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Friday, 28 November 2014

this Song goes on and on my friend


SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRAL
OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT (30th November) 2014

           
Readings:        Isaiah 64:1-9
                         Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
                         1 Corinthians 1:3-9
                         Mark 13:24-37

 
The story of the People of God is one of repeated stuttered beginnings. It is a story of the thwarted dreams of God, of forgiveness and new starts, of repeated stuttered beginnings by the chosen people of God, of the thwarted dreams of God, of forgiveness and new starts, and so the cycle goes on like those songs that dance again and again, longer and longer and harder and harder and futiler and futiler like the famous whirling dervishes, but without the beauty of their manic dance. It is a story of being human, yet a story of being human in a vortex of history.
 
When the last Isaiah voiced his great laments it was not a story looking to have a happy ending any time soon. All that the people of God had loved and treasured was lost: the great traditions of the past, the glorious first temple that both represented and enacted God’s presence was gone. The priesthood of the temple was gone. Economic security was gone. The great traditions of liturgy and worship were gone. Even the sense of there being a God was gone.
 
Te Mata Peak, Havelock North
When the twentieth century began God was back in His Heaven and all was well. The great ecclesiastical traditions of Europe practised magnificent liturgies, hymned a glorious national God, ensured children knew their Our Father and wore clean socks. The great movements of Empire were at their peak. Like Te Mata Peak   the breath-taking way up ended in a precipitous fall; on 28th June 1914, Gavrilo Princip took the lives of the archduke Franz Ferdinand his wife Sophie. It was a catalyst for chaos, and Europe plunged into the demonic throes of the Great War. God fell from heaven for vast swathes of those who had admired His remote and majestic glories, and Christendom, if not Christianity, died.
 
It had been the same for Isaiah and many of the great prophets centuries before. Isaiah cried out: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” It is probably a cry than many in the theatre of war could repeat, though perhaps today we have so lost the narrative of faith that there is no longer anyone to whom to cry.

This too is not a new thing under the sun: many in Isaiah’s time had grown comfortable and jettisoned God in times first of suffering, then of plenty: “no one calls on your name or strives to lay hold on you.”
 
But Isaiah dared to dream a different dream:  he dared to dream of a God who could and perhaps would rend the heavens, though evidence was non-existent. He dared to hold to the vestiges of God even though God was long dead:  the vast ceremonies and majesties of God were not for him, but a God who would eventually, as we find in the next chapter, respond and say “here I am, here I am.” But of course this is a story of the thwarted dreams of God, of forgiveness and new starts, of repeated stuttered beginnings by the chosen people of God, and the so the cycle goes on: this is the song that never ends: it goes on and on, my friends (and if that has sowed for you an ear worm then welcome to God’s world).
 
It is strange that we sanitise the great and prickly prophet Paul by reading his letter to the Corinthians as Advent begins. As he greets the Christians in Corinth he does so with heavy irony – irony that will grow as the exchange of letters between Ephesus and Corinth goes on. “I give thanks to my God always for you.” While it is clear he did just that, it is also clear that his thanks to God are uttered through increasingly clenched teeth as his relationship with Corinth goes on.  As if a precursor to the 19th century Christians of Europe the Christians of Corinth have become increasingly full of their own self-importance. God is being pushed to the majestic outer echelons of performance.
 
Rituals and performances of Corinth were increasingly excluding and alienating the poor and the broken and the simple and the spat-upon of the very elitist town: “for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” says Paul, with biting sarcasm. Later he will mock surprise: “yet I hear there are factions among you.” Hardly as macro as the nationalistic factions of Europe that would replace Christian love with the weapons of war after June 28th, 1914, but still a part of the same tragic human propensity for self-importance: “I am for Apollos, I am for Paul, I am for Serbia or Syria or Islam or the great American way” announced the Christians, and the simple, factionless Lord Jesus was pushed to the peripheries. Paul was livid. The God of Isaiah’s Hebrew people had left them to suffer their own outcomes for their behaviour: was the story to be repeated in the new Jesus people? And the cycle goes on and on, like the whirling of dervishes.
 
Can the cycle be broken? Eventually the God of Isaiah’s Hebrews said “Enough is enough. Here I am.” As it happens, in the end, and probably after Paul’s death, the God of the Corinthians finally persuaded them that divine presence dwells not in might and power but in the brokenness that we see in the person of Jesus of manger and Cross. The God who left Europe to its own devices on June 28th, 1914 is still watching and waiting.

The God of Christianity like the God of Isaiah (for this is the same God) is longing for the Global North, the powers that emerged from the reshuffled deckchairs of post-Empire Titanic-Europe, to learn compassion and justice and the significance of the simple message that the Messiah was born not in a palace but a manger. Perhaps we have to undergo ecological and economic collapse of unprecedented proportions (and that will include the loss of our entire ecclesiastical infrastructure) before we finally learn to cry with Isaiah “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” 
 
But this Advent as individuals and as a collective people of God we will re-enact at the very least a symbolic journey that reminds us that, when finally we give up our pretences of power and importance, we can be the people and the person to whom God will speak at last the words the words of the God of Isaiah, “I am here.” The question this advent is whether we will hear that voice, for it is a quiet one, easily drowned by own personal or collective chants of self-importance: “Keep awake”, says Jesus, and for centuries few people have noticed the fig tree.
 
TLBWY
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