+ God, ‘with whom there is no shadow or variation due to change’
God doesn’t change. During the first lockdown we turned a small room upstairs in the Rectory into a chapel. Each morning I say my prayers there. When we first arrived at Holy Cross the trees opposite at the edge of Lauriston were bare, then the leaves came out in that luminous green of Spring, the green deepened and yellowed, the leaves fell, the dark branches were outlined against the sky again, and now the leaves are dark green again. There is something special about the round of the seasons in the background of prayer and the Church’s year.
Life without change would be boring but I began this sermon with words from St James in our second reading that God doesn’t change. A friend who spent some years in Ghana missed our Northern seasons; a dry season and a rainy season aren’t enough. Life without change would also be bereft of any chance of improvement or growth, as John Henry Newman famously said: ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often’. Sometimes Churches get into a rut, where people moan at every change – ‘but we have always eaten sausages in Church on Advent Sunday!’ Jesus says in the Gospel today to the Pharisees, who loved the ancient traditions of their Church, what no Rector who values his life would dare to say: ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written… in vain do you worship me, you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’.
This needs a bit of unpacking. ‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often,’ but an equally valid saying is ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’. Tradition as a process, which means handing things on in time, is how we receive all things of value, including the Bible; but human customs and traditions need intelligent evaluation and change when they lose their purpose. Not to change is essentially to constantly change away from the present, like Miss Haversham in Great Expectations. The terrible events in Afghanistan show us that change is not always good and we shouldn’t delude ourselves with the Liberal myth that everything is getting better and better. Even good advances in technology are destroying our planet. Our Christian and human task in a changing world is to ensure we, both as individuals and as part of society, are heading in the right direction. We should examine ourselves – are you changing for the better?
So, we need to change, but James, the brother of Jesus and first Bishop of Jerusalem, teaches us that with God ‘there is no shadow or variation due to change’. God doesn’t change, although we do. This is a common Christian teaching. We sung it in our first hymn:
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish – but nought changeth thee.
Nothing changes God…. so God can’t have compassion, can’t change his mind when we pray, can’t love, and thus has more in common with a stone than with us. That is a problem. Why are people not Christians, why is this church not full? It may be because Church people seem to be living in the 1980s, it may be because people are too distracted by other things, or it may be because they think we believe stupid things – and I must say that with some of the stuff that is claimed to be Christianity, I’m with the unbelievers. Our task, as Christians who think and love, is to try and understand our faith and help others see it makes sense.
Which hymn is this from? ‘O thou that changest not’?
Abide with me. This is a hymn of comfort, often sung at funerals. Usually the older hymns have much more profound Christian teaching than more recent ones. Even in a human sense, ‘not changing’ can be a good thing. Think of the love of a parent that is constant, even if the child goes off the rails – like the prodigal son. Think of the friend you can rely on, whatever happens. In the Bible, we see God is that sort of parent. Israel is always going after other gods or getting smug in complacency, always getting punished and then God receives her back. Jesus is the same with the disciples who deny him or run away. God’s love is unchanging and you get as many second chances as you need.
But more than that. Some twentieth century theologians proposed a changing God who was part of the evolution of the cosmos and suffered alongside us. Nice, but not God. God is not a part of the universe. You, on the other hand, are. Throughout life you have the potential to do new things. For unbelievers potential ends at death but for Christians death is, like a seed falling into the ground, a great release of potential. If God had potential, though, he wouldn’t be God as God is perfect. For Christians, God is, in philosophical terms, ‘pure act’ – he is perfect and all his potential is actuated. God can’t change because God includes all possible changes – this is the opposite of being unchanging like a stone.
This is why God’s love is unchanging. But in Christ God entered the world of change, of the bad change of death and evil. In Christ, God knows change from the human inside and so can change us, enable us to realise our potential. That God in himself doesn’t change, though, is good news because it means God is unchanging love. St Teresa of Avila knew this and kept these words in her prayer book. May they give you hope amidst the changes and chances of this world:
‘Let nothing trouble you, nothing frighten you. All things are passing; God never changes. Patient endurance attains all things. Whoever possesses God lacks nothing: God alone suffices’.