Matthew 28.1-10, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11
I like Nick Cave’s song because of its audacious first line: ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God’. What an unlikely way to begin a love song!
He once explained that he wrote the song while sitting at the back of an Anglican church where he had gone with his wife Susie, who presumably does believe in an interventionist God - at least that’s what the song says.
Actually Cave has always been very interested in religion. Sometimes he calls himself a Christian, sometimes he doesn’t, depending on how the mood takes him. He once said, ‘I believe in God in spite of religion, not because of it.’ But his lyrics often include religious themes and he has also said that any true love song is a song for God.
So maybe it’s no coincidence that he began this song in such an unlikely way, although he says the inspiration came to him during the sermon. The vicar was droning on about something when the first line of the song just popped into his head.
I suspect the vicar was talking about whether or not we can believe in an interventionist God and I must confess that my sympathies are with Nick Cave. Like him, I believe in God but sometimes I struggle to believe in an interventionist God.
Cave’s father died in a car accident when he was only 19. I guess he asks himself, ‘If there really is an interventionist God, why didn’t he intervene to prevent the car accident from happening?’
But some people have no trouble at all believing in an interventionist God, like my colleague at work in Darnall. We set off for home from a conference in Newcastle at 4pm one Friday afternoon and I had to drive her down the A1 and put her on the 6.15pm train from the railway station close to where I live.
We knew when we set out that it was going to be a close run thing. Getting behind a slow moving lorry, which spent about 10 miles overtaking a convoy of even slower moving lorries, didn’t help. When we got to the centre of Pontefract we were still ten minutes’ drive from my local station and we knew, by checking on the internet, that the train was running only one minute late. That minute was going to be crucial.
‘There are two sets of traffic lights between here and the station,’ I said when we got to Purston Jaglin. ‘If they’re green we might make it!’ Sure enough, the first set of lights turned green as we approached them. So far, so good. But when we reached the second set there were eight cars in front of us.
‘I have to warn you,’ I said to my colleague, ‘That I’ve never seen this many cars go through those lights in one phase.’
‘You’ll have to jump them!’ she said. ‘That’s not going to happen,’ I thought. But anyway, we did get through the lights. When we pulled up outside the station she opened her car door and said, ‘I can hear the training coming!’ We jumped out, collected her bags and ran down the steps to the station. As we got onto the platform the train came to a halt, she got on and away it went.
Afterwards, she sent me a text: ‘I think God had his hand in the timing on that journey!’ she wrote/ Now how does that work? Did God stop the traffic lights from changing? And if so, why didn’t He prevent the lorry driver from pulling out in front of us on the A1 and slowing us down for 10 long miles?
I struggle to believe in an interventionist God, a God who just waves a magic wand and puts things right for us. My colleague was asking me to believe that God influenced the timings on our journey from Newcastle, like the time God intervened in the Battle of Gibeon, when first He threw down huge hailstones from heaven and then made the sun stand still, and the moon stop, until the nation of Israel had taken vengeance on their enemies. Even the writer of the story in Joshua acknowledges how exceptional it was that God apparently fought for Israel. ‘There has been no day like it, before or since,’ he says.
Nevertheless, I think Nick Cave’s song is rather sweet. He asks, if God does intervene in people’s lives, please would He not intervene in Susy’s life. ‘I would kneel down and ask Him not to intervene when it came to you, not to touch a hair on your head; to leave you as you are.’
Well, like Nick Cave, I struggle to believe in an interventionist God, a God who answers some prayers and not others, a God who rescues some people and allows others to perish. But, of course, in the end I can’t agree with the Nick Cave. I’m on Susy’s side. Although it maybe a struggle, I do believe in an interventionist God. And that’s because Easter is about God intervening. If we believe in the risen Jesus, we do believe that God intervenes.
Of course, that still leaves the question, ‘How much does God intervene?’ Paul, for example, is absolutely convinced that God intervened to raise Jesus from death. He says that he has met the risen Jesus himself, and that the risen Jesus turned his life upside down. He also says that the risen Jesus appeared to more than five hundred people at one time, so this wasn’t a dream or simply a personal experience, it was a real, tangible, shared experience. And yet he never mentions the empty tomb. Nor, for that matter, does he mention Jesus’ virgin birth. Instead, he says that Jesus was ‘descended from David according to the flesh’.
Paul was the first Christian theologian, yet it’s not entirely clear what sort of an interventionist God Paul believes in. But he does believe in an interventionist God, a God who gives us the promise of new life in Jesus.
Some early Christians believed, and modern Muslims also believe, that God intervened on the cross, to save Jesus from dying and take him straight to heaven’ leaving someone else - or the mere shell of Jesus’ human body - to die on the cross for him. But Paul doesn’t believe that.
Do you remember the passers-by who taunted Jesus on the cross, saying things like, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” ’ It’s axiomatic for Paul that God could not intervene to save Jesus from dying, he could only intervene to raise Jesus from death.
So like Paul, I do believe in an interventionist God, but I don’t believe in a God who can always intervene. I believe in a God who cannot necessarily prevent suffering and injustice but who can work in spite of them.
Nick Cave goes on to say, ‘And I don't believe in the existence of angels,’ but then he adds - very romantically - ‘But looking at you I wonder if that's true.’ I can go further than Nick Cave on this one. I can say a little more emphatically than he does that I don’t believe in angels - with not so many ‘buts’ this time, at least if we mean people clothed in dazzling white, perhaps with wings, or if we mean guardian angels assigned to take care of us. So I have trouble with the angel who rolled the stone away in Matthew’s account of Easter Day, whose appearance was like lightning, and whose clothing was white as snow.
But I do believe in messengers from God, which is what the word ‘angel’ actually means. I’m not sure what form those messengers actually take, though. The young man sitting in a white robe inside Jesus’ tomb in Mark’s version of the same story could be a less dramatic version of the sort of angel Matthew is thinking about, or he could be a fellow believer, someone inspired by God to come to the tomb and tell Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus has been raised and is going ahead of them; someone sent to make ‘bright and clear’ their path. And I do believe in angels if we mean people who are sent by God ‘to walk, like Christ, in grace and love’, and guide us into his arms.
And like Nick Cave, I do believe in love, and I know that you do, too. And I believe in a path that we can walk down, me and you, the path of love and self- offering that Jesus set out for us in his own life, death and resurrection. For those are the ultimate messages from the Easter story. First, that the love of God triumphs over everything, even sin and death. And second, that the living Lord Jesus still goes ahead of us - as he went before the first witnesses of his resurrection - making our journey bright and pure. And he will keep returning, always and ever more, just as the first Christians implored him to do in one of their communion prayers, ‘Marana-tha’ - ‘Come, Lord Jesus’.
Now you’ll say I’m messing with the words and sentiments of Nick Cave’s song. He was talking about his love for his wife whereas I‘m talking about the love of God revealed in Jesus. But then it was Nick Cave himself who said that any true love song is really a song for God.
So I do believe in an interventionist God. Not one who changes the traffic lights so someone can catch a train home for the weekend, but a God who raises the dead, who breathes new life into lost causes, who triumphs over suffering and loss, whose love can never be defeated, whose messengers still guide us into his arms, whose risen Son goes ahead of us on our path through life and even beyond death.