OF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT (21st December) 2014
Readings: 2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16
Romans 16: 25-27
As some of you will know I was for a reasonably brief and surprisingly unhappy time in my life a programme maker with ABC Radio’s Religion Department in Adelaide. I’m sure much of the unhappiness of that period was of my own making, as I failed to come to terms with the task and the department, but for all that I was determined in the years that followed to ensure that in the darkness of that valley-journey there would be lessons learned and insights gained. For there to be otherwise would be to allow some breath of darkness to triumph over the light-bearing sense that God was at the helm, and I was determined at least to attempt to ensure that did not happen. As I crawled out of the period of darkness there seemed to be one overwhelming message scrawled on my consciousness: read the glimpse of the signs encountered there.
Now I don’t want to generate tedium by revisiting for you those years, but what had emerged was a deep sense of the growing marginalization of mainstream Christianity. My task had been to analyse and broadcast glimpses of all the spectrum of human religion, so it was not a specifically Christian task. I had slowly become aware, however, that while Islam and Judaism, Wicca and various re-emergent ancient religious were given great weight and respect, the mainstream of Christian thought was marginalised or mocked. Christianity, generally speaking, registered on the department’s broadcast scale when it was to be pilloried for wackiness, exposed for corruption, or explored in detail as a rapidly dying relic of ancient and torrid history. Attempts to broadcast meaningful and cutting edge Christian dialogue died on the cutting room floor.
Or perhaps I imagined that. Nevertheless it was in the midst of that impression-gaining that I seemed to detect (I won’t put it as stronger than that, for I claim no hot-line to God) a clear impression that we were entering into a time of radical marginalization. We were being pushed to the fringes of society, where we would remain as a specimen of ancient naiveté, a relic of past oppression, and fair game for portrayal as a quaint branch of human idiocy. Meanwhile the mainstream churches continued to act as though the water in the bath were not growing steadily hotter, as though we were still at the very centre and fabric of society, and that when we spoke society around us trembled. It didn’t.
It was all long ago and far away now, but I have seen nothing to suggest that, however many failings I had as a broadcaster the analysis God was bringing to me was not far off the mark. Interestingly at the time I read the comment of a young Welsh Bishop, Rowan Williams, who observed of the church “old styles come under increasing strain, new speech needs to be generated.” It seemed that regeneration was being forced upon us by God’s Spirit.
It was soon to be Rowan Williams again who emphasised that the Western Church should not dare to speak of persecution as if that was the name to put to its experience of being pushed to the margins. If we jump to the present we might prayerfully affirm that our sisters and brothers in other parts of the word are indeed – and always have been – experiencing genuine persecution for their faith. I have no idea if I could withstand the pressures they are experiencing, no idea if you would, no idea if we of the West would survive in faith. Williams was and is right: we are being marginalised, not persecuted. But we are being pushed by God’s Spirit far from the centre of society, pushed to the margins, and pushed there precisely because we had come, over centuries of complacency, to worship and serve not the justice-proclaiming God of the Cross but the Golden Calves of social status, aesthetic wonder and self-centred complacency. Just as David was threatening to do and Solomon later would we had built a comfortable place for God, and kept him, definitely him, on our payroll or, to mix a metaphor, in our pocket.
But like the people of Israel prior to the sacking of the first temple, we are being taken away by God’s Spirit, taken away from places where faith is cosy to places where faith is commitment against the dominant paradigm. We were and are being taken into a foreign land, a future that seems unclear, where comfort and security and infrastructure and complacency and arrogance, Sacred Calves all, are melted away. I don’t know the shape of that foreign land as yet, for we are not yet wholly there, and may not be in our life time. I do know, though, that the cry of the psalmist is true: “My hand” says the God of David “shall always remain with him; my arm also shall strengthen him.” “My hand” says the God of the church, “shall always remain with you; my arm shall strengthen you.” But the core of the strengthening will not be golden calves of infrastructure and indulgence, but the powerful foundations of faith, worship, tradition, or of scripture, reason, and tradition as Hooker preferred to put it. It is to those we are being called to return, and the paraphernalia of religiosity is being sloughed from us.
As Advent ends I hope we have permitted the Spirit of God to touch something of the paraphernalia, the fluff in our faith lives. As we face an exciting because God-breathed future I hope we do so with a sense that there is new space for the God-child to be born there. I pray like Mary we can whisper “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Genuinely to do that is never easy, but it is what we will be inviting if we really mean what we sing in a few days’ time when we use Wesley’s words and pray-sing “Cast out our Sin and enter in, be born in us today.” May God go with us into the pangs of new birth.