Rev David Barton’s Sermon for Sunday 1-Dec-13
Just lately I have been re-reading the Narnia stories by C S Lewis – and a great pleasure it has been. The last one I read was Prince Caspian, and, as I read through today’s Gospel I remembered a moment in it which relates to something Jesus says : Keep awake!
In Prince Caspian the four children have been dragged back to Narnia for a second time. It is all very confusing to find yourself in another world without any explanation. And Aslan, that Christlike figure at the heart of everything in Narnia, is nowhere to be seen. But they soon learn, from a dwarf they rescue, that they must be there to meet Prince Caspian to help him in a battle against the forces that are now holding Narnia like a police state.
After a dreadful journey, they get quite close to where they might meet Caspian. But between them and him is a raging river, at the bottom of a deep gorge with steep sides, that would be impossible to go down or up. They look upstream, and the cliffs get worse. Downstream though, they knew the hills would get lower and there might be more chance of a crossing. At just that moment Lucy sees Aslan, uphill from them, at the top of the worst cliff, beckoning them to follow.. Now the point about Lucy in the Narnia stories, is that she is alert, awake. She is far more aware than the others that she is in Aslan’s world and Aslan might appear at any moment, even in the oddest of places, making the oddest demands. But the others are so caught up in their own plans and problems they have closed their minds to everything else. So they don’t see Aslan. They have already decided uphill looks too difficult. And they will not change their minds. Susan gets very boring and grown up, Peter tries to be thoroughly sensible and rational. The dwarf they are with is totally agnostic about Aslan and thinks Lucy is silly. So the decision is made to go downhill. Which is of course a disaster, and they have – exhaustingly – to retrace their steps to the top again. That night Lucy sees Aslan once more and learns she must wake the others and somehow make them follow her. Its hard, and still, no one else except Lucy can see Aslan. Reluctantly they agree to follow and back they go again to that worst point of the cliff! But there, hidden from view is a secret path, down and across the river and up the other side. Now, at last, they begin to see Aslan, and in the end get to meet Caspian just on time.
Now Advent comes to us with all sorts of bangs and whistles. Clouds descending, dreadful majesty, Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. But leave all that aside for a moment and look at the simple idea which lies at its heart. In the Jewish thought which we Christians have inherited, God made the world, and one day God will come again and end the world. No one of course knows what that end might be like. But it serves two purposes. In Isaiah God’s coming will establish a Kingdom of peace and Justice – swords into ploughshares. If that is what God’s end will be, that is how we should try and order our affairs now. And it is also a reminder something else. God at the beginning and God at the end means God in charge now. “Walk in the light of the Lord” Isaiah says at the end of that passage we had for the first reading. Do that now. Because this is God’s world.
But as time went on, ideas began to change. And about two hundred years before Christ, people began to think more about the end than they did about the “now” – the present. And they painted increasingly vivid pictures of it – monsters and beasts, earthquakes and lightening. By Jesus’ day, that is what they most of all thought about. What Jesus actually thought of all this it is hard to tell. Because in a way he could not avoid using it. It was how religious people thought and spoke. But what he does with that language is different. In effect he uses it to wake up his hearers to the now, to this present moment, getting back to Isaiah again,
Look, in that Gospel, at the way Jesus treats the story of Noah. In Genesis the reason for the flood is people’s wickedness. But Jesus ignores that – they were just eating and drinking, he says. What he means is minds set on their own plans, blind and deaf to the mystery of God’s world around them. Like Peter and Susan in Narnia. Noah ate and drank like everyone else of course. But, at the same time his mind was open to the mystery of God. Like Lucy, he was awake. He heard God’s advice to build that crazy ark. Which, silly though it seemed at the time, was the right thing to do.
That odd story sharpens the point for 21st Century Christians. We live in a deeply rational world. Part of the problem for Christianity – indeed all religions now – is that we do not meet the scientific test of prove-ability: we cannot, objectively, demonstrate the reality of God. That, and the language of choices and rights, has the effect making us self sufficient in our own private worlds. And you and I, however much we may hang onto our faith, are deeply infected by that. We leave insufficient room for mystery, for intuition, for the seemingly impossible. Yet if you read the Gospels, you can see that Jesus is constantly inviting us into a world where the unexpected is the norm.
That is the challenge of Advent. Advent puts a magnifying glass on the choices we make, and the inner directions of our minds. Are we prepared to choose the seemingly impossible, the foolish? Sometimes there are hard lesson to learn.
A number of years ago, when I was a headteacher, I was invited to apply for a particular job. It was flattering and exciting, and the right kind of next step in a career. I filled in the form, sent it off and waited for interview. But suddenly I began to have doubts. Rationally I knew this was the right move, and everyone told me so. But something kept telling me to withdraw, though why I should I could not really fathom. Finally I did withdraw, though it was all very embarrassing. For the next few months I felt totally bewildered about the incident. And then, out of the blue, a job came along I would never have thought of, and which was exactly fitted to me. It did not have much long term certainty, but I knew it was right to take it. Looking back later, I realised it was God’s hand, leading me where I needed to go. In all that confusion and embarrassment God had been pushing me off the wrong path onto the right one.
If we really are going to be awake, we have to do some letting go. Remember what Jesus says in the Gospels about forsaking family, going the second mile, giving away our coats? Can I let go of my plans, my ambitions, my choice of the right or wrong thing to do in this or that circumstance? God is present to us: present in every moment, in every circumstance, no matter how tough those places may be. The right thing to do, the right response is always there for us in the wisdom of God. But to see that, hear it, we have to do a lot of letting go – ideas of our own, cherished plans and ambitions, even the notion that it is “my choice.”
That is the narrow gate Jesus talks of. If we enter it, we will find ourselves in what Jesus calls “The Kingdom.” And in the kingdom water changes into wine, and there is good measure, pressed down and running over, just as he tells us. And we are awake.