A number of years ago, Adrian Plass wrote a short story called A Letter to William. In it he tells of two guys who are attracted by a strange advert in a newspaper to go to an isolated croft in the North West of Scotland which claims to now be the ‘sole agents of salvation.’
On arrival they are greeted by a man called Bill, who tells them that they are still offering total forgiveness, eternal life, love, joy, peace and all the rest. But, following instructions from HQ, we no longer need all that church, prayer, Bible study and so on. Instead all you have to do is climb Snowdon three times a week.
One of the guys who has made the journey starts asking questions about things like work, family, travel, but their host, Bill, just says that most people don’t go through with it. Instead, he says, most try to come up with a compromise. He tells of one church which has built a 4ft model of Snowdon with steps and the entire congregation climbs up and down the model every Sunday before the sermon. It’s all very interesting he adds, but not really climbing Snowdon.
Others have established Snowdon discussion groups, where they consider the ‘real meaning of climbing. Still others come up with a Snowdon songbook, including classics like
We’re marching to Snowdon
Beautiful, Beautiful Snowdon
but, whilst it’s all very well to have songs to sing on the journey, there’s no point just talking or singing about it.
You have to do it.
As the two friends go to leave the croft, one despondently says ‘I don’t see what was wrong with the old way. The people in my church never did anyone any harm. Why do you have to make it all so much harder?
To which the response comes back…
You really don’t get it, do you? We haven’t made it harder. We’ve made it so much easier.
We’re continuing our time on the verse John 3: 16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
This verse has been described as the Gospel, or the Christian story in a nutshell. So we’ve been cracking open the nutshell and having a look at the contents.
We’ve talked about how this verse is not just about life somewhere else after we die, it’s about the life God has given us here and now. And last week we looked at how God offers this to everyone. That God operates a ‘whoever policy.’
But what does God ask of us if we want to receive that kind of life?
We get the answer in the next word in the verse.
But at risk of sounding like some of the people in the Adrian Plass story, what does this mean?
To some it might feel like a bit of an anti-climax. If God has done so much for us, if God has given his one and only Son, surely he must want something in return. We might want it to read ‘whoever can prove they’re worth that kind of sacrifice,’ or ‘whoever can pay back to God what they owe him.’
Whatever happened to God helps those who help themselves?
Last week, spoke to me, how it struck them that the message offered in these words seems too good to be true. Well, today’s message is probably not going to help with that.
Believe… it just seems to, well, simple.
How can believing something possibly be more difficult than, say, climbing Snowdon 3 times a week?
Part of the problem I think is the way we use the word ‘believe.’ Beliefs have traditionally been very important in the Christian faith, especially in the last 500 years or so, since the reformation. If you look at church websites, you will see that many have statements of faith, or belief, sometimes quite detailed. I’m not sure if it is still the same, but the church in which I was raised certainly used to have a very detailed statement of beliefs to which a prospective member had to give their agreement.
In his book Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren mentioned a bookstore manager who was asked what the most popular non-fiction books he sold were. Number one was apparently ‘how to get rich’ type books. But after that came books on spirituality and especially Buddhism. When McLaren asked why books on Buddhism were more popular than books on Christianity he was told it was because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, rather than a system of belief. People are no so much interested in the teachings, as ‘how can this affect my life?’
I was reminded of a Hindu who came to speak to us at Regents when I was studying to be a minister. During his session he took some questions and he commented how when he speaks to Christians they always ask him what he believes. Hindus he said are interested in a different question – what does it make you do?
When I was on Somerset I used to take the occasional RE lesson in our local comprehensive school. We would always have a question and answer session as part of the class. We called it Grill a Christian. Most of the time the questions would be very similar. Ad one of the regular questions was about whether a good God could punish people or send them to hell just because they did not believe certain things about him.
All those examples illustrate something of how we, in the West, understand the word believe. Most of us, if we grew up in the modern Western world tend to associate it believe with the brain. We intellectually agree with something.
We believe the word is round.
We believe in gravity.
But you can believe those things without really having to let it affect your way of living.
It’s like the old story of Charles Blondin, the tightrope walker who walked across Niagra Falls. Crowds watched as he did it. He did it blindfolded, on stilts, on a bicycle… Then he reached for a wheelbarrow and asks ‘do you believe I could push someone across the Falls in this wheelbarrow?’ The crowd cheered their approval. Then he asked for a volunteer. Suddenly the number of ‘believers’ plummeted. I men, there’s believing and there’s believing.
Jesus does not ask us to agree with a set of statements, or recite a statement of faith whilst attached to a lie detector. Faith is not, as a child reportedly once said, believing things you know aren’t true.
Believing does not only mean accepting there is a God, that the world has meaning, or that God has a plan for the world. It involves having a confidence that God can and will fulfil his plans and promises, and trusting him to do it in his way, whether we understand it or not.
And letting that shape how you approach life.
The musician Steve Taylor spoke of this kind of believing in a song which concluded with the line
Don’t you know by now why the chosen are few?
It’s harder to believe than not to.
But is it?
And, if so, why?
In 1 Corinthians, Paul brings together two parts of what Jesus calls us to believe and allow to affect our lives. One is to do with Jesus and what he achieved.
The other has a very human dimension. It speaks of God involving them (and us) in his plans.
Paul does not deny that these things are far from obvious. He tells them to many, in his day, and in ours, it seems sheer foolishness.
One reason why it can seem so foolish is that it involves accepting something, even when our understanding of what God has done for us in Jesus is, at best, partial.
Jesus himself suggests this when he was talking to Nicodemus in the conversation from which John 3:16 comes. He said that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man, that’s Jesus, be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life from him.
We’ve mentioned this story a few times over the last few weeks, and this morning we read it together. In the passage from Numbers the Israelites have escaped from Egypt, and are crossing the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land.
But the wilderness could be a dangerous place. And, in this story, they find themselves under attack from venomous snakes. Many of them are dying. They ask Moses to call on God to get rid of the snakes.
Not an unreasonable request. But that’s not what happens. There is no mention in the story that the snakes disappear.
Instead God gets Moses to make a bronze snake, raise it on a pole. If someone is bitten they are to look at the snake on the pole. We are told that those who did lived. We’re not told why looking at the pole saved them, it just did.
Earlier this morning we looked at another similar odd story. There was a guy called Naaman, who did not even believe in Israel’s God, and he had a terrible skin disease. On the advice of a servant he went to an Israelite prophet, Elisha, to ask for his help. He is told to dip 7 times in the River Jordan and he’ll be fine.
In one sense Naaman’s really believable. He gets annoyed that this prophet can’t even be bothered to speak to him. Does he now know who Naaman is?
But the funnier thing is that it’s not the method that bothers him. It’s the fact that he can think of better rivers back home to dip in.
But one thing that is never explained is why dipping in the River Jordan helps him. It just does. He just has to believe in it. And act on it.
Jesus uses the story of the bronze snake lifted up on a pole to describe what God is doing through him. Jesus himself would lifted up onto a cross and anyone who believed in what he was doing could have the life God offers.
But how does that work?
Throughout the pages of the New Testament people tried all sorts of ways to explain it. In the last 2000 years people have kept trying. And at different times throughout those 2000 years people have tried to claim that one of those ideas is the only way to understand it. But we are wise not to confuse the image or the metaphor with what is actually going on. At best, any of those images can only give us a partial glimpse of how it works.
And that’s ok.
The point Jesus makes is that we don’t have to fully understand it. He just invites us to accept that it works.
That’s one reason why it is harder to believe. For many today that’s just not good enough. They claim we live in an intellectually sophisticated age. And they think their objection is quite modern.
But it’s an objection that’s as old as the Gospel itself. Paul tells the Corinthians that Jews looked for signs, or power, whilst Greeks, or Gentiles looked for wisdom.
Greeks were trying to think their way to God, then along come Christians who tell them to trust in a poor teacher from nowhere, hanging on a cross, as a victim of capital punishment, in a tiny corner of the world, and see in that the way God was winning back the world.
They couldn’t get it, so many rejected it.
There was a time in my own life when I came very close to rejecting it. I remember sitting in a pub in Edinburgh about 25 years ago, firing a whole load of questions at a Christian friend. I’d grown up in the faith and it had left me with as many questions as answers. They weren’t bad questions. I’m not sure I know all the answers to them now.
But my friend just said to me ‘Andrew, if you wait til every question is answered until you accept it, you never will.’
Most of you will know me well enough that I’d never advocate unthinkingly accepting anything. But she was right. God’s not especially interested in arguing with you, or in satisfying your curiosity. The life of faith does include mystery and trust.
But we place our trust in things we don’t understand all the time. Life would grind to a halt if we didn’t.
Jesus asks us to do the same thing with him.
But its’ not just that we don’t understand it. It can seem so counterintuitive. We can find ourselves thinking that’s not how the world works.
Richard Dawkins once said that the reason he could not believe in a creator God was that is such a God existed and did create the world, why would he do it in such a way that would leave the least evidence of his existence? I’m not in a position to argue that with him. I’m not a scientist. Some who know their stuff agree with him, others don’t.
But many people struggle to believe the Christian story because God’s way of working is very different to how we would do it. In our culture, if you want to announce something to make a big noise about it. Take out prime time TV advertising, hire a billboard, stick it on the side of a bus.
That’s not how God showed the world his love. He kept his promise hidden amongst a people who spent the vast majority of their time on the wrong side of history, oppressed by people with very different worldviews, then when he comes amongst us, even the vast majority of those who has carried that promise did not recognise him.
And how does he do it?
He is born amongst us, lives to adulthood virtually unrecognised, then spends a small amount of time doing good in a tiny, largely ignored part of an empire, before surrendering his life into the hands of unscrupulous people, dying the kind of death normally reserved for only the worst of criminals, or slaves.
That defies all human wisdom and understanding.
Our culture is fairly familiar with the cross. We display it on our buildings. Some traditions even design their buildings in that shape. It is used widely in jewellery. We fail to see how shocking the people of that world would find that. Imagine travelling 100 or 200 years into the future and finding people wearing little nooses or electric chairs round their necks.
Everyone knew what the cross stood for. It was designed to humiliate the victim. To inflict maximum pain for maximum time with maximum publicity. It showed everyone who was in charge round here.
It would have been one thing to claim the cross was a mistake which God corrected in resurrection. But that’s not what Paul says. He goes way beyond that to say this, the cross, being on the ’wrong side’ of the cross displays the power of God. It is how God overcomes the power and wisdom of the world.
We live in a world where might makes right. Yet we also realise that raw power has its limits. In my lifetime we’ve seen the collapse of European communism. Across the Arab world in recent years we have seen leaders who had seemed so powerful, fall so suddenly.
But none of that compares to the fact that somehow God has taken the story of a man being subjected to the most brutal form of torture and execution, designed to humiliate and silence its victim… and use it change the lives of people over thousands of years, and thousands of miles away from anywhere his feet walked.
We’re not invited to get our heads around it. We’re just invited to accept it.
And Paul never offers the Corinthians an explanation. Instead he points out that’s how God does business.
These days if we want publicity, who we turn to? Probably a ‘name’; a celebrity. That’s not how God works.
In the Naaman story, the person who could help him find his healing was not a big commander or a king, but a slave girl in his home.
The first disciples of Jesus were few in number. The fact that he seems to have met them when they were engaged in trades suggests they were not the cream of the crop. Their opponents noted that they lacked education.
But God used them to change the world.
Paul tells the Cornithians it was the same in their church. Not many of their congregation were rich, powerful, of highly regarded by their society, but God enabled them to see that because of what he had done in Jesus, the world would never be the same.
To this day, faith grows most powerfully amongst the poorest parts of our world, often most rapidly amongst those for whom faith means persecution. The news of Jesus seems to draw most people in what we would consider unpromising circumstances. Just as in Numbers, God doesn’t necessarily remove the source of the problems, but still people find that by looking to Jesus, God works in ways which defy comprehension.
In 1949 Christian societies were expelled from China by the Communists. It was felt to be a disaster for faith in that country. Yet it is reckoned that less than 70 years later, there are more believers in Jesus, than in Communism.
Our world puts its faith in power, money, influence and the like. But that’s not where God places his hope.
It can be harder to believe because it involves placing our trust in what we can never fully understand, and runs contrary to how we expect the world to work. But Paul makes no apologies for that…
And neither do I.
God does not rely on what we would rely. In Christ he has shown that there is nothing through which he cannot work to fulfil his promises.
He does not ask us to rationalise it.
He does not ask us to understand it.
He asks us to believe him.