Advent Sunday - 29th November 2015
Sermon given by Fr James Heard on Sunday 29th November 2015
Its Advent Sunday again, the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year: no flowers, no Gloria, we’re wearing sober purple and we sing more hymns in the minor key. And once again we have all these readings about the end of the world, the day of judgement, the parousia – meaning the second coming of Christ, and the apocalypse – the revelation of Christ.
At our Café Theology course, the theme of judgement came up a couple of weeks ago. And Advent is the only season in the Church’s year that invites us to think seriously about judgement. We have four weeks of reflecting upon what things in our lives are not consistent with kingdom values – the values of peace, love, compassion, kindness, justice.
Judgement is a clear theme in the biblical tradition. So I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear that word.
One of the ways I have found helpful to explore this subject is through the writings of Gerard (or Gerry) Hughes, a Jesuit priest and writer who died a couple of years ago. He’s buried at St Beuno’s, that wonderful place in North Wales, where I regularly visit on retreat. Perhaps his most well known book is God of Surprises – it really is a wonderful book, well worth reading.
Gerry was convinced that the picture we carry around about God affects how we believe, how we pray (or don’t pray), and intuitively how we live our lives. He created a character called ‘good old Uncle George’ to explore this, which has been particularly helpful to those who have given up on Christianity. It’s quite lengthy but I’d like to read you his description:
God was a family relative, much admired by Mum and Dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful and interested in all of us. Eventually we are taken to visit ‘good old Uncle George’. He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff, and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ admiration for him. At the end of the visit, Uncle George turns to address us. ‘Now listen, dear,’ he begins, looking very severe, ‘I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement. It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams. In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear,’ he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women, and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved. ‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you will most certainly go,’ says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet Mum and Dad.
As we go home, tightly clutching Dad with one hand and Mum with the other, Mum leans over us and says, ‘And now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And we say ‘Yes, I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. At a tender age deep conflict has set in and we keep telling Uncle George how much we love him and how good he is and that we want to do only what pleases him. We observe what we are told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to ourselves, that we loathe him. (Gerard Hughes, God of Surprises)
Of course, Uncle George is a caricature, but a caricature of a truth. I grew up regularly hearing hell-fire sermons – we had a very real sense, a very real fear, actually, that Jesus was coming back. We were told that his return was imminent, it could happen at any moment. And if we weren’t ready, well, God help us. Or actually, God wouldn’t help us. If we weren’t ready, we were doomed for judgement, a rather dreadful judgement with fire, brimstone and a bit of sulphur thrown in for good measure!
The question is, in our modern age, should this Advent theme of judgement be dropped? A minister in Wales got into the news in 2011 when he cut out all the bits of the Bible that were like this, put them on a wall of shame and set fire to them. One part of me wants to shout ‘Yes’ at such a demonstration. Surely those images of God are a result of a primitive, less refined, sort of faith.
How does one reconcile the image of God of peace, goodness, of love and compassion with wrath and condemnation? What do we do with those themes of judgement in the Bible? There’s a danger that we take a black and white approach to them. To take them literally means you are a Christian; not to take them literally means you aren’t. It’s a huge danger because any reasonably sane and humane person is likely to say, in fact, ought to say, that this Uncle George caricature kind of God is a God they want nothing to do with. This is, plain and simple, a God I don’t believe in.
But the fact is, whilst the world is a place of wonder and delight, of adventure and abundance, it’s also a place where groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS are on the news every day. When hearing about the Paris attacks, something deep within us cries out for justice to be done. These random brutal acts of terror are an outrage. The perpetrators need to be brought to justice: they need to be judged for their warped evil acts. Surely, these evil acts demand justice, a final reckoning.
The sort of reckoning you get in the parable of the wheat and the tares – in which a farmer is instructed to allow the wheat and tares to grow up together and be separated later. Then the tares will be ‘burned in the fire’ at the end of the age. That’s what we want to know awaits those causers of death and destruction in Paris, Mali and Beirut, and elsewhere.
There is a danger, though, that in our outrage we anthropomorphise God – we imagine that God is someone essentially like us, only bigger. We know about wrath: anger, fury, violence, jealousy, the alarming and scary feelings that we have. And we imagine that God’s wrath is like that, only bigger - which makes it even more violent and more frightening. And we end up with something like Uncle George. But as Lucy Winkett, Rector of St James’ Piccadilly, puts it ‘one of the most important things Christian theology wants to say about God is that God emphatically isn’t like us only bigger. God is unlike: is totally other, free, utterly holy...’ Lucy suggests that the biblical language used, like a ‘wrathful’ God, is an attempt to express divine dis-ease, divine dissonance, agony, fury even. Anger at the poor who get forgotten; anger at the environmental carnage our consumptive lives is reaping upon the world; anger, yes, at such random acts of terror and destruction we’ve recently seen.
And while it is easy to see the brokenness of the world, of disturbing evil acts out there, what about ourselves? Our journey during Advent is a time to reflect upon our own lives. What are the tares in our lives that need the purifying fire of God’s love, so that we may become the people God has called us to be. Our truest deepest selves as children of God. We do this not out of fear because, as 1 John puts it, ‘perfect love casts out all fear’.
They may be, and should be, judgement in this life for those who are consumed by violence. And what about the judgement when we (metaphorically) stand before God our creator? My view on this is that it is the judgement of a loving father, a judgement that is therapeutic, a judgement that purifies, redeems, a judgement that ultimately heals and makes us all fit for the new kingdom.
We are told to wait for Christ’s return, not in fear and trembling, but in festive hope, for we have been affiliated with him in our baptisms. May it be Christ-among-us who makes us ‘increase and abound in love for one another’, as St Paul puts it in our second reading.
Gerard Hughes, The God of Surprises
Lucy Winket, 16 November 2014