Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

I Know How This Ends – Sermon 28th February 2010

I really don’t think of myself as a Trekkie. Or a Trekker, either, as the hard-core fans of the various Star Trek series prefer to be called. OK, I can do that “Live long and prosper!” Vulcan thing without having to hold my fingers together first (try it yourselves!) and I do tend to lip-synch a bit with the television when Star Trek-The Next Generation is on. And yes, my family laugh when, after 1.7 seconds of a Star Trek starting, I tend to say “Oh yes, this is the one in which…” and give a synopsis of the plot. But I only have series 4 to 7 of the Next Generation on DVD, and crucially I don’t possess either a Starfleet or Kilngon uniform. (Mind you, let’s see what my next birthday brings…)

I was thinking of this a while ago when Carolyn and I were in HMV.  She’s always liked the American comedy series MASH, and there was a boxed set of it reduced. “Why don’t you get it?” I asked, but she said no, that she liked it as a series, but there wasn’t really any television programme she would want to watch over and over again. And I found myself thinking that Simon and Hannah are the same, and so are most people. I like programmes I can watch over and over again.

Another thing is that I tend to read summaries of programmes, or even films, that I haven’t seen.  I like to know the plot in advance. Now that, I have come to realize, is not how most people are. In fact people can get very irritated if they are watching a film – a mystery, say – and you come in and ask “Have they got to the bit where they find out that Tiffany is actually the murderer yet?” Indeed, cushions and magazines can be thrown…

Now, this may be an odd way of watching television – but I bet I’m not alone. I’ll spare you a show of hands, but I’m sure that I’m not the only one here who likes watching the same things over and over again, and for whom familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. The sort of person who likes to look up the synopsis for a soap opera for the whole of next week in the Radio Times,  and enjoys the fact that he now knows what is going to happen to who, and that the only details to be filled in are just how.

My mother used to love mysteries. Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Lord Peter Wimsey… I prefer history. I got a book on the American Civil War for Christmas, and wasn’t disappointed when the Confederates lost again.  Mind you, come to think of it, my mother would read her Agatha Christies over and over again! There can’t have been any surprises left. Maybe it’s hereditary…

Or maybe we’re talking about two different aspects of our human experience here.

There are the stories we know. And we know exactly how they end. Fairy stories, Wallace and Bruce, the plot of Romeo and Juliet, or High Noon, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, Apollo 13.

Or the Gospel. We know every bit of it. But that doesn’t stop us going over and over it in minute detail – as we will over the next weeks, down to Easter, with the story of the Passion.

And then there are the stories we don’t know, and that it’s crucial we don’t know. Mysteries. Soap Operas.

New films.

Our own lives…

How often do we say “It’s a good job we don’t know what’s in front of us…”?  Do we really mean it? What do we mean by that? Wouldn’t it be great to know exactly how things are going to go with us into the future? Well – wouldn’t that depend?

And anyway, the point is that it’s of the essence of what we are as human beings that our lives are stories that we don’t yet know the ends of.

So – two kinds of story. One that works exactly because we know every detail of it, and there are no surprises. One that works only because we don’t. We don’t know how it goes from this point.

The Gospel.

Our lives.

And have you ever thought how strange it is that faith is, at one level, just exactly how we hold those two together? The Gospel and our lives. The story we know, and the story we don’t – yet.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

One way the Bible coheres – hangs together, despite its being a collection of so many documents, so many voices, from so many different points and times – is to see how certain patterns of understanding are shared among all these different perspectives. Today’s readings are a good instance of that.  Look at the old, old story from Genesis 15, a story which, let me tell you, never fails to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It’s slipped in because it fits with the bigger, unfolding story of God’s covenant with Abraham, in which, at various points, Abraham’s understandable anxiety about God’s promise comes to the surface once again.

It’s understandable because the promise is about the future, and Abraham’s descendants – and Abraham doesn’t have any descendants at this point in the story. “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is [my servant] Eliezer of Damascus?”

Remember, Abraham, the man who went, left everything, on God’s command, is the very pattern of faith in the Old Testament, and for the New. And his anxiety isn’t understood as a lack of faith. Instead, there’s a sort of dialogue between Abraham and God, in which Abraham says

Not that I don’t believe, but I don’t see how…

…and God responds:

Trust… And this will help…

And what follows is the incredibly primal, archaic story we heard earlier on.

He brought him all these [animals] and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other…  As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces…

What this passage evokes isn’t fright, or terror, or panic. It’s vastly more awesome. It’s the paralysing, overwhelming awe that comes when the cluttered horizons of everyday living fall away, and we come up against what is usually beyond them. A sense of our own absolute limits, before what is not limited at all.

But all our emotions, all our experiences, are had by us in a context.  And for the tradition that stems from Abraham – the Biblical tradition, if you like – this primal experience of the unlimited, and of our being paralysed before it, is understood as an experience of God in a very particular way. At the point where we have to acknowledge our powerlessness, God is there. That’s part of it. But there is more.

God comes to Abraham when Abraham is prostrate on the ground, in a weird state of wakeful, sleeping paralysis for which the Hebrew word is “tardemah.” And doesn’t just that word, tardemah make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?

Nothing could make it clearer that “covenant” isn’t another word for “bargain.” This isn’t a deal cut in a smoky room after hard negotiations. This isn’t two parties shaking over agreed terms. This is God, who is unlimited, absolute – God in fact – committing completely to Abraham, who is lying immobile on the ground. Abraham’s commitment to this covenant is just assumed. And that’s how it has always been for the Jewish people. Their faith is something they are stuck with. It’s an identity that God has given them.  Whatever their story from this point, it will be the story of God’s Covenant with them.  That’s what their story will be about. And that is still what their story is about.

[Hymn 490 Jesus, lover of my soul]

Now fast-forward, from Abraham to the disciples who go with Jesus up the mountain. He called them to follow, and, since then, they are stuck with the identity of disciples. Whoever they are –in fact, from their point of view, embedded in this unfolding story of the Gospel, that we are looking into from outside, knowing the way it goes, whoever they turn out to be, and whoever this Jesus turns out to be –  all of this is bound up with this figure.

And they thought they had him sussed, and everything else along with him. They thought they knew how the story ended. And then, six days ago, he started talking about Jerusalem, and horror, and death, and telling them that that was where he was going.  And everything changes in every way. Every understanding, every projection, every visualization in their minds of how this might end has been taken away from them. They can’t see how anything this Jesus is supposed to be about can now happen.

And in one way, they are in the same position as Abraham. They can’t see how. Jesus, to them, has seemed so full of promise, so full of meaning, so much the meaning of their lives now as his disciples. And he appears to be heading off to Jerusalem to die a meaningless death.

Yet faith is trust, and they still trust Jesus enough to go with him, be with him, identify as his disciples. Everything else may be on the slates, everything else may be drastic uncertainty, but they are still stuck with this identity as his people, his disciples.

And so four of them climb the mountain.

And Jesus is transfigured. Jesus of Nazareth shines with the glory of the Christ. The Risen Christ, as scholars since Rudolf Bultmann have pointed out. This is the other side of everything he started talking about so shatteringly a week ago. This is a glimpse, from before Good Friday, of an Easter Sunday which transforms everything. 

For the disciples, this is not a guarantee, not a reassurance, not a fast-forward to the end of the story; how could it be, when they are still inside the story, and can still have no idea how the story ends? We’re the ones who know that. Luke’s Gospel isn’t a whodunit, which you read once, trying to work out the mystery before you get to the end, and then never read again. And it’s not the kind of story that there’s no point finishing if someone does tell you the ending. There are times when it’s appropriate that we try to read the Gospels as though we’d never heard them before, but we are people whose lives find their meaning in these stories, and in this big story, and we do know how it ends.

But for us the point is that each one of us, too, is inside our own big little story – the story of my life, my existence. And our life, our shared life as a family, or a community, the story of us, if you like. Because our lives aren’t lived in isolation. There are times, as we live our lives, that we, too, ask the same questions as Abraham, and the disciples.

Because, in our own lives, we find ourselves in positions just like theirs. The position of juggling faith and real life. Of saying, sometimes to God, and sometimes just out into the air, “It’s not that I don’t believe… but I don’t see how…”

And we come to worship. And that, in some ways, is a bit like climbing the mountain with Jesus and the disciples, or preparing the sacrifice with Abraham. We come to a place. And what happens beyond that point is in God’s hands, not ours. And our experience beyond that point is an experience that God gives us. Sometimes consoling, sometimes shattering, sometimes joyful and vastly uplifting. Think of all the ways in which you have come out of church! And – thinking of that – we must add, sometimes perplexing, sometimes unsettling, and, sometimes, apparently nothing…

But always an encounter with God.  Something we need to take back with us, away from the scene of the encounter, back down the mountain, into the business of daily living.

But Luke’s story of the transfiguration adds one more element to this, and it’s absolutely crucial to the Christian understanding of faith in the real world.

While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone…

The cloud, the voice, the response of terrified awe – that’s the kind of thing that we expect to go with the encounter with God. We can recognize that, from Genesis and from the Transfiguration story. But Luke’s narrative presses on just a wee bit further – and in doing so lets us glimpse something tremendously precious. For the disciples, after all the huge, awesome, terrifying things that we easily associate with encounters with God, comes a strange silence – a stillness.

The light fades, the voice falls silent – and Jesus is still kneeling in prayer. The intensely human, intensely vulnerable Jesus, of flesh and blood just like us. The Jesus who not only could be so easily hurt and crushed – the Jesus who still has the whole of Holy Week, with all its horror and fear, still to go through.

The totally human Jesus who is still Immanu – El, God-with-us. God’s total commitment to us, God’s Covenant with us, if you like, there, but not in special effects and all the panoply of power. There, sharing our weakness, and vulnerability, and uncertainty and fear. There with us, without reserve, yet in a way so easy to miss, so easy to overlook. That doesn’t paralyze us and shatter us, and raise the hairs on the back of our neck… Well, no, maybe that last bit isn’t right. Maybe it really does raise the hairs on the back of the neck to think of a commitment to us so total that God does indeed “take flesh, and became human, and suffered for us…”

And that’s how the Gospel story becomes our story. And that’s how our stories, which we don’t know the plot of, don’t know how they end, become part of the  great story whose ending we do know.

We know the end of the Gospel story. But that doesn’t stop us working through it as though we’d never heard it before. Because our job, our calling, is to live it out in our own lives. That’s what faith is.

That’s what makes sense of God’s total commitment to us. God with us wherever we go, whatever we have to go through. God with us in real life. And us with Christ, wherever he leads.

Listen to how this all plays out in this morning’s Gospel Reading.

Luke 9:28-36


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