Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Magnificence of God

On any short list of the most influential philosophical and theological minds in the history of the world Saint Thomas Aquinas would appear close to the top. The Roman Catholic Church in particular celebrates him as the Church’s greatest theologian and teacher and his works have long been considered the core basis for anyone studying to be a teacher of the catholic faith. His influence extends beyond the Roman Church influencing protestant theology as well and even secular philosophy. 

Along with being an individual of great intellect, he was also a man of profound spirituality and holiness. He had many dramatic mystical experiences and these increased in frequency and intensity toward the end of his life. On December 6th the Feast of Saint Nicolas, while celebrating mass, Thomas received a divine vision, the nature of which is not precisely know, but following that day he discontinued work on his great Summa Theologica and ceased to dictate to his secretary. When his confessor Fr Reginald urged him to take up his pen and continue his writing, Thomas said, “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has been revealed to me.” It wasn’t long from that time that the great Saint took to his bed and passed from this mortal life.

What reality, what vision, what revelation, could cause one of the loftiest intellects this world has known to declare that-comparably--all his work is of little value? It is believed that the Lord stooped to Thomas to show him just a portion of his majestic and transcendent glory. I say ‘just a portion’ because as God informed Moses upon the mountain top, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
What is the effect that seeing the glory of God—even in part—has on the beholder? Surely to experience even a small glimpse of God’s glory is to be moved to awestruck worship and praise, but it is also inevitably accompanied by repentance, an acknowledgment of our place under God as his creatures, and a radical humbling of the intellect and of human pretentions. 

Our Old Testament reading this week brings us to the epilogue to the Book of Job. A few weeks ago we looked at the beginning of the book, at the testing of Job and his great perseverance in the face of suffering. The bulk of the book consists of Job’s debate with his friends on the meaning of suffering. Job’s friend’s are well intentioned, but misguided and more than a bit insensitive. They insist with all their eloquence and rhetorical might that Job’s suffering must be on account of some sin or unfaithfulness he committed against the most high God.

Job in turn insists upon his innocence and in his protests he not only rails against his friends calling them miserable comforters but he also thunders at the heavens crying out to God and demanding to be answered. 

Now job was absolutely right to defend his integrity against his accusers. He was indeed innocent. No one else in the story is privy to the information that we the reader have about Satan’s accusations against Job and God’s willingness to allow him to be tested, and that is precisely the point. The ultimate meaning and purpose of our suffering is not available to us.

Who can know the mind of God? Certainly not Job’s friends who try to put God in the box of their conventional wisdom, but even Job spoke ignorantly when he demanded that God make himself understandable to him. God unleashes himself in power revealing himself in a whirlwind and interrogating Job, 
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
Job can only respond by silencing his questioning and repenting in dust and ashes. God never reveals to Job the meaning of his suffering. He makes no defense for his righteousness or his goodness. All Job’s questions seem like straw in the face of God’s magnificence.

God’s ways are not our ways. He is in heaven and we are on earth and it is vain to think that we can make God accountable to us, to pull him down to earth and pin him to a board like some specimen collected by an entomologist, an exotic butterfly to be analyzed and catalogued.

This is deeply challenging to preachers like myself who are committed to offering a reasoned defense of the faith, to making it understandable and relatable to others. While I believe this is necessary and worthwhile I also have to humbly admit the limitations of my ability to give an answer for every question.
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said, “the Gospel is like a caged lion. It doesn’t need defending. It just needs to be let out of its cage!”

But what about Job’s anguished longing? His need of deliverance? His hope of a mediator to bridge the gap between God and Man? Do these cries fall on death ears? Has God no pity for his poor creatures suffering in darkness?

God does not offer us answers to all our questions but he has not failed to send us deliverance or to assure us of his love. He sent Christ to rescue us from sin and death, but also to proclaim to us his boundless love and compassion. God gives us his promise that he is like Jesus. 

The one who came for the lost, who healed the sick, caused the blind to see, the death to hear, the lame to leap for joy, from who’s lips flowed words of grace for sinners, who opened wide his arms upon the cross to all who would come to him, and offered prayers of mercy even for his tormentors, this is God. God is not otherwise. There is no other God hiding behind the back of Jesus. The grace and mercy revealed in him is no ruse, no smoke screen, no disguise for a cold and indifferent God.

As Saint John has written, “This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.”
When the world seems dark to us and God’s ways impenetrable, we cling to the revelation of God in Christ. We put our faith in God’s love sometimes in defiance of the appearances. We walk by faith and not by sight. Sometimes faith is a struggle and sometimes—when we come up dry—we need to lean on the faith of the Church, of our brothers and sisters.

This week our faith has been tested by tragedy. Our brother, our dear friend in Christ—David Born—was taken from us in a horrible accident. Our hearts are broken as we grieve with his wife—our sister Anita— their children, Gillian and Christopher, and their whole family. Why did this happen to such a vital and active servant of Christ? Why did God call him away now so unexpectedly from his family and friends, from his important ministry? I have no answers to give you, but only the conviction that God is bigger than our doubts and questions, and the assurance of his love in Jesus Christ.

For all the great suffering and anguish that Job was subjected too, for everything that he lost, the Book of Job ends not on a somber or sorrowful note but with joy and restoration. We are told, “The LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” What are we to make of this?

God promises everlasting comfort to those who persevere in righteousness through affliction. For many, the consolation for their suffering does not come in this life. Job functions as a parable and so we must look beyond the earthly story to the heavenly meaning. God’s promises are far greater than anything this world can offer.

Saint Thomas—who’s story we heard in the beginning of this sermon—teaches us,
“Everlasting life is the full and perfect satisfying of every desire; for there every blessed soul will have to overflowing what he hoped for and desired. The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill all his desires, nor can any created thing fully satisfy the craving of man. God only satisfies and infinitely exceeds man’s desires; and, therefore, perfect satiety is found in God alone. As St. Augustine says: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Because the blessed in the Fatherland will possess God perfectly, it is evident that their desires will be abundantly filled, and their glory will exceed their hopes.”

The grief and sorrow we experience in this life can feel so all consuming, but Holy Scripture teaches us that they are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to come. In comparison they are straw. Our brother David is—even now surrounded—by that glory, and we wait in hope for the day when we will be united with him in the resurrection.