Sometimes those of us who spend a significant amount of our time preparing and leading worship can find it quite dispiriting when people tell us that they find it easier to worship God on a mountainside, or in a garden than they do in Church. It shouldn’t really surprise us though. Whilst a magnificent Cathedral or an evocative liturgy are crafted to bring glory to God, we can’t expect them to provoke the same awe and wonder as God’s own creation.
The tendency to find God in nature is something that we should cultivate, firstly because anything which helps people have an awareness of the reality of God has got to be a good thing and secondly because being attentive to and appreciative of creation will engender an understanding that the natural world is to be treasured and not exploited. Nevertheless, there is a danger that because people’s experience of God’s presence in nature is so profound they begin to confuse nature with God, deifying and worshiping it. We need to remember that while God can be found in nature, he also transcends it.
The Gospel for today tells of the healing at the pool of Bethesda. A man has been seeking healing from the waters. In doing so he may have been invoking the power of nature of heal, or supernatural powers. The intriguing missing verse suggests the latter, describing how an angel came to stir the water and that the first person into the pool after each disturbance would be cured. However, since this is considered to be so unreliable it is consigned to a footnote, it is reasonable to suggest that it was the water itself that was thought to have healing powers.
Whether the waters really did have the power to heal is remains untested, as the man found no-one who was prepared to help him into the water, but we are left in no doubt about Jesus' healing power. Jesus commands him to "Get up, pick up his mat and walk.", which he does and is completely cured. It is Jesus, not the pool, who has the ability to heal.
For reasons best known to itself, the Lectionary guillotines the story at this point. An extended reading would suggest the incident is best understood in understood in terms of healing on the Sabbath, but the extract we have points us to a conclusion that the power of Jesus to heal surpasses that of the pool and urges us to look to him for our salvation, rather placing our hope in nature, or other people, or even water-stirring angels.
Psalm 67 shows creation, not as an end in itself but as something which points back to the creator. It is a psalm which celebrates the harvest, but praise and gratitude are not due to the land but rather to God. The Earth has brought forth her increase, but it is God who gives the blessing. Nature is the means of a blessing from God, but is not itself the originator. It secondary, whilst God is primary.
It is the reading from the book of Revelation though, which makes the point most explicitly. It is salutory to find that God's dwelling is a city. No scope for the idealisation of the countryside here, but there is also a sense that the glory of God is represented as a kind of “super-nature” or “nature plus”. God resides in a place where the trees bear 12 different kind of fruits, where the rivers are so pure they are crystal, and above all those great wonders of creation, the Sun and the Moon, are rendered superfluous by the glory of God. You might say God puts the Sun in the shade. What a thought- how great a god!
Pantheism – identifying God with the natural world has been an enduring temptation for humanity, from early nature religions, to those who believe in the 21st Century that they can “ask the Universe…” or “the Universe has a plan”. Our readings this week remind us that however beautiful, powerful and bountiful nature is, there is something greater. Whist welcoming and cultivating an awareness of God in the nature, we must recognise that nature is not the entirity of God's revelation to us. It remains secondary to the revelation that is our Lord Jesus Christ and that whatever awe creation inspires in us will pale into insignificance when placed alongside the transcendent glory of God.