Many years ago, in what seems like another life, I was on my way home from a party one night - I say one night, but I really mean one morning, it was a pretty good party.
I was walking home just as the dawn was starting to break, just as the sun was coming up, you know, the time when it’s not quite light and it’s not quite dark. Anyway, as I walked I caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of my eye. I saw something that my brain just couldn’t make sense of. It looked like an animal, some kind of animal at least, but it wasn’t like any animal I’d ever seen before. It was about the size of my fist, maybe a bit bigger, and it had a brown body and a white head that seemed to be out of all proportion to the rest of it.
And it was running around and around, in just about a perfect circle.
A few thoughts went through my mind. The first one was, ‘I’m hallucinating, seeing things, it’s not really there.’ My second thought was, ‘maybe it’s some kind of new species, or something that only comes out at this time of the night. Or this time in the morning.’ My third thought was, ‘I’m never drinking again.’ I looked a bit closer.
It was an animal, right enough. It was a hedgehog with its head stuck in a yoghurt pot, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that hedgehog recently. I can imagine it, just going about its business, doing whatever it is that hedgehogs do, when it sees the yoghurt pot and thinks, ‘that’s breakfast sorted’ and sticks its head in – and because of the spikes that they have, of course, it gets stuck. Then what else is there to do but run round in circles.
We’ve all been running around in circles a bit recently. A few weeks ago, we were just going about our business and coronavirus, Covid-19, was something that was happening on the other side of the world. We didn’t really take it too seriously. Oh, I know there were experts telling us we’d all be affected by it, but we didn’t really believe them, did we? More fool us. We didn’t really believe them until it made it here.
Then the running around started, literally running around by some, people buying up all the toilet roll and sanitising gel they could get their hands on, other people figuratively running around as they all suddenly became hungry for information, not really understanding what was going on around them. And here we are now – there you are at home watching this (I hope there’s someone watching this) and here I am, in an empty church.
But where’s God in all that’s going on right now? I said in my prayer earlier on that he’s always with us and we talk all the time about God being in control, that everything goes according to his plan. So why does he allow things like this to happen? Is this God’s way of judging us, of punishing us?
Let’s put the second question to bed first of all. No, no it’s not. In our reading a few moments ago from the Gospel of John, talking about the blind man, the disciples ask Jesus why he’s blind, if it was his sin or his parents sin that caused him to be that way.
Jesus says: ‘His blindness has nothing to do with his sins or his parents’ sins.’ And the same applies to us. What’s happening now isn’t because of anything we’ve done, I think it’s just nature showing its teeth, doing its thing. And nature comes at a price because for every positive, there has to be a negative.
A river carries life but it can also flood, it can ruin lives too. The dry land is a firm foundation, but earthquakes can tear it apart. Sun warms us, but it can burn us as well. Microscopic organisms can sustain our lives, but they can take them away too. It’s not judgement, it’s just the way it is. And when you extend it to our current situation, I’m with the theologian Tim Keller here, who said the real question isn’t, ‘Is this God’s judgement?’, more that ‘Is it God I look to and trust when bad things happen?’
And then Jesus says ‘He is blind so that God’s power might be seen at work in him.’ I think we’ve got to be careful with our interpretation of this. When you first read it, you maybe think he’s saying God made the man blind from birth just so he could show his power in healing him.
Why would God make someone blind for most of his life just so he can heal him one day? To prove that he could? Kind of like a cosmic showing off, look what I can do?
But it’s not that, I don’t think. The line can be translated another way, saying, ‘he is blind but let God’s power be seen at work’, and I think that fits better. ‘Let God’s power be seen at work.’ Jesus is saying ‘here we have a situation, and here’s what we – that is God, Jesus - are going to do about it.’ God’s power will be seen in the healing of the blind man, in the recovering of his sight.
But what about my first question, ‘why does he allow things like this to happen?’ I’m sure that all over the country now there are other ministers, maybe even some probationers like me, speaking to cameras and phones right now, streaming online to their congregations instead of speaking to them face to face, and a lot of them will be saying it’s all part of God’s plan, that he’s allowed this to happen because he has a purpose in mind and it’s just that we, as mere humans, can’t possibly know what it is. I struggle with that, I’ve got to be honest with you.
I don’t think he does just allow things like this to happen, no more than he allowed the blind man to be blind, they just happen – as I said, nature showing it teeth. And just like he gave us, you and me, the freedom to be good or not to be good, so he gave the world and everything in it the freedom to be good or not to be good.
And there’s a price to be paid for freedom, I’m afraid.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t look to God for support, for consolation. It doesn’t mean I trust him any less. It doesn’t mean I don’t see signs of him all around, even in the darkest of times. I see signs of him when my neighbour, who I hardly ever speak to – not because I don’t like him or anything, we just have different schedules – when my neighbour knocks on my door and hands me a piece of paper with his email address and phone numbers on it, and says, ‘I know I’m just next door but if you have a problem and you need anything, just let me know.’ I see signs of him when I read about a brewery that’s stopped producing beer and started producing hand sanitiser to give it away for free. I see signs of him when I see videos of people in Italy out on their balconies and singing opera together. I see signs of him when I see dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice.
I see signs of God all over.
Here we have a situation and here’s what we’re going to do about it.
We’re going to do as the experts tell us, we’re going to wash our hands and keep our space. We’re going to isolate ourselves if we need to, but we’re never going to be alone. Because we have a God who’s with us, who loves us, who cares about us, who’ll be there when we call on him and who’ll hold us when we’re hurting.
This time will pass and it’s in the recovering, in the healing, that we’ll see God’s power at work. We just have to trust him.