The Lord Comforts
A sermon preached by Canon Kenneth Padley, Treasurer
Sunday 09 October 2022, The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Psalm 144; Nehemiah 6.1-16; John 15.12-end
Donald Trump might have enjoyed chatting with Nehemiah, the Jewish hero of tonight’s first lesson who built a wall to make Jerusalem great again. Nehemiah was working in the mid-fifth century BC to rebuild the holy city after its destruction by Babylonians more than a century earlier. He was a consummate politician. As we heard, his enemies tried to lure him to a defenceless place where they might assassinate him. Next they spread Fake News, claiming he wanted to be king. Finally, they sowed internal disinformation, suggesting through the false prophet Shemaiah that Nehemiah should hide in the Temple, an action which Nehemiah regarded as sinful (possibly because he was a eunuch) and which would certainly have made him appear weak.
When faced with these pitfalls, threats as big as any which confront politicians today, Nehemiah drew strength from God. His very name, Nehemiah, means ‘the Lord comforts’. Note also his statement of faith at the end of tonight’s passage. When all the enemies heard that the wall was finished, they were afraid, quote … ‘for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.’
Given this, I wonder if Nehemiah found resonance between his circumstances and the start of tonight’s Psalm: ‘Blessed be the Lord … my fortress, my castle, my defender’… (Psalm 144.1-2). If Nehemiah did know this Psalm, what did he make of it?! For what does it mean to say that God is our fortress and castle when we are buffeted by the challenges of life, let alone the plots and propaganda of opponents? To claim that God is our defence, asks some big questions about what God is like and the words we use about him.
For when it comes to language about God, we find ourselves in a bind. God exists beyond time and space – but we only have the things of time and space with which to describe him. We have art and music and words – but how can these bridge the void between heaven and earth in any meaningful sense?
The Christian tradition offers two propositions. One is called the via positiva, the positive way; the other the via negativa, the negative way. Let’s examine each in turn.
The via positiva proceeds from the premise that human words, despite their limitations, might nonetheless have some purchase on the nature and activity of God. The via positiva basically works from the good things we see around us to say that ‘God is like that’ – but is much greater. Thus, God is like earthly wisdom – but dialed to the max. God is like a fortress – but stronger than any earthly citadel. The difference is of degree where God represents perfection and his creatures considerably less.
Medieval theologians made a further subdivision in the via positiva between analogies and metaphors. Speaking about analogies, Thomas Aquinas, said that abstract qualities such as wisdom and goodness are primarily predicated of God: they exist in perfection in God’s essence, and we see them in lesser proportions on earth.
Aquinas realized that such abstract qualities bear a closer relationship to God than more concrete terms such as that fortress and castle in tonight’s Psalm. Concrete earthly terms like fortress and castle are not analogies but metaphors: their primary predication does not refer to God but to things on earth; they are applied to God only in a secondary sense because our earthly concepts of fortress and castle call to mind more abstract qualities found in God. Thus the Psalmist called God a castle not because God has walls and a gate but because God is a spiritual defence when we’re in trouble.
From the via positiva we learn that not every word and sentence in the Bible means what it says on the surface. There are those who claim to be biblical ‘literalists’ because they long for clarity when they open scripture. But it has never been that simple. For example, when Jesus says, ‘I am the vine’, he doesn’t mean he has sprouted roots and leaves. And when in tonight’s second lesson he says that Christians, as branches of that vine, are to bear fruit we instinctively know that he’s not after apples and pears. Indeed, there is no such thing as a purely ‘literal’ reading of the Bible, because all readers of scripture find themselves grappling with text which needs interpretative nuance.
Let’s turn now to the second approach to religious language which I introduced earlier, that is the via negativa. If the positive way proceeds from the premise that there must be some connection (however faint) between earthly language and God, the negative way works on the opposite principle. The via negativa is mindful of the vast gulf between us and the almighty and so insists that it is sometimes better to say that God is not like the things we see around us – not, for instance, like earthly wisdom and not like a castle – because God is so radically different, so amazingly greater than us.
This may seem a recipe for mystery at best and confusion at worst. Nonetheless, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides argued that we can actually build up some image of God even from the negative way. Maimonides gives this example:
A person may know for certain that a ‘ship’ is in existence, but he may not know to what object that name is applied…; a second person then learns that a ship is not a mineral, a third, that it is not a plant growing in the earth, a fourth, that it is not a body whose parts are joined together by nature; a fifth, that it is not a flat object like boards or doors; a sixth that it is not a sphere; a seventh, that it is not a point; an eighth, that it is not round shaped…; a ninth that it is not solid.
Maimonides concluded that the ninth person has a better understanding of what a ship is than the first, purely through arguments constructed negatively. Just so, via negativa arguments can supply meaningful language with which to talk about God.
Western Christians don’t spend enough time with the via negativa. The result of this is that God becomes too familiar and cosy. We are at risk of making God in our own image, an idol of our crafting. The via negativa offers an antidote because it reminds us of our limitations and of the fundamental Otherness of God. For some, the negative way may seem an unsettlingly dark path to travel. However, it can bring a sense of wonder and awe to those who walk along it. That was the experience of seventeenth-century priest, Henry Vaughan who wrote this in his poem The Night:
There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.
We have come a long way from Nehemiah and the reconstruction of Jerusalem. Nehemiah built his wall for practical purposes. Crucially however, and in addition, he knew that there was meaning in metaphor and so he trusted in God. And that’s the bit I’d really like him to share with Donald. Amen.
 Summa Theologica, 1a.13.2.
 Davies, Brian Thinking About God 128-9 – simplified; my italics.
 My italics.