Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Readings: Amos 5:14-19a; Mark 9:30-37
So, how are you with surprises? Are you someone who likes an unexpected treat…or indeed trick…or are you the kind of person who likes to know exactly what to expect; whose worst nightmare is turning up to a surprise party? Of course, much of our response will depend on whether the surprise in question is deemed a positive or a negative one. Well back in the divided land of Israel in the 8th century before Christ, Amos was telling people in no uncertain terms that they were in for a bad surprise.
“You’re looking forward to the Day of the Lord?” he asks with contempt in our reading, “Then more fool you, for the day of the Lord is darkness, not light”. Not known for his care-free attitude or convivial dinner party etiquette, Amos’ message is one of warning, judgment and a call to repentance.
And he had a point, for things had gone horribly wrong in 8th century Israel. Following the death of Solomon, the land had been divided into two competing kingdoms, the threat of violence and war with neighbouring nations loomed large, the rich and powerful were neglecting, if not actively exploiting, the poor, and worship had degenerated into hollow ritual. “I hate, I despise your festivals”, so Amos reports of God in the verse succeeding today’s reading.
And yet, up in the northern kingdom, some of the priestly and powerful folk think all is well…or at least will be. For many there believed that the day would come when God would vindicate their actions. Many believed that on the Day of the Lord – whether that was to be some close at hand feast day or far off future judgment – that on that day, they would celebrate their victory with God; there would be feasts and parties and dancing whilst God would smite their enemies. They would be shown to be God’s chosen, blessed people whilst everyone else would be judged and punished accordingly.
‘Except’…says Amos…’it won’t exactly work like that. You see, your privilege and power are not indicators that God favours you. Your shallow worship will not earn you blessing from God whilst you ignore…whilst your cause…the suffering of the poor. The day will come when God will pass through your midst and do you really think that will be a good day for you? Well, surprise!’ Amos warns, ‘It will not be a day of light but of darkness. It will be as if someone was running from a lion and was met by a bear’.
Don’t you love that poetic imagery? Amos might not have been class clown but he shows that he still has a comic touch even when warning of coming calamity. To the religious royalty, to the powerful and pious, he warns, ‘the Day of the Lord will be like someone running from a lion and meeting a bear’. Now that’s some surprise!
Of course, the image of God as lion is a common one. It’s found throughout the Bible, in both testaments, and is an image used by the likes of Shakespeare, William Blake and, perhaps most-loved of all, by C S Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia in which Aslan, ‘the great lion of Narnia’, is understood to represent Jesus. And whether used as a metaphor for God the Father or an imagining of God the son, the lion motif conveys strength, wonder and unpredictability…or as C S Lewis puts it in his description of their first encounter with Aslan…
“the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.”
Much like the belief that you couldn’t look into the face of God and live – that was widely accepted throughout Israel’s history including in Jesus’ day – the Pevensie children found that they had to turn away from Aslan’s face for he may be good and awesome but he is also wild and dangerous.
Amos was warning the religious folk of a surprise – advising them that they couldn’t manipulate God or presume how God would act when in their midst for the sovereign God cannot be tamed by ritual or second-guessed by humans. In his depiction of Aslan, Lewis does the same. “Safe?” Mr Beaver asks the children incredulously “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king.”
Today, a reminder of the unpredictability of God is very en vogue with numerous Christian writers writing lengthy treatise on the matter. “You can’t tame God, so stop trying”, we were told last year in the tagline of the book ‘Yawning At Tigers’ – a celebrated corrective to self-indulgent Christianity. And I think it’s right for us to be reminded of the otherness of God once in a while. We need to be retold that we can’t manipulate God into doing what we want God to do by praying the right prayers or doing the right things. We need to be shaken from the idea that God is simply some warm and fuzzy feeling or generic force of niceness that we can call upon. We need to be reminded that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts – that the God of creation and the cross is often a God of surprises. This is right and good and true.
And yet we might well find ourselves in difficult waters if we take this too far. “If God is so unpredictable, can God do anything he wanted to?” is a question oft-asked by trainee ministers with too much time on their hands. “Could God, for example, decide to change God’s own mind – to pack it all in and destroy everything…to stop loving people or decide to give no one a life after this one?” What, after all is said and done, is God like if the day of the Lord is darkness, not light. If you’re fleeing from a lion, only to come across a bear?!
We might, as we saw earlier, struggle to picture God. We might, as Amos warns the religiously smug, find that God doesn’t act as we might like God to. We might compare God to a beautiful yet wild lion. But none of this means that we don’t have some idea of who God is, of God’s extravagant love and overwhelming grace for the Bible tells us that those who have seen the Son have seen the Father. Those who have spent time walking alongside the Christ who forgives sinners, challenges the powerful, speaks up for the poor, heals the sick, comforts the bereaved, welcomes children, listens to women, breaks bread with the outcast, parties at weddings, weeps when his friends die, dies on a cross and rises in a garden…have witnessed God in their midst.
Of course, such a God is still surprising. In today’s gospel passage, the disciples are still trying to get their head around this Jesus guy. The messiah was supposed to be a great and powerful warrior who would liberate Israel and vanquish the oppressor. No wonder then, that they couldn’t accept his words about betrayal and death and were instead discussing who amongst them would be the greatest! No wonder then, that they still didn’t get it when Jesus pointed towards a child and said ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’.
Here, Jesus surprises, Jesus shocks and confuses his disciples by saying ‘God isn’t only to be encountered by the High Priest once a year in the Temple; God isn’t to be kept at arm’s length like a ferocious animal who might kill you; God is to be adored, loved and welcomed…not with empty ritual or pious praise…but by welcoming a child’. In receiving the vulnerable, the socially unimportant, the sometimes annoying…with love and gladness, there we welcome and encounter God. In this community, when we welcome the child who screams and smells and asks awkward questions, we welcome God. In this church, when we welcome the child and their parents who talk through the hymns and play on their mobile phones during the sermon, hard as it is, we welcome God. And in this country, when we receive with gladness the child, mother and father who are fleeing persecution and violence and who need a safe place to live, we welcome God.
But what then does this mean for Amos, who was himself a former migrant worker and persecuted refugee, and who warned us that when God is in our midst, it will be like we are fleeing a lion and coming across a bear? Well, this is where I ask for the listener’s generosity. But we know that not all bears are violent…
The story of Paddington is the story of a bear who is received with gladness by ordinary but generous people. The story of Paddington is the story of an orphan who surprises and infuriates, who enriches and transforms the lives of those who welcome him. The story of Paddington is the story of a foreigner who is given a home, a loving family and the chance of a good life.
“‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’.
Perhaps today, some of us might need to heed Amos’ warning not to tame or try to manipulate God through shallow worship. Perhaps today, others of us might need to be reminded of Jesus’ call to welcome him, to welcome God, by welcoming those considered the lost, the last and the least. Perhaps today, God will be in our midst when we flee from an image of God as a dangerous, potentially violent lion and consider instead the image of God as a bear with a battered suitcase, duffle coat and a marmalade sandwich to share, longing to be welcomed, longing to be loved. Amen.