Sunday, 3 July 2016

St Thomas the Apostle: God in the darkness

There is a fascinating man in one of our Bible readings today, a man who found out the hard way what true faith looked like. I’m not thinking of Thomas, whose feast day it is today, and who features in our Gospel reading. The man I’m talking about is Habakkuk. Who? The prophet who wrote the book from which our first reading came. 

If I pressed you to name some famous figures from the Bible you might come up with Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul, Abraham, Noah, Adam and Eve, but my guess is you wouldn’t think of Habakkuk. The book he wrote is only three chapters long and it’s sandwiched between Nahum and Zephaniah, equally obscure writers, in the section of the Old Testament known as the minor prophets, but it’s a real gem and it has words which seem to me to be spot on for the times we are now in, times of turmoil and uncertainty.

Habbakuk was a prophet who lived around about 600 BC in Jerusalem and probably worked in the Temple. It was a frightening time for his city and nation. The mighty Babylonian army was advancing on Jerusalem, and it was obvious to everyone that the prospects for the future were grim. People tended to assume then – and some  still do now – that when bad things happened it meant that you’d done something wrong and that God was punishing you. So what did the looming catastrophe mean? Had the people brought it on themselves? Most of Habakkuk’s contemporaries probably thought so, and you’ll find that view in some of the other prophets writing at this time. But Habakkuk wasn’t convinced. Could it really be as simple as that?

His book begins with an angry lament. “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?...Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.”  We could all cry out like that sometimes, in a time of personal crisis, or just watching the 10 o’clock news. Habakkuk is honest with God. “Why… are [you]  silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?   It’s that age old question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” That can be the question that kills faith completely for people, but Habakkuk doesn’t give up.

This morning’s reading follows on from that anquished question.  Habakkuk isn’t going anywhere till he has an answer. “I will stand at my watch-post” he says
, “ I will keep watch to see what [God] will say to me.” 

God doesn’t leave him waiting long. “Write this down” he says.  “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie” It might look to Habakkuk as if it is all over for his nation, but God takes a longer view. This looming catastrophe is just a chapter in the story, not the end of it. “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come!”  

Those people who are proud, the reading goes on- literally puffed up – sooner or later will discover that their self-centredness has eaten away at them. “Their spirit is not right in them” says God to Habakkuk. But those who have put God at the centre of their lives, those who do right to their neighbours, they will live – and the word “live” doesn’t just mean exist. It’s about fullness of life, purposeful life, life that reflects the life of God. There’s no arbitrary punishment or reward going on here. People are shaping their own lives by the choices they make. “The righteous live by their faith” – literally it means they live faithfully, steadfastly, and that makes all the difference. Their lives may not look successful or glamorous to anyone else, but they have a kind of life that will sustain them through whatever trials come their way, and overflow to bless others too.  That’s Habakkuk’s message.

And that brings us onto Thomas, that doubting disciple in the gospel reading whom the church celebrates today. Thomas too seems to believe that worldly success is a sign of God’s blessing.  It’s not just that he doubts the physical fact of the resurrection; it was that he couldn’t believe that God could be in the awful events he’d just witnessed at all, the agonising death of Jesus on the cross. The Old Testament taught that anyone who was crucified was cursed by God, so surely he would never let such a thing happen to his Messiah, the one he’d chosen. The crucifixion wasn’t just an emotional, personal blow to Jesus’ followers; it was a spiritual and theological blow too. They had believed that Jesus was sent by God, that God was in him, but how could that be if he’d met with this awful fate?

So, when the rest of the disciples say to Thomas “We have seen the Lord”, he’s shocked. It isn’t just the possibility of resurrection that he can’t grasp, but the fact that they are calling Jesus “Lord” – giving him that status. How can he be Lord, if God has let him die on a cross?

That’s why it isn’t enough simply for him to see Jesus, raised from death. He needs to see Jesus’ wounds too. Only then can he get his head around the idea that his crucifixion wasn’t a sign of rejection and failure. Only then can he start to believe that God might be at work in disaster, in woundedness, in brokenness.

And it was going to be vital for Thomas to understand this. According to tradition he went on to take the Gospel to India and was martyred there. His death must have looked like failure too, just like Jesus’, yet the Indian church which still bears his name, the Mar Thoma church, sees it as the beginning of their story. As Habakkuk said,  “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” and it isn’t the kind of vision we have, a short-sighted, limited vision, but one which is rooted in the endless love of God, which sees things we are blind to.

We need Habakkuk and Thomas’  message, because we struggle just as much as they did to see God’s presence in times of trouble. This week, the people of Turkey suffered another appalling attack, at Istanbul airport. Many people were killed and injured. Where is God in that? And that’s just one in a long litany of disasters in a world that is wracked with hatred.

Closer to home I expect we have all been watching with concern the ripples spreading out in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Whether you were a “leaver” or a “remainer” or didn’t vote at all, anyone with a heart would be concerned about the reported rise in racist harassment which has happened over the last week. Many immigrants are reporting verbal attacks and intimidation. None of us can feel happy, either, at the spectacle of our two largest political parties fracturing, effectively leaderless. That can’t be good for the nation.

Many people who have spoken to me this week have expressed shock – including those who voted to leave. We struggle to see God in all of this – it just feels like a mess. We’d rather it all just went away. Our instinct is to smooth things over, to try to ignore the turmoil. But that may not be the best way forward.

The former bishop of Tonbridge, Brian Castle, wrote a very thought provoking blog post in the aftermath of the referendum. It was rather oddly titled, “Now is NOT the time for reconciliation.” That seems strange, and anyone who knows Bishop Brian will know that he is a very peace loving man, so what can he have meant? Here’s an extract from what he said, which might make it clearer.

“Working for reconciliation now would be like putting sellotape on a septic wound.  It may hold everything together on the surface, but beneath there is poison festering away, ready to break out once it has built up pressure and momentum. While we need to be kind and charitable to one another, aware of the deep hurt and divisions caused by this divisive campaign, we should not try to bring about reconciliation.  Reconciliation can only happen when the roar of battle has died down, when all involved regard themselves as equal (there can be no ‘victims’ when pursuing reconciliation) and when people can talk to each other about their hopes, aspirations and fears.  Reconciliation also requires all parties to be open to change for the sake of the other. To do all this requires an honest look at the campaign and a willingness to face up to some of the demons that were and are prowling in the darkness.”              

What he is saying is that rushing to make it all feel better means ignoring the real issues, the mess, the demons in the darkness. We want to do that because it feels more comfortable to us, but real healing means staying with the hurt, staying with the difficulty, believing that God can be in that hurt and difficulty, the God who gives life in all its fullness, who brings Jesus through the darkness of death, rather than sidestepping it. Jesus suffers the wounds the world inflicts on him, so that he can open the way for us all to find in our woundedness new life that is real and lasting. 

Habakkuk’s prophecy ends with one of the most beautiful bits of poetry in the Bible. It is a hymn of praise, to be sung in the midst of trouble, not denying it or skirting round it, a hymn which affirms that God is present even when there are no easy answers and no miraculous escapes on offer.
I’ll leave the last words to him.  

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold  and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;  he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights.                                (Habakkuk 3.17-19)


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