Posted by: owizblog | February 20, 2013

He Has Gone! Sermon, 7 December 2002 (Last Sermon preached at Langside Parish Church)

Anyone here thinking beyond Christmas to the New Year sales? “Unrepeatable offers!” “Bargains that can’t last!” “Must end soon!” Aye, right. The sales come round every year. And last as long as they need to. And some shops – one in a shopping mall not far from here – seem to have permanent sales, sometimes even permanent closing-down sales!

You don’t want to miss a bargain – but there’ll be other opportunities. They’ll come round again.

And we think that everything in the universe is like that. Even the Gospel.

Aye, right.

The Morecambe and Wise Show was a Christmas institution. People remember many things from many shows: The “play wot Ernie wrote”; the certainty that at some point there’d be a statuette that, during the play, would have a dialogue by Eric:

“What do you think of it so far?”


the great and the good happily humiliating themselves; Eric explaining to Andre Previn, the distinguished conductor, (while holding him by the lapels) that “I am playing the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…”

And then there was the running gag. One year it was the little harmonica player who would appear between items, whip out his mouth organ, only to be restrained and told “Not now, Arthur…”

But the best of these running gags, to my mind, went like this. An item came to an end, and there was a cut to one of those notices outside a newsagent which tell you what the top story in the paper is. It read “He is coming!” A second or two to take it in, and it was gone. A few minutes later, when you’d almost forgotten about it, a cut to a bus careering round a corner. A bundle of newspapers is thrown from the bus, and skids into the doorway of a newspaper shop. The camera zooms in to show the headline: “He is coming soon!”

The show goes on, and suddenly, there’s another cut. A family watching TV. Suddenly an announcement is flashed up on the screen. “He is coming NEXT WEEK!!” Later again, and again just when we were starting to forget about it, a swift cut to the notice, in lights, outside a theatre, proclaiming to the world “He is HERE TONIGHT!!!”

And then a long lapse of time. Eric and Ernie say their goodnights, and launch into “Bring me sunshine!” as the credits begin to roll. And the show comes to an end. And you find yourself watching an audience in a theatre – well, the backs of their heads – as the house lights go down. It looks like a trailer for another programme. But it isn’t. The curtains part to a flourish from the band, and there, across the stage, in huge letters studded with lights, the three words: HE HAS GONE!”

One of the greatest, and one of the most human, of twentieth century theologians was the Swiss scholar Emil Brunner. And he once said that “There is, with respect to [God’s] revelation, a “too late”… In other words, it’s possible to miss the moment.

Advent is all about preparing. Not just for the coming of Christmas, but for the coming, the presence, the parousia, of Christ.

This is the Sunday, the second in Advent, when traditionally we think of John the Baptist. And we think of him as the Forerunner. The one who comes before the Christ, to announce his appearance. And we think of him as a figure of two thousand years ago, who came along to introduce the world to the Christ we’ve known ever since.

That’s one of the dangers, you see, of knowing the story. We imagine John as the one who came two thousand years ago to introduce to the people then this Christ they didn’t know; but of course we do know him – know him very well. Reading the story of John the Baptist for us today can be a bit like those moments at a party when someone says “I’d like to introduce you to so-and-so…” and we look at the person with them and say “Actually we’ve already met! We’ve had quite a chat…” Or even “Oh, we’ve known each other for years…”

And maybe that’s how we feel about this figure of Jesus Christ. We’ve known him all our lives. We’re at ease with the thought of him being around. The idea that someone might “introduce” us to him is a bit laughable, really.

I want to set up this next illustration very carefully. It shocks me, and it clearly intends to shock.

On the net there’s a very entertaining radical Christian website called Betty Bowers is a Better Christian than you. The site is named after a (mercifully) fictional lady who is clearly the most horrible and sanctimonious kind of Christian – and it parodies this kind of “Christianity” unmercifully. When you visit the site, a banner greets you across the screen: “If God created me in his own image – I have more than repaid the compliment!” And there’s more from “America’s Best Christian”.
“Love the sinner – hate their clothes!” says Betty. We were talking about parties a few moments ago. You can imagine the sorts of parties she goes to! Parties where not everyone is invited; parties where the people who do go are judged unmercifully, but they go along and take it because they know that the people who don’t get invited are spoken of even worse.

But as for Betty Bowers, she’s sure of how good a Christian she is. And how close to Jesus.

“So close to Jesus, he validates my parking!” Betty proclaims. “So close to Jesus, he lends me his loaves and fishes recipe!”

The whole point about Betty Bowers, of course, is that she is so nauseatingly sure of her own closeness to Jesus, that she just can’t see how revoltingly unchristian her own behaviour is. Christians, after all, are people like her. The idea that, after all, she might not know this Jesus she speaks of so glibly is laughable to her. In fact it doesn’t occur.

And we can be like her.

We, who think we know this Jesus Christ so well, wonder where John the Baptist fits in for us.

And we’ve missed the whole point of the story of John. Because we’ve missed the most radical thing about this Jesus of Nazareth whom he announces. That he doesn’t belong to us. That we can’t domesticate him, make him some sort of personal pet, pop him in a pigeon-hole in our lives and say “That’s where he fits!” He comes to turn everything upside down. To subvert the world. And if we’re not made ready for that – we could miss the whole point of Jesus’ coming even though we thought we were the best Christians in the world.

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

A good summary of his message would be “God is about to do something huge, vast, utterly decisive. In the One Who Comes After Me. And you’d better get ready for this event by examining your lives, and turning them round…”
John the Baptist came for one purpose only. He came to tell people how tremendous, challenging and totally unfamiliar was this Christ who came after him.

To make sure that we don’t miss the significance of him for whom all the ages have been a preparation. That we don’t miss the point of Jesus of Nazareth. “ He is coming!” He is coming soon!” He has gone…”

Because, you see, it is possible to miss it. “There is, with respect to [God’s] revelation, a “too late”…”

The Gospels aren’t history books. One of the ways in which we insulate ourselves from their power is to pretend that they are. There’s a story about a cabinet minister in the Labour government of Harold Wilson in the sixties who had been an Oxford don. He was a brilliant classical scholar. He was also an atheist. The story was that he’d happened on a Greek New Testament one day when he was a student. He picked it up, and it fell open at Mark’s Gospel. The original, homely, lively, untidy Greek of Mark. He read a little bit, then tossed it aside. It didn’t compare with Thucydides, or Herodotus, or any of the ancient historians, not as literature, not as elegant classical history.

But the atheist was only making the same mistake that fundamentalists do all the time when they open the New Testament and start fights about its “historicity” – about “what really happened then…”. Openness to the Gospel means responding to it right now.

The Gospels aren’t meant to be “history” (well, maybe Luke had ambitions…) The Gospels are meant to be challenges to us here and now, reminders here and now to us that we don’t know this Jesus Christ, that he isn’t just another pal, another chum or crony. That there is something radically strange, and eternally challenging about this Jesus Christ. And his demands are radical, too.

And that’s the significance of John the Baptist. It isn’t just that John the Baptist came two thousand years ago to tell people then that there was somebody special on the way. He comes now, every time we open the New Testament and read his story, to warn us that after him is coming someone vastly greater than him.

“I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals”.

Someone powerful, challenging, endlessly different, endlessly strange.

And that his coming makes demands.

We Ministers identify a lot with John the Baptist. He said of himself that he was “A voice crying in the wilderness”, and really that’s what we are as well. Our job is to call people to an encounter with Christ. In the reading and preaching of Scripture. In communion, where Christ is held out to us in bread and wine. In the blessing and the challenge of Confirmation, which is the point to which Lisa has come today in her Christian journey.

For her, this is a very special “today” in her discipleship. She is given something – what John Calvin calls a “special blessing”. And then she’s asked to respond. That’s why our preparation for this day involved not loads of stuff to memorize, not creeds to learn or dauds of theology to stuff into the head. Preparation for this moment, this particular step in one’s pilgrimage of faith, involves thinking about just one thing.

Christ is coming by. His coming is announced – and then we hear his call. How do we respond?

And as Lisa discovered, what we call “communicants’ classes” are really an exercise in hearing all over again, as if for the first time, a Gospel we’ve known for years. Recognising the strangeness, the compelling strangeness, of a Jesus Christ we’d fitted comfortably into our lives. Hearing again his call, his demand, that he shape our existence, that we get up and follow where he leads.

But that’s about to be true for all of us. Think of the structure of the service as it unfolds. A voice crying in the wilderness. That’s what I am, that’s what the sermon is. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” And then Jesus Christ comes by. Communion. And a challenge, to a response of heart, mind and whole life.

And it’s possible to miss it. If we sit there with our old preconceptions, our smugness that we are “well in with Jesus”, our certainty that we are right, because we are Christians, because we know him so well. If we think that, we don’t know him at all.

And what John says to us, too, is “Something huge is about to happen. Something from God. And you’ll have to turn your lives around in order to receive it…”

He is coming. He is coming soon! He has gone…

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