Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is it safe to go out in the snow?

Psalm 91.1, 2 & 9-16, Romans 10.8b-13, Luke 4.1-13

Psalm 91 begins by assuring believers that putting our trust in God places us under the shadow or shelter of his constant protection. He is a refuge and a fortress, like the base camps where British soldiers regroup for their constant forays against the Taliban. But what does that mean in practice?

The Psalmist boldly asserts that living close to God, and putting our trust in him, means that no harm will ever befall us and no disaster will ever overtake our home or our family. The other morning, when it was really icy, I saw a jogger running down hill into Hemsworth. Suddenly he took the most desperate tumble. He actually bounced on the frozen ground. Even sitting at the wheel of the car I winced. It must have been agony. But he was up in an instant, and ran on as if nothing had happened. According to the Psalmist he must have been a believer, for the Psalmist says that divine messengers will guard us when we go out, so that we don't even trip up on an uneven pavement. In fact, even meeting wild animals like poisonous snakes and fierce lions won't faze believers. Just as Daniel found that the lions' mouths were stopped when he was thrown into their den, and just as the Prophet Isaiah foretold a day when a little baby would be able to play safely over the hole of an asp and a toddler would be able to put is hand into an adder's den without being bitten, so believers will have nothing to fear and can expect to be rescued from danger and rewarded with long life.

Yet the Psalmist's understanding is contradicted at every turn, isn't it? What about the many believers in Haiti whose houses were struck by disaster and whose families were harmed or even killed when their homes fell down during the earthquake? We may not meet poisonous snakes and great lions on our way to work, or to church, but we do drive cars and cross the road on foot in front of buses and lorries, and there is no guarantee that God will keep us safe from harm or prevent us even from stubbing our toe.

The Devil quoted Psalm 91 when he told Jesus that angels would prevent him from striking his foot against a stone but, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus found that the cup of suffering could not pass from him and far from being protected and living a long life his total intimacy with God meant that he had to be willing to accept a premature death in order to show us what God's salvation is really like. Furthermore, instead of the cosy promise that believers can expect to be rescued from harm and constantly protected, Jesus gave us the bleak warning that we must be prepared to carry our own cross in order to follow in his way.

So, in what sense is the Psalm's cheery optimism true? Ultimately God is indeed our refuge and fortress. Ultimately harm and disaster cannot permanently scar us and wipe out the meaning and purpose from our lives. God will rescue and protect us, but not by preventing any harm or pain from befalling us. The sort of salvation which God shows us in Jesus is the salvation which comes through death and resurrection.

As Paul says in his letter to the Church in Rome, if we believe in our hearts that God raised Jesus from the dead, we will be saved. Paul doesn't say that if we believe all these things in our hearts, God will always rescue and protect us, and prevent harm from befalling us and disaster from coming near to our homes and families, and that his angels will prevent us from striking our foot on a stone, or that we will be able to tread upon lions and cobras. He doesn't say that if we believe all these things in our hearts, we will be saved. He says, if we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, we will be saved. It is only as we pass through death and resurrection with Jesus that God becomes our shelter and shadow. The Psalmist was right when he said - in so many words - that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, but he was wrong if he imagined that God's protection is some kind of lucky charm.

Luke tells us that Jesus was at one and the same time led by the Spirit and tempted by the Devil. In that sense, of course, he is just like any other believer. Even when we are trying to follow the guiding of the Spirit, we are always tempted to take a wrong turn.

The Devil tries to persuade him that it isn't necessary to face hunger and hardship, even when we are deliberately denying ourselves and fasting. It's a bit like looking for an easy diet, isn't it? I looked on the Internet for easy diets and there were six-and-a-half million websites promising an easy way to lose weight. But actually there is no easy way to lose weight, is there? Or if there is, I've not found it! We can only lose weight by enduring at least some minor discomfort. And Jesus, by fasting for forty days and eating nothing, inflicts extreme discomfort on himself as he prepares for the harsh destiny that will confront him when he lives completely in God's way. The trouble with anything made easy is that it's often made wrong, and there's no easy way of following Jesus. He expects us to be ready to suffer and face discomfort in his service. In that sense the Psalmist was certainly wrong to promise an easy ride to those who love God.

Next the Devil tries to offer him an easy route to power. 'You have only to do homage to me,' he says, 'And in an instant or in a flash all the authority and glory of the powerful will be yours.' But again, Jesus knows that there is no easy or painless shortcut, no First Class journey, to real authority and glory. There are easy routes to celebrity. And it's possible to gain great political dominion and authority by climbing the greasy pole of intrigue. But glory is a gift that has to be bestowed. It's not ours for the taking. And enduring authority isn't the sort of thing that comes from striking political deals or winning elections, it depends on strength of character and integrity, qualities sometimes in short supply in modern politics. Jesus knows that true authority and glory can only belong to him if he chooses the long hard route that will take him to the Cross.

People sometimes think that the Devil took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem because there, by throwing himself down from the highest pinnacle, he could make a very public spectacle of himself and win an enthusiastic following. But, actually, I think the Devil takes Jesus to the Temple because he knows Psalm 91 much better than most Biblical commentators. Remember how the Psalm begins, 'Whoever dwells in the shelter of the most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.' Some people think that's a reference to the Temple, that the Psalmist is saying it's the safest place to be - a sanctuary in every sense of the word, a haven, a place of security, a refuge and fortress, a place of protection like Camp Bastion. Here, as no where else, it will be impossible for Jesus to strike his foot against a stone, even if he jumps.

But Jesus knows that the obvious meaning of scripture is not always the right one. God will rescue and protect believers, and show us salvation. He will guard us in all our ways, and if we call on his name we will be saved. But this indestructible safety net is only ours because of the suffering of Jesus which we are called to share. It's a shelter and security that only becomes ours as we pass through the furnace of affliction, not as we skirt safely around it. As we have seen, God's protection is dependent on resurrection, not on some built-in power of invulnerability.

The lesson of the temptations of Jesus is that to look for easy ways to the good life is to put God to the test. And we are always tempted to look for the easy way. That's why the Devil bided his time, knowing that Jesus would be tempted again to look for easy solutions. He was tempted as we are, yet he never gave in to the easy way and if we take his hand and journey with him we can resist temptation too.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

God and the Chaos Monster

Psalm 89.5-12, Exodus 3.1-6, John 12.27-36

Psalm 89 assumes a kind of parliament or heavenly court where the holy ones, whoever they might be, assemble to debate the unfolding history of the human race and the future of project Universe. The holy ones are unlikely to be the saints, righteous people who have been admitted to the court of heaven when they die, because the people of ancient Israel didn't really believe in life beyond death as we understand it. Instead, the holy ones could be fellow members of a pantheon of gods who run the universe together, or they could be subservient beings who help God with his work, analogous to the later concept of angels, or heavenly messengers, who roam the ether doing God's bidding. If they are gods the Psalmist seems to depict Israel's God faithfully and effectively pleading the nation's cause in their debates, a bit like a good constituency MP. If they are angelic beings, they form a sort of cabinet with whom God shares his ideas, rather like a prime minister using his or her colleagues as a sounding board to test the latest government policies.

Perhaps the people of Israel began by thinking of their God as just one particularly hard working and eloquent MP, whose faithfulness to them meant that he always deserved to get their vote and receive their worship. But, if so, their thinking quickly moved on, and they began to imagine him as the chief of all the gods or heavenly beings, far superior to any of them, a very Blairite or Thatcherite sort of prime minister moving among a cabinet of pygmies, lesser heavenly beings who owed their very existence to him. So the later verses of the psalm qualify that initial picture of a faithful advocate in the assembly or council of the holy ones, and present Israel's God as someone who is feared as well as respected, whose deeds set him far apart from the rest of the assembly because they are great and awesome, and whose nature is totally different from that of the other holy ones, as different as chalk and cheese. 'Who can be compared with him?' the Psalmist asks rhetorically, and the answer, of course, is 'No one!'

Israel was a landlocked country at this time and her people had a profound respect for the sea, yet they didn't hesitate to say that their God was powerful enough to be able to calm even the worst rages of the great Mediterranean. Like Jesus on Lake Galilee, God can still its storms. In fact, it was Jesus' own power to imitate God in this way that made his disciples feel in awe of him and wonder who he really was.

The Psalm imagines God's act of creation in a very different way from the orderly process described in Genesis chapter 1. Instead of quietly speaking the universe into existence, here God has to battle against the raging forces of chaos which are depicted not just as the raw elements of nature but as his very active enemies, fiercely opposed to harmony and beauty and embodied in the mythical figure of the Chaos Monster, Rahab, a mighty dragon or sea monster who fought against the god Marduk in the Babylonian legend of creation. In the ancient religion of Babylon, it was Lord Marduk who defeated and killed Rhab and made it possible for creation to evolve, whereas in the Psalm it is Israel's God who does this, so that it is thanks only to Israel's God that the whole universe as we know it now exists. The mention of the points of the compass are a way of emphasising that nothing lies outside of God's realm and even the most ancient mountains acknowledge his lordship.

This psalm gives a whole new dimension to the term Creationism. When some Christians say that they are Creationists they mean they believe that about six thousand years ago God created the world in just 144 hours, but the Psalmist here has a totally different understanding of Creationism which is about God vanquishing chaos and so laying the building blocks for a gradually evolving universe of variety and order, of symmetry and scientific law. Not that I am suggesting this is a more modern way of understanding creation, after all modern scientists would say that the Chaos Monster is not dead. They would see chaos operating as part of the very way that the universe actually evolves, and not in opposition to it at all. But the Psalm at least contains a different way of understanding what the act of creation means.

I'm with the scientists on this one. I don't think the Chaos Monster is dead, either. I can imagine the Psalmist taking part in one of those pantomime scenes where he's telling us - the audience - that God has killed Rahab and there's nothing to worry about any longer, but we're all shouting back, 'Look behind you!' as the Chaos Monster creeps up on him unawares. Whether we're talking about chaos affecting the weather, or the money markets, or whether we're thinking about the chaos and anarchy caused by earthquakes or wars, there still seems to be plenty of chaos to worry about.

The episode of the Burning Bush contains an even more shocking idea. Not only is chaos still very much alive, and not lying crushed and defeated as the Psalmist believed, but God himself seems to be using chaos in this story as part of his own plan of salvation. A bush which doesn't burn is a direct contradiction of the laws of nature. It's a totally chaotic idea and the shock of seeing such a great sight threatens to turn Moses' cosy life in the country upside down and catapult him back into the arena of history, where he will find himself centre stage in the struggle against the cruel and obstinate Pharaoh. And once there, in the Egyptian court, the threat of chaos will be his only weapon with which to win the liberation of his people. And remember just how much chaos God will help him to cause through the plagues of locusts, frogs and boils, and so on, culminating in the ultimate chaos inflicted by sudden death.

But even here, in this ancient story, there are clear limits to God's appetite for chaos. Rahab, the Chaos Monster, used chaos destructively to wreak death and disorder and to defeat the harmony and pattern which would otherwise have begun to emerge, whereas God uses chaos creatively, to bring about a positive outcome and liberate the people of Israel from oppression. God may work through chaos, but the ultimate ground of his being is continuity - his nature and his loving care are always the same, yesterday today and forever. He reveals himself to Moses as the God of his ancestors and the God of future generations yet unborn, the great I Am. So there is nothing essentially chaotic about God, none of the unpredictability and volatility which are associated with true chaos. Perhaps what modern science has shown us is that God is able to defeat chaos by using it to bring about the very harmony and creativity which it would seek to destroy.

We may even ask whether, in fact, God truly wished to bring chaos on the people of Egypt. His true wish, surely, was that Pharaoh might listen to him and let his people go. Perhaps the plagues were just an awful chapter of accidents, a reminder that Pharaoh was not all powerful or divine, and not able - therefore - to battle against chaos and overcome it, or to harness it to his own ends.

Our reading from John's Gospel contains an even more shocking idea than the revelation to Moses that God sometimes works through chaos. For here Jesus' realises that even his own perfect intimacy with God is not going to save him from sharing in the chaos and death that always threatens human happiness and tranquility. The realisation troubles him deeply. It is a moment of great mental and spiritual agony, equivalent to the agony Jesus suffers in the accounts of the Garden of Gethsemane, although John's version of the story is far more public because Jesus' inner trauma is witnessed by the whole crowd of curious people and well wishers who constantly followed him around.

In the other Gospels Jesus asks God to take the cup of suffering away from him, although he then qualifies that prayer by saying, 'Your will, not mine, be done.' Here he remains a little more self-assured. 'Shall I ask the Father to save me from this hour?' he ponders, before recognising that no, the whole purpose of his life has been to confront this moment, to endure darkness, and chaos, and death - to wrestle with these things, just as God is supposed to have wrestled with the Chaos Monster at the moment of creation, and to be glorified in and through that struggle. Now at last the Ruler of This World, the Chaos Monster, can really be dealt a knockout blow because, although chaos may still stalk the universe, now we know for sure that it can never have the final victory or the last word. Resurrection is the final and eternal answer to the worst that chaos can inflict - proof that the ancient myth of God defeating chaos is the ultimate truth.

Of course, the crowd is appalled by the shocking idea that God's anointed leader will struggle against chaos and be overcome and killed by it. Surely the Messiah should be above this kind of thing? Surely he should remain unchallenged, safely above the fray forever? Jesus' somewhat enigmatic reply mirrors what Moses had discovered about God at the Burning Bush. His essential nature is indeed light, and harmony, pattern, and peace. But that does not make God immune from the effects of darkness, disharmony, chaos and pain. Instead, just as the myth of God's battle with the Chaos Monster asserts, God is happy to roll up his sleeves and get involved in - and confront - the messiness of life. When we face chaos, disorder and danger, he is alongside us in Jesus, who was lifted up on the Cross as a sign that God is with us in the battle to overcome chaos, and indeed the victory is already his.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Steadfast Love of God

Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5.1-11

Psalm 138 belongs to a time when the people of Israel still saw their God as simply the best and greatest of a whole pantheon of competing gods. Israel's God stands out from the crowd because of his steadfast love and faithfulness. In the mythology of other gods, they tend to have very human faults and failings, but although human beings are made in the image of Israel's God, he is exalted far above all human frailty. He is characterised by the very best things which human beings aspire to - steadfastness, love and faithfulness. But the flip side of human nature is entirely absent from his being.

Israel's God is quick to answer when we call upon him. He strengthens us with his gifts of grace and power. Unlike all the other gods, who were effectively just the patron saints of a particular nation, Israel's God has a universal appeal and lays claim to the allegiance of every nation. But, although the glory of Israel's God far outshines all other gods, there is a special place in his affections for the lowly, he is a God with a bias to the poor. So, although kings praise him, he keeps the haughty and proud at arm's length.

Finally, this is a God who is concerned not about his own status, and the amount of praise and glory that he can garner to himself, but about the well-being of his worshippers. He has a loving purpose for his followers. They matter to him, and he's a real help to them in times of trouble. When they need rescue, he reaches out his hand to deliver them.

This, then, is a God with a political agenda - a God who wants the powerful to honour him not just with empty words and rituals, but by giving practical support to those in need. And, taken literally, this is a God who intervenes to help earthquake victims. He doesn't just direct the rescuers searching through the rubble of the tourist hotels and the United Nations' headquarters or the President's palace. He cares intimately for every last victim trapped under the rubble of the collapsed shanty towns or left hungry and destitute. He does not give up because of the immensity of the task, or permit his followers to do so. He expects us to identify with him by sharing in the work of preserving and delivering his people from trouble, and his powerful right hand strengthens us for the task.

Paul takes this good news to a new level. The God he talks about is not just the greatest god in the pantheon, but the only God and, more over, he is a God who identifies even more closely with humankind than the Psalmist had dared to suppose. So closely is Jesus united to God's will and purpose, that we can truly say God has been through the sort of experience which the earthquake victims endured. In Jesus he dies and is buried with us. He too has been broken and crushed. He too has endured spiritual and psychological torment as well as physical pain. This is a God who certainly regards the lowly and walks in the midst of trouble, but in what sense does he stretch out his right hand to save us? In what sense can he be said to bring us salvation?

For Paul, the crux of the matter is his conviction that Jesus has been raised from death and has appeared to his followers, not just during the first Easter time but also long afterwards, although Paul tries to pull down a final curtain on those resurrection appearances by claiming that his vision of the risen Jesus was the last one of all. It's interesting that in this, the very first written account of the Easter story, Paul makes no mention of the empty tomb. He dwells rather on the spiritual experience of being commissioned by Jesus, or made an apostle or messenger of the good news. And, although the Revised English Bible is wrong in suggesting that Jesus appeared only to men after his resurrection, Paul doesn't single out for special mention any of the women who saw the risen Jesus. Only men appear in his list of celebrity apostles, Peter or Cephas, James the brother of Jesus and - rather egotistically perhaps - Paul himself.

In contrast, the earliest Gospel account of the resurrection, Mark's version, focuses on the empty tomb and leaves doubt hanging over the idea that Jesus really is alive or that his followers can meet him. He puts some of the female disciples centre stage, but they are trembling and afraid. It is the concrete fact of the empty tomb, then, which dominates Mark's narrative, while the spiritual aspect of the resurrection is reduced to a sense of amazement and bewilderment.

Where does this leave us as we contemplate the tragic events in Haiti? It reminds us, perhaps, of two classic Christian responses to suffering and to God's promise not only to endure it with us but to bring us safe through it. One classic response is to be filled with the certainty that Jesus has surmounted everything that life can throw at us, and that he stretches out his strong right hand to save us from beyond the grave. The other classic response is to strike the same note as Mark's Gospel, or the last verse of the Psalm, and to want to believe that God is still able to fulfil his purpose, and that his steadfast love endures in spite of suffering, while being bewildered - as Jesus was on the Cross - by the actual experience of suffering and distress. The Psalmist wants to believe that there is life beyond death, but he can only say, 'Do not forsake the work of your hands.' Both he and Mark cannot end on the same note of assurance that Paul finds in this passage.

The Gospel belongs to a collection of stories told by Luke which have no specific time attached to them. Now I know that Luke doesn't give us any actual dates for most of his narrative. He tells us about some key people who were on the stage of history when Jesus was doing his thing, King Herod, the Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius, The Emperor Tiberius, Governor Pilate, King Herod Antipas and John the Baptist, but nothing more precise. Nonetheless, for some parts of his story he does give the impression that one episode follows another, even when the other Gospel writers disagree. But not here. This is one of the stories which seems to have been free floating in the tradition which he inherited. It happened one day.

It's a typical story in that it unfolds by the shores of Lake Galilee, here called Gennesaret. There are fishing boats and fishermen washing their nets. A crowd of people has gathered to listen to his teaching but - unusually - Jesus decides to teach them from inside one of the boats. So far, that's the only thing out of the ordinary. But then the pace and character of the story suddenly changes. Is this, in fact, two stories about Jesus and Simon which have been woven together, perhaps before Luke heard it for himself or possible at his own instigation? Indeed, is Jesus still in the boat at this point, or has he got out and instructed Simon to put back out into deep water without him?

That phrase, 'put out into deep water', is wonderfully evocative. Do we need to be in deep water before wonderful things can begin to take place? Jesus urges Simon to let down his nets, and Simon resists because he and his crew have already been fishing all night long. They have caught nothing and they are tired. They're in the mood to give up. But Jesus isn't the kind of person whom you disobey so, against their better judgement, they let down the nets. Again, do wonderful things begin to happen only when we go against our common sense, or disregard the wisdom we have inherited or normally live by? Do we have to break the mould, or innovate or take a risk in order to make a big catch? So it seems, for in no time the nets are so full that they begin to split and another boat has to come to Simon's assistance.

The story ends on the same note of fear and astonishment that Mark strikes at the end of his Gospel, and that Isaiah finds in the story we read this morning about his vision in the Temple, when his own sense of unworthiness and inadequacy threatened to overwhelm him. 'Go, Lord, leave me!' says Peter, 'Sinner that I am!' But Jesus reassures Peter, just as Isaiah was reassured in his vision. Peter is not unworthy. He has shown faith, and now he is commissioned to be an apostle, and not just him but James and John also. From now on they will be fishing for people.

That commission from Jesus reminds us of the call of the first disciples in Mark But, in other respects, this episode is more reminiscent of the story at the end of John's Gospel where - after the same miraculous catch of fish - the risen Jesus commissions Peter to feed his sheep. Is this, also then, a story about the risen Jesus appearing to his friends at the lakeside and telling them to leave their fishing business, to which they had returned after his death, and to stand firmly behind the good news which has the power to save? The good news that, in Jesus, God really does demonstrate his power to preserve us against the wrath of our enemies. The good news that he is able to stretch out his hand to deliver us from trouble, and to walk alongside us and fulfil his purpose for us. The good news that his steadfast love endures forever and he will never forsake us.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Isaiah 6.1-8

Here's what some children said when their schoolteacher asked them to write about God:

  • Are you really invisible, or is it just a trick?
  • Instead of letting people die, and making new ones, why don't you just keep the ones you have?
  • I think the stapler is one of your greatest inventions. (Actually, that isn't very likely, is it? Someone else reports that the boy who wrote this actually said):
  • I think the Play Station 3 is one of your greatest inventions. (I guess teachers just don't want us to know that.)
  • Did you draw the lines round the countries?
  • In school they told us what you do. Who does it when you're not there?
  • I do not think anybody could be a better God. I want you to know that I'm not just saying this because you are God already.
  • I bet it's very hard for you to love all the people in the world. In our family there are only four people and I can't do it.
  • On holiday it rained all the time and my Dad said some things about you which people are not supposed to say, but I hope you're not going to hurt him anyway. From Your Friend, (but I'm not going to tell you who I am).

I think some of the children were having a laugh, don't you? Writing essays like this can be very boring if you just stick to serious comments, can't they? My brother was once asked, in an English exam, to explain why the writer of a poem had described a mountain as being like a werewolf. Well, of course, he hadn't the faintest idea, so he wrote: 'I don't know why the writer says the mountain is like a werewolf. Sometimes, when I read things like this, I think the writer must be insane.' I know that's true because his teacher told me about it afterwards.

But actually, whether or not the children really believed all those things about God, Isaiah had some pretty funny ideas, didn't he? He had a vision, so it wasn't exactly for real. He didn't actually see God's robe filling the entire Temple. It just seemed like that. But in the vision God wasn't alone. He was surrounded by angels.

The word angel means 'a messenger' and at first the Bible talks about just one angel - the Angel of the Lord - who speaks to people like Abraham or Moses. And in these stories the Angel of the Lord, God's messenger, just means God's Spirit or the voice of God speaking inside us or speaking to us through other people.

But then the people who wrote the Bible started to think that maybe there were too many people who God wanted to speak to for just one messenger to be enough to get round them all. So they started to imagine a whole army of special beings whom God had appointed as messengers to fly around the world looking after people, and delivering messages to them and so on. Towards the end of the time when the Bible was being written they even gave some of these messengers names.

We're used to the idea that as time goes by people's ideas get better or more sophisticated. But in this case, I think the original idea - that God has just one messenger, his Spirit or still small voice - was the right one. Except that sometimes God can use other people, not special heavenly beings, to be his messengers as well.

And then we're told that Isaiah was afraid of God - like the person who wouldn't give God their name in case he came and punished their Dad. And, of course, we know there's really no need to be so afraid of God because Jesus showed us that God is love. But it's not uncommon for people to be afraid. Like the harmless country vicar - a few hundred years ago - who felt sure that when his little daughter died it was a punishment sent by God for playing chess on a Sunday! I suppose he was just feeling very sad, and his grief made him think the unthinkable. Because God doesn't get that angry over silly little things like playing chess.

Isaiah was afraid because he was a minister, too. He worked in the Temple and he was very aware that when he was preaching to people he didn't always tell them what God really wanted them to hear. At first he thought that perhaps the vision meant God was coming to punish him! But then he realised that the vision was meant to reassure him.

One of the messengers of God touched his lips with holy fire. Again, about the same time that the English vicar thought God was angry with him because he had played a game of chess on a Sunday, another preacher - in Holland this time - read Isaiah's story and forgot that it was a vision. He imagined it was totally for real. So he got the tongs from beside the fireplace, picked up a burning coal, and touched his lips with it to cleanse his speech and make him fit to speak God's message. Instead, of course, he couldn't speak any words at all for a month.

But Isaiah's experience wasn't meant to be taken literally like that. It was just a vision, and in the vision he felt that God was telling him that he was forgiven for anything he had ever done wrong and was preparing him to live the rest of his life doing what God wanted.

So, according to Isaiah, this is what we learn about God from his vision. God is someone who is wonderfully mysterious and totally beyond our ability to understand, and yet he's also someone who loves us, someone who knows each one of us, someone who wants to forgive us for the things we do wrong, and someone who wants to use our gifts to spread the good news of his love, to do good for other people we meet and to work for a better world.

This is also exactly what the first followers of Jesus found out about him when he met them by the sea shore. He too was a mysterious person, who seemed able to do very remarkable things, but he was someone who loved them, who knew them by name, and who wanted them to make a new start in life by following him and serving him.