If you fancy a trip to the cinema for a night out at the movies there is quite a variety on offer. From the heartwarming with Paddington 2 and Wonder (about a child with facial features that make him stand out and how he finds acceptance), a suspicious death mystery on the fast train from Istanbul (better known as Murder on the Orient Express), The Man who invented Christmas (about Charles Dickens writing his moral tale A Christmas Carol), and action thrillers where the struggle is for survival of worlds against seemingly overwhelming odds: Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League. And recently we’ve had Blade Runner 2049 with its play on artificial intelligence and a struggle in a world that seems to be the plaything of a megalomaniac industrialist: this is known as Transhumanism.
The action thrillers present us with crises that require superhuman powers. Thor is imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his mighty hammer. He is in a race against time to stop Ragnarok, the destruction of his homeland and the end of civilization. ‘Ragnarok’ in Norse mythology means ‘the doom of the Gods’. The race is to stop it. In the Justice League Batman and Wonder Woman join forces with Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash as a team of meta humans to stand against a threat. These films show a longing for a hero to come and sort it out with great power and might; to wield force and defeat the foe. Or in terms of our first reading from the 6th century BC prophet Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1-9). The threat is severe. No one is listening, or perceiving, or calling on the name of the Lord. What is needed is waving a big stick around to make them wake up and pay attention, to save them from their woes of oppression and exile: Thor’s hammer and the superhero powers.
The Bible carries this tension of themes between calls for dramatic action to stiffen the sinews and get the adrenaline rushing on the one side and a God of grace and love, who acts in a very different way on the other. The tearing open of the heavens does come, but in a small, vulnerable child born to a displaced family and laid in a borrowed bed visited by strangers with even stranger gifts. The family become refugees and as with Paddington would find their immigration status suspect and challenged. Paddington comes from Peru without a visa and in real life would be unlikely to be granted leave to stay.
The Gospel reading also brought us an image of calamity and tribulation (Mark 13:24-37). Into that comes the ‘Son of Man’, an intriguing title. Bernard Longley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, who spoke at the Churches Together Advent Reflection Day which we hosted yesterday, reminded us that this title, ‘Son of Man’, is a way of expressing Jesus Christ’s solidarity with humanity. He does not stand outside us as a meta human, an artificially enhanced robot or cyborg, but as a fully human person, vulnerable and mortal, able to bleed and displaying unconditional love. He is the Son of Man who stands in solidarity with his people. The Church Advertising Network’s Christmas campaign this year depicts Jesus wearing a crown of thorns carrying a Christmas tree. It is a pastiche of his carrying his cross. It is a striking image and a clever play on iconography. The tag, which includes the ‘Christmas Starts with Christ’ logo, invites us to remember why. His coming among us is so much more profound than tinsel and very different to super hero tearing open of the heavens. The wood of the Christmas tree becomes the wood of the cross.
That first reading from Isaiah also spoke of people who don’t know the story – those who have not heard, who have not perceived, who do not know the name of the Lord to call on. Here in the Cathedral and also in St John’s, the city centre parish church, we frequently find ourselves greeting people who have not heard, have not perceived and do not know the story. And there are a number of responses we can make. We can shout louder, and there are some who come into the city centre, set up their stall in the square and do that. But aggressive shouting does not communicate, it makes people put up barriers and shut down. And then they don’t listen or hear. It is also not the way of Jesus. Rather we greet, we welcome, we allow them to come alongside us as we aim to get alongside them and see something of the wonder which delights and inspires us to live as followers of Jesus Christ. We let them see what it is that keeps us watching and waiting in hope.
On Friday at Evensong we had a lot of stallholders here setting up in the nave for the Christmas Market. And they were here too on Saturday during the morning Eucharist. A temptation could have been to grump in a corner and wish someone would shut them up so that we could get on with our private worship. What we did was welcome, explain what was going to happen with the services and relay them over microphone system so that everyone was included. It aimed to be an embrace to be alongside and include. It was an approach that stemmed from grace and knows that ultimately it is love that welcomes and draws us in, and not big hammers or super powers from meta humans.
Advent is my favourite season of the Christian year. This is because it watches in hope, it longs for the coming of Christ to bring love and salvation, not fear and dread. Our lives are held in this embrace between Christ’s coming among us in Jesus and his coming again when all things will be fulfilled and redeemed. We live in Advent; it is the season of where we are. The threats and warnings of turbulence and struggle are real and Advent reminds us of our humanity and our mortality. But it does this with the assurance of hope and the promise that we can trust in God’s providence. This is why the liturgical colour for Advent, purple, is also used at funerals, to emphasise the Advent hope, salvation dawning, love welcoming, and life sharing.
There has been some interesting research about the casual visitor to Cathedrals from the University of York. This has found that many of those who come here, and to our sister Cathedrals, find themselves having strange emotions stirred within them by the visit: the spiritual is triggered, and notably that goes for those who have no previous expectation of that or conscious affiliation. They are, I believe, surprised by grace. This fits with other research into those who self-define as ‘no religion’ in surveys and questionnaires. What they mean by ‘no religion’ is highly complex, but seems to mean that they don’t identify with a particular faith or story or religious institution; they are spiritual but not religious. And that is the group that is rising. Another recent survey reported that this group now accounts for 53% of our population and when these figures are analysed by age that number rises to 75% in those under the age of 25. The ray of hope comes in the being surprised by grace. Incidentally, the York research also said that there need to be books and publications for them to pick up in the shop to help them explore faith, the spirituality that has been stirred; a next step guide to go deeper. So my book “Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus” is timely – available from the shop very reasonably priced. It is there to help travel onto the next steps and explore what following Jesus through his teachings might mean for daily life, for loving, hoping and longing – all very Advent themes.
Today we enter the holy season of Advent. It is when we long for God to tear open the heavens and come to this turbulent world, to redeem it. He does this in a surprising way, showing the super human power of love rather than a hammer, of presence alongside rather than swooping in as a meta human.
Come Lord Jesus to our hopes and longing;
fulfill these with your loving embrace,
that all may be surprised by grace
and delight in your redeeming love. Amen.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Advent 1, Sunday 3rd December 2017