Normally, when I approach the readings for a service, I end up thinking about lots of different points they raise, and in my sermon I delve into the questions, coming out with very few answers. When I read through this morning's lectionary, I decided not to do that. I'm going to concentrate on just one point instead - and again, delve into the questions raised, and come out with very few answers.
The thing that struck me right between the eyes about the Gospel reading was the evil spirit recognising Jesus for who he was. What the evil spirit knew in a moment, the disciples took the whole of Jesus' ministry to learn. What a strange place to find knowledge of God!
Then I read the lesson from Genesis. Again, here is a realisation of the presence of God, this time by a man on the run from an older brother who he's cheated out of his birthright and his blessing.
On Monday night we had a Come As You Are session at our house group. I had been to the Local Preachers' Support Group in the evening, but came back just as the meeting was closing. I asked what people had been struck by in the evening, and Mike mentioned the way that after the resurrection, Jesus had shown himself to the disciples in various different ways - and thinking about it, I realised that those ways had all been somewhat unexpected. As it happens, John Ogden, who'd been leading the support group, had talked earlier in the evening about finding God's purpose in the oddest ways and places.
To add to all that, I've just finished reading a book by Douglas Coupland which is partly about a girl who is killed at her school. Shortly before she dies, she doodles on her notebook "God is nowhere" and "God is now here", making the change in meaning just with a space.
I'm not one of those people who say there's no such thing as coincidence, but I know when to take a hint about what message to preach.
The first two hymns we had this morning both talked of the mystery of God - how futile in a way it is to try to understand God, because we never will. I absolutely agree with this - and at the same time I think it's vitally important that we still make the effort. We must search for God's truth - discussions in house groups, reading, praying, thinking, going on pilgrimage, however you wish to look. It may not directly and reliably give the kind of "light bulb" moments that Jacob had, or give the immediate deep and holy truth that the evil spirit came out with. However, it can give the drip-feed understanding which grows into a mature faith. And yes, I'm very well aware of how silly I might sound talking about a mature faith to a congregation with much more experience and understanding than I have.
The search is not a short journey - it's not one which will be completed in this life. God's love will always be too huge to comprehend. God's grace will always be a source of mystery. We'll never know any boundaries to God's power. This everlasting journey towards God can be started here and now though. We can still take steps, small as they feel sometimes. I mentioned earlier that the disciples somehow managed to go through the whole of the ministry of Jesus without seeing the big picture, but I don't think any of us would say they shouldn't have been with Jesus at all because of it. They still learned more with Jesus than they would have done if they hadn't joined him.
In fact, far from suggesting that we stop searching for God, I'd like to say that we should be looking even harder, simply because there's no end in sight. If we knew that we were actually able to finish our "study" of God with a few more years of work, we could put that off for a while and still get to the same point in the end. After that, there'd be nothing left to learn, so we wouldn't really have wasted any time. As it is, the more we seek to discover about God, the deeper we'll go into the unsolvable problems. We'll get closer and closer to that elusive goal - and that closeness becomes a goal in itself.
What of those "light bulb" moments though? What about when we find God in places and times we'd never expect? Some of us seem to have deep revelations frequently, and others never have particular breakthrough events, no instant life-changing visions. There's nothing wrong with that, and I certainly don't agree with those who claim that you can't really be a Christian without a "born again" experience. God reveals himself to some people in one way, and some people in another. I'm somewhere in between, myself. I've had a few experiences where I've felt God speaking to me very directly and clearly. In almost all of them I was in a church setting, but the experience was always surprising.
Many others hear and see God in much more unexpected situations altogether. In the midst of terrible poverty, or acts of unspeakable cruelty, or even in the ruins of a country struck by an "act of God" like the recent tsunami, people come to God or receive enlightenment. People respond to distress with compassion, and in that moment, the light of God shines through them, visible to those who have their eyes open to it. We often hear the question "Where is God in this hurricane, or earthquake, or flood?" The answer for me is always in other people. God's compassion for us in our time of need seems to spread quite easily to us, and that's how we can see it. As the words of the finale of Les Miserables go, "To love another person is to see the face of God."
There's no need to go to extremes to be found by God though. There needn't be anyone else involved at all. Realisation can come just as it did to Jacob, while asleep - or driving, or gardening - just living our lives. We can't try to make these moments happen. We can try to "keep an ear out" for God, but in my experience it's a bit like trying to keep an eye out for an elephant while walking in a park - if it's there, you'll know about it.
So, if we can't provoke such moments for ourselves, are we completely powerless? Should we just sit around waiting for something to happen? Well, that's where our third hymn this morning comes in. Jesus says, "Christian, follow me." One of the ways - probably the most effective way - God comes to people in our modern world is through other people. For most of this sermon, I've been talking about when God is shown to us, but what about when God is revealed through us?
We know we are called to spread God's kingdom through our words and actions. Without any disrespect to our worship here, there's only so much we can do while we're in church ourselves. These days, fewer and fewer people expect to find God - so we must reveal God to people where they are - where we are - in our jobs and homes, at social functions. We don't have to go outside our current social circle to let God's light shine through us, but of course many people are called to other kinds of ministry. Voluntary work can take Christians to any number of places they wouldn't otherwise have been to, and introduce them to people they wouldn't otherwise have met. This is truly following in the footsteps of Christ, who broke social norms left, right and centre in terms of the people he associated with and the places he went. God's love is never more striking than in places where it's unexpected, and it can be revealed in so many different ways. I'm not suggesting that we should all be stopping people in the street to tell them about the Good News - I'm suggesting that we should demonstrate the Good News, be representatives of the Good News for Christ. In many cases, the names of God or Jesus need never pass our lips - actions really do speak louder than words.
And of course, doing God's work naturally brings us back to my first point of becoming gradually closer to God. I'm sure lots of people "out in the field" could give us testimony to how they've found out more and more about God while working for him. This can be through other people doing the same thing, or the very people they've come to help. As our readings show, God can use absolutely anyone and any situation to reveal himself.
Searching for God and helping others to do so - however indirectly - go hand in hand. Most of us will never see visions of angels ascending towards heaven - but by following Christ, we can become part of that making that vision reality. We can be like the angels in someone else's vision, and who knows - maybe they'll become like angels for us.