The ride of your life
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
8 December 2013, 10:30 (The Second Sunday of Advent)When you enter the cathedral for a service you are invited to take a seat as you have this morning.
Unsurprisingly, you are not asked which ride you would like to go on, and advised to hold on tight during the Eucharist or Choral Evensong, given the nature of the experience of God!!
Quite a lot of Christmas markets offer Ferris wheels, waltzers and skating rinks – and evidently the vice-president of the Bundestag and the Bishop of Hamburg have denounced these pleasures because tacky rides, fatty foods and mass-produced goods are replacing the handmade crafts and traditional German wooden toys sold at this special time!
Our Rochester Dickens Festival and Christmas Market that are only too evident today are a mixture of a Victorian take on Christmas combined with 21st century leisure, pleasures and spending power.
The church may seem rather tame compared with the ‘Yankee Doodle Donuts’ and Thai takeaways that are available a few metres from where you are sitting and it certainly does not seem to rank in the same league of the funfairs, leisure parks and high octane thrills that many people seek out and enjoy.
But no, we are really wrong! The Bible itself tells us that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”.
The realm of God is more challenging, more thrilling, more exciting and testing, than anything thought up by humankind – even Alton Towers.
Intellectually, emotionally, physically and spiritually, Christianity invites all people to enquire, risk and adventure, to live beyond our means and to love with no strings attached.
And Advent is the season for the full-on challenge.
We gather as God’s people to worship and pray, to prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ.
And at this time we reflect on the prophets and prophecies of the Old Testament, listen to the extraordinary person of John the Baptiser and engage together in the life of Jesus ending in his second coming and final judgment.
These words bear a message from beyond ourselves and indeed beyond time and that message is a head-on challenge to our self-centred, conformist view of the world which constitutes the heart and soul of a materialistic, consumer obsessed society and civilisation.
To hear God in the world today is undoubtedly to be shaken and jolted out of our habits and complacency – it will feel at times like a white-knuckle ride – where we are no longer in control.
Scripture is indeed a collection of unique and extraordinary texts that are so much more than:
consumer items bearing useful information, gratifying entertainment,
oppressive life-denying codes and rules
or escapist fantasy.
The Bible is an encounter in and beyond time and history and it opens up human experience and will to truth, love and the mystery of our own limits in the setting of an unknowable reality.
So the Bible cannot be subjugated and it shouldn’t be dismissed.
Strangely and against our natural inclination, our judgment is not the point: here are words and books that search us out and question us as to meaning, identity and purpose.
As R. S. Thomas the poet and priest wrote: we must reverse our lenses.
So often we look at the world, one another and ourselves in completely the wrong way as if we were gazing down the wrong end of a telescope!
We did not make the world but we too easily behave or assume that we have. Our freedom must leave us open as people and societies and not closed. This is a commitment that demands courage because like the rollercoaster we are not in control when we encounter the unknown and the dimension and reality of mystery.
And it is from mystery that we experience love and meaning and a value beyond ourselves.
Egocentricity is a gravity that imprisons us and our neighbour: it separates us from God, other people and our true selves.
And that is the challenge of Advent and its prophets.
There can be a different way of living which involves the truth and power of forgiveness, reconciliation and compassion.
This weekend the world is reflecting on ways in which habits and attitudes based on self-gain and self-preservation are challenged by the life of Nelson Mandela.
After 27 years of incarceration and hard labour, and persecution before that, he emerged free at last and then lived without bitterness and rancour. His greatness and inspiration comes not only from his vision of a society which remembers its pasts, listens to all its voices, and pursues social justice but that he advocated and lived out real forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is God’s way of love where mercy and understanding are the engines for true community, fulfilment and flourishing.
So what of the readings we have heard this morning?
Isaiah speaks in graphic terms of a shoot, a new human life, which will transform humanity and nature itself.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him ...and he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
I hope that our politicians of today will note this lack of neutrality by God and his bias to the poor and meek.
This shoot, Messiah, will bring a new quality of life and fulfilment without fear and enmity.
Turning to our passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the hope of Israel is now opened up to all people in Jesus.
The coming of Jesus the Christ breaks down all barriers – even those of religion – to bring in a new sort of hope which includes rather than excludes and redeems rather than damns.
Here is a radical and revolutionary faith and in the Gospel reading we come to realise how difficult it is for the religious establishment of any age to accept and embrace it.
We live in an uneven world, and chance can lure us through fear into an unreliable interpretation of it.
In recent days we have seen the helicopter crash in central Glasgow and typhoon Haiyan destroy so much in the Philippines whilst disease and disability are universal, unfair and difficult to understand.
The problem of suffering can never be answered but it can precipitate a rejection of the God who is love.
What can we do?
We didn’t choose to be born, we didn’t choose our parents and we do not know the number of our days or where the future will take us.
It would be easy to despair and as a result to live only for ourselves and to make our own meaning and destiny however limited that might be.
In many ways that is what we slip into in our daily living,
We try to map our world and our lives to make sense of it and to gain a sense of identity, meaning and power in our living.
But maps are often two dimensional and can only carry one helpful interpretation of information.
God in the Bible and in Jesus gives us a different map, not one of geography and political power but one of a landscape transformed by his presence in our individual living and common life.
Here is a new way of seeing and being. We invite God to re-make our lives and the landscape.
That landscape lies within us and around us in people, social institutions and structures. God gives us a vision and a story that holds us all together.
It is truly the ride of our life with an energy, presence and blessing that sets us ablaze.
This is what Advent offers: can you see it and dare you reverse the lenses by which you see and read the reality of life?
We must reverse our lenses.
Too often we have allowed them
to lead us into a dark past.
Looking through the right
end, we see how that dawn
had the brightness of flowers.
It is the future is dark
because one by one
we are removing these paintings
from our exhibition. We walk
between blank walls, scrawled
over with the graffiti
of a species that has turned its gaze
back in, not to discover
its incipient wings, but the slime
rather and the quagmire from which
it believes itself to have emerged.