Posted by: owizblog | December 30, 2013

Sermon: Seeing the Journey Through UCB 29 12 2013





I’ve seen the Arts Tower at Sheffield University often enough, when we took our Simon to and fro there, or visited him, when he was a student. When it was built, in the sixties, it was acclaimed as the most elegant new high-rise university building in Britain, and it’s still the tallest. And although I’ve never been in it, to see this wonder, it also contains one of the very few paternoster lifts in Britain.


A paternoster lift takes its name from the Lord’s Prayer, and specifically from the simile of rosary beads that are links in a continuous chain. Its cars are actually part of a huge belt that turns continually. If that’s a bit hard to imagine, this might help.


You have to hop nimbly on as the next car arrives at your floor, and off as you reach the floor of your destination. They go back to the later nineteenth century, these paternoster lifts, and while there have been rare accidents, they are safer than they sound. The name doesn’t come from the terrified prayers of the passengers as the lift goes round!


You probably know the joke about the man who goes to the ticket office and asks for “A return, please.” The man at the window says “Where to?” and our customer, puzzled, says “Back here…”
Well, I have to confess that I’d been on Bute for a good two months before I finally stopped asking at the pier for “A return to Wemyss Bay, please…” I mean, where else would you go?

Well, several times last week, Gourock, I know. The boats couldn’t get in to Wemyss Bay, but that isn’t how it was meant to be.


The Wise Men’s lengthy expedition  was meant to be a return journey. Straight there, and straight back. It was only when they went initially to the wrong place that their journey became a vast loop. They went to Herod’s Palace, looking for a prince where they expected a prince to be found, and, in Matthew’s telling of the story blundered into a situation they simply couldn’t read. They didn’t go back, despite the perverted charm of the psychopathic despot, who lisped at them his wish to be told where the child they sought actually was so that he, too, might “go and worship him.” An insight gained in a dream, where so much of our experience is processed and made sense of, where meaning, and therefore God, are so often finally encountered in Scripture – an insight gained in a dream sent them home another way. The long but straightforward return journey, the planned-for there-and-back, became a vast loop out into unscouted territory.

They had to complete it the way it unfolded. There was no quicker – or quick – way back. They were committed to the journey, however it turned out. This was their story.

Is the Gospel story our story?


We hop onto the story of the Gospel with the arrival of Mary and Joseph at Bethlehem  to find that there’s  no room at the inn, and we ride with it through the visit of the angels to the shepherds, of the shepherds to the manger, of the Magi following their star firstly to Herod’s palace, which is where you would, one supposes, look for one born to be king, and finally to the house wherein the infant lay.

And then, we hop off, because the story has taken us where we want to go.

But the question is: has it taken us where we need to go with it…?

What if we stay on board? What if we complete the ride?

What if we commit completely to this voyage, this journey?

Because God does.

In fact, in the light of the understanding of Christmas that the Church was guided into, the Christmas Gospel is the story of God’s complete commitment to this journey, the journey of a human life from a homeless birth, through a hostile, harsh, lacerating world, to journey’s end – and of God’s commitment to completing the journey whatever that journey might mean. Because Jesus Christ is God’s journey with us.

And that’s why it’s so important that we don’t just jump off as soon as we’ve got past the picturesque first parts of the journey. The baby, the angels, the shepherds, the wise men… Well, the first part of the story of the wise men…

We don’t like to think of what happened next. I’d thought of showing you at this point a depiction by an Old Master of the Massacre of the Innocents, but even the stylized distance that that would put between us and the meaning of what those four words – Massacre Of The Innocents – convey doesn’t dilute the horror. It’s not a bad thing into the second month of a spanking new AV system to realize that showing pictures of things isn’t necessarily the best way to contemplate their reality. The next screen is blank.


We have enough pictures in our minds of twentieth, and twenty-first century Massacres of Innocents to project onto our blank screen, anyway. Real images of a sometimes desperately cruel world, of what happens to children, and adults of all ages, in it.

But here’s the Gospel. That it isn’t into the stylized world of an Old Master, framed in a museum and  safe to contemplate, that Christ comes, still less into the sanitized, packaged world of the standard twenty-first century telling of the Nativity Story, with its happy ending when the Wise Men wave goodbye and leave for home. It’s into the world of Syria, and Rwanda, and Bosnia, and Vietnam, and Cambodia, and Auschwitz and Belsen that Christ comes. And he comes as a baby. He comes as we come.

And we can see the reality of God’s commitment to us, and to the reality of our world, in the manger. And we can see it in the remote beauty of a Giotto painting –


Or we can see it in the homely prettiness of a Nativity Set Baby Jesus:


But we only get it if we can understand that the Baby Jesus is indeed a human infant, fully human,


without reserve, without special protection, without any exemptions from the dangers of human existence, of life in the real world. Joseph and Mary only saved Jesus from the insane, obscene, murderous wrath of Herod by running away. By being among the survivors.

I love this painting. It’s by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.


If you’re like me, the first thing you see is a sweep of landscape that looks a bit like the Kyles of Bute from the top of the Tighnabruaich Road. You have to look for a moment or two to notice the figures in the foreground, and longer to realize what they are. A man leading a donkey ridden by a woman. And the woman is carrying a bundle, half-hidden in her robe.

The painting is called “Landscape with Flight Into Egypt.” A fascinating title. It’s as though the landscape is the thing, and the figures just additional detail in it, their story incidental to the scope and sweep of the scene. Figures lost in a landscape. That’s all they are, these folk. Just like us. Tiny details in a vast world. Yet this is where God is. The smallest detail of these small details. A baby, completely swaddled, and then half-hidden by a woman’s robe.

So does God commit Godself to us.

Have you a photo of yourself as a baby at home? Take it out and look at it. That’s how God comes. That’s how completely God identifies with us in this risky, scary business of living in a world moved by huge, inhuman forces, political, economic, social, conflictual – and sometimes these forces, these inhuman forces, work through the inhumanity of people, sometimes cruelly personal, like Herod, sometimes cruelly impersonal, cogs in a machine…

And God in Christ is poured out into that, and stands with us in all of that, and loves, and forgives and dies. And the Christmas Gospel opens out onto the Gospel of an open, risk-taking love which leads to the Cross, but doesn’t end there. A love which challenges us to have faith, and to trust, and in our turn to love, and accept, and forgive.

And yes, it’s all a huge risk. Faith, for us, is going to be a risk, because it’s the accepting of the challenge to love. And that’s the risk God took, and takes, in complete and irrevocable commitment to the world the way it really is.




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