Trust in God
You can find this reading here
Father, we pray that you will open our eyes so we can see Your truth. Open our minds so we can understand Your Word. And open our hearts so we may receive all that You want us to receive. Amen.
It’s one of the most famous lines in movie history, I’m sure we’re all familiar with it. When Humphrey Bogart turns to Dooley Wilson in Casablanca and says, ‘Play it again, Sam.’ Only, he doesn’t, does he? At one point Ingrid Bergman says, ‘Play it once, Sam,’ and at another Bogart just says ‘Play it’ but nobody ever says ‘Play it again, Sam.’ How it ended up being such a famous line, who knows? ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ from the film Apollo 13? It’s actually ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem.’ Not quite the same, but close. They’re just movie lines, but they kind of back up the notion that if you say something that might not strictly be true often enough, it becomes something like the truth.
There are plenty of examples of this in Scripture too. Let’s go right back to the start. Eve took a bite from an apple, didn’t she? Well, it was certainly a fruit of some kind – there’s no actual evidence for it being an apple, though. Then later, all of those Christmas images we see of Mary riding on the back of a donkey towards Bethlehem, with Joseph at her side? It might have happened, sure it might, but the Bible doesn’t mention a donkey there. And still on Christmas, three wise men or three kings? There’s all sorts we could say about that. There were three gifts, sure, but not necessarily three men – and they were not necessarily wise, or kings, either. And contrary to the nativity scenes we’re so used to seeing, they actually came along about a year later, they weren’t at the stable. That’s if it all took place in a stable, you could cast doubt on that too.
I’m sorry if I’m shattering a few illusions here, but the thing is – does it really matter? Scripture can be interpreted in all sorts of ways and I know scholars with a lot more knowledge than I have could make a case for each of these instances having some truth to them.
But what about when you’re faced with whole sections of scripture that you don’t see in the Bibles you have sitting in the pews where you are this morning. Because that’s the case with our reading for this week, a part of which Elaine has just read to us from the story of Susanna. This Bible has the story in it, the Bibles in the pews don’t. They’re still both Bibles.
For the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at some of these stories, which form part of what is called the Apocrypha. Now, when you see the word Apocrypha, it’s easy to equate it with our modern understanding of what makes a story apocryphal. I checked the dictionary definition here - an apocryphal story is, this is a quote, ‘probably not true although it is often told and believed by some people to have happened.’ A bit like Bogart and ‘Play it again, Sam,’ or Mary on a donkey. That’s one interpretation of these stories, that there's no historical proof for them, and another is that, and we’re going back to the original Greek meaning of Apocrypha here, that they’re ‘hidden’ writings, only made available to a certain circle of believers. Yet another interpretation, and this is the one I prefer, is that they happened but, well, they just fell victim to the editing process that produced the final version of scripture, they maybe just didn’t make the cut.
And that, to me, doesn’t mean they should be dismissed entirely. In fact, within the Apocrypha are some great insights into late Old Testament life, and not only that but the passages there include some valuable lessons as well, lessons that can only enhance our understanding of God’s Word – and His action.
Elaine read the first eighteen verses of the story of Susanna to us a few moments ago. And you could say she left us with a bit of a cliffhanger. If you were watching an episode of Eastenders I’m sure you’d have heard the ‘duff, duff, duff’ of the closing theme music as Susanna bathes in her garden with two men surreptitiously spying on her. Let me fill in the rest of the story for you – there are spoilers ahead, if you’re planning on reading it yourself later!
The men proposition Susanna, we’ve already heard they wanted to seduce her, and they say if she doesn’t submit to them, they’ll blackmail her, saying they’d seen her with another man – a really serious accusation, because Susanna was a married woman. But she doesn’t give in to them – ‘Better to be at your mercy than to sin against the Lord,’ she says to the men. And she is at their mercy, because the men go ahead with their concocted story, insisting that Susanna is a sinner against God and an adulterer against her husband Joakim, and leaving her facing a death sentence. These were harsh times.
So Susanna is brought to trial and the two men give false evidence against her, which effectively signs her death warrant. And remember, this is a time when a man’s word means far, far more than a woman’s ever would be. To argue against the claims would be pointless, two men, respected elders of the community against one woman, so what does Susanna do? She puts her trust in God. This is her prayer: ‘Eternal God, you know all secrets and foresee all things, you know that their evidence against me is false. And now I am to die, innocent though I am of the charges these wicked men have brought against me.’
Susanna doesn’t plead her case, she doesn’t beg. She doesn’t tear her hair out in anguish. She doesn’t even say, ‘Save me’, she doesn’t even ask for anything, she just submits herself to God, plainly states the facts and gives the matter over to Him. She puts her trust in the God.
And then we are told, ‘The Lord heard her cry.’
‘The Lord heard her cry.’
How do we know that God hears us when we pray to Him, when we cry out?
There was a man who was trapped by floodwaters that had got so high the only place he could get clear was to climb onto the roof of his house. He trusted God to rescue him and prayed for his help. One of the man’s neighbours came past in a canoe and shouted out to him – ‘The water’s still rising, your house is going to go under. Jump into the canoe with me.’ The man said, ‘No, you’re alright, I’ve prayed to God and I trust him to save me.’ A wee while later someone came by in a boat and the same happened – ‘Come on, jump in,’ shouted the man in the boat. ‘I’m fine,’ said the man, ‘I trust God to save me,’ and he kept praying. Eventually a helicopter appeared overhead and a rope ladder was dropped down to him – the man in the helicopter said, ‘Climb up, you’ll be safe here.’ Still the man wouldn’t go. He drowned, of course, and when he arrived in heaven he said to God, ‘Why didn’t you save me? I prayed for your help, I trusted you to save me from the flood.’
‘What do you mean?’ said God, ‘I sent you a canoe, I sent you a boat and a helicopter.’
How do we know that God hears us when we pray? How do we know he doesn’t?
God certainly hears Susanna’s prayer, and He inspires Daniel to go to her aid. This is the same Daniel we know in the Old Testament, only this is before his exploits in the lions’ den. Daniel speaks up on behalf of Susanna, he splits up the men and questions them separately, looking for holes in their stories - if you’ve ever seen an episode of Line of Duty, you’ll recognise the tactic. Divide and conquer, I think the term is. Get them on their own and see how their stories match up. And Daniel finds discrepancies between the men’s stories that prove them to be lying. Susanna goes free and the men are punished instead.
It’s a good story, a moral one. If you haven’t read it yet, do – even though you know the plot now. I did tell you there were spoilers here! It’s also a very modern story, one that, in recent years, we’ve seen played out in the pages of our newspapers and on television. I’m talking here about the MeToo movement, about crimes committed behind closed doors, about people being backed into corners by powerful and corrupt individuals, about people who have nowhere to turn. Well, almost nowhere.
Bad things happen to good people, we know that. I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the story of Joseph in the Old Testament – Joseph, the man with the multi-coloured coat. Bad things happened to Joseph, he was thrown into a well, sold into slavery by his brothers. But he forgave them eventually, saying to them:
‘You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.’ That’s Genesis 50, verse 20. ‘You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.’
Let’s think about that. God meant evil for good? It’s a difficult concept, isn’t it? Joseph could have wondered where God was when his brothers were throwing him into the well? Where was God when he was sold into slavery? Where was God when Susanna found herself in an impossible situation? We could ask now, where’s God when disasters strike, when shots ring out in school classrooms or at concerts, when pregnant women are stabbed in the own bedrooms? Where is God when wars kick off? Why doesn’t he just prevent bad things from happening?
But if we’re asking these questions, we’ve got to ask others too. Where is God when we do things we shouldn’t, you and me? Where is God when we’re not as honest as we should be, when we’re jealous, when we’re cruel, even if we don’t mean to be? Why doesn’t He stop us?
I think the answer to the question ‘why doesn’t He just stop bad things from happening?’ is the same answer to the one about ‘why doesn’t He stop us from doing the things we know we shouldn’t?’ I said earlier on that God doesn’t just snap his fingers and sort things as and when we want him to, but he could, we know he could. He’s God. The rules that He has are the same for everyone, though. So if we want him to stop wars, or stabbings, or shootings, we have to be ready for him stopping us every single time we do something that might be considered wrong or bad as far as He is concerned. Are we ready for that? Would we be diminished in some way? Would we lose something? Maybe, maybe.
One thing’s for sure, like Joseph and like Susanna, we have to trust him, that His good will prevail eventually.
Someone once told me that when you don’t understand what’s going on, when you find yourself in a situation that you can’t control, the best thing you can do is trust the process. There’s always a process, someone always has a plan, even if you don’t. For us, as Christians, no process is better than God’s process, his plan.
That’s not to say we should be second guessing it, or using it as an easy answer. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘well, it must have been God’s plan,’ when something bad or tragic comes about? Well, I’m not so sure about that – I think that’s a bit too simple, a bit shallow, and I think we could drive ourselves crazy trying to see the purpose of God in everything that happens. We can’t, it’s not for us. But His will, as we said together in our prayer earlier on, will be done.
You know, I once had a boss who tended to talk in clichés all the time. She talked the kind of business-speak that gives business a bad name. She was always saying things like, ‘let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes,’ ‘let’s pick the low-hanging fruit,’ nobody was allowed to ‘drop the ball’ and she always wanted us to ‘hit the ground running’. And let me tell you, it’s not easy to hit the ground running and not drop the ball, not at the same time anyway. I didn’t understand what she was talking about half the time, to be honest. But her favourite expression was ‘I don’t want the labour pains; I just want the baby.’ The first time she said it I had to get her to explain, then it made sense to me. What she was saying is she didn’t need the details; she just needed the right outcome.
The bad things that happen to us, they’re the labour pains, they’re the details. What matters is how it all works out in the end. And God hears our cry, like he heard Susanna’s, so all we have to do is call out to Him, and trust the process. God’s process.
Father, we live in a world that’s imperfect, that’s flawed. But this is of our doing, not yours. You made the world to be good, to be very good, but still we manage to clutter up your creation, in so many ways. Help us to trust you more, Father, help us to place our concerns, our worries, into your loving hands. Help us to trust you more with the injustices that are done to us and the injustices we, even if we don’t mean to, inflict on others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.