1 John 3:16-20; Matt 3:1-6, Mark 1:9-13
6th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 24.07.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Over the past two weeks we have been thinking about how we experience God, some of the many ways in which God chooses to draw close to us and make himself known. Two weeks ago, we thought about how God draws close to many of us through nature and through friends. Last week, we thought about how God draws close through our minds, our emotions and through rhythms and routines.
Well, today we are thinking about further ways in which we may experience God. As we said last week, some of these things may resonate more than others. We are unique individuals, and our relationship with God is unique too.
For some people, an important way in which they experience God closely with them is through rich sensory experiences. I remember the first church I went to where they used incense. At first I found it somewhat overwhelming and distracting, but over the next few weeks, it began to grow on me. It was a smell that was unique to that place, so whenever I arrived and smelt the smell it began to prepare me – this was a holy place, a place to meet with God. This place was special. It may not just be incense. It may be the scent of flowers, or a scented candle.
Or it may be through the sense of touch that we experience the closeness of God. I was chatting to a member of our congregation last weekend about mediterranean churches and about the wonderful coolness of those buildings even on the hottest of days. You can step inside their doors and suddenly be enveloped by a wonderful peaceful calm. Or it may be the human touch, a simple hand on the shoulder at a time of struggle. Or it may be at communion, that receiving of something tangible in one’s hand, physically touching something that symbolises so much to us. God can draw close to us through touch.
Or we may experience our senses enriched through what we see or hear. For some that may be through extraordinary art, whether its centuries’ old religious art in churches or huge modern installations like we may find in the Tate Modern. Or it may be through beautiful buildings, buildings that have the ability to evoke awe and wonder. I remember the first time I went into the British Museum shortly after the great courtyard had been re-opened. A dark, dingy courtyard had been transformed into a stunning space of light.
In those moments when our senses are filled it is good to stop and pause and recognise that this may be a place where God is drawing near, a place where God is seeking to make himself known.
I wonder, for you, when are those moments when your senses are most richly filled, when you are experiencing the richness, the beauty of life? How might they be pointers of the way God is drawing close to you? And are there ways we can use our senses more when we are praying and thinking about God?
In parallel with this tradition of experiencing and celebrating the richness of our senses, the church has throughout the centuries also recognised that God also draws close to many through acts of fasting and discipline, through the temporary withdrawal from sensory experiences. In this morning’s Gospel reading, we see this with John the Baptist. He wore simple clothes, he ate locusts and wild honey (hardly a Michelin starred menu) and he lived out in the barrenness of the wilderness. And we see it with Jesus. Shortly after his baptism, he goes into the wilderness for forty days. In the early centuries of the church, many monks, who became known as Desert Fathers, would go into the deserts of north Africa to pray, to reduce the amount of sensory distraction. Slightly more relatable for parents of young children, Susannah Wesley, the mother of Charles and John Wesley, would at times in her crowded kitchen put her apron over her head to pray, to cut out distractions.
For many Christians today, giving up or taking up something for Lent proves to be an important part of their Christian journey. They may choose to fast from TV, or social media, or the news and sport, or from chocolate and alcohol, none of these things bad in themselves, but capable of being a continual distraction. The time released can be used to pray or to do other constructive things that bring us into a greater awareness of God’s presence.
Others choose to make other forms of discipline – maybe getting up early before dawn to pray, or staying up late into the night hours to do so. I remember in one church I was part of, we held 24/7 prayer weeks, where people were asked to sign up for an hour to pray, with the aim of filling every hour of a 24-hour day for a full week. There were some people who just loved the 3am slot, embracing the extra sacrifice of getting up then to pray, and finding it was in such times that they experienced the closeness of God.
I have talked mainly about prayer, but making more challenging or costly choices in other areas too can be ways of experiencing the closeness of God: whether that is is in giving up our time to help a sick relative, or giving money away to a charity. The act of sacrifice brings us closer to the God who sacrificed everything for us.
I wonder, are there times in your life when you voluntarily choose to give certain things up, to minimise distractions or to help others. How might God draw close to you through such times?
Another way that we may experience God’s presence in our lives is through caring for others. Some of the most profound moments of connection with God may not happen in a church or a religious setting, but when coming alongside someone in need.
We often view Jesus’ acts of healing and compassion as “ministry”, as times when he gave out, before needing to retreat to a place of quiet to receive. But it may be that healing was life-giving for Jesus too, that it was in those contexts that he was able to express the compassion and love of God for those he met, where he and the Father were one in purpose and in heart. And in our reading from John’s first letter, John asks the question, “If we don’t have pity on those in need, how can the love of God be in us?” To put that more positively, when we love and care for others, we know that God’s love dwells in us.
I wonder, have you experienced times when caring for others has brought you into a place of experiencing the presence of God? When caring for others has been life-giving for you? Giving care to those in need, whether a sick relative, a lonely housebound neighbour, a grieving husband, someone without a home, can be immensely costly and hard work, but for some people it becomes more than a duty, it becomes the place where they encounter God. Jesus said: when you give food to the hungry, when you invite the stranger in, when you visit the prisoner, and care for the sick, “whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do for me.” In caring for others, we find we are caring for Christ. God draws near.
That was certainly the case for me when I cared for a friend at a former church who lived with cerebral palsy. He showed me far more of God than I could ever have done for him.
It is good to stop and reflect. As we care for others, how is God seeking to make himself known? In some deep way, are the people we care for ministering the love of God to us as we seek to care for them?
God longs to make himself known to us. Let us keep our eyes open this week to seeing all the ways that He is seeking to draw close to us, and may we respond with worship and thanksgiving.