Sermon delivered by Max Broadway 27th November 2016
Christmas is coming! Today is the first day of Advent! How quickly has the year fled past! We can put a date on it – 25th December, and we can plan and prepare. Today’s readings remind us that Jesus, having arrived amongst us in the shape of a baby on that very first Christmas, and having left us in his physical incarnation soon after his resurrection, will return. And not only that, his return is immanent! Do you believe it!? It’s not an event we can put a date on, but the lesson of today’s readings, the urging of our Lord is that it *will* happen, and we need to be prepared!
These readings speak of what we cannot yet know or experience about that time. They speak of the future, of the perfect, of the return and reign of our Lord in his glory and magnificence. Generations of Christians have come and gone since the time of Christ and since the time these passages were written, and, somehow, we are supposed to remain expectant! I guess we find ourselves in the same place as those ancient Jews who, between the ministry of the Prophets and the Advent of Christ had to remain expectant. Perhaps we can acknowledge that we stand in a deep tradition of expectant faith in that regard!
I find in myself, as perhaps do you, a deep longing for something better in this life, something more pure, for an end to difficulty, challenges, for peace and prosperity, the end of unsatisfied appetites, for justice and equality for all, and a conclusion to pain and suffering. Our yearning for something more – for meaning, for hope, for purpose, for perfection – is shared by many of our fellow human beings. It’s a theme – a motif – an ideal – an archetype.
Language is a shared human medium. It is part of our heritage that, while there are many languages, all stem from our common humanity, from our history and shared essential being. Here are two cups. I think you can agree with me that they are quite different – and yet they share in their essential ‘cuppiness’. We learn about what cups are – and what anything else is – as we acquire the gift of language from our parents and our early childhood experiences. We match the words to the objects and learn their association. Sometimes there are surprises as we go through those learnings, but we never-the-less absorb patterns and archetypes to which we then compare objects we later encounter in order to name and identify them. There are also patterns we inherit that correspond to the intangible – to love, to beauty, to justice and heroism and many other conceptual patterns. They are instilled into us as part of our universal human heritage through language. They seem to be part of our DNA. How early in life do our children cry, “It isn’t fair!” for example!? These patterns become archetypes, and sometimes we find them resonating in aspects of our experience. When we meet them, they vibrate through our emotions and lift us out of the mundane and ordinary.
We feel awed and humbled by the fearsome power of the ocean or thunder storm, we suddenly find our spirits soar as a magnificent vista opens in front of us as we travel – when we fly up and break through the clouds and enter the sparkling purity of the upper atmosphere and realise that the sun, the moon and the stars have been there all along. When we go to the outback and are reminded of the crystal brightness of the heavenly hosts at night that are obscured by light pollution in the city and experience the awesome feeling of our own ‘littleness’ and insignificance. When we hear a passage of music that resonates with our souls and sends a shiver down our spines and goose bumps to prickle our skin. When we hear a powerful speech, and find our spirits inspired and soaring with renewed hope. When we experience moments of deep connection with one of our fellow human beings that arouses a fundamental longing for intimacy. Our emotions are our true guides to our eternal nature at times like these – they are the fingerprints of the Eternal, to the archetypes in our mortal spirits.
Perhaps we encounter glimpses of these ideals correspond to something actual when we find our emotions moved by something great. At any of these times, we find our spirits soaring within us. We find ourselves sighing with joy and deep longing. Perhaps we are provided in these times with clues that the reality we long for exists somewhere behind the transient and imperfect experience we have. Justice is possible as an expression of Him who IS justice and love. Power has a foundation in the all-powerful. Beauty is real in the very being of our God. The resonance and harmony of music has its ultimate expression in the eternal song of Heaven.
The passages we read today are literary descriptions of something which we, as temporal human beings, have no tangible experience. The prophets and mystics – pioneers of our faith – who set down their descriptions of their visions and experiences were trying to articulate to us a glimpse of the beyond where God the Father lives, where history meets its culmination, and when the man Jesus returns as the conquering Son.
In a sermon he wrote and preached during the second World War called “The Weight of Glory”, C. S. Lewis wrote, “We remain conscious of the desire which no natural happiness will satisfy… A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called ‘falling in love’ occurred in a sexless world. Here, then, is the desire, still wandering and uncertain of its object and still largely unable to see that object in the direction where it really lies… Scriptural imagery has authority. It comes to us from writers who were closer to God than we.”
“We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it… The poets tell such lovely falsehoods. They talk is if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that beauty born of murmuring sound will pass into a human face, but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.
It’s interesting how the idea of Ideals and Archetypes have enduring appeal to we humans. Perhaps it is one of the fingerprints of the eternal God in our very being.
Let me remind you of the language of God’s reign as sovereign from Isaiah 2:
“In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it…
The Bible is ‘bookended’ by such utopian archetypes – the Garden of Eden – where ‘it was good’, and we walked naked with God and with one another without shame– until the intervention of sin. And the book of Revelation finds its conclusion in this vision of the heavenly City.
21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
How pregnant with hope is this vision? How fired by archetypes of beauty and righteousness? Of we as participants entering into the ministry of justice as delegates known by, and licenced by our Lord?
We also find the Gospels sprinkled with archetypes-made-flesh – the healer and provider who cured the diseased and provided nourishment for his followers from 5 loaves and 2 fish. The wise teacher and fiery preacher who was able to silence the most knowledgeable scholars, shame those who would judge, and even still the angry storm. The hero who endured to the end of his suffering, and overcome the sting of death, and then who was taken up to sit at the right hand of the Father.
I want to turn to a metaphor that may not be so appealing to the men amongst us: the metaphor of the church as the bride of Christ. If you’re a bloke, bear with me a while. The passage from Revelation is most clear about this, but the archetype of the church, and of we who belong in her, is powerful in the Bible. In the passage from Revelation, which I just read, John sees a vision of the New Jerusalem, “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Jesus, in telling of the end days in the very next chapter from our reading, in Matthew, 25, warns of the return of the bridegroom, and the foolish virgins who had run out of oil and were unprepared. John the Baptist, speaking of his ministry in preparation for Jesus, says, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3: 27-30
Annie’s friend Melanie is approaching her wedding. Melanie is excited and is devoting herself to preparing to be the bride. She met her husband-to-be only this year, and is deeply excited and in love. Melanie is not a teenager, and this will be her second wedding. Never-the-less, she will be doing her utmost to earn her bridegroom’s adoring smile and “Well done!” on their wedding day. Like any bride worthy of the title, she wants the day to run perfectly, and to honour her bridegroom by looking and acting at her absolute best! She is acting the archetypal bride!
The challenge to all of us is, “How do we remain prepared for the coming of the bridegroom, for the return of Jesus, when many of us will await our whole lives and not experience this?” Generations of Christians, since the time of his earthly ministry 2000-odd years ago, have been challenged with this same question, and it’s easy to be complacent! I’d be a fool to try and persuade you I know when Jesus will return. Yet the signs are that we are actually living with the return of Christ immanent. We are enjoined by the Bible to act in that way, irrespective that last-days preachers have named dates that history has proven wrong. Jesus himself says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
My urging is to you all to heed the echoes of longing you feel and experience deep in your souls. To know that those longings have their foundation in, arise from your Creator and Lord. And to prepare yourself, not to know Him, but to be known by Him. Not because you deserve it, but because you are truly incorporated into the Body of Christ.
Meanwhile, as C. S. Lewis says, “The cross comes before the crown, and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain.” The mundane routines of life will return. Lunch must be prepared, and dinner after that. The washing must be done and the clothes put away. The chores must be completed. Let us do our best to remember that this life is only for a season. Many of us recall, with some dismay, how short is our life and how immanent our departure from it! Let us remember that all our fellow human beings, no matter how they appear to us on the outside, are possible co-participants in the glory of Christ. In them, too, eternal yearnings dwell. When they, in their imperfection, disappoint or hurt us, fail to treat us as we believe they ought, let us recall that they, too, are participants in the breath of life that is God-given, and share those same inner longings that fuel and inspire us. Let us do our best to heed the call of our Lord to embody the archetype of LOVE as best we can. Let us continue on, as if Jesus himself is immanent.
Every year we prepare for Christmas, and here we are again on the first Sunday of Advent. Should we not all the more prepare for that ultimate promised Advent as our Lord has warned we should, by reminding and affirming one another of his gifts through the Holy Spirit, by re-charging our love-batteries to shine again in the work of ministry– as if we can hear, in the echoes of our longings and yearnings, His “Well done good and faithful servant!”, by polishing up and renovating our sense of anticipation whenever we are surprised and taken again by the joy of reflections of the archetypes in our souls, whenever we feast together as family at the Lord’s Supper, and by decorating our demeanours, our faces, with a smile at the image of God in one another, “The peace of the Lord be always with you!”