One night a wife found her husband standing over the baby’s cot. Silently she watched him. As he stood looking down at the sleeping infant, she saw on his face a mixture of emotions: disbelief, doubt, delight, amazement, enchantment, scepticism. Touched by this unusual display and the deep emotions it aroused, with eyes glistening she slipped her arm around her husband, “a penny for your thoughts,” she said.
“It’s amazing,” he replied. “I just can’t see how Argos can sell a cot like this for only £39.99”.
Emotions take people in different ways. At a funeral once someone said to me that all I wanted was a hug and they just shook my hand. Yet, at another funeral someone said I couldn’t bear it because people kept touching me.
What I want to consider this morning, is what might this mean for God. What kind of a God do we worship? Does God feel emotions?
Perhaps you think it’s absolutely clear that God does have emotions – of course he does, or how does he empathise with us, feel our pain, share our joys, and so on.
You might, on the other hand, be absolutely clear that there is no way in which God can have emotions. God is God: perfect, unchanging, and indestructible; so how can God possibly be subject to change, which is what emotions are. After all, you can’t be happy unless there is also the possibility of not being happy.
The hymns we’ve sung have reflected this very difference. “God is love, let heaven adore him”, contains within it the phrase – “and when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod, there they find the self-same aching deep within the heart of God.” Can God’s heart ache? Doesn’t that mean that God is subject to change, to pain, and therefore to weakness? How do we square that with a hymn like “Immortal, invisible” where we find the line, “we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree and wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.”
These are fundamental questions which Christians have been talking about since the earliest days. Can we have an almighty, unchanging, powerful God, and at the same time believe that our God loves us, cares for us, and is interested in our lives? How do you manage that without either ending up with a weak God, or a sort of remote, removed, disinterested one?
It’s a theological question – the kind that I find fascinating, but which you don’t often hear expressed in those terms – the technical name for this argument is the question of the Impassibility of God. How subject to change is he?
It’s only one step from there to ask how can God allow this suffering? Why does God allow someone who loves him to get this horrible disease? This terrible tragedy visited upon them? Why didn’t God intervene to stop that plane disappearing? Doesn’t he love those passengers? Doesn’t he love the people of South Sudan? Of Syria? Didn’t they pray hard enough? Isn’t God strong enough to save them, to stop the disease, the earthquake, the murder?
These are good questions, asking how God operates in the world. I’m going to answer them by looking at today’s readings. God is about to perform one of the most extraordinary acts of the Old Testament – the Exodus. It will fill the pages of the Old Testament from the first chapter of Exodus itself to the first pages of Joshua, five books on. A huge epic narrative of slavery thrown off and freedom gained, of doubt and faith and law and hope and failure and sin and forgiveness. Of land and dirt and power and vision. And how does it begin? A baby, a mum, and a basket.
The supposedly powerful people in this story are remarkably quiet. Pharaoh is a kind of shadowy chap, never really appears. We know what he’s doing, of course, eliminating all the Hebrew boys through infanticide. But he doesn’t feature in this bit of the story – he’s a bit like a pantomime demon lurking in the background. In fact you’ll notice that God is not mentioned once in the reading either. We have a mother, her baby, and a natural, instinctive, profoundly loving urge to protect, to keep safe. And then grace, you might want to call it, meeting her in the form of Pharaoh’s daughter, who knows perfectly well what is going on, reuniting the mother with her child, posing as a wet nurse. Simple, profound love. Risky. So very risky. The natural desire to love and protect her son leaves the mother with one way out only. The basket, the river, and hope. Faith? Who knows?
And this child is Moses, one of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew faith, bringer of the Law, carrier of the Ten Commandments, Architect of what is to come. And it all begins with risk and love. Risk and love seem to be the keys to answering these questions. These are the hallmarks of God.
Turning to our New Testament passage. Another mother, another baby, another Son, and more risk. This boy, says Simeon, this boy is going to be trouble. People are not going to like him, he will be opposed. And what is more, what happens to him is going to impact on you. A sword shall pierce your own soul, too. Because that’s what happens in families. Our actions, and the things which are visited upon us impact also on one another. We cry for each other, we laugh with each other. We live and die with one another, because that’s what love feels like. And if we can say one thing about God absolutely categorically, it’s this: God is love. Not “God feels love”, or “God does love”, or “God can be really loving.” God is love. It’s the essence of his being, it’s what God is. If God was made of something, love would be what he’s made of. But God is love, and love when experienced by humans contains within it risk.
And here’s the last part of the jigsaw: God’s love is like human love, because in Jesus Christ, God is human, as well as being divine. So he loves his mother, and his mother loves him, as did Moses and his mother. We love people too, and that is risky.
This is what we see in Christ, emptying himself for us. As Charles Wesley out, “emptied himself of all but love”. What God does in Christ is dare to die for everyone, to pour out such risky, brave, daring, self-emptying love that the entire world, the entire universe, is swept up and along with it, riding as in a basket, but safe in the arms of God. And that’s what the Cross is about.
God is love – as simple and as profound as that. Can God’s heart ache? I know, but Christ’s certainly can. And what we see when we gaze at Christ is what God is like. A human life lived perfectly, and when God is human, of course his heart breaks – indeed his entire body does, and that’s the story we are about to retell and remember in Holy Week.
This morning is about seeing how God loves. Mothers and babies, risk and hope, and deep, deep love. We can see the patterns of holiness in humanity at its best, and see humanity at its best, in the face of the man making his slow but steady way towards a Cross, and beyond that towards a garden.