Sermon: Sunday 30 November 2014
The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst, Canon Chancellor
1 Corinthians 1.3-9
‘At the door of the monastery, place a sensible old man who knows how to take a message and deliver a reply, and whose age keeps him from roaming about. This porter will need a room near the entrance so that visitors will always find him there to answer them. As soon as anyone knocks, or a poor man calls out, he replies, “Thanks be to God” or “Your blessing, please”; then, with all the gentleness that comes from the fear of God, he provides a prompt answer with the warmth of love.’
That’s Chapter 66 of the Rule of St Benedict. It’s picked up by Esther de Waal in her book Living on the Border, which is about threshold experience. Here is the public face of the monastery, which recognises every visitor as gift rather than burden, as a way in which Christ is revealed. We know it from Matthew 25, we know it from our patron Martin. Esther de Waal takes this image of the Porter with on the threshold of the community – facing out and yet embedded too – echoing the doorkeeper of our gospel passage – as a key metaphor for her as to how we remain anchored in stability which allows us to be open to the transforming encounter in our outward facing lives.
Advent gives us a particular slant on this stability. We focus on eternity and in waiting for the Lord in the tension of the uncertainties of our lives and the practicalities of what we are being called to in daily life. So it’s a bit different from Martha and Mary. It recognises the need for practical responses of hospitality – and indeed Jesus still sits down with them for the meal in that story, so he is fundamentally accepting their hospitality – but as in the Martha and Mary story I suspect that for most of us it is the inward-facing side, the waiting on the Lord, which is the harder part to sustain. It is very hard genuinely to open up a space for Advent. We all know the madness of this time of year, the rush to prepare hospitality and get presents and reconnect with people – and if you’re clergy, three million carol services can’t be wrong. Why should we? Is it worth the struggle? Who really knows what the Day of the Lord means? Can’t we just get on with our Christmas shopping? At least we can have lists for that.
Running like a thread through the three passages set for Advent Sunday is living with uncertainty. We come to Isaiah at a moment when some of the exiles have returned to Jerusalem. But after all their longing to re-enter their spiritual home and the sheer gift and grace of this new beginning, they’re dismayed to find that they are confronted with the all the disappointment of a lost past. And furthermore, they’re faced with real uncertainty about their present and their future. Jerusalem is not as it was. It has been occupied by the enemy, bruised and battered, and they will need to rebuild it. Does that ring any bells with you? Mourning a lost past, given new starts, but feeling bruised and battered – I know it does with me.
Unsurprisingly, in the face of all this, out bursts their anger. Where are you God, why are you so absent? We’re fed up of being battered and bruised, terrorised. Why don’t you come as a divine warrior like you used to, and show everyone what’s what?
‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.’ (Isaiah 64:1-3)
But you don’t seem to be doing that. Instead you seem to hide yourself, disappear when we most need you. Where have you gone Lord?
This is a communal lament. It is ‘all of us’ who have to face the truth that it is our own sinfulness which has distanced us from God, individually and corporately. What has happened to us is not about God’s vengefulness but the consequences of our own actions. We are like one unclean – all of us (vs. 6a). We drooped like a leaf – all of us (vs. 6b). We are the work of your hand – all of us (vs.8). Consider, we are your people – all of us (vs. 9). This four-fold emphasis is on the totality of the people – all.
And as they work through their grief, their anger and come to terms with their own sinfulness they start to understand. God’s not going to come as a divine warrior. Instead, God will come with the patience of the divine potter. He’s not going to bomb our enemies to oblivion, though that’s what we feel like asking for, he’s going to work patiently and continuously with us, moulding us by holding us in his hands, touching us and shaping us through our daily lives. We are all your people – and we know you as one ‘who works for those who wait for him.’ (Isaiah 64:4).
The Corinthians, on the other hand, try to cope with uncertainty by blocking it all out. They think that the Christian life is all about now. We have all these marvellous spiritual gifts, what more is there to worry about? Paul, at the beginning of his letter to them, tries to break it to them gently: ‘you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of Christ.’ Yes, spiritual gifts are wonderful, but you’ve missed the point if you forget the context they are given for. Gifts are for the in-between time, the now and not yet of the Kingdom. If we lose the perspective of what happens now as being in the context of the shape of living being one of birth and death and resurrection, if we forget that we are waiting for the Day of the Lord, when one way or another we will discover the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom, then we’ve missed the point. We miss the real poles of tension which keep us spiritually centred. It is facing living with uncertainty which takes us squarely into the territory of living by faith. If we think we have it all now, where is our faith in God?
By the time we get to Mark’s gospel the challenge is nuanced differently again. It’s not how is God present, it’s not remembering we’re not the finished article, it’s how do we live with the uncertainty of whether Christ will come quickly or slowly. The tension is locked into the text. What could be more uncertain than that? No wonder we avoid Advent. Who wants to live with that level of uncertainty?
And of course it can be uncertainty of different kinds. What are we to make of all the terrible events happening, tsunamis, wars, famines, beheadings, which look so much like the picture of the last days which we are given? When we’re told by the Home Secretary on a Sunday morning that this is a time of great danger? It’s so easy to polarise. To get all apocalyptic about being raptured, or to go Corinthian and think ‘Isn’t this all a bit of a fairy story? Isn’t this just ramping up the anxiety? Shall we just deal with Jesus of Nazareth as the exemplary good person? Wouldn’t that be easier, more rational?’
Well it might be if weren’t for the way that Jesus describes himself. When he inhabits the title The Human One, from Daniel, otherwise and more inaccurately translated as The Son of Man, he is telling us that the point about his humanity is that we find in it the revelation of God and the coming of God’s Kingdom. In these apocalyptic passages, Mark is taking us through the shift from the idea that God can be found in the temple to the idea that God dwells in the human body of Christ. The threat to the temple is both external, from the enemies of Israel, but also from within, as the shift is going to be away from building and towards embodiment in Christ and that then we will be waiting for the Kingdom to fully come.
Verse 35 has many resonances. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening – at the last supper, or at midnight – in Gethsemane, or at cockcrow – as he is betrayed by Peter, or at dawn – when he is handed over to his death by Pilate.
All of those times show Jesus with us and all of them show the ways in which he is betrayed. By Judas at the last supper, by his closest disciples falling asleep as he watches in Gethsemane, by Peter’s betrayal as the cock crows and by the civil system of justice embodied by Pilate. The suffering shape of the cross is deeply present in this Advent season. This is the true sign of God’s salvation and deliverance from the emptiness of our consumer Christmases.
Living with uncertainty is our constant condition. Going back to Benedict, the way to respond to it is not by certainty – that way lies dogmatism and ultimately fundamentalism, but by stability. Keeping ourselves with one foot planted firmly either side of the threshold. The outward face towards the challenges of the day and the inward face towards the prayer and contemplation which can sustain us. This is not the same as being static, rather it is about having an anchor which allows us to remain open to being changed, to being transformed. Without this stability we react to change and to uncertainty by being blown about by insecurity, or instability. Well, we are sure enough as a global, national and city community, let alone as a cathedral community, living with rapid change. We need look no further than the building site which is our Cathedral and the streets and houses around us.
As we live with a new beginning, which this building represents, we are also living with the letting go, the relinquishment, of what we have lost. We have to let go together just as we have to let go individually to the things we have lost. And to do this we need to practice the classic discipline of Advent. We have to wait. This is not a passive thing, but an active process of creating a space for Christ to come afresh into our lives. Who waits? Those who are in love wait. Or those who yearn to find their true love. We are asked to wait like a lover.
We are offering you an Advent Candle today. It is blue, one of the colours of Advent, connected with the purple of mourning and repentance, and the purple and royal blue of Kingship. For this waiting is also about discovering afresh the capacity to live under and to learn to embody the authority of the true King, which we’ve been calling to mind through the feast of Christ the King. We’re offering this as an accompaniment through Advent in simply waiting in the presence of God, learning to live the uncertainty and unknowing and loose ends of all our lives in the presence of God, and to discover stability there and how transformative that can be. This is a 24 hour candle. There are 24 days before Christmas. It could be half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. That’s a big challenge. It could be that you light this candle at your mealtime and remember to pray then. It may be that this process of waiting stirs up uncomfortable or surprising things. Of course you are welcome to come and talk with any one of the clergy or it might be you prefer someone in the congregation about what comes up for you as you wait. Because it is very likely to be a word from the Lord, the word of a lover.
© The Revd Canon Rosy Fairhurst