The Word Pressing In

November 5, 2017

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using I Thessalonians 2.9-13, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 5th November 2017, the Fourth Sunday before Advent.

Advent is the great season of preparation for the coming of God – for his coming in judgement at the end of history and for his coming in the person of Jesus at Christmas. Advent is a necessary time of preparation, for our hearts are stony and we need to prepare in order to be as ready as we can for the day of his coming. As we hear it from the alto in Handel’s Messiah, ‘who may abide the day of his coming and who can stand when he appeareth’.

There are two ways in which we can keep Advent in our own time, despite Christmas celebrations beginning in November. The first is to start preparing earlier, to observe, as we do today, the provision for Sundays before Advent and the Kingdom season. This allows us to change gear before being swept up into all those stars and angels. The second and complementary way is to be Advent people all year round.

An Advent person is someone who lives under pressure, as something is being claimed of him, of her.

One of my Chapter colleagues recommended a visit to the Sculpture Park in Churt in Surrey. The publicity proclaims it to be ‘the most atmospheric sculpture park in Britain’, comprising ‘more than 300 sculptors exhibiting over 800 sculptures set within ten acres of arboretum’. A very large commercial gallery, then.

I freely admit to being a picky punter, but what struck me was how little of the work truly spoke. Much was sculpture in the sense that it had indeed been sculpted, with a fair degree of skill and intention. But what was too often missing was vision, a sense that the artist had to express something burning in the heart and mind’s eye. There’s a world of difference between fabrication and hard-fought, hard-won inspiration.

I think of a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins, that great modern poet whose work is driven by that sense of pressure, pressing down on the world, impacting on creation and weighing down heavy on him. In one poem he wakes in the middle of the night to feel that terrible absence of God choking his heart:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree

Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

Hopkins in the long night and through the long days and years feels the press of God’s absence and his own bitter emptiness. He tastes himself and his own desolation.

However, as he goes on to say, no-one has the luxury of avoiding these sweats; at least for him it’s a question of creative pain, an agony which expects birth rather than only death.

That’s what distinguished the good sculpture in the park from the bad. The good showed this hard-fought, hard-won simplicity and unity of purpose. One of the pieces of real merit was called Django (origami skip rhino), a rhinoceros made out of welded and painted panels cut from a steel skip [https://www.thesculpturepark.com/django-origami-skip-rhino-by-alan-williams.html]. This unusual idea said something strong about the essence of rhino-ness; it caused us to recognise just what glorious creatures they are; it wasn’t simply a question of admiring the artifice and the welding. The artist, Alan Williams, had used all his creativity and energy, to step aside and give us, humorously, ingeniously, the real beast.

This stepping aside and giving birth is something of what it means to be an Advent person. It’s never entirely comfortable to feel this pressure, but without it nothing of value is ever created.

Look at St Paul stepping aside in our first lesson. The first way he does this is by not being a burden on the community he is serving. Our non-stipendiary ministers and volunteers are an excellent example of this principle today. But for Paul it’s not just a question of not being a financial burden on his people but of labouring and toiling for the sake of others rather than for any reward; which leads us to the yet more excellent way in which he steps aside: he offers them no occasion whatever for stumbling. His conduct towards them remains always ‘pure, upright and blameless’.

And look, too, at Paul creating. Paul has a mission. It’s a simple one: to take the message that he has received and which presses on his heart, the good news of Jesus, and act as a community midwife. He serves others so that they may know for themselves what he knows and so be ready for God’s coming.

The emphasis on being ready for judgement is specially marked in this letter – it is Paul’s earliest, written only about 20 years after Christ’s ascension, and like all the early writing, shot through with apocalyptic expectation –‘the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’, it reminds its readers.

Paul is toiling to sculpt a small believing community into a holy people, ready to face Christ when he comes as judge, and he does that both by stepping aside and also by throwing himself into costly creative caring.

A visit last week to Alcoholics Anonymous has particularly helped me to understand what this means. (Perhaps I should clarify: I went on invitation, as an observer.) It’s easy to imagine what we are doing here as something clean and polished, a bright performance which rolls easily off our liturgical and musical tongue and leaves us unmoved on any level except the aesthetic. But at the AA meeting I was reminded again of just what frail creatures we all are, how we nurse secret fears and a sense of being crushed by life – of how bitter we taste to ourselves, as Hopkins puts it. Can anything be made out of this, our un-varnished stuff?

The meeting thought this was possible through sharing – through sharing the struggle together and sharing the truth of how to defeat despair and self-delusion and of how to let a Higher Power hold sway. Some rejected God – I assume because they saw God as cold and punitive – but all of them reached out in weakness for something more the ‘the selfyeast of spirit’, which ‘a dull dough sours’ – Hopkins’ way of describing that horrible sense that we’re shrinking and coming to naught.

To be an Advent people we have to struggle and each one of us toil and labour for each other, to build a holy and hopeful community. God’s word has been spoken in Jesus Christ and in the coming season it will be spoken afresh, again – a clarion call, rousing us to wake from sleep and torpor. Our music will change – there will be more discord as the unfamiliar breaks into our tidy patterns and processes. There will be the longing cries of ‘Lord, have mercy’ and ‘Our Lord, come’. And there will, I hope, be more silence, as we stand dumb and dumbfounded before the Almighty, stripped of our delusion.

If we run to Christmas heedlessly, we will hear of a birth, but it won’t be our own. We will see the shepherds, the ox and ass, the Holy Family gathering around Jesus, but we won’t have the meekness or lowliness to join them at the manger.

What we need now, before all these wonders come to pass, is the courage to be sculpted, rough-hewn though we are, by a word that belongs to neither you nor me. It’s a disturbing word of judgement, but not of punishment, and it says to us in our fear and weakness: be real! be honest! be prepared for a Higher Power to take, break and remake this community, to make us ready to meet him when he comes in glory; to make us ready to meet him when he comes like a thief in the night.