I had the opportunity to preach at my church yesterday. Here is the sermon I gave:
Galatians 5: 13-23:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”[b] 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Isaiah 42: 10-13:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
you islands, and all who live in them.
11 Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices;
let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice.
Let the people of Sela sing for joy;
let them shout from the mountaintops.
12 Let them give glory to the Lord
and proclaim his praise in the islands.
13 The Lord will march out like a champion,
like a warrior he will stir up his zeal;
with a shout he will raise the battle cry
and will triumph over his enemies.
The children of our church (my own included) recently went on a Royal Rangers camp based on the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. There are so many lessons, illustrations and passages that can be taken to use as sermons from such a rich book, the one that has always stood out to me from a theological perspective is when the Pevensie children are with the Beavers and are first told about Aslan, when Lucy asks:
“Then he isn’t safe?”
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
It’s only natural that people, especially children, want to feel safe. So why do I find this answer so satisfying? Why do we praise God for being a mighty warrior? Why does that reassure us?
Because a God who is safe, who is harmless, has no power to protect us from the dangers we face in this world. A kitten or puppy enriches our lives and makes us feel good, but it is no help against a wild animal, an invading army or tyrannical government. Safety, protection, requires strength, and our God is almighty. Good news!
While we’re on the topic of God’s omnipotence, people often ask the question:
“Can God make a stone so big that he can’t lift it?”
And think that they are asking something clever, as if showing that omnipotence itself is a contradiction. But this comes from a misunderstanding of what omnipotence is.
This becomes clearer when we break the question into two parts. The key is the second part: Can there be a stone so big that God can’t lift it? Of course not; size and mass are no obstacle to an omnipotent God. This is a logical impossibility, nonsensical. Now is the time for another favourite quote of mine from Mr. Lewis, this time from The Problem of Pain:
“…meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can.’ It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”
So asking whether God can create something logically impossible, in this case a stone too big for God to lift, remains nonsensical. Omnipotence means being able to achieve anything that power can achieve. Let’s keep nonsense out of our discussions, and take God seriously.
So, God is omnipotent, and this concept makes sense, but strength, by itself, is not enough to reassure us. Bullies and tyrants are stronger than their victims (though they are not stronger than the strength of all their victims added together, which is why they like to keep people divided and fighting each other). I’m reminded of the American saying from the 1950’s (and probably earlier)
“A government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take everything you have.”
Everyone in this country (the Czech Republic) over the age of 40 has experienced this under Communism, and many people across the world, even in supposedly free countries, are experiencing it now. I don’t know about you, but I don’t place much trust in politicians and bureaucrats to not abuse their powers. This is why the second half of Mr Beaver’s remark is so important. Aslan is not safe, but he’s good.
Our God is not just dangerous, omnipotent, he’s also good, goodness itself. God’s unlimited power is reassuring because of his unlimited goodness, his love, his kindness, gentleness, and generosity, his forgiveness, his patience with us.
God is dangerous to the world, because he is stronger than it and better than it, he uses and turns around the world’s evil schemes to achieve something wonderful in the long term, even though in the short term things can get very unpleasant. He also shows us a better way to live to resist being part of the world’s evil. This is why the world hates Him and those who follow Him
Coming back to the first text, the world wants us to be impure, deceitful, angry, jealous, divided and out of control, because those kinds of people are easy to manipulate. It’s easy to point at someone and say, “That person is the problem, those people are the source of all the evil and danger you see around you, pour out all of your pent-up uncontrollable rage and cruelty on them. Whenever you start to feel bad about something you’ve done, look at today’s target and see that they are worse than you. Punish them, destroy them! Then you’ll be the deliverer of justice and can drown out your own guilt (for now).”
God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that. We are called to be productive, capable, self-controlled, loving, generous, kind, merciful and joyful. When we see someone doing something evil, our reaction should not be “Ha! I’m better than you!”, but instead “Without God’s grace, that could’ve been me.” We are not called to control other people, to make their choices for them, or take away all consequences of their actions; that’s not what God does with us.
[*Indeed, as Lewis opines elsewhere in “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” essay found in God in the Dock:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”]
God allows us the freedom to make mistakes, take the consequences and learn and grow from them. In this life his primary interest is in our salvation and our character, in the direction we are growing. Unfortunately, in order to truly pay attention to an issue and learn, it often takes a lesson that hurts.
That’s not to say that we should remain passive; we should stand up for what is right, and if we see someone doing something truly evil and dangerous, and it is within our power to stop them, then we should try to, but not with the goal of destroying them, but to give them a chance to see sense, repent and turn their life around.
Our God is not safe, but he’s good, and our king. He calls us to be free. As we serve him, and in our dealing with others, let’s try to be like Him.
(*unfortunately the Czech translation of God in the Dock only contains about a third of the essays in the original and omits this one, so I was unable to use it in the sermon, hence this section being in square brackets)