John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
For those of us who used to cower behind the sofa on Saturday afternoons while the Daleks did their worst to the accompaniment of scary music and a robotic-sounding ‘Exterminate! Exterminate!’, the idea of comparing the mystery of God to the Tardis may seem a little strange, not to say fanciful.
But the wonderful thing about Dr. Who’s time machine is that though it appears deceptively small and unprepossessing, reality is rather different. For whilst from the outside it looks no more than an ordinary old police telephone box, once inside you discover a mysterious abundance of spaces. The further in you go in, the more you find there is to find.
The mystery which is God is very similar. The more you discover (or think you discover) the more you discover there is to discover. Of course, it wouldn’t be a mystery if that weren’t so and it’s obvious that we are not going to discover all there is to know about God nor is God going to reveal God’s whole being to any of us in this lifetime. Though we live in hope that although we can only ‘see through a glass darkly’ now, at some time ‘I shall know even as I am known.’ (1 Corinthians 13)
But why does God’s mysteriousness require that God hide the truth from us until some unspecified time in the future when all will be revealed? Does God let us in on bits of the secret either by design or on some kind of divine whim? Or is it simply all beyond our understanding? Certainly, there seems to be something important we can’t quite grasp – either through our own ineptitude or because God will not allow us to.
But who hides what and from whom in this game of cat and mouse?
Many important biblical witnesses found themselves evading God and hiding from God. The temptation to avoid the ever-watchful, all-seeing eye of the God for fear of having the truth about God and ourselves brought into the open, is ever with us
Adam and Eve, we are told, ‘hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden’ (Genesis 3.8) because they were afraid of their nakedness and hoped they might fool God that they were somewhere else.
When Moses heard the great declaration, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’ coming from within the burning bush, it’s little wonder that he ‘hid his face for he was afraid to look at God’ (Exodus 3.6). It was too much for him to contemplate, that he, young and insignificant, was standing ‘on holy ground’ and was in the presence of the God of his forefathers.
Saul was less than keen to be made king and so hid amongst the baggage (and who can blame him, especially given Yahweh’s ambivalence about kingship in the first place?) (1 Samuel 10.22).
Isaiah (Isaiah 6.5) and Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1.6) sought to evade the implications of the experience of being called.
Nor is this confined to individuals: ‘though they [the people] hide themselves on the top of Carmel… though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea ... I will fix my eyes on them’ says the Lord (Amos 9. 3 – 6). The bad news is that there is nowhere safe; nowhere beyond the reach of the mysterious God. Neither Adam and Eve, for Moses, nor Saul, nor Isaiah and Jeremiah, nor the entire people can hide in a place where God cannot find them.
This is most memorably expressed by the writer of Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you. 1.
As Paul Tillich said in The Escape from God, his great sermon on this text: ‘There is no place to which we could flee which is outside of God. 2.
Avoid God as we will, through shame or fear, it won’t work. Knowing even the little we do about God, we can be quite clear that concealment, however much desired, is an impossibility.
Well, it may be easy to understand why these Biblical characters might want to cover their tracks. It’s also possible to understand why fear of another kind makes people hide ‘their faces from him’ (Isaiah 53.3), why they wish to be disassociated from one who has ‘no beauty’, who is ‘despised and rejected’.
But, even taking into account the Tardis-like nature of God’s being, why should God want to reveal so much to us and yet continue to hide so much more? How does God choose what and to whom revelation will be given?
Jesus himself may give us a clue. In the gospel of John (8.59) we are told he went out of the temple to avoid being stoned by the Jews; presumably, not out of cowardice but because his time had not yet come.
And the right time is something over which only God has control. Otherwise, why wait so long to effect the incarnation, if God knew that it was inevitable? Paul, for one, is quite sure that the ‘plan of the mystery’ has been ‘hidden for ages in God’ (Ephesians 3.9), though to him some of it must have been revealed for he claims the gift of ‘grace to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ’ so that all might see the hidden mystery.’ Assuming, that is, that ‘all’ are allowed to ‘see the hidden mystery’ because God seems to rejoice in keeping some in the dark.
Or is that yet another human projection? There is a sense in which it may be true that God never hides from us. Just the opposite may be true: that God stretches out God’s arms towards us endlessly and continuously, yearns for us and pursues us to the ends of the earth. It is we who turn away, in awe and fear or because we cannot face the splendour, the holiness, the otherness, the nearness of God, or simply prefer to plough our own furrow. Our talk of God’s hiding Godself may be no more than a natural human propensity to pass the buck, to blame somebody else.
If we could only acquire knowledge of God’s mystery, we would be blessed indeed, for therein lie ‘all the treasures of wisdom.’ (Colossians.3.3) Except that even your life itself (those of you who have died in Christ) ‘is hid with Christ in God.’
Why the great secret? Surely, those who think their lives are ‘with Christ in God’ should be shouting it from the rooftops? The imperatives of mission and evangelism suggest we should be telling forth the gospel, preaching the word of God and bringing in the nations, unless you live in a time of persecution and oppression, in which case it might be very consoling to know that your life is ‘hidden with Christ’. Perhaps it’s not only martyrs who have kept the Church going at such times; perhaps also the hidden secrets of those whose lives are hid with Christ in God have played a silent and inexplicable part in its survival.
But the Bible identifies some people from whom God was thought to choose to hide his face: those who are wicked.
‘They (Israel) dealt so treacherously with me that I hid my face from them‘ (Ezekiel 39.23).
‘I have hidden my face from this city because of all their wickedness’ (Jeremiah 33.5)
And Cain recognises instantly that in his wanderings around the world, not only will he be driven away from all that he loves but his sin means that ‘from your face I shall be hidden.’ (Genesis 4.14)
And yet conversely God ‘does not hide his face from the afflicted’ (Psalm 22.24) but looks on them favourably and with love. And for those of us who, from time to time, experience the hiddenness of God, put up barriers, or look purposefully in the opposite direction, the knowledge that, however distant God might feel from us or we from God, however obscure the mystery, once God the Ruler of time and space claims us, that same God will never let us go, is an encouragement. So it turns out to be good to know that our lives are truly ‘hid with Christ in God’, waiting patiently and silently to be revealed and resurrected.
‘You gave the world into our care
that we might be your faithful stewards and reflect your bountiful grace.
Through Abraham and Sarah you blessed us with a holy heritage.
You delivered us from slavery,
sustained us in the wilderness
and raised up prophets
that we might realise the fullness of your promise.
But we failed to honour your image in one another and in ourselves;
we failed to see your goodness in the world around us;
and so we violated your creation, abused one another
and rejected your love.
Yet you did not abandon us to death
but sent Jesus Christ to be our Saviour.
(American liturgy for healing)
1. Psalm 139. 1-12 (NRSV)
2. The opening words of the second paragraph of this sermon in The Shaking of the Foundations; http://www.godweb.org/shaking.htm