(Ezekiel 1:4-10,22-28; Revelation 4) I’m guessing you all know the first words that God speaks in the Bible. God said: ‘Let there be light.’ That’s Genesis 1. What about God’s first words in Gen 2? Possibly not so familiar - “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
These sayings indicate just how much relationship matters to God.
The classic doctrine of God says that God does not need anything or anyone outside himself. He doesn’t need to create the world, but he chooses to do so, so that there might be something other than himself which he might have a relationship with, and which in turn might find itself in relationship with him.
This desire for relationship in God is an expression of God’s own nature. Again reflected in the classic doctrine of God whereby (at least as we Christians understand it) God is a trinity of persons. Three persons freely existing in relationship with one another, but representing one God.
At the end of Genesis 1, the three-fold God then says, ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’ Which suggests that humans are made for relationship. That the desire for relationship is intrinsic to us. We are in that respect, like God. Hence God’s expressed opinion in Gen 2 that “it is not good that the man should be alone.” Which drives God’s search for a partner for him. Fulfilled in the creation of Eve.
In 2016 the Red Cross, in association with the CoOp and the Jo Cox Commission, undertook a massive survey which reported that “around half of UK adults feel lonely ‘sometimes’ or more often” and “18% feel lonely ‘always’ or ‘often’”. Somewhat unexpectedly, the greatest level of loneliness was reported by those we would think to be the most socially connected, the 16-24 years, but with lower levels of loneliness reported among older people, and even more surprisingly among those who live on their own. By which we may conclude that loneliness isn’t the same as aloneness. And that it is possible to be in connection with people, but still to feel alone.
The factors that lead to loneliness, of course, are complex and varied. But it is certainly true that these days we have a much more individualistic outlook on life than in the past. That we are a much more mobile society. That people don’t join or belong to groups and organisations in the way they once did.
The environment also makes a difference. I was in rural Gloucester last weekend working in Thomas’s front garden, and virtually everyone that passed by said Hello, even though I was a stranger. Whereas here in Bromley even neighbours pass by without speaking. And one of the loneliest places has got to be a commuter train, surrounded by a crowd of anonymous souls, all with their earphones in or their mobiles on. Connected, but not in a truly interpersonal way.
Another study (by Sainsbury’s this time), says that it is face to face contact and conversation, and especially eating with other people, that establishes people’s sense of connectedness and well-being. And also having a recognised and valued role within the group, which gives a sense of identity and worth.
I spoke at the beginning about the first book of the Bible. Turning to the last book, to Revelation (exotic and hard to visualise though it is), what we notice is that interest is as much on what is going on around him as on the appearance of God himself. Heaven is a busy place, filled with angels and elders, saints and martyrs. What is going on is that they are worshipping God. Including the strange living creatures, the cherubim with the four faces. In Ezekiel they were carrying the throne of God: in Revelation they have become the four living creatures who sing day and night, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.
I like to think that the church is a place where people can find friendship and relationship. Maybe a role in which they can find value and feel appreciated. And we are perhaps encouraged into greater awareness of those around us, or in our community, who might be feeling lonely and gloomy, isolated or outcast.
Whether, in practical terms, we contribute much as a Church in that respect is a moot point. But we do at least stand for the recognition that we are not made to be alone, or go it alone. That marking and supporting people through transitional or traumatic events in their lives is important. That actual interactions, rather than doing everything online, is helpful. That community groups like WI or MU are not so naff after all. That keeping up with the Kardashians, or even your school mate Kim, may not be the way to happiness.
But, as well as these sorts of things, what we stand for above all else, of course, is the possibilities that are found in God. And that it is in relation to God that our fullest happiness and well-being is found.
In relation to God, first of all, through worship. For worship lifts us out of ourselves, as it were, and calls us to focus not on ourselves, but on another, and all that that other has given us and done for us as our creator and our redeemer, in thankfulness and praise. The worship of God, in one sense, is what we are especially made for.
But the beauty of the Christian apprehension of God is that he is not (or not predominantly) the awesome and terrible God of Ezekiel, or Sinai – the Almighty. But the one who comes alongside us, who befriends us, who searches us out and knows us, like a best friend, who gives himself to us and for us, in the form of Jesus.
And he is the Spirit who is ever close. The counsellor, the guardian, the guide. The one who offers within us and around us a sense of presence. Who helps us in our weakness and assures us that our prayers are heard. Above all he (she) is the presence of a love from which we can never be parted.
Might it not just be that one of the particular reasons for the increase in loneliness in this current generation may have more than a little to do with the decline of the Church, in worship and faith in God? And especially (even though there is much that goes by way of the name spirituality) a strong orthodox belief in, and connection to, the Holy Trinity. Not that any of the researchers or commentators would dare to suggest as much. But that’s what the Bible seems to say, from the beginning to the end.