ADVENT SUNDAY 2011
What are you looking for? John 1:38
One of the most intriguing, perplexing, at times Wonderful but usually downright exasperating things about human beings is that for all we are meant to be set apart from other creatures by the size of our brains and our power of rational thought – we are precisely not.
For example – I KNOW that a healthy diet and exercise will make me feel better – I KNOW not only that fatty and sugary foods are bad for me, that excess carbohydrate makes me feel bloated and uncomfortable. Not only do I know these things are true, with my background in life sciences as well as Physics, I know precisely why they are true, BUT do I ever say ‘NO!’ to a piece of home baked chocolate cake or manage to avoid that late night bread and honey treat? No, I don’t. If I ever drop dead from a heart attack, my last thought may well be, ‘I can’t say I didn’t see that one coming!’
Or take my love affair with my Kindle. Now I know that it is cleverly designed to interact with my deep seated book buying compulsion and thus progressively empty my bank account. I know that – ‘in under a minute’ - from the comfort of my own chair I can be reading a book carefully suggested to me by a computer programme devoted entirely to finding books I am likely to buy. The Calorie free alternative to Chocolate fudge cake!! But does this knowledge stop me compulsively buying books? NO! Does it reveal a Life not controlled by rational impulses? You bet!
Well after that insight about myself what follows may just be a simple case of projection, but I see the same irrational behaviour all around me. From the economy to the environment – we live in an age where we are better informed than ever about precisely why what we are doing is No Good! The World’s Economic order based on the ludicrous suggestion of infinite Credit has finally come to its logical conclusion and No one could really say ‘Well we didn’t see that one coming!’ – The Worlds leaders meet again very soon once more to say ‘Something must be done!’ about the rapidly advancing global climate catastrophe – but forgive me if I sound more than a little hopeless regarding the outcome, especially when we are caught by our need to further expand our economies . . .
You see, for all our rationality ( and I think we must admit that animals behave far more rationally than humans ) we fail to understand the human condition if we ignore the fact that it is not our rationality which controls us. As my daughter put it on her recent facebook status “Reason is in slavery to the desires of our hearts”.
Put another way, our Desires or our Longings are what guide and direct our lives – our restless hearts are much more evident in the lives we leads than our supposed rationality.
Of course this can be neatly covered up. We may lead what to the outsider look incredibly orderly rational lives. I know for years I did in many respects – until I was ordained!! Now I know that in some people’s eye’s seeking ordination is in itself a sign of a kind of madness – but what completely threw me was how ‘out of control’ my life became when I started my life as a Priest. And it came to me that this was for a very obvious reason, that by and large from the age of 5, first as a school pupil, then a university student, then as a school teacher – my life was ordered by bells, by timetables. I wasn’t free to do what I wanted and I believed that I was highly Rational and organized in my being, but actually it was my Bine that was being organized, by timetables and bells. And this showed itself especially in my struggle to pray. When I’d been a school teacher, I had to leave home each morning at 6.30 so I got up at 5 to pray. It was the only time I could, so I did. And then once ordained, well I had all the time in the day to pray – and it became a real struggle. I knew I Should be praying, but I discovered that in my heart of hearts I didn’t really want to, other things seemed ot be more important.
I remember talking with my spiritual director about this and how I just wanted to go and live in a monastery and so have my prayer directed by bells – and she fairly firmly reminded me that as I was married with children that that wasn’t an option!! - and indeed, that it was better for me to face the desire of my heart, my lack of desire for God rather than kid myself as I had been all along to that point.
When Jesus started his ministry and folk started to follow him, he asked them the most pertinent question of all – What are you looking for? What is the desire of your heart? What are you looking for? What in your heart of hearts do you Really want??
So on this Advent Sunday I think it is worth asking that question. Confronted as we are with this Shockingly Powerful image from the Gospel ‘But in those days, . . . , the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Is this what we are looking for, what in our heart of hearts we really want?? Because Advent is about looking precisely for this – the consummation of all things – crying with the Prophet Isaiah – Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence— as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! Waiting for this – as the prophet goes on - From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
Advent is a time of Waiting – of waiting on God, of waiting for God – and at first like the prophet we all say – Yes – Of course I want this Life of God to break out into the world – but Advent is a Long time to wait – longer than ever this year – four whole weeks – and we are offered disciplines for these special times – disciplines which help us to wait, but which also Test the reality of our desire for Him. Everyone has a leaflet suggesting ways in which we might Wait on God this Advent – particularly Waiting on God as we begin to discern together where God may wish to take us as a church. And it is worth taking up a discipline with which we are not comfortable. We may spend much time in prayer – good – then perhaps a little fasting might be in order, or one of the other suggestions. Why? Because it is God’s desire we are seeking, not our own and we all too easily confuse the two. That is why I suggest meeting with someone you do not know very well and sharing together about what you think God may wish for our church, because then you may well discover that what you thought was God was really YOU – as Another voice is given space.
You see what happens? This is a Reality Check. After affirming confidently that God works for those who wait for him, it becomes clear that he waiting reveals a different reality. The prophet goes on - You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We waited for you – but our waiting revealed we didn’t want to wait – we didn’t desire your heart above all - our waiting revealed the state of our hearts, we didn’t Wait, we sinned – the prophet goes on We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. The Waiting reveals the true longing of our heart and it is Not for God – He goes on There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
The prophet realizes that that cry of his heart ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence’ was untrue. The reality is ‘there is no one who calls on your name’. These next four weeks I am asking the church to join me in the work I have been doing since I arrived, to seek God’s heart for the future of the church here. Might I suggest that at the beginning you take a few minutes as I have done, to write down what you think that is. And then through Advent, use one or more of the exercises I have suggested to Wait on God. Take time. So often churches do exercises like this and everyone writes down what They would like to see – but as God’s children, it’s not about Us – its about what He desires for us – and if at the end of Advent, All we have achieved is to come to the realization that we don’t want what God wants, whatever it may be, but that in reality we want what we want and we honestly face up to that, then we will have made a GREAT stride forward. If we follow the prophet through this passage in Isaiah 64 as far as Verse 7 and declare ‘There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you’, at least we will be living in reality and not deceiving ourselves – we will have seen the reality of our own hearts, and that is a Good Thing – BUT . . . HOW do we respond to this apprehension that in our heart of hearts we do not want what God wants but what we want???
There are two possible responses – despair – look at the state of my heart, what hope is there?? Or the Great theme of Advent – Yes There is Hope – in God alone. The prophet realizing that his own hearts desires have led him Far Far astray puts himself into God’s hands Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever. Now consider, we are all your people.
We are all the work of your hand, We are the clay, you are the potter – You are the potter – we are clay in your hands.
I very recently put myself in the hands of another – I’d been having trouble right up high in my neck and my head – so I went to see Chris Soul – I had a massage as he went to work on what can only be described as the Dry and lumpy clay of my muscles – but the fascinating thing for me was how he focused on my feet – that getting my legs and my back and my neck straightened out - he had to start with my feet – he had to go to work on the root of the problem – start from the base up.
Christ the coming one goes to work on us from the root of our problems – if we wait on Him, wait For Him. It may well be that like the massage it is pretty painful – but I put myself in Chris’s hands because I knew there was a problem that needed sorting out and I trusted him.
In the end – the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. When I was being interviewed for this post I asked the nominators – what do you think God wants to do amongst you –and received some encouraging replies – what I didn’t ask was the most important follow up – because I couldn’t ask this without taking time to listen carefully to my own response – which is - If that Is what God wants, Is it what You want?? What are we looking for?
This Advent, let us wait on Him, allow Him to speak to our hearts and so work on them and transform them that when He Comes to dwell among us our hearts may not be afraid, but full of Heavenly Joy at his appearing. So that we may declare in truth with the prophet – Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down so that the mountains would quake at your presence!!