Jesus Christ: The Present Moment
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
16 January 2011, 10:30 (Epiphany 2)
It is only the 16th day of January and the NewYear of 2011 is pretty well run-in already!
I don’t know if many of you make resolutions and try to make a new start but the world and its news seems relentless in giving us trials and tribulations.
This year amongst the changing headlines it’s a coup in Tunisia, bankers’ bonuses and the cataclysmic floods in Queensland, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Brazil forming a new backdrop to all the things that dominated the world at the end of last year.
I suppose if any of you are banking chief executives the news might seem good but to many people it seems grossly unfair and particularly insensitive in the face of the banking débacle and ensuing public funded bail out.
But the cruel tragedies of nature are often on a scale which breeds deep fear and dark and despairing doubt in the human family.
Many people cannot believe in God or engage in the challenge of faith because of the arbitrary nature of suffering and justice around us.
We are caught in the dimensions and limitations of a creation about which we can talk but never truly understand how the random and the determined can both be true.
Are the universe and its workings planned and willed or are they haphazard and meaningless?
Is there a point to life and matter or is it just empty and void?
Human beings have struggled with these questions from generation to generation.
And there is no easy and obvious answer.
However, if we are prepared to live with unanswered questions in accepting the unknowable dimension of mystery within us, around us and beyond us, then we lay ourselves open to a greater experience and the possibility of a different order of truth.
This openness of living with mystery leads us to the paradox and contradiction of God.
Why is God a contradiction? – because he lies beyond the merely rational and the materially verifiable.
He who is, is beyond ultimate proof.
Yet this itself leads us into yet another problem in our understanding. In our minds God has to be either omnipotent, all-powerful and in control or irresponsible, negligent and not really God at all. God therefore is either a cruel and unjust sadist allowing suffering and evil or else just a victim and a delusion.
These are the enormous doubts and fears and questions that darken all human experience and challenge many people to do nothing, please themselves and grab as much as they can for as long as they can.
In essence, we can either vegetate or risk becoming savages.
And that really is very much the verdict of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. In the closed world of human-centred truth, any nobility of human spirit is self-made, arbitrary and incapable of carrying lasting value.
And to this bleak but relentlessly rational dogma, Christianity and today’s readings challenge us to a different response.
As human beings we have mapped and measured and conquered the world in a way in which we can only see God as a being formed in our own image.
Yet the Bible gives us a completely new perspective.
And we need to fall silent to allow God to speak so that we can receive something new and precious – and that something is the perspective of revelation.
The passage from Isaiah takes our perspective from beyond our human limits and shows us something entirely new from God.
So Isaiah tells us:
The Lord called me before I was born,
While I was in my mother’s womb he named me. (Isaiah 49 v. 1)
God and his life predate and predetermine all that is.
And so religion is about seeking and being found rather than conquest and possession. We have to make space to stop and listen.
And then St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians leads us further with the concept of grace – a power that comes to us as gift and beyond any sort of control or merit of ourselves.
This goes against much of our learning and social norms.
It speaks of a centre that lies outside of the human ego and brings a world view in which all our powers and preferences are eclipsed and re-ordered.
And it is this grace, this power of love, which forgives and heals and makes and rules beyond our capacities and capabilities.
The Gospel according to St John is not written as a narrative of sequential and historical events, though such information and factual evidence is recorded within its structure.
But principally what we hear and read is indeed a revelation from beyond our usual perspective of personal understanding – here we are told of the loving purposes of God set in history but not bound by our limitations.
Here is grace coming to our human story and human history in a unique way.
And John the Baptist describes Jesus, the source of this grace, as the Lamb of God.
It is a difficult image and metaphor for us here today for we are not steeped in Jewish identity and practice nor are we nomadic shepherds.
The power of this imagery is lost on us but it is used to speak at depth of sacrifice and self-giving, of gentle and fulfilling strength exercised in leadership and rule.
And this power and grace is neither a theory nor a fancy but embodied in the very real person of Jesus – a person testified by the Roman authorities and executed by them.
As a gift, meaning and purpose are now embedded within our human experience and God calls us to recognise it and respond to it so that whatever befalls us we cannot be separated from him, overcome by fear or overwhelmed by eternal death.
And this purpose and grace comes not to other people and at other times but to you and me now. And there is no other moment but now.
The Bible is not about the past and the future per se; it is about the present and how the past and the future make the present moment something quite different from time.
Because although the present moment does exist in terms of our human identity we also always occupy that past as well.
The present moment is never really in our grasp so that whenever we say that this is the present moment is it is already gone for ever.
But this is not so for God’s present of which the Bible speaks and the Christ inhabits and shares with humanity.
The present in revelation history contains both past and future in equal measure – and that is the meaning and power of the incarnation.
And God’s eternal present happens quietly and unremarkably as far as human importance is concerned.
The Gospel passage we have heard today is not about celebrity, gain, glamour, comfort, status, wealth or any of the values that human beings hold as important in terms of society.
John the Baptist is an outsider writ large and his message is not attractive - but it is powerful.
He cries out that a time has come when human beings can receive a newness and a power hitherto unavailable save in glimpses and snatches revealed in the past..
From now on, God invites nations and individuals into a new relationship, a covenant in which we are set free from that which ultimately destroys and overcomes us.
The waters and the floods are indeed a Biblical image of chaos and by entering those waters, God in Jesus brings an order and a purpose.
In one sense it is done and for ever but at the same time it is going to be worked out on the stage of history in which Jesus will be betrayed and tried by human passions and laws and tortured and executed as an outsider, a troublemaker and an enemy of God and his truth.
The spirit that descended at the Jordan also turned the sky black on Calvary and split the Temple veil in two.
That is not wishful thinking or superstition or wild belief. No it is poetry, the condensed and intense truth that challenges our calculations and opinions, our prejudices and small-time thinking.
And it all happens now in Christ the present moment.
It is not about a call and an event that is contained and imprisoned in the past; nor is it a vision and hope that can only come from the future.
In Jesus Christ, time is always new because he gives us the present moment in which nothing can separate us from him, from truth, from love and from eternity.
Here is a new flood and a new bonus which overflows and inundates all our living and dying.
Long life is now no greater than that of a new born child; wealth is of no value save that it can be used and given for a kingdom that is never mine nor yours.
Christ’s present moment in which he places eternity in your hand as you receive his body in communion is that real, that small and that ordinary and mistakable.
There is only one thing we can do: accept or reject.
And that response cannot be calculated and reasoned: it is now or never in its quality and feel.
Yes, hesitate, draw back and consider – and floods and bonuses will return in all their injustice and terror.
Let God in - and nothing can destroy or overcome us.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light,
look favourably on your whole church,
that wonderful and sacred mystery;
and by the peaceful operation of your providence,
carry out the work of our salvation.
And let the whole world feel and see
that things which were cast down are being raised up,
and things which had grown old are being made new,
and all things are returning to perfection
through him from whom they took their origin;
even Jesus Christ our Lord.
Gelasian Sacramentary, 7th century