Before Lent: God of Surprises

The Reverend Margaret Legg

"May I pay for this Culture Vulture Venture in bitcoins?", I was asked last week! Only at St John’s…. so for a congregation absolutely in tune with cutting edge technology, to tell Alexa: "Put eggs on the shopping list" is probably par for the course. But I was completely caught out when I heard one of my children saying this the other day. "Oh mum, we don’t write a shopping list anymore. We just tell Alexa!"

Just in case, like me, you’re not up to speed, Alexa (named after the ancient library of Alexandria) is Amazon’s voice-control system. It lets you speak your wishes to an Echo smart speaker and see them fulfilled—at least simple ones:

Alexa, what is the weather in Los Angeles?
Alexa, play music
Alexa, what is the tune to ‘Wibble wobble jelly on the plate'? Kitchen!

(-- as opposed to the speakers in the sitting room and bedroom)

Alexa, tell the time

 (-- wall mounted, battery operated clocks are so old hat)

Well, life’s full of surprises. Today’s gospel is a surprise. We last heard it on Christmas Day. We’re only 2 Sundays away from Lent. It’s to remind us of why Jesus came, to remind us that we can now become ‘children of God’. That means that each of us who believe in Christ, in whom Christ lives and is at work, belongs to God.

Just as God and man were united in the one person of Christ – there’s a lovely Greek word to describe this: the hypostatic union - so it is now possible for each of us to be united with God, not through coercion or fear, but through God’s love for us, in coming to live as a human being. There is no longer any division between our human nature and the divine nature. We are children of God.

The incarnation was a surprise. It shouldn’t have been. Yet it was such a surprise that even though the world was made by him, the world did not know him. He had spoken creation and humanity into being at the beginning, yet his own people did not accept him.  The voice of Wisdom emerged from the depths of the unknowable mystery of God as God’s voice. Proverbs uses beautiful poetry to speak of this mystery and John in his prologue echoes this language, using the term Word to describe Jesus, emphasising that the one who breathed life into the very first of God’s children on earth is no other than the one who now brings new life: ‘the power to become children of God’.

So how do we live as children of God? Not by copying Alexa. Will Alexa, I wonder, ever be able to suss out our motivations and their likely consequence. Will faith and spirituality ever be mapped out rationally and factually? I do wonder, will we ever reproduce in technology, emotions, care for others, feelings.

Well, here’s the rub. To live as children of God means trying to live at a higher and nobler level than perhaps we ordinarily do. When God in Jesus took on our human nature he didn’t embrace the bits of us that are ungodly. Yes, Jesus felt sorrow and wept; anger and lashed out; compassion and healed; delight and rejoiced. Yet I don’t recall that he was selfish, arrogant, greedy or jealous. As children of God we are to live in the same way, focusing on Christ and keeping away from our inclination to be self-centred and from our self-assertive desires. So we have to be aware of and to defeat these ungodlike aspects in each of us.

The bar is set high. No wonder Jesus was persecuted and killed. That response is a measure of just how far we had strayed from our origins – from those first times when we delighted in God’s company just as he delights in humanity’s.

Fortunately, the gospel encourages us. In the dark times, with God’s help, we will get through - the darkness did not overcome the light.This means that when things go pear shaped, as they tend to, we are not taken by surprise, we are not afraid, we do not give up, because we know we can get through it and come out the other end. Rather, I thought, like the conviction of Crossrail’s chairman, Sir Terry Morgan, when he spoke at the Transport for London Board Meeting this week. Things are surprisingly tough at the moment, but they will get through.

Now you can’t believe what the papers say, so I do exercise a degree of scepticism about the article the Evening Standard printed on Crossrail and its challenges. However, I trust our Crossrail man in the hot seat will put me fully in the picture after the service! Evidently there have been enormous and unexpected problems to do with an electrical explosion each of the three times engineers have tried to switch-on the high-voltage power in the East London section. So the project may be delayed and go seriously over budget. No solution has been found yet. Sir Terry Morgan, is quoted as saying: ’I don’t know what more we can do. When we’ve had problems we’ve scratched our head and tried to find the best people in the world. We have either got them, or, if we haven’t got them, we have gone and got them.’ Keep going, there will be light at the end of the tunnel. It was the absence of blame, the acknowledgement that his people were the best and the sense that eventually all will be well, that struck me.

Life all too often does not go our way, and it is no good feeling it is our right that what we want to happen does automatically happen.

We don’t really understand how intelligent systems work. So AI is to be treated with care. It has the potential to be dangerous; it may remove more jobs than it creates. On the other hand, straight through processes, to use IT speak, have been around for years eg ATM’s introduced – the end of cashiers? No! Bar codes to be swiped, instead of painstakingly entered digit by digit – the end of queues in the supermarket till? Sadly, no!

Neither do we really understand how God works. It’s beyond the capacity of the human brain to imagine. John uses poetry to describe the indescribable. But we do know that from Logos, the word, which is Christ, we derive logic – reason and purpose –and that there is a profound logic to creation, to the infusion and interaction of life in countless and still undiscovered and undreamt of ways. All too often what happens in each of our lives defies all logic. There will be surprises along the way. But as children of God we will not be overcome.