In our Breathing Space services this Advent I've been exploring a little of what it means to have a communicative God, a God who speaks and listens to us. In this last session I’d like to shift the focus from God to ourselves, because communication is a two way street. We can communicate by giving a lecture – or a sermon – or through a letter or poster or email or text message, but if that was all we ever did we would end up feeling very lonely. We might get our message out but we’d never build any relationships. A relationship in which the parties simply make announcements to one another or lecture one another isn't going to last very long! So it is with God. What he longs for is not simply a mute and obedient audience but a conversation, something dynamic, something alive.
Often people have modelled their relationship with God on the relationship they might expect to have with a great and powerful sovereign. He is so often called King and Lord, that it’s easy to simply assume he is like an earthly ruler, writ large. I've been watching Lucy Worsley’s television programmes about the six wives of Henry VIII over the last few weeks. They've been fascinating as a glimpse into the world of the Tudor court, and the extreme care with which everyone had to approach the king, fitting in with his whims, observing the strict etiquette, knowing that if they put a foot wrong they would be in deep, and possibly fatal, trouble. That was how kings were, in Tudor times and in the times of the Bible. But it’s not how God is.
We might think of him as a king, but he isn't one who expects us to wait to speak until we are spoken to, or to guard our words with exaggerated care around him. This is the Creator who came walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening looking for the man and the woman he had made simply for the sake of their company, and was bitterly disappointed when he discovered they were hiding from him. This is the one who wants us to cry to him “out of the depths”, as the Psalmist put it. We don’t have to guard our words with him, any more than we would with our best friend. A friend is someone who we know will continue to love us when we are less than sparkling company or need someone to have an unreasonable rant at, someone who wants to hear what’s troubling us, even if ends up troubling them too. God wants to hear from us. We don’t have to wait for a gilt-edged invitation, as we would for an audience with the Queen. We don’t have to worry that a word out of order will see us consigned to the outer darkness.
A true friend listens to us, but equally a true friend is someone who we want to listen to as well. If our relationship with God is true and deep we’ll want to listen to him, to trust his good intentions for us, to take seriously what we hear from him. Sometimes that might mean a very definite message – that happens more often than you might suppose. Sometimes, though, it will be a Bible verse that strikes us, or a conversation with someone else which has an impact beyond what we would expect, or it might be something that happens in our lives. It’s important that we test out those perceptions – not every stray thought that pops into our heads is a message from the Almighty – but if we take our relationship with God seriously then we will want to take time to weigh up what we think he might be saying to us. After all the extraordinary circumstances of the birth of Jesus, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She didn't just shrug her shoulders and say “probably just the hormones of childbirth swilling around – I expect everyone imagines angels and shepherds and such like…” She pondered all that had happened, turned it over in her mind, took it seriously, even if she didn’t fully understand it at the time.
The shepherds too responded to what they’d heard, in a very different way. They told others, and glorified God. The news was so good they couldn't contain it. The sovereign God, the one who they thought of as dwelling in unapproachable light in a far distant heaven, was lying in a manger in a smelly stable in their own village, and he’d chosen them to reveal this news first of all.
The Word was made flesh in Christ. Perhaps that was the only way we would ever really be able to grasp how God feels about us. He came to us as a human child, not so that he could understand what it is to be human, but so that we could understand how deeply we’re loved. In Christ, God spoke to us from within our human condition, in that speechless child, so that we would know that even when we have no words to express ourselves he is with us.
In the silence tonight let us, like Mary, ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts.