The first time I met Effie Osmond, who many of you will remember as a stalwart of our Church community, former post-mistress and a character in the finest of English traditions, I visited her in hospital. I was new to this wonderful parish and I entered with some trepidation, Effie’s reputation cut quite a wake before her.
I was wearing my dog-collar and as I entered the ward I introduced myself to her as I always do….’Hello my name is Ali, I’m the new vicar here’. …. she looked at me quizzically for quite a few seconds before intoning rather powerfully ‘oh YOU’RE ALISTAIR! I shall not be calling you Ali ‘ I was somewhat take aback. Very few people call me by my given name, even my Mum, who was never very adept at accepting the wishes of her children as being valid opinions had called me Ali since I was a teenager.
My self-identity is in being Ali. I am not Alistair and I feel no affinity with that name whatsoever. In fact if you were to call that name out in a crowded room it would probably take me a while to realise that you were talking to me. Indeed after my encounter with Effie, I spent some time considering whether I should actually change my name by deed-poll – that is how strongly I felt about it. And I realise that it can cause confusion, more than once online, or before some one phones me they assume I am a woman, fortunately I feel comfortable enough in myself to cope with that!
The thing is, though it might seem arrogant to self identify with any name other than the one you were given, knowing who you are is an important step in both our self-knowledge and our external relationships. Just as it is important to know who the important people in your lives are, to know them for their passions, their abilities, their foibles and weaknesses and yes, to know them for their failings.
As most of you know I have had a mixed relationship with my parents, and part of the deeply difficult year that we’ve just happily said goodbye to has been coming to terms with knowing who they were, discovering, in some cases, what I thought was true was not, and trying to understand how and why they behaved as they did. Death has a habit of bringing the need for clarity and resolution in relationships especially relationships that have not always been easy.
It is important to really know who it is we have these relationships with.
Maybe it’s just me, but I know that before I meet someone for the first time I tend to build up a picture in my mind of what they look like, how they might act. It can be based on many things: what I know of the person or their reputation, on conversations I may have had with them on the phone, or emails I have exchanged with them. It may even be based on a single photo I’ve gleaned from an internet profile or similar. But I build this mental picture of the person I am to meet.
And nearly always I am proved to be 100% wrong in my mental pictures.
I have a picture in my mind of a person, even though I have not met them.
In the same way, growing up in a family that didn’t do God, I had a mental picture of this deity I had never met. I wasn’t even sure he existed, but none the less I knew what He was like (as an aside I know even the most ardent Atheist does this, from the millions of articles that the Atheist community have written about the God they don’t believe in!) I had a mental picture of who God is even though I had never met him.
Even when I came to faith and entered into the life of the Church I didn’t find anyone who was willing to actually describe God to me. I was told to have faith in God, to believe in him and the good attributes we know come from God. But God himself was never described to me. All I had ever seen were those pictures of Christ many of us have seen. Jesus with long blond hair, blue eyes, holding a sheep or looking meekly at a group of Children. An insipid, western, cleaned up Jesus, one that fitted the outlook of victorian and edwardian society. A society that couldn’t cope with the idea that Jesus wasn’t exactly like US. A society that couldn’t cope with the reality of being anyone in 1st century Palestine with the dirt and the lack of hygiene. That couldn’t cope with the idea that Jesus was olive skinned not white Anglo-Saxon and the connotations that would mean for the inequality of their society.
But even if we could get a picture perfect image of Christ as he was when he walked the earth, it would only go so far to describe God, for it would only describe the contained, incarnated God, the one who squeezed himself into our frail human form in order to meet with us in the only way we could understand him.
Now I don’t mean to harsh on the people of faith that I became part of when I came to faith or those of previous generations that did what they could with the information and their understanding of who God is. Most of us would have difficulty in describing God. I mean where do you start if you want to describe the indescribable?
SM Lockridge had a pretty good attempt when he said this: http://thatsmyking.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/thats-my-king-bj-audio.mp3
Lockridge’s words come from his own deep knowledge of the God described in scripture, the God he has encountered in the word, but more than that, the God he knows in his life through the work of the spirit.
It is vital that we, as believers, do all we can to really know who God is, because we live in an age that says to us ‘God is…..whoever you want him to be, as long as you believe it in your heart, with sincerity’ So we live in a time when people say ‘believe in whatever you want to, and it’s true as long as you deeply believe it’
But that is not what God says. If we remember that encounter with Moses – God says ‘I am who I am’ not ‘I am who you want me to be’ It doesn’t make any more sense to do this with God than it does anyone else. It’s be like me saying ‘you know, in my heart I truly believe that Prince William is a 6ft Tall Asian man’ and then Bill saying ‘ah but I know in my heart the William is a ‘4ft 5 black man’ and someone else saying to both of us ‘well in a way, you are both right Prince William his anything you want him to be’ The two images cannot both be true…….
So why do we think we can do it with God?
The trouble is that God doesn’t fit our expectations. Partly because our expectations can never be big enough to truly understand who God is, and partly because he defies our expectations with the eternal reverse-economy of the heavenly kingdom.
When the Magi set out to follow the star, when they went on their journey of discovery to seek the God born into the world they had little idea of what to expect, they certainly were not looking for a baby resting in a filthy animal feeding trough on an exposed Judean hillside. We know for a fact that their expectations overruled their knowledge when they went to Herod instead of trusting in their wisdom that would have led them to the Christ.
Why did the Jewish leaders have such trouble accepting Jesus as the Messiah, even though we can see his fulfilment of the ancient prophecies? Why do Jews today still not recognise Him as the Saviour they are still awaiting? Because God is God – he works to his own agenda and does things in his own ways – he defies our expectations in how he works, he thwarts our ideas of who he is and he surprises us at every turn. He cuts through the human limitations that stop us from truly seeing him at work.
And yet he has given us enough to know him if we truly want to.
He has given us scripture as a reference and testament to his identity. He has given us the life of Jesus as an example and inspiration to his true identity and he has left his spirit to work with our human failings of understanding to truly reveal himself to us.
One of the definitions of the word Epiphany is:
“A comprehension or perception of reality by means of a sudden intuitive realisation:”
God has given us all the tools we need to truly know him. But he leaves us to want to know him. To put the work and the effort in. To read his words about himself, to see him revealed through the words of the bible, by the life of Jesus and through the work of his spirit. To spend time with him, to pray and listen for his voice. We have to train ourselves to do it, and like all training we have to practice it to remain sharp and alert. Like the athlete who has to keep herself in tip top condition by regularly training we have to keep ourselves spiritually sharp by reading the bible and intentionally seeking God.
We can truly know God, that was his gift to us when he lived and died and raised his Son for us. And in the gift of the holy spirit as our counsellor and guide through this world.
He leaves the responsibility for seeking him with us. And to really know Him.
Also published on the Sermon section of the St Mary’s Website (smlm.co.uk) from 9:30am on Sunday 5th Jan 2014