SERMON PREACHED AT THE CATHEDRAL OF St JOHN THE EVANGELIST, WAIAPU(NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND: first cathedral to see the sun)
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT (1st December) 2013
Readings: Isaiah 2.1-5Psalm 122
A week ago Anne reminded some of us that, as the Christians drew together what, over the next three hundred years, were to become the New Testament scriptures, they did so by anchoring their new experience in and explaining their new experience by the more ancient texts of the Hebrews. Anne referred us to what we call the inter-testamental or pseudepigraphal writings and their descriptions of the divine light that conquers darkness. This week we find, as we begin a new church year, that the prophets were also a powerful lens of interpretation as the early Christians tried to convey their unprecedented experience of the triune God and of the Risen Christ.
The prophetic literature was a rich resource. Over and again, centuries before Christ, the prophets had cast their thoughts to the future, telling of a time when a person, chosen by God, would come to redeem the wayward and hurting Hebrews. Sometimes they predicted this Coming One as a kingly figure, sometimes, bizarrely, the later Isaiah appears to depict him as a suffering servant figure. Other portrayals emerge too, not all but many resonating with the Christians’ experience of the risen Christ. They expected this figure, who they rapidly identified not only as the historical Jesus of Nazareth, but as uniquely “Son” and “Lord”, to wind up human and even cosmic history. They knew too that the completion of that project still lay ahead of them, nearby or far off, and that they must weave a doctrine not only of “coming” but of “second coming” into their understanding of the universe. It is this complexity that we explore in our Advent journeying.
Complex it is. The long passage of time since the events of our New Testament means that any sense of second coming was for centuries repressed in all but the wackiest of Christian teaching. At most preparation for the encounter with Christ was relegated to a sense of personal encounter with God in some form at the hour of our death or perhaps some future day of judgement – the dies irae so beloved by Mozart. We can retain that sense, but since that dreadful day when the obscenely named Trinity Bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert, humanity has been far more acutely aware of its own capacity to destroy itself. Since July 16th 1945 we have had at our hands the means of our own destruction. Subsequent ecological crises, in particular those of increasing rates of species annihilation and accelerated climate change serve to remind us that the sword of Damocles dwells with us all, corporately as well as individually. At the same time most of us remain reasonably well aware of our own mortality, too, at least after we reach the milestones of middle.
Christians – though they were by no means the first to do so – linked mortality, immortality and judgement in an unbreakable chain, and saw that the events of the life, death and resurrection, and the hoped for return of Jesus of Nazareth were inseparably linked with all these dimensions of their experience. Post-Enlightenment generations of Christianity have produced some degrees of scepticism about any dimension of existence beyond that which we can physically measure and experience, either in the life of Jesus or in our own future, but we hold Enlightenment values over the head of God at great peril. A god who is quantifiable, beholden to our tiny apparatuses of analysis, is frankly risible, and is not the God that I find pulsing through the veins of the scriptures of our faith. As the early Christians turned for example to Isaiah and his great vision of a future interpreted, transformed and blessed by the creating and calling God, they did not see that future spluttering to completion in their own dying. They saw a God who reached beyond human comprehension, who their successor in faith would one day describe as possessing treasures beyond that which “human eye has seen or ear heard or heart conceived.” They found in the Isaiah-writings, for example, a God who would transform the shattering of human experience through which the Hebrews were to travel, eventually turning “swords to ploughshares, and … spears into pruning hooks.”
Was Isaiah speaking only of a transformation of present experience? Was he looking only to a time when his people returned to the holy Hill of Zion, free to live at peace without threat from bullying neighbours? Was Isaiah’s vision of no more than a transformation of the political map of the Middle East seven centuries before Christ? Or indeed, was he speaking only of peace and justice at a global level – the eradication of military and fiscal disparity and oppression? Was his beatific vision – as yet unfulfilled we might add – only of Israel and for example Egypt or Babylon shaking hands and living together in peace? The Christians were adamant that in the events they had witnessed or heard of and experienced in worship, fellowship and exploration of scripture there was a greater reconciliation: that not merely Egypt or Rome or Babylon but all oppression and injustice, even the oppression and injustice by mortality and death itself, was conquered. It was for this they were prepared to live and die, certain that the resounding “no” of death was not the final word.
So, then, the seemingly terrifying imagery of apocalyptic, in all its weird and wonderful but in reality totally accessible codes of fearsome figures and events, was no more than the language of encouragement. As Luther would put it centuries later, Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us. We tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us. Or, in less poetic language, no matter how great the evils that befall us – and they might – sorrow and separation and suffering and death are not the final word, but the precursor to God’s glorious and incomprehensible action of loving judgement and restoration, the “yes” that conquers every “no.”
It is to rehearse that dimension of hope, the dimension of a God whose love transforms all mortal experience, that we are commissioned in Advent. We prepare to hear, both personally and cosmically, God’s beckoning words, as the author of Revelation put it, “come, all you who are thirsty.”