Posted by: owizblog | February 4, 2013

But you have come – Sermon, Kilbarchan East 26th August 2007

Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

I got an email this week from Richard Pitchers via Jim Moffat, with a number of children’s letters to God attached. They all begin “Dear God”, and some of them are really fascinating:

Instead of letting people die and making new ones, why don’t you keep the ones you’ve got now?

It must be hard for you to love all the people in the world; there are only four people in our family and I can never do it.

In the Bible’s times, did they really talk that funny?

Sometimes I think about you even when I’m not praying….

We shouldn’t drop our childhood questions about religion. They aren’t childish questions by and large.

One of the things that has interested me since when I was a small boy has been the actual experience of worship – what it’s like actually being in church, sitting there – well, sitting here, since this is where we are – being among us as the whole business of worship unfolds around us. If you wanted to distil it into a question six words long, it would come out as “Where is God in all this?” Because everything that goes on here is explicable in terms of the world we live in the rest of the time. Sitting, standing, singing speaking, listening, wood, stone, paper. I can remember as a child wondering a lot about the collection – I knew that it was the money we gave to God, but I wondered how the elders got it to God at the end of the service. By the time I was a little older, that was joined by another question. If the words the preacher offers come from God, how does he get them from God?

So – what’s going on here? Here, where “what’s going on” is nothing mysterious by the standards of daily life. Is this business of worship really a mystery that we’re caught up in? Here, again, maybe we’ve lost something as we grew up. Children seem to have this capacity to experience life, existence itself, as mystery and awe. We tend to experience it as same-old same-old. As the French say, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…” the more things change, the more they stay the same…

All we see is what’s there. And so we don’t see what’s there…

And that’s one of the things that the author of Hebrews is saying to his (or maybe her!*) readership.

You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.

This isn’t Cecil B. DeMille worship. This isn’t an understanding of God that only sees God in miracles and special effects, in what stands out from the ordinary experience of life in the world. This is – and it’s entirely consistent with what the author has to say in the great eleventh chapter, on faith – this is understanding what you can see in terms of a total reality, lots of which you can’t see.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…

In other words, in the worship of the church, when you come in through those doors, and you sit down in your [IRONY ALERT] comfortably soft and yielding pew, and you look around at the beautiful plainness of this building, and the faces of people you know.

You have not come to something that can be touched…

We’re agreed on that.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…

In other words, you’ve come to a place where reality – the daily reality in which you live, that you have to make sense of, that sometimes you can’t make sense of, because it’s so overwhelming, and hard, and unyielding – is still there. It’s still true, still what you are stuck with, because it’s where you are, for now. This reality of ours is good and bad, exhilarating and threatening, simultaneously full and empty of meaning, depending what meaning we can ascribe to it, what sense we can make of it. That’s life, But you have come to a place, too, in which life, existence, reality, can be glimpsed as fitting into an even greater – vastly greater, infinitely greater – reality.

In short – God.

Let’s go back to that passage for a second. See what it’s made up of.

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel…

It’s made up of fragments of Scripture – names and terms that throw off “sparks of images”** Zion, Jerusalem, Abel, angels, heaven, God, mediator. And bits of “churchspeak”, of the Christian tradition that was already beginning to form in the middle of the first century, when Hebrews was written, and is now two thousand years old, and constitutes a huge store of insights derived from the real lives of millions of Christian souls wrestling with life in the real world.

In other words, it’s something deeply shared. To come here, to try to glimpse what is here to be seen, is something communal, something shared. We are offered perspectives, thoughts, insights and understandings, even ways of speaking, which have been worked out by Christians in community over two millennia.

Yet there’s also an individual dimension to it. At any one time, I will only be able to see, to understand, to glimpse, bits of this. There is the Faith of the Church, and there is my faith. And I have to be honest about this. I can’t, mustn’t pretend that I can see and understand things that I can’t and don’t. Faith is – and this is the red thread of Hebrews –

…the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…

The point is, not that this understanding isn’t individual, it’s that it’s not private. To be a Christian is to be a member of the Church – and as Paul tells us, not in the sense that some people are members of golf clubs, but in the sense that my right arm is a member of my body. To be a Christian is to share a perspective, a way of seeing, even a language, with my fellow members in Christ’s body. Because being a member with them means sharing a life. Christ’s life, the life of the Body.

Which of course is something else that we can’t see!

And yet we can. And it’s a good illustration of what we are talking about. If you say to someone out there in Steeple Square, “Come into that grey stone box, and you’ll see the Body of Christ!” they might dismiss what you say as meaningless. They might, on the other hand, come in to have a look. And they might then say “Well, all I see is a collection of people. Nice people, friendly people – but just that. And in a lovely austere building, I’ll grant you that.”

But perhaps they might then turn to you, and say “But what do you see?”

And what could you say but “Exactly what you do!”

And if they then said “But you said I’d see the Body of Christ…”

Mightn’t you say “Well, yes, that’s how it is. I see exactly what you see, but what I see is the Body of Christ…” And you’d need to add “And if I took you to Kilbarchan West, we’d both be looking at the same thing in there – but I’d be looking at the body of Christ…”

And your friend might say “But isn’t that just your imagination…?”

What’s the answer to that?

Well, one good answer would be “And what’s wrong with imagination? Why do you assume that imagination and reality are incompatible?”

And you could tell them the story of Friedrich August Kekule.

Kekule was one of the most distinguished organic chemists of the nineteenth century. By 1865 he had done a great deal of the fundamental work on the chemistry of carbon, really pioneering work. But there was one thing he just couldn’t get straight. He knew that the formula of benzene, a colourless liquid at room temperature, gave it a molecule of six carbon atoms joined to six hydrogen atoms. But he couldn’t see how, or why. It didn’t fit with everything he knew about either carbon or hydrogen.

So he slept on it.

And as he slept, he had a dream. He saw a snake, dancing. And in the middle of its dance, the snake suddenly put its tail in its mouth. And when he woke up, Kekule knew that the way to understand the benzene molecule was as a ring of carbon atoms, each one with a hydrogen atom stuck to it.

Imagination helps us to grasp aspects of the way things are. And to move from worse to better understandings. Imagination isn’t just daydreaming. It’s part of the way our minds interact with reality. But it’s also the way in which our minds make sense of reality, and share that sense in pictures and words, imagery and language.

And it also gets us beyond that business of what I called at the start a “Cecil B DeMille” understanding of faith. which I said was “an understanding of God that only sees God in miracles and special effects, in what stands out from the ordinary experience of life in the world”.

A lot of people think that that’s what the Christian faith should be about, and what faith should be like. You only have to look at the “God Channels” on cable or satellite TV to see and hear people who preach Christianity as belief in miracles, and miracles as somehow proving the existence of God.

But that’s not how the miracle stories of the New Testament work. They aren’t about getting people to say “Gee whizz, isn’t that Jesus from Nazareth a great guy? He must be really important!” They are about something vastly bigger than that. They are about a whole new way of understanding human existence. They are about a whole new way of understanding the reality we have to live in day by day. That’s why John’s Gospel calls them “signs”. They point to something beyond themselves. They connect what we can see with what we can’t. They aren’t interruptions of the way things are. They are offered as insights into the way things are.

So far from aiming at “Gee whizz, isn’t that Jesus from Nazareth a great guy? He must be really important!” these stories, woven into the loving, gracious, forgiving yet challenging story of Jesus, should be driving us to say “Good grief, that’s a way of understanding reality that makes sense.” It’s the difference between “There must be a God…” and “All things are in the hollow of God’s hand”.

Let’s finish by hearing the Gospel reading for this morning, which is on one level a miracle story. But it’s vastly more than that. It’s the story of a woman set free from a debilitating illness – in other words an ordinary life the meaning of which is transformed – but it remains an ordinary life. But the most striking thing about the miracle in this story is the insight that it gives us into the reality of God. That our traditions frame our understanding of the reality of God. That God is greater than the traditions in which we try to lock him up, greater than our attempts to imagine him. That God keeps propelling us to new understandings, bigger than our old ones. That this is how our traditions, and understandings, are remade and reworked. And that we can’t understand God unless we are full of his compassion:

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

NOTES

*There’s no way Hebrews was written by Paul – style, theology, everything argue against it. The great German scholar Harnack thought that it was written by Priscilla, wife of Aquila, whose great friend Paul was: they are mentioned in Acts 18, and at the ends of Romans and I Corinthians (And also 2 Timothy, which Paul didn’t write.) Hugh Montefiore, in his fine commentary, guesses that it was more likely to be Apollos, also mentioned in Acts 18, who wrote Hebrews.

** The philosopher Nietzsche says that music “throws off sparks of images”, and it seems appropriate to the flickering succession of Scriptural images that this passage throws off, too.

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