lord, and righteous’ but what was the something? Eventually I remembered that the missing word is ‘gracious’. I wasn’t sure quite how that fit with my thoughts at all but it was very insistent. I decided that once I got home I would check which psalm it came from.
Actually I didn’t check when I got home. I had a cup of tea, chatted to my husband and then decided to check on the bible passages for this service. I always use the ones for the principal service of the day in the lectionary as we use the morning and evening prayer ones in the chapel each day. I looked up the Matthew passage, then the Genesis and then decided to look up the psalm for the day. Imagine how startled I was to find that the psalm listed was part of Psalm 116 and the response in the Common Worship version is ‘Gracious is the Lord, and righteous’!
I’ve had the experience of reading a bible passage and finding that a certain phrase or sentence jumps out at me, as though illuminated on the page. I have even read a passage and realised that it is as though that had never been there before, though I know it must have been. However, I have never been shown a key phrase before actually reading the scripture set for the day. I really wasn’t, and I’m still not, sure what to make of it.
On reading the whole psalm I realised that it could be speaking to me in terms of my conversation with my spiritual director. The section set for today is extremely relevant for a friend going through a very tough time. But why would I be given the passage which is in the readings for this service? I really don’t know but it could be that the message is for someone listening to this in the Cathedral or someone who will read it on our blog.
I’ve asked a good many questions of God on my behalf and on behalf of friends in recent months. ‘Why aren’t you acting to relieve their suffering?’ ‘Why do prayers seem to go unanswered?’ ‘Why don’t you make your will clearer?’ ‘Why did you lead me towards ordination only to disappoint me?’
Job in his suffering did much the same: ‘I cry to you for help and you do not answer me’. When God finally answered Job it was to show his power, to demonstrate how far he is above humans: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?’ ‘Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?’ ‘Do you give the horse his might?’ ‘Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?’ Eventually Job realised his position in relation to God: ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’
I suspect I, and maybe others, can find the answer to many questions in this response in the psalm: ‘Gracious is the Lord, and righteous.’ The psalmist confirms what God is like, gracious and righteous. That is no more an answer to my questions than God’s interaction with Job answered his questions, but knowing God’s character is enough.
God is gracious. What does that mean? He is characterised by grace, undeserved favour, love given because we are, not because of what we have done. Frederick Buechner describes it this way:
“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth.
“A good sleep is grace and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace. Have you ever tried to love somebody?
“A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There is nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do.
“The grace of God means something like: here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.
“There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
God is righteous. Righteousness and justice are really the same idea and can each be the translation of the same word in the bible. God is right, God is just, God always does what is right. He does it every time, not only when he feels like it. He can be depended on to act righteously in every circumstance without favouring one person above another. God cannot be other than righteous or just as that is what God is, what his character is. He cannot act other than consistently like himself. A. W. Tozer says: ‘God is not measured by the standard of righteousness; God sets the standard of righteousness.’ When his kingdom comes ‘on earth as in heaven’ it will be characterized by God’s justice, his righteousness.
I suspect that Abraham didn’t understand why God called him to sacrifice Isaac. It didn’t seem right and yet out of that act of obedience to God, that trust in God’s justice and righteousness, Abraham was promised that: ‘your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves’. There we see God’s grace, his underserved favour, lavished on an ordinary man who was prepared to take God at his word even though he didn’t understand.
When the friends of the paralysed man brought him to Jesus they must have seen something or heard something special about this rabbi. They came in trust, hoping for healing for their friend. Even though they as sinful people were coming into the presence of the holy God in the person of Jesus, they were not rejected. By God’s grace the man gained forgiveness of sins as well as the ability to walk. It left the crowds awestruck and glorifying God though the scribes couldn’t see the justice in what Jesus did.
Knowing that God is gracious and righteous, how can we respond differently from that crowd? Even when we don’t understand, when things seem unfair, let’s glorify God for all he does and is!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor