Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity 2016
Start Date 4th Sep 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

Time keeps tripping us up. It’s the constant movement of time which does it. In spite of some moments, mostly in childhood, when time seems to stand still, it doesn’t. The future doesn’t wait while we sort ourselves out. New things, new situations, new decisions and actions, press in on us before we’ve had time to really take stock in the present. In fact there isn’t really a present at all for us to pause in anyway. The present is specious, as the philosophers say. It doesn’t really exist. Try to catch hold of the present and we find it’s already slipped irretrievably into the past, pushed out of the way by this onrushing future. This lack of control we feel in time, this constant rush, is what novelist Julian Barnes calls ‘The Noise of Time’.

One consequence is a recurring sense of compromise and dissatisfaction in life. In the noise of time little feels done properly, little finished; much we try to do gets deconstructed by the new events which keep coming at us, disturbing the meaning and pattern and purpose we thought we’d achieved. How many times have you heard, or uttered yourself, the rueful lament: ‘I’d just thought I’d got everything all sorted when…’

Great art, music, literature is one attempt to rise above this noise of time; it is, for some, the attempt to make a meaningful history and pattern out what might otherwise be just one damn thing after another; it’s the attempt to find some order and integrity in spite of the compromises and dissatisfactions time forces on ‘Art’ says Julian Barnes, ‘is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time’. His novel uses Russian composer Shostakovich as an example: a musician who used music to try to maintain integrity through the compromises the Soviet era was forcing on him; using it to try to speak a sort of timeless truth (however coded) which could transcend the political and personal pressures being flung at him.

Is this what faith and religion does too?—does it resolve the rush and noise and complexities of time by trying to transcend it? By offering a vision of things beyond a time-torn life?

In some ways, yes. In our second reading there was a vision of silence in heaven: ‘silence of heaven for about half an hour’ - a vision which evokes some still point beyond this turning world where all is calm, sorted, complete, under control. In its original context, a vision and hope prompted perhaps by the pressure of persecution early Christians were enduring then under the Roman Emperor Nero, or Domitian.

But it’s not just a vision of something beyond. The phrase ‘silence in heaven’ is dense with other kinds of meaning too. The word ‘heaven’, for a start, does not just mean some distant place beyond the world in our future. In Hebrew-Christian thought it means any time and place where God is, whether beyond time or right within time. In other words, the vision is referring to a kind of silence which can happen in any time and place, right within the noise and rush of time, not just at the end of time or beyond time. ‘Silence’, too, has density, multiple meanings in Hebrew thought. It is not just something beyond noise; not just an absence of noise; nor just a cessation of activity. Silence in Hebrew tradition is something full, not empty; it means something with presence not absence; something with energy not inertia. You may recall the story of Elijah where the sound of silence which followed earthquake wind and fire was in fact an experience of a vital presence and activity: the presence of God who is actually the ultimate source and creator of time and all the events and things which come at us, not a God who can be thought of just as their absence. So, yes, this silence of heaven is a state where the noise of time may well be redeemed and resolved by God—but it’s certainly not just empty timelessness…

Anyone who has stood in a desert, or on a remote snow-covered glacier, might intuitively know something of what this means. In the silence of these apparently empty spaces there is a sense of fullness, not just absence; a sense of everything, not nothing, everything resolved, put in its proper place and order. That’s the silence of heave. Not just escape from time but God’s transforming, redeeming, presence in and through all time, even the worst of it - the very thing God showed Himself doing above all in the life of Christ. Heaven may include a state unimaginably and wholly beyond time: but it is also the events of time re-framed, fulfilled, not just removed.

How do we actually find this silence of heaven now—this sense of God’s ultimate resolution of all things?

This side of eternity it may be rare. But moments of it may come. Perhaps in art. Certainly in prayer—if we give prayer sufficient chance. Just as such moments clearly came to early christians in this vision of Revelation, and above all in story of the life, death and resurrection of Christ Himself - the supreme revelation of God resolving life in the midst of all its noise. And so we should inhabit these visions and stories where silence has been heard. Dwell on them, prayerfully. Even better, let them become a wellspring of motivation. Let them draw us into sharing in Christ’s actual work of resolving, redeeming, healing the world, wherever its rush and noise of time has broken people. For that, I suspect, is when we are most likely to know the silence of heaven: in simple Gospel terms, it’s when we follow him that we shall really shall know it’s true…that all will be well.

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