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Can God's heart ache?

Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 30th March 2014

Sermon by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor

The Fourth Sunday of Lent / Mothering Sunday

(Exodus 2:1-10; Luke 2:33-35)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago I found myself having a discussion, or a debate…ok let’s call it an argument with someone about whether or not God has emotions. Now that might seem like a really odd question – perhaps you think it’s absolutely clear that God does have emotions – of course he does, or how does he empathise with us, feel our pain, share our joys, and so on.

You might, on the other hand, be absolutely clear that there is no way in which God can have emotions. He’s God – he’s perfect, unchanging and indestructible, so how can he possibly be subject to change, which is what emotions are, if you think about it. You can’t be happy unless there is also the possibility of not being happy. Does that make sense?

Now the argument was heated, and the person which whom I was arguing was cleverer than me, and it had all begun with hymn choices. Choosing the hymns – a trick task at best. We were talking about the hymn “God is love, let heaven adore him”, which contains within it the phrase – “and when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod, there they find the self-same aching deep within the heart of God.” Can God’s heart ache? Doesn’t that mean that God is subject to change, to pain, and therefore to weakness? How do we square that with a hymn like “immortal, invisible” where we find the line, “We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree and wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.”

It was late and there was Port, and the argument went on, but what we are actually exploring was a fundamental question that has been kicking about in Christianity since the beginning. How is it that we can claim to have an almighty, unchanging, powerful God, and at the same time believe that our God loves us, cares for us, and is interested in our lives? How do you manage that without either ending up with a weak God, or a sort of remote, removed, disinterested one?

It’s a theological question – the kind that I find fascinating, but which you don’t often hear expressed in those terms – the technical name for this argument is the question of the Impassibility of God. How subject to change is he?

But you often hear a more applied version of this argument. You will have heard it expressed in the last few months I expect. You probably will have asked it of yourself or someone else. Several of you here this morning have asked it of me. How can God allow this suffering? Why does God allow someone who loves him to get this horrible disease? This terrible tragedy visited upon them? Why didn’t God intervene to stop that plane disappearing? Doesn’t he love those passengers? Doesn’t he love the people of South Sudan? Of Syria? Didn’t they pray hard enough? Isn’t God strong enough to save them, to stop the disease, the earthquake, the murder?

And you know it’s a good question.  And it goes right to the heart of the Christian faith, where you find a person. You’ve heard me preach this before haven’t you? We begin to edge a bit closer to knowing how all of this hangs together when we look at how it is that God operates in the world. We see a bit more of the truth when we consider his agents, and his presence. What he does and through whom he does it.

Look at today’s readings again. God is about to perform one of the most extraordinary acts of the Old Testament – the Exodus. It will fill the pages of the Old Testament from the first chapter of Exodus itself to the first pages of Joshua, five books on. A huge epic narrative of slavery thrown off and freedom gained, of doubt and faith and law and hope and failure and sin and forgiveness. Of land and dirt and power and vision. And how does it begin? A baby, a mum, and a basket.

The supposedly powerful people in this story are remarkably quiet, aren’t they? Pharaoh is a kind of shadowy chap, never really appears. We know what he’s doing, of course, eliminating all the Hebrew boys through infanticide. But he doesn’t feature in this bit of the story – he’s a bit like a pantomime demon lurking in the background. In fact you’ll notice that God is not mentioned once in the reading either. We have a mother, her baby, and a natural, instinctive, profoundly loving urge to protect, to keep safe. And then grace, you might want to call it, meeting her in the form of Pharaoh’s daughter, who knows perfectly well what is going on, reuniting the mother with her child, posing as a wet nurse. Simple, profound love. Risky. So very risky. The natural desire to love and protect her son leaves the mother with one way out only. The basket, the river, and hope. Faith? Who knows?

And this child is Moses, one of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew faith, bringer of the Law, carrier of the Ten Commandments, Architect of what is to come. And it all begins with risk and love.

That’s the key to the impassibility question, it seems to me. Risk and love. These are the hallmarks of God. Look at the New Testament passage. Another mother, another baby, another Son, and more risk. This boy, says Simeon, this boy is going to be trouble. People are not going to like him, he will be opposed. And what is more, what happens to him is going to impact on you. A sword shall pierce your own soul, too. Because that’s what happens in families. Our actions, and the things which are visited upon us impact also on one another. We cry for each other, we laugh with each other. We live and die with one another, because that is what love feels like. And if we can say one thing about God absolutely categorically, it is this: God is love. Not “God feels love”, or God does love, or “God can be really loving.” God is love. It is the essence of his being, it is what he is. If he was made of something, love would be what he is made of, but he isn’t, so it isn’t. But God is love, and love when experienced by humans contains within it risk.

And here’s the last part of the jigsaw: God’s love is like human love, because in Jesus Christ, God is human, as well as being divine. So he loves his mother, and his mother loves him, as did Moses and his mother, and as do we. We love people too, and that is risky.

There’s a fancy theological word for how God loves us which is called kenosis. It just means self-emptying, giving of all of oneself for the other. Now we can’t manage that, though as Christ himself says, for a righteous person someone might actually dare to die. But what God does in Christ is dare to die for everyone, to pour out such risky, brave, daring self-emptying love that the entire world, the entire universe some would want to say, is swept up and along with it, riding as in a basket, but safe in the arms of God. That’s what the Cross is about, and if you want a fancy term for that its Anselmian substitution theory – goodness me we’re doing a lot of theology this morning aren’t we!

God is love – as simple and as profound as that. Can his heart ache? No, I don’t think so, but Christ’s can. And what we see when we gaze at Christ is we see what God is like. A human life lived perfectly, and when God is human, of course his heart breaks – indeed his entire body does, and that’s the story we are about to retell and remember in Holy Week.

But look again at the images we have this morning. See how God loves. Mothers and babies, risk and hope and deep, deep love. See the patterns of holiness in humanity at its best, and see humanity at its best in the face of the man making his slow but steady way towards a Cross and towards a garden.

Amen.