Now that the choristers are safely at the Southern Cathedrals Festival, and doubtless out shining Winchester’s and Salisbury’s choirs, I can preach about Christian soft-rock music without the fear of corrupting young minds.
In the summer of 1994 I worked for the Boy Scouts of America on a summer camp on the Pacific coast, in Oregon. It was a momentous time: I was, more or less, converted to Christianity by the example of the conservative evangelicals I lived and prayed with. They, I suspect, would now deny that I am a Christian at all. Or perhaps they’d just label me “un-sound”.
And I came home knowing all the words to the standard canon of soft-rock evangelical praise choruses. It comes in surprisingly useful. Years later, as a student at a liberal catholic theological college in Cambridge, I surprised some more conservative friends who invited me to their prayer and praise service with my word perfect knowledge of all the verses of “My Jesus, my saviour.”
Some of those songs – and My Jesus, My Saviour is a great example, do some distinctly dodgy theology. But some are, indeed “sound”. And of those, the one that stays with me is a simple chorus which, you’ll be relieved to hear, I’m not going to sing for you now. But I will tell you the words. It says:
Our God is an awesome God
He reigns in heaven above
With wisdom, power and love
Our God is an awesome God
And it came to my mind when I looked at today’s readings.
Isaiah has God say, in characteristic no-nonsense style: There is no other rock; I know not one.
So it is the most natural thing in the world to say, our God is an awesome God:
O come as the Psalmist sings Let us worship and fall down.
And yet the scandal of the incarnation, that God pitched his tent with us in human form, is that S. Paul can write of our adoption as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. It’s head spinning stuff. The same God of whom the Psalmist can write: The sea is His/For he made it has adopted me, and each one of us, so that we might have life in all its fullness, starting now and forever.
Adoption is a very deliberate thing. Anyone who has adopted children, or been adopted, will know that the process is neither easy nor short. A prospective adopter has to really want to adopt that child.
Later we will sing Bernadette Farrell’s modern paraphrase of Psalm 139 including this verse:
Although your Spirit is upon me,
Still I search for shelter from your light,
There is nowhere on earth I can escape you
Even the darkness is radiant in your sight
We are saved, adopted, safe. God has done what God needed to do for us, in the life death and resurrection of Jesus. As Stephen will pray for us later, “Through Him you have freed us from the slavery of sin”. And yet our instinct is not to believe it. We cannot readily accept, if you can excuse the Americanism, that our God is quite that awesome.
And it gets harder still to hang on to when we hear today’s Gospel.
Because it’s all too easy, as we sit here with the burdens and concerns and tantrums of a difficult week – the petty mindlessness – the time wasted – the sarcastic put down we regret – the pornography, the diagnosis, the performance review at work, to decide that we are the weeds not the wheat and that burning is, or should be, our fate.
And I want to spend a moment unpacking why it’s wrong. It’s bad theology because it’s narrow-band, not broadband. Salvation history is a story not a sound bite.
First, let’s be clear this language of harvest, gleaning and burning, is metaphorical. The whole point of it is that it’s not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is telling the story in this way precisely in order to force us to think for ourselves.
Second, the lectionary has not served us well, because in between the two chunks of Matthew we’ve just heard read are six verses containing two things that are very helpful to grappling with what we have heard.
The first is a quotation from Psalm 78: I shall open my mouth in images/I shall utter things hidden from the foundation of the world. That is Matthew reminding us how difficult Jesus teaching is precisely because it is Gods teaching. And God is awesome, but not easy. We are meant to wrestle with this story.
The second is a mini parable comparing the kingdom of heaven to leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour and the whole lot was leavened.
God is here rather daringly compared to a baker woman. That’s something that would have scandalised and unsettled Jesus audience just as much as the thought of being adopted as a fellow heir with Jesus by the Father might, and should, unsettle us.
So what are we to do?
Well I’m going to dare to suggest that we should go from this place and behave not as people who are destined to burn but as people who have been adopted, as fellow heirs with the saviour of the world, to be His hands.
So we are sent forth from this place to do what Jesus – what God – would do. To heal, bless, comfort, forgive and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
It is, as Stephen will pray for us in a few minutes, our duty and our joy.
Let anyone with ears listen.