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John Webster on God’s Sustaining Presence

May 31, 2016

While John’s new essay volumes The Domain of the Word and God Without Measure are grabbing attention from theologians (and rightly so), another new volume of Prof. Webster’s work has recently arrived that you might not know about: last year Lexham Press published Confronted By Grace: Meditations of a Theologian.  This is a collection of 26 sermons from his career, most during the time he served as canon of Christ Church cathedral in Oxford.

On the day that I learned of his passing I found myself holed up reading these sermons, searching for some source of comfort.  John’s words of course pointed me to God and no one else as the source of our comfort.  As he said in the sermon titled “He Who Comforts:”

In this matter of true human comfort, we enter a sphere in which God alone is competent.  No mere human being can announce comfort of this kind; no one can take it upon himself or herself to declare what Isaiah declares.  God alone may do this, because God alone is savior, and therefore comforter.  With this announcement we’re placed in the middle of God’s work of salvation.  We listen to an announcement that the human situation has been entirely changed – not modified or gingered up or temporarily cheered, but re-made, re-created.  Salvation and its comfort are in the hands of God alone; all we may do in comforting is, as Isaiah does, testify to the miracle of God’s mercy. (p. 42)

God is the source of all our comfort, the one who provides relief and vindication, and who on the basis of this relief and vindication gives us the command, “Comfort, comfort my people …” (Isaiah 40:1).

As those who weep and mourn you and I are drawn by our frailty into God’s presence.  As those who are afflicted we seek comfort, and this seeking brings us inexorably to the true Comforter.  In God’s presence, John says in another sermon (this one on Psalm 121 – “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?”), we are sustained.  God is the one who attends to us in our affliction, who will lift up your head:

God does not sleep through the misery of the world; God will shade us in the heats of the day; God will watch us as we journey; God will keep us.  It’s simple enough.  But to get to those affirmations, we have to climb over a lot of rubble inside ourselves.  We have to learn what is extraordinarily hard for us to learn: not to listen to our fears; not to be tossed around by whatever comes across our path; not to give credence to the lies that God has fallen asleep or just given up protecting us.

Those things take a lifetime to learn for most of us, because learning them involves overcoming some of our most basic drives and desires and foolishness.  But it’s only as we learn those things that we begin to live with a measure of Christian composure.  Christian composure is a very particular thing, however.  It’s an equanimity that is given to us, which we don’t make up from our own resources.  It’s given to us as we make our confession of the lordship of God, as we learn how to praise God, how to trust the gospel, how to see all things int he light of God’s mercy, how to keep our hearts by God’s promises. (p. 147)

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

 The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.

 The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 121:5-8, NRSV

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