Compassion of God

A talk given at Morning Prayer on 23rd October 2019

Ecclesiasticus 18.1-14 / Mark 15.33-41

The Apocrypha

Our first reading today came from the book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach or just Sirach, which is one of the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha.

Nowadays when we refer to something as “apocryphal” we generally mean that it’s dubious or probably untrue, and just dismiss it.

But this isn’t the whole story of the meaning of the word.

An apocryphal story, according to the dictionary, is one which is probably not true or did not happen, but which may give a true picture of someone or something.

So, with the books of the Apocrypha, the stories may or may not be literally true but they do give us a true picture of something or someone – in this case God and his dealings with human beings.

And, because of this, while the Apocrypha did didn’t make it into the official biblical collections of either Jews or Protestant Christians, the books it contains are considered to be good and holy reading, nonetheless.

Some Bibles print the Apocrypha in between the Old and New Testaments at the back.

And if you happen to be reading a Roman Catholic or Orthodox Bible you will find that these books are considered to be part of the Old Testament proper.

Bird droppings, dogs, fish and angels

My favourite of these books happens to be Tobit, which features Tobit, recently blinded by bird droppings, sending his son Tobias off a long journey to collect some money for him, accompanied by his dog and the archangel Raphael, disguised as a relative. Along the way a fish tries to eat Tobias’s foot but with Raphael’s help Tobias kills the fish and uses parts of it to heal a woman possessed by a demon and then his father.

But, going back to Ecclesiasticus, what we have in this morning’s first reading is a picture of God that seems to fit well with what we know of God from the Bible.

Power and Compassion

We see a God who is powerful and eternal, who is beyond all praise that could be offered.

He is described as living for ever, as having created the universe.

None can fully describe God’s power and great deeds because they are beyond human experience and understanding.

We might expect a being of such power to hardly notice us, like we hardly notice small insects scurrying about at our feet.

Yet Ecclesiasticus also tells us that none can fully recount God’s great mercies.

For this great and powerful God looks on humanity with compassion, patience and forgiveness.

This God sees our short lives, our confusion, our sin and our stumbling – and reaches out to help.

This is a picture we see again and again in the Bible – people go astray, fall into sin, misunderstand and generally mess things up but God comes to us with outstretched hands and patiently offers us help.

And, of course, we see the great climax of that compassion on the cross, as we heard in the second reading, when Jesus voluntarily fully entered into the human experience of feeling utterly alone, abandoned, scared and hopeless, all so that we need never feel alone or abandoned by God again.

So, as we go into this day, and all the days that follow, let us hold on to that picture of a God who cares and stands with us in the mess of life with compassion, forgiveness and love in his hands.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know?

2nd Sunday after Trinity /Proper 5 / Year B

Mark 3.20-35


Lady Caroline Lamb said of the poet Lord Byron that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

If this phrase had been around in 1st century Israel it would’ve been very useful to the enemies of Jesus.

They’re possibly scared of Jesus’ popularity or shocked at what seems to be outrageous behaviour – he’s been healing on the sabbath, casting out evil spirits, breaking rules and arguing with the authorities – and now look, huge crowds are following him.

He could stir them up to anything, to ignore all their carefully laid down rules, to upset the order of things, and he’s not even a proper religious leader.

Jesus is a threat to authority, an affront to law and order, and a dangerous subversive, with his healing people on the sabbath and talk of a new order of things.

And what better way is there to get rid of such a threat than to undermine it with a few words about being mad or bad?

So those who were threatened and upset by Jesus started spreading rumours that he was mad – dismissing his importance and undermining his credibility.

And then some of the religious authorities joined in the campaign against Jesus, announcing that he was in league with the devil, and therefore both bad and dangerous.

After all, in their eyes, the power that Jesus had could only come from God or the Devil, and it couldn’t come from God because God only worked in accordance with Scripture, while Jesus was breaking rules all over the place.

In this way they could justify stopping and containing Jesus, and even say it was for his own good.

But Jesus undermined their game by calmly pointing out the problem with their idea that Satan was fighting against himself.

When there’s a civil war it’s disastrous for that country – we only have to look at Syria to see that.

When members of a household start fighting among themselves it can lead to a family breaking apart.

In the same way, if evil is working against itself, then it’s weakening itself and is doomed.

It just doesn’t make sense to claim that evil is being driven out by evil.

In fact, evil is doomed but not because it’s in a state of civil war.

Rather, evil is doomed because Jesus is here and bringing in God’s kingdom.

All the things Jesus has been doing – all the healings, all the casting out of evil, all the preaching good news about freedom and forgiveness, his choosing of disciples to spread his message – all these things are signs that the kingdom of God is coming and breaking down the walls of the kingdom of evil.

But his enemies are holding on too tightly to the idea that God must work in particular ways, ways that fit with their own understanding and experience and beliefs.

There’s no room for God doing something new or surprising, as everything God does, has done or ever will do is neatly laid out for them in Scripture, tradition and scholarship.

Any change in that pattern doesn’t mean that God is living, active and doing new things, or that what they thought might not be 100% accurate.

Instead, new and different are labelled bad and wrong, and neatly dismissed or treated as dangerous, a tendency that still exists today.

Jesus’ opponents refuse to see the work of the Holy Spirit among them because it doesn’t look how they think it should, and end up labelling what is clearly good – the coming of God’s kingdom – as the work of the devil.

And this attitude leads them to the edge of the unforgivable sin – labelling the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of the devil.

The unforgivable sin has been debated and worried about a lot from the early days of the Church.

But there seems to be a general agreement that is not a case of a one-off misunderstanding of what God is doing, or just making a mistake.

If it was Paul would never have been able to become a Christian on the road to Damascus after strongly rejecting Jesus and persecuting his followers.

And Peter wouldn’t have been able to receive forgiveness and restoration to his position as the rock of the church after denying Jesus 3 times.

Rather, it’s a case of wilful, ongoing seeing and knowing what God is doing and deciding to label it as evil.

It’s not accidentally getting something wrong but rather constantly choosing to deny the signs of God at work among us.

It’s seeing all the good that God is doing but deciding to reject it and literally demonize it.

It’s persistently attributing God’s work to the devil with a stubborn resisting, rejecting and insulting of the Holy Spirit.

Many Christians worry that they might have committed this sin – but worrying about it is a good sign that you haven’t – because those who are genuinely trying to follow Jesus are unlikely to have such a hardened, ongoing hatred of God and rebellion against his work.

But what can we make of the idea that this sin is unforgivable?

Doesn’t this contradict the idea that God can and will forgive all our sins?

Well, I don’t think it’s the case that God won’t forgive but rather that it puts people in a position where accepting his forgiveness is impossible.

It’s rather like hanging off a cliff edge by your fingertips but refusing to accept help because you’re convinced that the person offering it is trying to kill you.

You would probably prefer to hang on hoping for someone else or even to just let go and take your chances if you’re convinced strongly enough of that person’s bad intentions.

Similarly, if a person is completely and persistently hardening their heart so that they see God as evil then they’re not likely to accept his offer of forgiveness and carry out the repentance needed to receive it.

It’s refusal to be forgiven that gets in the way – not reluctance from God.

For, as it says in 1 John 1, verse 9: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

All that is needed is to turn to God, admit weakness and let the Holy Spirit carry us, instead of resisting him.

So let us not lose heart, or let guilt, worry and fear weigh us down, for we have a loving and forgiving God who longs to draw us ever deeper into his kingdom of goodness and love, if only we will turn to him.

Making Mistakes

“We are sometimes crippled by our weakest moments and embrace that weakness as our unalterable fate, but the reality is that ‘there is always time for endurance, time for patience, time for healing, time for change. Have you slipped? Rise up. Have you sinned? Cease’#BasilTheGreat”.


I feel like I’ve maybe gone a bit too quiet on the posting front. Life got in the way in the form of lots of work and then a small car accident when I drove into someone else in a lapse of concentration. There were no injuries but it left me feeling shaken up and insecure. I have a habit of beating myself up when things go wrong, something I try to change as I know it feeds into feeling depressed and anxious.

After the car accident I was busy feeling bad and blaming myself when the words above came up on my Twitter feed. I definitely fall prey to thinking that weakness is my unalterable fate at times, and it’s good to be reminded that I’m not the only one who sometimes feels that way, whether it’s about an accident or doing that thing we know we shouldn’t do.

I also found the words of Basil the Great to rise up a helpful call to not sit around and worry about what’s done and can’t be helped but instead to take a deep breath and try again. Every day is a new chance to live, laugh, work and laugh, knowing that the failures and mistakes of yesterday can be forgiven as we go on in God’s grace towards our goal of becoming more like our Lord and Saviour.


The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

                                                            Lamentations 3.22-23