Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 2nd December 2012

2 December 2012 at 11:00 am

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey, Minor Canon and Sacrist

Jesus said, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”

In his teaching on the last things, the signs of the kingdom, one of Jesus’s most frequent instructions to his followers is the command to “look”. In the parables, the healing miracles, we are told to “look”, to notice, to read signs which whilst often extraordinarily simple, or taken from nature, disclose the power of their radical simplicity only through careful and deep reflection. As we embark upon these great four weeks of Advent today, I want to pose one very simple and stark question: how do we look? How do we look at the world around us, how do we look at others, how do we look at ourselves, how do we look for God?

We live in a world where there is an overflow of information. twenty-four-hour news, the speed of communication, and the relentlessness of much of twenty-first-century living all contribute towards a dynamic which threatens to overwhelm us. For many, this is terrifying: in our efforts to avoid this overwhelming, looking is frequently replaced with glancing – we glance at our emails, we glance at the time, we glance at the other, hoping that these accumulated glances will keep us on balance. But instead this accrued cultural habit has affected the way that we look at the world around us, and indeed for many people how they look at faith. Unless something grabs us straight away or discloses its secret to us immediately, we move onto the next thing; for many people unless faith answers the demands and questions of the immediate present, there is little point in committing to it. So we move on, at speed to the next thing, in our relentless lives of glancing and information-gathering. But look, says Jesus, don’t glance, look. Advent, with its prophets, poets, and seers demands that we look: alert, awake, expectant.

Jesus encourages us to shed the glance of suspicion, the peek at the real situation, the habit of buffering up our own security by only allowing ourselves a glimpse at best of what we are afraid of, by engaging in deep-looking. People may faint with fear and foreboding, the Lord tells us, but when we see the signs of his promise, we should stand alert, with our heads raised. The signs of God’s promise are all around us – they are in the act of forgiveness that we once thought impossible, they are in the dazzling colours and patterns of the natural world, they are in the complex memory which appears sometimes to be healing, they are in the small generosities of spirit, of time which allow communities to flourish, they are in the longings for justice and peace which are stronger than the forces of oppression and hate. Look, says Jesus, don’t glance, but look. Then, you will see the kingdom bubbling up, relentless in its pulse, and insistent in its victory.

But for some, deep-looking is a fearful thing. For many in our society, it’s just easier to skate on the ice of complexity and depth than it is to engage with what might overwhelm us. This would have been so surely for the great prophets and saints – for Moses as he glimpses the Burning Bush, for Mary as she encounters the Archangel, for Joseph her husband, as he faces the prospect of shame and disgrace. But in each of these moments, each individual receives the command which is the most repeated sentence in the whole of the Bible – do not be afraid. We can engage in patient deep-looking at created reality, in at the complexity of creationin its fragility and vulnerability, and in deep, humble searching for God, because God himself has irrevocably turned his face towards us. The theological underpinning of this need to be alert and unafraid, is that God has not simply glanced at the world, in the coming of Christ, he has turned his face towards it, looking, loving, implicating himself so thoroughly that the whole cosmos is shot through with an insistent longing for healing and redemption.

So, our patience in allowing events, relationships, conversations, and ordinary experience to truly disclose their meaning, is a thing of true Christian discipleship. Such a way of looking at the world has been encouraged by many great mystics and teachers, but particularly by those theologians intent on establishing a good natural theology. The great Anglican priest and writer George Herbert in his famous poem The Elixir, known to millions in shortened form as the hymn Teach me my God and King, teaches us

A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth through it pass
And then the heav’n espy.

Herbert’s own original title The Elixir is deeply revealing: based on alchemy, an elixir is something which can change base metals to precious metal. To gold. Whatever God touches and owns, might be a source of gold, it might be the blossoming of the fig tree.

And so, Herbert instructs, we should not look at things “rudely, as a beast.” We might say, we should not glance. We must look properly, and expectto find Christ’s action if we pay attention. This is the alchemy of Christian discipleship. To be expectant, to live our lives in a way which, to paraphrase St Paul gives “an account of the hope that is in us.”

A moment ago, I said that it is safe for us to engage in deep-looking, even at the world’s suffering and tragedy, because God has turned his face fully towards us in Christ. It is this turning, this implication of love, which we call judgement. At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to be alert, to watch, and to pray that they might have strength to stand before the Son of Man. To be engaged in deep-looking, means to risk looking not just at the world around us, but at ourselves as God looks at us. To be enfolded in this judgement, to “stand before the Son of Man” as St Luke puts it, is to look at God face to face. This is the ultimate overwhelming, but it need not be terrifying. God’s judgement is his unerring commitment to our final destiny. If we dare to stand, we can dare to look. Perhaps more than that, we can dare to be seen. Seen by the one who has created us and loved us into life, seen by the one in whose love we live, are forgiven, and healed.

To look and see, and to be seen. This is Advent, this is judgement. That as we experience the full dazzling, overwhelming reality of God’s love shot through creation, it is something that we can no longer resist. To resist it is to choose the shadows of half-living. To embrace it, is to seethat in the great sifting of God’s judgement, the world’s wounds are healed, its longings fulfilled, and its life redeemed. During this Advent, as we pray for strength and trust to stand before the Son of Man, let us commit ourselves to look afresh at the world around us, at the scriptures, at ourselves, as we allow God’s promise of redemption in Christ to overwhelm us. We can do no better than utter the most beautiful ancient Advent Cry: Come Lord, and do not delay.

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