Out of control
Fourteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Colin Carr preaches on a contrary God and a contrary people.
You get a letter telling you to go to the out-patients department of your local hospital. You haven’t been there before, and you’re not too sure about the procedures, but you get to the right bit of the right clinic — or at least you hope you’ve done that. And you wait, and it gets beyond the time for your appointment, and you don’t quite know if it’s all right to ask one of the busy nurses if you are in the right place?.
You know the kind of feeling. You aren’t in control of your life, and you feel rather helpless and stupid.
We want to be in control of our lives as much as possible, and to know what’s going to happen. We find unpredictable people very disturbing, particularly if they can’t be relied on to agree with us and with our hard-won certainties about the way the world is or ought to be.
Many people want a predictable God who can be relied on to keep things in order. But the God we discover in the Bible is tiresomely unpredictable. This God neither underwrites our complacencies nor colludes with our despair – contrary, you may say. And many times in the Biblical stories people refused to listen to what this contrary God was saying.
The prophets spoke for God, and were often rejected and persecuted. Ezekiel, whose marching orders we read in today’s first reading, had bizarre visions and performed actions which were deliberately crazy as if to say:
unless you change your whole way of thinking, you won’t be able to hear what God is saying.
But the really disturbing thing about the prophets was not that they were different, but that they were of the people. Some were ‘professional’ prophets, others were not. But whether they were professional or not, they spoke from within the society they were addressing, they shared people’s lives and tragedies. The message to Ezekiel was not
Go and stand a long way off and yell at these people.
This set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.
Jesus, too, was a prophet, and all the gospels record his comment that prophets are only despised in their own country. The people who heard him acknowledged that he said and did remarkable things, but rather than be delighted, they were scandalised.
They knew him and his family; he had grown up among them; he was ordinary. And here he was doing and saying extraordinary things. It shouldn’t happen that way. Why couldn’t he stick to his carpentry?
Human beings think that God is contrary. But human beings manage to be pretty contrary where listening to God’s word is concerned. If it comes to us from an outsider we can shut it out because outsiders are odd; if it comes to us from one of ourselves, we can reject it because the messenger is too ordinary.
And what is the word that we wish to reject? It is a word about a God who is one of us, and who loves the outsider. The God who inhabits our flesh is frighteningly close, and is a scandal to us because the news is so impossibly good. God is close to us in our weakness, as Saint Paul had to discover, and it is appropriate that the messenger should be weak so that the power of God can be discovered in frail humanity.
In the outpatients’ clinic we are not in control, but usually we find that we don’t need to be, because some of our fellow human beings are there to help us discover the truth about ourselves. They are most helpful when they use ordinary language rather than medical jargon. They may not sound so impressive, but we would be stupid to want to be bamboozled rather than hear wisdom simply expressed.
When God is among us as one of us, why don’t we listen with relief to the divine wisdom? When people who share our life want to share their faith with us, why should we assume that they can’t possibly have anything worth saying?