Last Sunday's reading bowled a bit of a googly for us unfortunate preachers. It was the parable of the Unjust Judge from Luke 18. Here's what Jesus said:
"In a certain town there was a judge who feared neither God nor man. There was also a widow who kept coming to him with her plea, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent!’ For a while he refused. But finally he thought, ‘Although I fear neither God nor man, yet because this widow keeps on bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so she doesn’t wear me out in the end!’” Then the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. So won't God bring justice to his chosen people, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and soon!"
But Jesus' point in this story is not that God is like the unjust judge. In fact He's as unlike him as can possibly be! Jesus says, "If even the unjust judge will finally crumble under the power of your nagging, how much more will your heavenly Father listen to you?"
So the underlying issue in the story is, what is our image of God?
- Perhaps we have a judgmental God, angrily waiting for us to go wrong so he can condemn us?
- Do we see God as an impersonal force, not really bothered with the ups and downs of human life? Like some of the more out of touch members of our judiciary?
- Maybe we see God as an old grandad who's a bit hard of hearing: we need to keep on and on at him to get our way? Like a judge who falls asleep during the trial?
- Too many of us think we have to earn God's love - if only I could do enough religious rituals or church going or self-denying or dutiful service I can make him love me...
Well, we had a great time at St Andrew's in the New Life Service, drawing pictures to represent how we see God. There were some deep thoughts there, and some pretty astute theology. The children's contributions were particularly meaningful. There's a great story about a little girl who was drawing a picture in her class at school. The teacher asked who she was drawing and she said, "God." "Don't be silly, dear - nobody knows what God looks like." So the little girl holds up her picture and says, "They do now!"
In fact the Bible has a prohibition about creating images of God, at least for use as objects of worship. This is because any image of God, however brilliant, inevitably falls short of the Infinite. Our tiny minds simply cannot grasp the fullness of His majesty, glory, holiness and endless love... And our negative images of God will seriously damage our relationship with Him. They should have health warnings!
- If we see God as weak or uncaring we won't bother to pray.
- If we have a disapproving, judgmental view of God it will destroy our self-confidence.
- If we have a God who is a kindly old duffer, who will put up with anything, our faith will end up so bland that it is not worth bothering with. I sometimes wonder if this is the kind of God Western Christians spent most of the 20th century proclaiming and whether that is why so few British people bother with him in the 21st Century.
But our positive images of God can have amazing results!
- If we see God as great and powerful, we will be motivated to pray to him.
- If we see him as the one who loves us, our self-confidence will blossom.
- If we see him as a God of justice, it will start to matter what we believe and what we do.
- If our God is alive and active in the world then we will be full of courage and adventure.
So is your God too small? And if He is, how can you restore your image of Him? The Bible's answer is to look at Jesus. Our children knew this on Sunday and time and again drew Jesus as their image of God. They quite stole the punchline of my talk! Because Jesus said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). He is also called the image of the invisible God in Colossians 1.
Jesus is God made known in a human form that we can know and understand and relate to. And when we give Him our full attention that lets the image of God in Him start to shape our own lives too. That's God's project for us: He wants us to grow more like Jesus, in love and mercy and peace and joy.
Because we too are supposed to be created in the image of God. Jesus then is like a master picture restorer, peeling back the layers of grubbiness and wear and tear and grime so that the beauty beneath can shine through...
Now there's a challenge! When people look at us, what do they see? Is there a picture of what God is like in the way we live?