Sermon: Joseph's Wager
Preached on 1st August 2010
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
Joseph says to his brothers, ‘even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good’, a luminous climax to a great story. Until now, even though Joseph has recognised his brothers and been reconciled to them, the outcome is not yet clear. Will he, the powerful Egyptian viceroy, regard them as family or fief? What will forgiveness mean for him, for them, for their descendants? As if from nowhere, because of all the characters in this story, God is the one with least to say, Joseph reaches this ‘my Lord and my God’ moment. ‘You intended…. God intended’. In conspiracy and catastrophe, everything has worked together for good.
When is it a true act of faith to say ‘it was for the best, and good has come out of it’, and when is it just a thoughtless cliché to make us feel better about the bad things that happen? We do not say it, and should not say it, when we hear of a child who has been abused, or bystanders blown to pieces by a suicide bomber, or a pensioner murdered in her own home. We condemn wickedness, and we do what we can to help its victims, but we are reticent about theorising because we know that words can make things worse as well as better. Among life’s risks is the possibility that human beings may realise their worst as well as their best. In the face of what is wrong or just bewildering, we will not try to guess what God intends in the perplexing, inscrutable events of human life.
Yet the instinct to find meanings is also part of being human. Kierkegaard said that life has to be lived forwards but understood backwards. And this is where Joseph helps us, not so much as an interpretation of particular events as the insight of faith into life’s meaning. Faith tells a story of how God has been moving within the ordinary processes of cause and effect to work his wise and loving purposes in the world. It is not always apparent from the evidence: it’s faith that makes the connections. The other day I was talking with a distinguished scientist. ‘Where is the ground for your beliefs?’ he asked with some asperity. I said it was as much a matter of the heart as the head, for the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. I went on to say that I had a strong instinct what my life would have become if I had not been a Christian. I would have been only half alive, and serving the wrong gods. Now I have been a Christian for 45 years and a clergyman for 35. I have staked my whole adult life personally and professionally on Christianity being true. As my retrospect lengthens, I echo Joseph’s words. God did indeed intend it for good. But they are still said in faith. Suppose Christianity turned out to be a fantasy? Would my life have been wasted? I have only this one life to live. I can’t go back and start again, choose different rungs to construct a life on and climb clear of childhood and adolescence. Whatever they are, we stake our life choices on these beliefs and values. It’s a huge act of trust
Last year, you will recall, the philosophy of religion reached the side of the London bus thanks to the evangelistic vision of the British Humanist Association: ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The word ‘probably’ is the clue. It tells us that atheism is not so much a cool decision of unbiased reason as a true act of faith. It’s a wager: weigh up the evidence, then stake your life on it. Worry is only for religious people. But what if it said (and this is the strict equivalent of that statement in modal logic): ‘God may possibly exist, so stop being frivolous and start living responsibly’? This is the dilemma put by the 17th century theologian and mathematician Blaise Pascal. In his Pensées, he faces us with the ultimate question of all:
God either exists or does not exist. But which shall we choose? Reason can’t decide here … A game is being played as to whether heads or tails will turn up. Which will you choose? Where does your interest lie? You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and will, your knowledge and happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. You must choose. But where does your happiness lie? Weigh up the gain and the loss in wagering that God exists. If you gain, you gain everything; if you lose, you lose nothing.
Pascal’s wager is that God exists, so we should live as if he does, even if we cannot be certain (for if we could be, religion would be a matter of knowledge, not faith). For myself, I concluded years ago that I would rather have lived as a Christian and tried to make some difference in the world than be self-servingly enslaved to money, sex or power. The wager is that Christianity is true. Even if it turned out not to be, the Christian life would still be worthwhile and would still add to the sum of human happiness including my own. If I bet the other way, says Pascal, if I wagered that God did not exist and lived riotously and then found out on judgment day that I had been wrong, the cost would be eternal misery and loss.
In the gospel there seems to be no room for ‘probably’. We are either for the kingdom of God or against it. Yet to receive the kingdom ‘gladly’, as the ordinary people did, is not the certainty of an intellectually coherent position. It is the belief that this is good news worth investing the whole of life in, a wager that makes sense because of the character of the man announcing it in whom word and work are so palpably one. He is the living reality that he speaks about. We can safely trust him. And this has been true of those of his followers who have lived Christianity as a life-changing, redeeming power of goodness. My scientist conversation partner had a lot to say about how religion divides and demeans people. He is right: debased religion is mad, bad and dangerous to know. But, I said, why not judge religion as you judge science, not at its worst but at its best? For me, it is the goodness and integrity of so many Christians I have known that makes Christianity not only attractive but believable.
On this first day of the week we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It is God’s pledge that our hope in this good news and its bearer it is not misplaced and it will not be disappointed. If ever it was true of an event that ‘you meant harm but God meant it for good’, it is the cross. On Good Friday that statement would be incredible; but resurrection makes it both possible and believable. It is not yet the certainty my agnostic scientist friend craves. Religious statements can never be. There is still a wager involved in building our house upon the rock of Jesus and his kingdom. We don’t yet know what the outcome will be. But to construct our life on this foundation gives it stability amid perilously shifting sands. With the years the conviction grows that it was a wise decision. It was worth the wager that ‘God intended it for good’. With the passing of years it confirms the hope that is within us. We know that ‘love is his meaning’.