He spent his youth, like so many other young people, in the restless pursuit of pleasure. He studied at university, he went to plenty of wild and generous parties, he got drunk quite a lot quite often, and of course he chased women. He had a long-term mistress, and he was very lucky that she cleaned and cooked for him, indeed she even bore him a son, but he never married her.
Yet in spite of all this self-indulgence, he was never satisﬁed. He thought that there must be more to life than all that he had. So, he read the philosophers, and learnt that life was a struggle between light and darkness. The whole material world and the desires of the ﬂesh were the realm of darkness, and we must have nothing to do with it. So, he ditched his mistress without providing for her, and he set off on a teaching career.
Who was he?
His name was Augustine, and he was born in North Africa during the Roman Empire. He went to lecture in Rome, and then Milan, but he was still working on his own inner struggle. The oriental religion of Manichaeism, from which he’d learnt his ideas, didn’t tell him how to put them into practice. He listened to the sermons of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and wondered whether Christianity was the answer. One day he heard a child singing, ‘Take up and read, take up and read!’ He picked up a copy of the Bible, and it fell open at the words, ‘not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the ﬂesh, to gratify its desires.’ He and his son were baptized, to the relief of his Christian mother Monica who never stopped praying for him. Eventually he went home to North Africa, where he was made bishop of a town called ‘Hippo’.
Ten years after his conversion, he wrote an autobiography, which concentrated on his feelings, and took the form of a long prayer to God. A famous phrase lies at the heart of the story, when he says to God, ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they ﬁnd rest in you.’
I wonder whether that’s how some of us feel sometimes? Perhaps we might have everything material that we could wish for, but feel unfulfilled? Or perhaps any number of concerns leave us feeling unsettled? For whatever reason, perhaps questions keep crossing your mind like, ‘what am I here for?’ ‘What is the meaning of life?’ ‘Is there anything beyond this life?’
When we find ourselves with questions, they can’t always be answered. In many respects, it’s unfortunate that as we grow up we leave behind the infant’s capacity for asking endless questions. Modern educational experts all stress the importance of asking questions, and although, in previous generations, some parts of the church have not been keen on questions, to be true to ourselves and to God we need to affirm that asking questions should always be positively encouraged in church.
But questions are unsettling when we cannot find answers. A cartoon I once saw has someone asking, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could do something about it”.
“What’s stopping you?”
“I’m afraid God might ask me the same question”.
But even when we cannot finds answers to the questions, God doesn’t leave us alone. The living Christ is with us to re-assure us, support us, encourage us, heal us, and save us; and the Holy Spirit, is how God is living and working in us, and in this and all of God’s church, and all of God’s world. One reminder of this is in our Holy Communion: as we break bread and share it together, as we share wine together, Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, turning this into a celebration meal of a living presence. We are not alone.
Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel reminds us that Jesus looks us in the face when we’re at our lowest, and says to us: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will ﬁnd rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. It isn’t easy being a Christian, but it is a far lighter burden to carry than being with God and without hope. If you know that Jesus loves you, you are never alone. The purpose of our life is to love Jesus in return, love everybody else for his sake, as we are loved by him, and as we experience that love through others loving us. At the end of the road lies a life of joy and happiness, free from worry, with Jesus and all those whom we love in the unimaginable life we call heaven.
God doesn’t answer all our questions, at least not in ways and time that we can always understand this side of eternity, but Christ himself enters into our questions alongside us. There is a South American theologian, Leonardo Boff, who said that, “God does not answer our questions, but, in Jesus, God enters into the very heart of our questions”. God does not answer our questions, but, in Jesus, God enters into the very heart of our questions.
And so, I end where I began, with St Augustine. There’s a prayer of his, in the front of our hymns books, which offers strength as we try to live the life to which Jesus calls, allowing him to help us bear our burdens with his yoke, and so I invite those of you wish to, to join me in praying that prayer together:
Lord, you are great, and greatly to be praised.
Awaken us to delight in your praises,
for you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in you.