Many years ago, when I was still newly ordained, I was offered a lift to a conference by a very senior and somewhat dour clergyman. He declared that he was very happy to do the driving, so long as I was ‘capable’ of navigating – although judging by his tone of voice and the rather penetrating look he gave me when he stressed the word ‘capable’, I’m not entirely convinced that he thought I could be left to cross the street unaided, let alone be entrusted with the task of guiding us to an obscure venue somewhere in the north of England – bearing in mind that this was long before the days of satnav and Google maps.
Anyway, anxious to rise to the challenge and demonstrate my navigational competence, I took steps to ensure that I was fully prepared for the task – to the extent that I went out and equipped myself with a brand new, totally up to date and state-of-the-art AA motorists’ road map (if you still remember such things).
We set off and it was all going very well. About an hour and a half into our journey, I alerted him in advance to a forthcoming right turn. ‘It will be easy to spot’, I said, consulting my new map. ‘We pass directly over a stretch of motorway, and our turn comes immediately after that. So we proceeded along the road looking for the motorway that was our landmark, and we kept going, and kept going … considerably further than I was expecting – until it became increasingly obvious that we must had overshot and missed our turn. My colleague, with a sigh of exasperation, turned the car around, and we retraced our route. Still no sign of any motorway, which I had assured him was the key landmark. At which point, my colleague, trying hard to contain his irritation and rolling his eyes skywards, stopped the car and said, ‘Give it here!’ I handed over the map. There was a surprisingly long silence, at the end of which he exclaimed (to my relief and gratification, I have to say): ‘But this is ridiculous! Because there on the map, just as I had said, was the motorway, in glorious technicolor, motorway blue, but in reality there was absolutely no motorway to be seen.
It was only when we spotted a number of bulldozers standing idly in the surrounding fields that realization suddenly dawned that the map that I had bought that morning was so up-to-date, that it was in fact depicting a stretch of motorway that had not yet been built. We had been looking out for something that did not yet exist. But of course, it hadn’t occurred to either of us to question the accuracy of the map, which is why my colleague automatically assumed that the fault must lie with his navigator.
It can be both startling and disorientating to discover that the things in which we are accustomed to putting our trust, often unquestioningly so, turn out to be fallible and at times completely unreliable. And this experience extends well beyond documentary matters, of course. I am delivering this sermon in a week in which a public enquiry has begun into the scandal of the wrongful prosecution of 700 postal workers falsely accused of theft as a consequence of faulty IT accounting system. It had been confidently assumed by the Post Office, that the fault must lie with their employees. A week in which yet more police officers are being charged with grossly offensive conduct; a week in which there have been devastating new revelations regarding the scale and cover-up of clergy sexual abuse in Italy. And I haven’t even touched on the never-ending stream of truly jaw-dropping revelations and allegations relating to the conduct of senior members of our own Government. Little wonder that there is a crisis of trust in our society.
So, the things in human life in which we would normally put our trust, readily and with justification, can sometimes fail us profoundly. Conversely, there are occasions when we come to recognize a profound truth, against all the odds, which reason tells us should make no logical sense whatsoever, but which lived experience demonstrates to be the case.
By any objective standards, the claims of the Christian faith are far-fetched to say the least. It would be one thing to claim that, two thousand years ago, a Galilean carpenter’s son was a wise prophet; a great teacher; and a miracle worker of some renown. But to claim that that man was actually God incarnate is utterly outrageous – indeed, scandalous. How could such a thing be so?
And yet, the disciples of Jesus, reflecting on their own experience of the death and resurrection of Christ and, in the light of those events, looking back to the details of his life and ministry, came to recognize that inexplicable, and perplexing truth: the deep mystery of the true nature and identity of Jesus, the Christ. They knew it to be true, because their lives were transformed by that truth. They knew his love to be utterly authentic, because it cost him everything. It was a truth that required them, as it does us, to look beyond the story of the man Jesus; beyond the accounts of his mysterious powers, and miraculous healings and wise teachings; to look beyond even the cross and resurrection to the power of the Creating, redeeming, sustaining God who is the source of all life and all light.
In our first reading this morning, we heard the famous passage from Genesis describing the Garden of Eden, created by God, and filled with all the the riches of the plant and animal kingdom, and entrusted to humankind for its care and stewardship. The older I get the more astounded I become by the amazing, beautiful, intricate, breathtaking, delicately balanced gift that is God’s wonderful creation. If ever any of us need alerting to the existence of a creative and loving force that far, far surpasses anything that human understanding and ingenuity would ever have the capacity even to dream up, just pause next time you see a butterfly’s wing; or a goldfinch; or a clump of wild flowers, and look upon it with wonder. The existence of God is so manifest around us that we generally don’t even notice it. If you want to see something you can trust – look no further.
After all, is it really preferable to put your trust in the wisdom of human beings, who are busy destroying our Creation while they find reasons to put off the moment when they actually have to face the fact that that is what they are doing? Or to raise up your eyes and look around – and see the truth: that greater and more glorious and more wonderful reality
People often make the mistake of confusing mystery with fantasy, as if they were the same thing. They are not – in fact they are polar opposites. Because fantasy is an escape from reality; whereas mystery is what we encounter when we enter deep into reality’s very heart. Which is also, paradoxically, the point at which good science and good religion have most in common – particularly at the extreme ends of science, the micro and the macro, where we move beyond entities that are measurable by conventional means, and are obliged to work with models and hypotheses. Because in both the life of faith, and some of the extremes ends of scientific research, we are challenged to set aside our assumptions and enter into uncharted territory, seeing where it leads us, testing our models against lived experience, and being ready to be surprised by the outcome, and to be changed by it.
And in the process, we can discover the one reality in which we truly can trust. We can discover the God whose love conquers all; and can we find the courage and the inspiration to embrace a life in his service.
And thanks be to God for that.