Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 11 September 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
Isaiah 60.1 Arise, shine: for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
There are times when a Bible verse can change the direction of your life, or rather a verse can open up for you a hidden world, a world of the spirit which has been there all the time but we’ve just haven’t seen it. But we need to be quite laid back for that to happen, because each of us has an ego which likes to be in control and decide what’s going to happen all the time. That’s necessary for getting through the day, but it’s a boring way to live a life. The Book of Isaiah opened up a hidden world for Jesus, probably changed the direction of his life. Jesus quotes Isaiah more than any other prophet. Jesus learnt from Isaiah that God is a mystery. Isaiah has God saying: My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. Humility before God, knowing yet not knowing, is healthier, I think, than getting other people to join your supposedly saved group because you know it all. When Jesus says someone is saved or healed, it’s because they are in right relationship, a fully human relationship with him, with all faults; he doesn’t grill them on what they believe or which church they belong to. He got that truth of religion from Isaiah.
Leaving behind what we know, listening to another, these are the paths of transformation in all the great religions of the world down the centuries. Why do we get interested in religion in the first place? We don’t say, right, I think I’ll be a religious person from now on, I’ll get a few books out of the library and try to be good at it. It just happens, and we don’t know when, because we’re not in control when it happens. There just creeps up on us, from someone we’ve met or seen, from somewhere we’ve been, from something we’ve read, this news, this glimpse of a hidden world, the world of the spirit, the kingdom of God, call it what you like, it is where our lives can be transformed into what they should be, it is where our world is seen in the light of truth and forgiveness, and once seen, never forgotten, whatever muddle we get into, however far we wander away. This is your discovery of your soul, the image of God within you, and there is no greater discovery to be made in a human life. We discover the mind of Christ. Christianity, the religion through which our soul has been revealed to us, is very acute in its understanding of human psychology. What are the two events or circumstances in your life when you are not in control, when you do not decide, when you do not fix limits, when you do not impose your will? The two circumstances are when we love and when we suffer. God comes into this world in every human life between the gateway of birth and death, lives of love and suffering. We don’t have to love and suffer ourselves all the time; indeed those two words, love and suffering, are imprecise and can confuse us into thinking that religion has to be an emotional rollercoaster of joy and distress, a matter of intense feeling, when the truth, I think, is the opposite; it is balance, equilibrium, a deep understanding in the still waters of the soul that we seek, an acceptance of life as it is. “Set your troubled hearts at rest.” We look for an end to restless desire, for some sort of perfection in what we do, some view of the joy of eternity. A better word for love might be misericordia, which translates as mercy, and could also mean compassion. As for suffering, the suffering in the world isn’t just physical suffering and deprivation; suffering can be, as the Letter to James tells us, “desires fighting within your own selves”; that’s why things go wrong.
It is the mind of Christ that we seek, because Christ sees God as we see him, and Christ sees us as God sees us. This is how we find out how to cope with love and suffering in the world. God is the love, if I can use that word, or compassion, which gives itself away whatever the cost. And that is why the great Christian icon, a crucifix, Jesus on the cross, shows a human figure offering love from a position of suffering. There is God in action, our experience will be his experience. As Jesus says in tonight’s second lesson, I draw life from the father. Many look at that icon of love and suffering, and can’t take it, because it’s so physical, but that is the strength of the Christian religion, it is about body and soul, the lifting up to God of the whole person, all you are, and the message of Jesus in the Gospels is that we too can draw life from God. We have eternal value, eternal life within us. We lead a fully human life in the Kingdom of God, where we share God’s life, a life in which we too can arise and shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.