Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Sermons from the margins

A Card From God

My first Christmas morning as a new curate was largely spent taking communion to housebound parishioners (I doubt that many curates will be doing their rounds on Christmas mornings nowadays - times have indeed changed).

One of my flock was an old lady with family in Australia, and I had to admire the card they had sent her. But while she was pleased with the card, she admitted she would rather have been with them in person.

That struck me as a good parallel with the Christmas message. In the past, God was a long way off and sent messages - like greetings cards - through his servants the prophets. But now in Jesus he was coming in person, "to visit and redeem his people".

I was sufficiently pleased by this idea to use it in several sermons - especially when there were children present and a simple illustration was needed. And I still think it is a neat way of encapsulating one version of the Christmas message, for example that one which is exemplified in the Bible by the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Gospel of Luke.

God is a distant figure, but in Jesus Christ he draws near, albeit to withdraw again to heaven at the end of his life.

I now find myself increasingly dissatisfied with that version of events. I find it harder as time goes by to imagine God ever having been truly absent from the world. When things go badly - when there are wars and rumours of wars, when there is hunger and famine and flood - it may well seem to us as if God were absent. But I cannot make sense of the idea that he is, or ever was, really absent.

So I find myself drawn more and more to an alternative understanding of the significance of Christmas, an approach more typical perhaps of John's gospel than Luke's.

In this version of the story, God-in-Christ is part of the very fabric of the universe right from the start. Jesus is the "Word" of God by whom all things were made, and without whom there was not anything made that was made. All life has its being in him. All knowledge is acquired in his light.

So the problem facing the world today is not that God is absent. The problem is that humans are often blind to his presence. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not. No awareness, no understanding, no beholding his glory.

On this account, Christmas is not about a hitherto absent God coming into the world, but about the bringing into the light - the bringing to human awareness - of the abiding presence of God that has always been a feature of his creation.

The Word was made flesh, not to make an absent God present, but to make the always-present God publicly known, that we might behold his glory, full of grace and truth.

And that is our task as Christians every day. Not to bring God where he is absent, but to make his continuing presence known.

So let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your father who is not only in heaven but also on the earth, for all who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to love.

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