A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 23, 2015
(1 Kings 8.22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69)
And I treasure the questions,
As they rage in my mind,
And I treasure the questions,
Some day I will find,
I ran out of answers such a long time ago,
But I treasure the questions
wherever I go.
From Treasure the Questions by Martyn Joseph (singer/songwriter)
There are things I can’t explain.
Sometimes they are even things of God. Our readings raise two of these: the mystery of God’s presence and the mysterious workings of the trust we dare to place in God.
On one level Solomon’s temple is just another building. Plans. Bricks. Wood. Stone. Mortar. On another it represents Israel’s deepest hope and ambition: to be a God-lit light for all the world.
Holding these two realities together we begin to realise how much rides on the Solomon’s prayer. His marathon construction is exactly nothing without the mysterious presence of God. It is something Solomon can’t explain or manufacture.
But he can ask.
Even as Solomon prays, he expresses genuine puzzlement: ‘Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built’.
Of course, the same is true of us – as a community, and as individuals. We have very little to offer the world apart from the miracle of the presence of God.
This questioning, faith-filled, kneeling king is a call to us.
Such a dynamic, genuine, faith can be difficult to cultivate. We prefer easier answers.
In our gospel reading, Jesus is getting to his core invitation: ‘eat my flesh’; ’drink my blood’. We are told that ‘many’ of Jesus’ followers commented: ‘This teaching is difficult; Who can accept it?’
And who could disagree? Unless there is something deeper this claim is quite literally unpalatable.
And then we are confronted by the weighty verse: ‘many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him’. Despite his invitation to look deeper – the ‘words…are spirit and life’ – some cease to truly ask. Too much. Too difficult.
So…they leave. They walk from the source of life because they do not understand.
Of course, some stay – but this is not because everything is clear. There is no additional, secret, insight. They hear the same apparently cannibalistic words and they question their meaning.
Perhaps the only difference between these leavers and stayers is the highlighting of hope: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life’. Words of faith and trust to be sure – but not of absolute certainty or complete understanding. A light has appeared and these are – along with all their questions – prepared to pursue it.
It raises the important question: Is there doubt and faith within every heart?
Clearly, faith is not denial of doubt. It is trust.
I wonder if the gap between these two responses is not quite as wide as the actions they inspire. The difference may simply be that some presume there are no more answers – and some hope Jesus has more to offer.
Only slightly different starting points. Over time, however, they move in vastly different directions.
Under Roman guard, Paul had a lot of time to consider the way the empire prepared its soldiers: breastplate, belt, shield, shoes, helmet, sword.
As Paul looks, he sees something of himself; of the church in Ephesus; of us.
Paul imagines the church as God’s soldiers. A people made resistant and strong by the generous provision of God.
Yes, God has provided all that you need to become something of an outpost in enemy territory. We might even say a set-apart-place – little ‘temples’ – miraculously indwell by God.
There is nothing here describing a soldier ready to attack. Even the sword described is a ‘short sword’. It is used exclusively for defence. Paul describes an armour to enable you to ‘withstand’ and to ‘stand firm’ during an attack.
I quite like to Paul’s imagery. It offers us a picture and helps us imagine and remember.
But the image is not the heart of Paul’s message. These verses urge us to remember and rely on the generous provision of God: truth, a God-initiated holiness, the proclamation of the gospel, faith, the assurance of salvation, the word of God.
Take these to heart, and you will ‘stand firm’ in the cosmic struggle against the devil. Neglect them and you will fall.
For me, the core of this list is faith. There is no description of the devil here. It describes God’s action in Jesus. Paul is not cursing the darkness. He is celebrating the light!
I pray that we would be a people who genuinely take up the faith armour of God. In doing so, however, we do well to hold to our questions and even our doubts. Paradoxical, yes. Unfaithful, no.
Friends, I hope you are never afraid to, before God, ‘treasure the questions’.