Updated: Aug 18, 2020
Many people were horrified when they heard of Mackintosh’s School of Art being destroyed by fire for a second time. With it went the ABC, in its own way a significant Glasgow building where the people of Glasgow saw their first silent films in the earliest days of cinema. I didn’t know quite what to think…other than that’s surely now the end for yet another piece of fine Glasgow architecture. It now appears the outer shell can be saved, albeit at great cost. Many more people had a much greater emotional investment in the Art School than me. Many thousands of young people have spent formative years there, learning from dedicated and talented artists…so many memories, so many emotions.
That got me thinking about how so often we in the church have an emotional investment in our church buildings. Our formative years in Sunday School…attending weddings, baptisms, funerals. They say, it’s just a building, and we shouldn’t worship buildings. But as we know it’s more than that. It’s more than a building when so many memories come with it…so many strong emotions of sorrow and of joy. And so we in the church will appreciate more than most, what former students and teachers at the School of Art must be feeling. It was more than a building. It was the repository of artistic endeavour and excellence…the building itself created by a genius whose work has had so much influence in the world of architecture and design.
Then I asked questions. How could this happen, not once but twice. How could this have been caused…carelessness, reckless carelessness…deliberate arson? Wild speculation at this stage, some may say…but natural questions.
Then I thought of God…or at least of a certain, possibly old-fashioned image of God…and that phrase, “An act of God”. And I thought well, if the first fire was an act of God, this time he must have been saying, “Guys, I really meant it…I really meant this building to go up in smoke…and to show you how serious I was, I’m taking the Picture House with it as well this time.” So don’t you even think of building it back up again.
And you might say, what a simplistic, naïve, understanding of God. God doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t zap landmark buildings in a fit of temper or one-upmanship. The fire was just huge misfortune for Glasgow…nothing to do with God. In my heart of hearts I know that to be true. I know God is a God of love, who wants the best for all his creatures…and who does not control our lives, far less our buildings, like a puppeteer would manipulate the strings of a marionette.
And yet, when we look at the world around us, the triumphs and the sufferings, the world cups and great sporting events, alongside the earthquakes and floods and the famines and the never ending wars…what an unpredictable, random, arbitrary world we live in. And if there is a God who is truly omnipotent, truly in charge, why does he appear so mercurial, so fickle? Why is the world so random? What will happen next?
So much is unpredictable. Who would have thought that Donald Trump, widely characterised as the worst president of the USA ever, could actually pull off world peace…if that is indeed what has happened last week in Singapore? In the light of such cosmic events, it makes you and I feel so small, so insignificant.
Those are the kind of thoughts that the Prophet Ezekiel was writing about centuries ago. Thoughts of a God who was totally in charge and who could seemingly control the smallest happening in the world with a command. “I make the green tree wither and give life to the dead tree…I, the Lord, have spoken! I will do what I have said.”
It's true God can take the smallest shoot and make it into a mighty cedar tree. Literally he can do that. But there’s a deeper meaning. This passage is a metaphor for Israel. God plants the shoot on top of Israel’s highest mountain. This is Ezekiel’s prophesy of the rise of the Jewish nation to a place of honour among nations…As well as that it is a prophesy of the Christian Church. Some commentators have suggested that the tender shoot mentioned is the Messiah…Jesus Christ. Here is an allusion to Mount Zion, and to Jerusalem, from where the Gospel first went out, and where it is said the first church was planted. The tall tree, on a mountain high and eminent, refers to the visibility and stability of the church of Christ.
These are the true acts of God. His power is total. But the great prophet is clear. God uses his power in specific ways, first to glorify himself, then to build his kingdom, to grow his kingdom, from a tender shoot planted on Mount Zion, to a mighty tree. The acts of a loving God are not capricious or vengeful. In this uncertain world, one thing can be relied upon, that our God of infinite love is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus uses very similar images to those found in the Ezekiel passage. In these so-called parables of growth, Jesus uses the example of a seed growing into a plant many times its original size to suggest both the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God, as much to be trusted as the regularly changing seasons, and the vastness of 'the kingdom of God', reminding us that it grows from seemingly insignificant beginnings.
As we saw the Glasgow School of Art burn, some were asking, “Where is God in all this?” Is he looking down in glee as the firefighters fail to control the blaze? Is he aggressively displaying his superior power…saying I’ll show them how puny their human schemes are? I don’t believe so.
That is not the God I see either in the writings of the prophets or in the life of Jesus.
He is not the God of destruction but the God of growth, who from little beginnings creates big results. Most of all he grows his kingdom, consisting of every man and woman who puts their faith in him. He takes us through good times and bad, strengthening us through our experiences, and fixing our minds on that life with him, where there is no more decay and destruction, but only perfect and eternal love.