Sunday, 13 May 2012

Does God really send the rain? A sermon for Rogation Sunday

Reading: Job 38
Today is being marked in the Benefice as Rogation Sunday, but what is Rogation, you may ask?
So did I. It’s the day on which traditionally you used to ‘beat the bounds’ of the parish, which meant the vicar and the choir usually going around the boundaries of the parish and literally ‘beating’ the boundary markers, although sometimes apparently they used to beat the choir boys instead.
However, it has also traditionally been a day to pray for blessings on crops. But it went even further than that. The Catholic Encyclopedia says Rogation days were,
Days of prayer, and formerly also of fasting, instituted by the Church to appease God’s anger at man’s transgressions, to ask protection in calamities, and to obtain a good and bountiful harvest ...
And that’s where we get the word ‘rogation’ from. I thought it meant something to do with farming, like ‘rotation’. Actually it means ‘to ask’, from ‘rogare’.
But all this got me thinking, and I want to share those thoughts with you this morning. Can we really ask God about the weather? And can we really see the weather as a sign of God’s judgement or favour?
Weather and judgement
Well, we have to admit straight away that in the Bible the weather is very much seen as something under God’s control and as an instrument of judgement.
In fact the day I was beginning to think about this sermon, my morning reading was a rather strange and difficult passage about just such an example of judgement through weather as a result of God’s wrath against Israel. If we are going to take the Bible seriously, it seems we must take this idea seriously as well — God does control the weather, and God does use the weather as an instrument of judgement.
God’s world
But then we might begin to ask, “How does God control the weather?” And we can ask that question within the biblical framework.
On the one hand, the Bible clearly talks about God sending rain. But are we meant to think that God actually does something at this point? Does he pull a cosmic leaver? Does he give a cosmic command? Does he tell and angel to do it?
What did the biblical authors think God was doing when they said he makes it rain?
You see, one of the features of the creation story in Genesis 1 is that, unlike other cultures, the Hebrew story has no ‘gods’ controlling the natural world. There is just ‘the world of nature’ and God.
And in one sense, that world of nature is clearly capable of running itself. In Genesis 1:11-12, the land produces vegetation, and the vegetation produces more vegetation.
In Genesis 1:16, the two lights in the heavens, the sun and the moon, govern the day and the night.
Certainly God makes them, but he makes them to do something, as it were, ‘of their own accord’. The sun shines because God has made it to shine.
So is it just different with the rain? Does God just send the rain whilst, as it were, overcast weather takes care of itself? Does he just act occasionally?
God’s control of the world
That is where our reading from Job comes in, and we have to think about the tie-in with Genesis 1 — the sort of world God has made and the sort of God who has made the world.
The passage itself is set in an important context. It is a poetic work — part of what we call the ‘Wisdom’ literature, which sets out to address big questions of the meaning of life, and in this particular case, undeserved suffering.
But look at the picture it gives of God’s control of the world. In vv 1-7, God controls creation. In vv 8-11, the sea. In vv 12-15, the dawning of each day. And look at vv 16-18:
16 “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? 17 Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death? 18 Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.
In vv 22-30, it is all the weather — snow, hail, lightning, rain, thunder, dew, ice, frost.
And then in vv 31-33, a particular favourite of mine, astronomy:
31 “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? 32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? 33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Then we have more weather. But in v 36, it is the wisdom of the heart, and then in v 39, this:
“Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions 40 when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket? 41 Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?
And if you read on into 39, it is every detail of the animal kingdom.
In fact, when you read Job 38-39 alongside Genesis 1 the message is clear. On the one hand we have a physical world, which seems to be capable of sustaining itself without the intervention of ‘demi-gods’. On the other hand, God — the true God — is involved not just in ‘making it rain’ but in every single detail of every part of the world.
God and the moral universe
Now that being the case, there is room for an involvement between God and the weather which is more subtle than we might at first think.
Rather than God occasionally pulling a lever here, or pushing a button there to make something different happen, God is active all the time everywhere — that is certainly the picture given by God’s words in Job.
There is another way the Bible puts it, where in Hebrews 1:3, talking about Jesus, it says,
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
In a sense, the universe at every level, from the earth to the stars and throughout the entire animal kingdom, is doing what it is doing courtesy of God ‘sustaining’ it. And therefore it is no great stretch of the imagination to see that our interaction with God, and God’s interaction with us, can have implications for the physical world.
I was trying to find a snappy quote from it, but this book by cosmologist Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma, doesn’t lend itself to snappy quotes. Nevertheless, from a purely scientific point of view, Davies shows how the idea of an interaction between conscious mind and the physics of the world is credible.
The question before us ... is whether life, and maybe even consciousness, is written into the laws of physics. (263)
The answer, incidentally, must be yes — mustn’t it? But Davies argues something else — that the laws of physics may be the result of conscious life. You have to read the book to work it out.
I’m simply saying that in a ‘scientific’ world where we might think there is no room for a God who sends rain, there may actually be a surprising amount of room for divine action according to the biblical view of the world as something where God is in every part.
But just as we might think we might have got it sorted, there comes another factor to take into account. In Matthew’s gospel, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says this:
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)
So if God makes it rain on the just and the unjust, what happened to divine intervention? What happened to judgement? What happens to Rogation days, when people used to pray and fast to appease God’s anger?
We have to factor in grace and atonement. In a simple moral universe, it would only rain on the just, but not when they are having a village fete.
But the whole point of Job is that the universe is not morally simple — above all, it is a universe where suffering is, apparently, sometimes undeserved.
Above all, it is a universe which only makes sense in the light of Jesus and what he did for us. The ‘wisdom’ books of the Old Testament addressed this as best they could, but were left with more questions than answers. The wisdom of the Greeks also failed. Today, I think we’ve given up trying. But the Bible points us somewhere else. In 1 Cor 2:6-8, Paul writes this:
We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1 Corinthians 2:6-8, NIV)
This wisdom sees God’s hand in all things, but sees the cross at the centre, where undeserved suffering and undeserved grace combine. And so the weather is not as conditional on our goodness or sin as we might think. And it certainly isn’t going to change because we beat the bounds of the parish or hold fasts to appease God’s anger.
As in all things, we must factor in the cross. And that isn’t easy, but whoever said it would be was wrong.
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