Posted by: owizblog | July 3, 2016

“WHAT?!? Is that IT?!? Sermon, 3 July 2016 UCB

2 Kings 5:1-14

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

1

Four words sum up the connection between our two readings today.

What? Is that IT?

We wait, and wait, and wait for something. It’s going to be marvellous; we have no idea how. But this we do know: it will supplement all the deficiencies of our life; or it will change everything, and make everything better; or it will open doors, make things possible to us, that we can’t imagine from here.

And we can’t imagine how good it’s going to be, because we can’t imagine the thing itself. We only know that it’s coming, and that we really, really want it.

And it comes.

And we say “What? Is that IT?”

You may, or may not, instantly grasp that. I’d guess that it’s something we’ve all experienced, though, and here are two quick examples of it.

A child longs for a particular thing, at Christmas – a toy, seen in an advert, glimpsed in a window, or, more likely, first, and then repeatedly, seen in an advert, repeatedly glimpsed in a shop window. And it’s perhaps talked about at school, in the playground; everybody seems to want one, but nobody has one yet. And that’s important, because you have nothing to compare your desire with. All you know is that you are getting one for Christmas, and that it’s going to be great. It’s all you talk about with your friends, all that fills your mind.

And you come down on Christmas morning, almost shaking with excitement, expectation, desire…

And there are all the presents, wrapped up, left by Santa under the tree, or by the fireplace, next to the empty sherry-glass and mince pie crumbs.

And you find the parcel, and you know. Even if you’re a bit surprised at the size of it. And you tear off the paper. And you’re holding the box, the packaging, in your hands, and you recognize it from those longing glimpses through the shop window.

And you start opening the box, and you’re surprised at how much of the parcel is packaging, and you remove the plastic, bubbly bits, and you twist those plastic-wrapped wire ties, and suddenly, it’s in your hands.

And you look down at it, and you think “What? Is that IT?”

2

And the second example of the same phenomenon is the story we just heard Mary read.

Every three years, the Syrian General Naaman passes through this way on his circuit of the Lectionary. His is a complex and important story, and we approach it from a different direction every time, but at its centre is this complex and important man, Naaman, the bluff, no-nonsense, capable soldier, who can inspire the trust of the King of Aram, the fear of the armies of Israel, and – and this is significant – the affection of a little slave-girl who, despite being captured and stolen into slavery away from her land and family by raiders, and without minimizing anything of the barbarity that implies, genuinely wants the best for her mistress and her important husband.

That’s how this narrative paints Naaman. And he needs something, and he desperately wants it.

If the “leprosy” he suffers from is precisely the disease that sundered so many human beings from their families and communities, and cast them off as “unclean” in Jesus’ day, eight and a half centuries later, then Naaman was wealthy and powerful enough to be able to circumvent the worst of those awful consequences; but whatever was wrong with him, he had to live with the horror of the condition, and the torment of imagining what it would be like to be healed of it.

And the child who waits on his wife offers him something terribly complicated. She offers him hope.

“If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

It’s important to note that it’s a child who offers this. Because it’s as a child that Naaman accepts it. One of the odd themes to have emerged as running right through the stories of Elijah and Elisha is how close we all are to our childhoods; how much of us-as-child is still in us. Naaman may be the big, imperious, hearty soldier and commander – I always imagine him being played by Brian Blessed! –

what is that it

…but (or perhaps “but therefore”) there’s a lot of the child in him.

He has been promised a gift. He has no idea what it will be like when he gets it, when the day comes, but he knows it will be wonderful. He can’t wait to tear off the packaging to see what it will be like. It will be like Christmas come early; in Naaman’s case, about eight hundred and fifty years early.

Each stage of the wrapping is torn off; he goes to his king, his king goes for the idea, his king writes to the Israelite King, the horrified Israelite King is instructed to send him on to Elisha’s door, Naaman sets off with the riches to recompense the prophet, the journey unfolds right up to the door of the hovel, the prophet is inside…

“Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, ‘Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

What? Is that IT?

This isn’t how it was supposed to be.

There’s more going on here is a proud general being snubbed by someone he’s had rather to humble himself to come and see, or a proud Syrian, mindful of the great rivers of his homeland, being humiliated by being told to wash in a muddy burn, or even just someone who’d hoped to be made more of a fuss of.

Children at Christmas don’t generally just get told “It’s over there…” while the parents look at the television. Getting a gift is a shared experience, one which unites giver and recipient in a bond. Or it should be. And Naaman has come laden with gifts for the man who can heal him, intending to make a fuss of his benefactor just as his benefactor will surely make a fuss of him.

And he doesn’t. And these things are all important, but the last consideration opens the door to a new and more profound level of this story.

3

Naaman has been waiting expectantly for his gift for such a long time, waiting like a child, imagining, dreaming, adding bits to his expectation, his visualization, his anticipation of how it will be  – and here it comes! And the whole experience is nothing like his imagining of it. He’s deeply disappointed; and that’s why – as his longsuffering staff, who know what he’s like, recognize – his reaction isn’t fury. It’s hurt petulance.

It’s the petted lip, done in cinemascope by a vastly larger-than-life character.

And here’s the deeper level to this story. Because he knew that it was to the Prophet of the God of Israel that he’d been sent, Naaman was imagining what it would be like when God touched his story. And he did what we so often do. It would be perfect. Everything would be as he had imagined it, because that’s what it’s like when God touches your story.

He imagined he knew what God’s touch would look like in his life. And so do we. And we stand in the same danger he does. Because we imagine we know what it must look like, we can miss it. Because we’re looking for what we imagine must be there, if God is there, we can miss the way in which God is there.

There are times when we, too, blurt out

What? Is that IT?

Which is fair enough as long as we are prepared for the answer “Yes! That’s it…”]

Reading: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

4

When people encounter Jesus in the Gospels, there is surprise, there’s astonishment, and clearly there is an impact, too, and people are impressed.

But it isn’t just that.

There are people in the New Testament who encounter Jesus – the healing, the teaching, the forgiving, the authoritative way in which the presence of God is invoked in situation after situation, the way lives are transformed, people are set free – and still they say:

What? Is that IT?

Because he deviates so radically from their expectations.

There are people in the Gospels who see the man stumbling to his execution, who see him at the end of his meteoric career as burning out and fading forever and whose response is:

What? Is that IT?

And when the Church in the Book of Acts proclaims the Gospel to a world that’s never heard it before, the response, from angry Jewish authorities who see only a wackjob new sect stirring things in an inconvenient way, and sum them up, and say of them and their talk of God’s intervention in history in a crucified man, and say:

What? Is that IT?

And there are learned Greeks on the Areopagus at Athens, who listen to Paul talking about the God beyond the gods, the unity beyond the chaotic diversity, and who think “This is good; this is kinda’ like Aristotle, and Plato…” and then, when he gets specific and ties it all to something that happened, just shrug, and go away, and say over their shoulders:

What? Is that IT?

…because now they can write it off.

And yes, there is the strand in the New Testament, as there is in the Old, that presents God in terms of the awesome, the marvellous, the terrifying, the earth-shaking – because that’s how people have always spoken of God, always imagined God, always imagined that’s how it would be if God appeared, always imagined that that’s how it was when God had appeared

But there’s also that other strand, that thread of God there, and it might easily be missed because you’re looking at the wrong thing, in the wrong direction, in the wrong place.

You might miss God, because you’re looking for your own expectations.

5

None of the other Gospels have this mysterious little story of Luke’s, of seventy-two of his disciples being sent out ahead of him to prepare his way. It’s as though Luke were taking the basic story of the Book of Acts, the Church after Easter being sent out into the world ahead of Jesus’ coming at the end of all things, to prepare the way – and read it back into the story of Jesus’ ministry.

Maybe that’s exactly what he did.

Maybe he’s saying to the Church of his day, sixty years or more after that first Easter, “Look! That’s you! That’s the way you fit into the story of Jesus. Just as these seventy-two go before him to the villages ahead, to prepare the way for him, so you, the Church, go out into the world to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ!

And like them, you’ll get a mixed response…

Because you won’t be what people expect. People will look at you, and say:

What? Is that IT?

6

It’s a couple of years since we went to Barcelona, and I first saw Gaudì’s masterpiece, the basilica of the Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia external

I’d actually fully expected to be disappointed by it, to find myself saying

What? Is that IT?

But my first view of it, unexpectedly in the fading evening light, from the mundaneness of an outside table at a tapas bar, bowled me over.

Every successive day that week brought new views from new angles, some right up against the mountainous structure covered with deeply affecting sculpted Christian imagery.

By now, a new feeling had set in. I’d only ever seen photos of the outside of the Sagrada Familia. We were going to see the inside on the Sunday – and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I was terrified that the experience, having been so overwhelmed by the outside, might be a disappointment –

What? Is that IT?

But in I went, and again, I was simply stupefied, by the glorious, profoundly calculated geometry, the unearthly play of light, the sense of scale and enormity…

A huge part of my anticipation, of course, had been that this would be an experience of the invoked presence of God, yes a human response, but a human response touched, for faith, by real presence.

What if I were disappointed?

But it was an interesting conundrum for me that I wasn’t.

sf int

One stands in the Sagrada Familia, as one does in, say, Nantes Cathedral, or York Minster, and something within one says “Yes! This is the Church! This is what the human response of faith to God is!”  And sometimes, it is.

But sometimes, Church is small groups of people in draughty, leaky buildings in run-down parts of cities – or in school halls because the church building actually did fall down. Easy enough to say:

What? Is that IT?

Because if the Church is wherever God’s people are praising, then there will be many times when people will look around and think:

What? Is that IT?

Port Hall

Sometimes, the Church is the Sagrada Familia. Sometimes, it’s the Port Hall, or the Kingarth Hotel. Each, equally is the Church, each equally is worship with the angels and archangels and the company of heaven. And that, says Luke’s Jesus, is what people don’t get.

A small group of people, taking the Good News of the Kingdom out, living it, announcing the coming of Jesus Christ – and there will be those who don’t get it, because we, the Church, don’t look like what they expected. Never mind. Move on. Shake the dust from your feet.

But there’s the corresponding danger for us, that we don’t get it, that we miss what God gives, because we were looking for something else, because we thought we had imagined something better, and miss what is actually there.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this very straightforwardly, in his little book Living Together.

How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

And when we find ourselves reflecting on our lives, and our difficulties, and our problems, and when we put these into God’s hands, it’s very hard not to find ourselves imagining, anticipating, what will come of that, how God’s liberating, healing touch on our lives will change everything in just the way we imagine.

And when that doesn’t happen, we can easily hear ourselves saying, sometimes out loud:

What? Is that IT?

That God should be with us, and there for us, in small, simple, unexpected ways that we might easily miss – that’s a difficulty for us.

Because it means we miss God.

God with us in real life. God with us where we expected that things would be different, go differently.

But God there the way God is there. In reality, and in truth.

 

 

 

 

 


Responses

  1. 🙂


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