Sunday, 3 December 2023
John Conway, Provost
History, whilst sometimes chaotic and full of suffering, is nevertheless a place with the possibility of meaning
Isaiah 64.1-9; Mark 13.24-37
It is sometimes said that the most basic contrast between the great Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; the distinguishing feature between them, lies in their attitude toward history. It’s a generalisation, inevitably, that perhaps doesn’t bear too close examination; an over-simplification of a complex matter, but this truism nevertheless points toward something important and helpful in understanding the variety of religious practice and belief in our world. For Eastern religions, history is something from which we long finally to escape, to leave behind. History is an endless repeated cycle – both individual and corporate. A cycle of reincarnation, of patterns of karma, an endless cycle of suffering. Salvation, nirvana, is about finally escaping that cycle, leaving that behind.
For monotheistic religions the world, and therefore history, is a gift from the Creator. And so history, whilst sometimes chaotic and full of suffering, is nevertheless a place with the possibility of meaning; history – in the broadest sense of the truth-seeking story we tell about ourselves individually and corporately - this is where God is revealed; where God’s purposes are enacted; where salvation is to be found. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, to use the philosophical jargon, are teleological – they believe that all things – each of us individually, we corporately, all creation - have a purpose, an end toward which God wills us. We are going somewhere, and the task of faith is work out how we might align ourselves with that purpose, that end – the end that is, finally, the glory of God.
Why am I offering you these slightly abstract reflections at the start of Advent? Today is, of course, the start of a new church year, of a new beginning. And yet maybe the familiarity of some of the wonderful hymns that announce Advent, and the inexorable march toward Christmas, can make it feel like we are simply repeating ourselves. And when our news is so full of endless and relentless violence; when our sources of hope feel diminished and fragile, it can feel like we are simply stuck in an endless cycle with no escape. Is this new beginning, this Advent, just the next turn of the wheel, returning us to where we started; or is it offering us the resources, once again, to see more clearly the purposes of God?
The readings offered to us at this new beginning of Advent almost always come with a sense of the chaos and destruction of history, and of our failures to recognise God there. We heard it in our reading from Isaiah: 'O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence; But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.' It doesn’t feel much like a reading for a time of new beginnings, fresh starts. And yet it does plunge us into history, into looking at the world around us, and ourselves; asking if time can be meaningful, have a purpose, can we be redeemed?
In the newer version of the Lord’s Prayer that we will pray later in our service today, we will pray, at the heart of that prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And then, rather than asking God not to lead us into temptation, we will ask that God does not bring us to the time of trial, the time of testing, when our faith is called into question like never before and we wonder if we have the resources to cope. We pray that we are not brought to that time of trial, and yet we are constantly brought face to face with the reality that such trials are all too often the case; times of trial that confront us with the hard question of what it means, and costs, to forgive as we are forgiven.
And in such times, Jesus counsels his followers to beware, to keep alert. And this is where the new beginning of Advent lies – in the injunction to be awake; awake to the purposes of God even in times of trial; awake to the one who comes not in the clashing of armies; not in the sound and fury of so-called redemptive violence; but awake to the one who comes in the vulnerable baby born in Bethlehem; to the man who will walk into Jerusalem unarmed, and be crucified in seeming abandonment; and yet whose life is unquenchable.
William Temple, the man who became Archbishop of Canterbury during the 2nd World War, and so who knew something about times of trial and testing, said this about encountering God in history: ‘We must still claim that Christianity enables us to “make sense” of the world, not meaning that we can show that it is sense, but with a more literal and radical meaning of making into sense what, till it is transformed, is largely nonsense.’
The challenge of Advent is to resist the easy cynical conclusion that history, that time, is meaningless – that all there is the assertion of power-over others. Advent offers us the resources to wake once again to the different sort of power that is abroad in the world, upholding and transforming the universe, drawing it to its fulfilment. Not power-over others, but the costly power-for others; the power to forgive others, as we know ourselves forgiven. For it is into our history, your life and mine, our time, that God comes; and Advent calls us to be awake to that coming; to be ready to respond, to make into sense what, til it is transformed, is largely nonsense. And so be delivered from evil. Amen.