The God Construct

James 1:1-11
From James, servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Greetings to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion.
My brothers, you will always have your trials but, when they come, try to treat them as a happy privilege; you understand that your faith is only put to the test to make you patient, but patience too is to have its practical results so that you will become fully-developed, complete, with nothing missing.
If there is any one of you who needs wisdom, he must ask God, who gives to all freely and ungrudgingly; it will be given to him. But he must ask with faith, and no trace of doubt, because a person who has doubts is like the waves thrown up in the sea when the wind drives. That sort of person, in two minds, wavering between going different ways, must not expect that the Lord will give him anything.
It is right for the poor brother to be proud of his high rank, and the rich one to be thankful that he has been humbled, because riches last no longer than the flowers in the grass; the scorching sun comes up, and the grass withers, the flower falls; what looked so beautiful now disappears. It is the same with the rich man: his business goes on; he himself perishes.

Psalm 118 Let your love come to me and I shall live.

Mark 8:11-13
The Pharisees came up and started a discussion with Jesus; they demanded of him a sign from heaven, to test him. And with a sigh that came straight from the heart he said, ‘Why does this generation demand a sign? I tell you solemnly, no sign shall be given to this generation.’ And leaving them again and reembarking, he went away to the opposite shore.

What signs do we go looking for today?
Well according to internet statistics the most frequently asked question on Google in 2023 was “Where is my refund“. This question generated an average of 15.5 million online search queries per month. The second most popular Google search question worldwide with an average of 8.6 million monthly searches was “How many ounces in a cup”. But Google Search is not what the Pharisees had in mind.

What does “sign from heaven” in Mark 8:11 mean? The tenses of the words in the text suggest Jesus and the Pharisees have been arguing for some time before the Pharisees demand a sign. “Signs” are miracles performed by God’s prophets to validate their authority as spokesmen for God.

Let us remember that in Mark 6 we hear how Jesus feeds the five thousand, and then he walks on the water. In Chapter 7 the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the traditions”, so they obviously know how he and his followers live. Jesus is quick to point out the inconsistency present, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their teachings are merely human rules” – in other words constructs of human thiking. There is further contrast when Jesus praises the faith of the Syrophoenician Woman, and then he goes on to heal the deaf and mute man. Then, just prior to the Gospel of today in Mark 8, Jesus feeds another four thousand.

The Pharisees know of the healings and exorcisms of Jesus, but they want something more, that proves Jesus’ authority is from God, something that proves He is God’s Messiah who will lead them into freedom from Rome. They want a sign that shows Jesus is the Messiah they expect, not a Messiah to liberate them from themselves, but a Messiah who would confirm them in their version of relaity. Instead of submitting to all the evidence that Jesus is who He said He is, they close their minds and seek to justify their peculiar understanding of God and God’s action.

But, let us be careful not to fall into the same trap of the Pharisees. For we all have our own peculiar understandings and we all hope our version of God will be justified and confirmed. The projection of our assumptions onto our perceptions is not the same as the reality itself. We need to ask that perenial question, “do we really see what is there or do we see our idea of what is there? Have the Pharisees made, and do we also make, our false assumptions into the reality? The voice that says, “no, of course not, never”, is still very strong among us as a church and in society. And we anticipate the Pharisee will also say, “My understanding of God is the correct version.” Of course, the opposition party of Saducees also claimed the same thing.

Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman describes how the millions of neurons and trillons of synapses in our brain’s visual cotex, literally construct what we see. “No”, our perception is not the reality, he says. It is a construct. Neuroscientists go further. They say we reconstruct reality. In other words my past conclusions shape my interpretation of my present experience. So, like the Pharisees and every one else, we are blind to our own blindnesses. None of us accurately interprets our perceptual experience.

Perhaps the point of what Jesus is saying is the blind cannot see, but they have to trust what is there in front of them that they can’t see. Do we seek signs because we want to validate our predetermined ideas of God? OR, or do we seek the God that we can’t see and trust the manifestations there in front of us.

We say in English when someone has missed the obvious, “they can’t see the wood (or forest) for the trees”.

The Gospel proclaims that Jesus himself is the sign sent from heaven. Recognising God, as the reality underpinning that sign, is the challenge of all of us.

Remember Emmanuel – God among us.