Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Sermon from last Sunday

7th Feb 2010 - Sermon preached at Eyke & Tunstall

Readings for 2nd Sunday before Lent: Genesis 2.4b-9, 15-25; Revelation 4; Luke 8.22-25

We’ve been planning a holiday for after Easter: it’s an exciting trip. We’re going to visit our son, Robert, who is out in South Korea working there. It’s exciting, and it’s a very long way… about 12 hours in the air, non-stop.

We did this once before, a couple of years ago, and we usually take holidays in the UK, so this is quite an adventure for us. But a lot of people fly often, and for them it’s an everyday event.

Back when air travel was new to the general public, in the ’50s and ’60s, I’ve read that people would actually dress up to go and take a flight; men would wear suits and ties, women would wear smart dresses, and they would wear something like their Sunday best, because it was so special to fly in an aeroplane. (people in the congregation nodded at this, remembering)

And people would really want to sit by the window, and would exclaim about looking down on the clouds, and seeing the wing of the aircraft - “Oh, wow, the wing!” But today people very often don’t want the window seat. They prefer the aisle where there’s more leg room. Instead of oohs and aahs on the plane, there is the tap, tap of laptop computers. (Our organist, Richard, nodded a trifle wryly at this - he organises pilgrimages among other frequent trips. I'm not bitter.)

I wonder sometimes if we don’t come to worship like sophisticated travellers, walking into the service rather blasé about it, because we’ve done this so many times, and got used to it. We don’t usually come in expectant wonder, or in anticipation of something awesome.
John, the visionary writer of the Book of Revelation, paints a picture of worship that is full of wonder and awe. John describes being caught up as if through a doorway to heaven, and finds himself in the middle of an almighty cosmic worship service.

But the descriptions mystify us as much as clarify what is going on in the heavenly court.

What is seen there is beyond our imagining, and it is the lot of the visionary to try to describe that which is beyond description, because it is beyond any earthly experience.
The images in the mind of the writer are those of jewels and the rainbow: brightness and glorious light.
The creatures around the throne don’t fit into any ordinary earthly categories, but the 24 elders who sit around the indescribable throne are recognizably human, and the worship that they and the strange creatures offer can be put into words, so we the readers can share in that, at least: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty.
Hallowed be thy name, we pray - we pray at nearly every church service, and probably most of us every other day besides.

This expression “thy name” was one the Jewish people would use to avoid saying the name of the most high God, which was so holy it was not even to be uttered in worship.

In the Bible God is not simply holy. God is called holy, holy, holy.
(We sang this in both churches during the service: at Eyke the very traditional Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee; and at Tunstall, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and is, and is to come, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord. I love Revelation.)

Holy to the power three. Holy cubed.

That's because in the Hebrew language, emphasis comes through repetition. When Jesus wanted his hearers to pay close attention, he would say, "Truly, I tell you”, or “Verily, I say unto you." And if he was saying something of ultimate importance, he said, "Truly, truly” (or “Verily, verily.") So, God is holy, holy, holy.
To hallow means to set aside as special or holy. It has to do with reverence, awe and wonder.
The holiness of God should leave us awestruck, and maybe give us goosepimples as we contemplate the majesty of God.
The famous Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, wrote, "A human in the presence of God is going to feel one of two ways. Either you feel like a small, dirty object, or you lose thought of yourself altogether."

And then he said, "The latter is by far preferable."

That's the problem that many of us mainstream churchgoers have -- somehow getting outside ourselves - losing ourselves - in worship and connecting with the wonder of the presence of God.
This connection with the presence of God takes us back to the reading from Genesis.

In Genesis 2 we have the second story of how God made people.

In Genesis 1, God makes humanity as the culmination of his labours, a kind of completion.

Genesis 2 also has humanity as central, but here, man is made first, and everything else is then made to keep him company. As God makes all the living creatures he brings them to Adam to see what he will call them. This picture of God and Adam playing together sets the tone of this stage of the story. There is an unimaginable closeness between God and the man that he has made from nothing.
Here, we the readers know what is ahead: the temptation, the Fall, the distance, the rift opened between God and his creation. But for this reading, all we see is the peace and closeness that exist between God, Adam and Eve. Notice that they do not need, explicitly, to worship God here in Eden. They just need to live with him.

They live alongside God.

The thought of that scene in the garden is a vision of awe and wonder even greater than that painted by Revelation, but in a way that is altogether more intimate and almost homely, rather than the majestic images in Revelation. The lightning and thunder and flaming torches are absent; the beauty of the scene is in the perfection of the garden and the closeness of God, and his deep care for the creatures he has made.
So between Genesis and Revelation, a distance has opened up between God and his human beings. The familiarity and ease of the relationship between God and Adam is replaced by the awe and wonder of knowing just how far above us is the God who made us.

That distance might seem unbridgeable. But it isn’t. What makes the bridging possible is Jesus. In the episode from Jesus’ life we read from Luke’s Gospel, we see the Son acting like the Creator, bringing order out of chaos, commanding the waters. The human Jesus holds together the Creator and the creation as he stands in the boat and stills the storm.

It is Jesus, too, who gave us the link between our humanity and eternity, and gave us an earthly means of celebrating a heavenly reality. He took bread and wine and blessed them, and made them holy, set apart for a special purpose, and commanded us to do the same. And in eating and drinking these holy things, by taking them into our own physical bodies, we somehow absorb something of Jesus himself. That is the mystery.
Remember the plane trip? The wonder of looking out at the tops of the clouds, and at the wings that miraculously keep us airborne, not wonderful any more because we get used to it. Let’s not get so used to our worship that we forget to wonder about what it all means. Earth and heaven meeting.
I found another Facebook link this week: Worship… is where life meets ultimate reality… A place where we sense eternal Significance and realize that we were created to “Live our lives to the full… in the presence of the God who loves us more than we could ever imagine!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Grateful acknowledgement to Sally Coleman for the image from her blog; to the Textweek website for inspiration; and to 'Lectionary Reflections' by Jane Williams for even more inspiration. Thank you all for helping me feed my flocks.

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