Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday before Lent (24 February 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Second Sunday before Lent (24 February 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean reflects on how we might respond with Christian faith in our anxious and unsettling times.

Come farther up and farther in.

These are anxious and unsettling times, not only in our domestic politics in Britain but also in many other places around the world. And how are we feeling about it? And how might we as Christians respond?

A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting of twelve people. Half of us were senior leaders at a major accountancy firm, and the rest of us were from business, education, politics, medicine – and me from the Church. I’ve been to a number of these, and it’s always interesting, to hear what people’s concerns are from different perspectives.

What struck me most this time was how immediate and small-scale, on the whole, those concerns were. A bit about Brexit, yes; concerns about education and training, yes; wanting better engagement between London and the rest of the country, yes. But not a long horizon: a few years and a new government ahead, maybe.

I could see their eyebrows raising when I said that what had been concerning me lately was the question of what we at St Paul’s will need to do when in a hundred years’ time Westminster Abbey and Southwark Cathedral are under water and the Thames is lapping halfway up Ludgate Hill. We’re planning here for 50 years ahead at least, and concern for the environment and drastic change has to be part of that.

It’s all about vision – about where you look, and what you look for. Do we look out for our own interests, our immediate concerns? Do we exult in our successes and get lost in our worries? Or can we bear to look up from ourselves and our own world, up beyond the immediate, past our own life – and death – to what lies beyond, for our grandchildren’s generation and our own eternal life?

Come farther up and farther in.

The first reading we had this morning, chapter 4 of the book of Revelation, is a call to come farther up and see more clearly as God sees.

‘I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the voice said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ And so the writer, the prophet, the visionary, sees what lies beyond, a vision of God in heavenly worship, and the affirmation that God is the God of all that is.

‘You are worthy, our Lord and God… for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’

This isn’t a statement about futurology. It’s not an encoded secret message about Brexit or the end of the world. It’s the affirmation that, whatever we look at, and whatever we look for, in the end it is only in God that we will find a true vision for our lives and a light to live by in our uncertain world.

If you are a Christian, you’re part of a Church which has been around for nearly 2000 years, which has seen joy and sorrow, death and disaster, many times; has witnessed the ruin of empires and the destruction of so much that was good, and yet has kept alight the faith and vision that God in Jesus Christ will renew creation and humankind, and God will be all in all.

If you seek a meaning for your life, a vision for us all; if you have a longing that the world could be made new and that life is more than this: then enter into this vision!

‘I looked, and there in heaven a door – stood – open!’ Here in worship and prayer, here together with others, in the midst of uncertainty and opportunity, affirming our faith in what lies beyond – come farther up, draw close to God. 

Come farther up, come farther in.

The source of our shared vision is in Jesus Christ. The Jesus who, as Luke tells in our gospel reading, stayed asleep during a life-threatening storm while the disciples around him were panicking. The punchline for Luke is the question about who Jesus is in the light of his command over creation: ‘Who then is this?’ For the disciples know as well as the writer of Revelation does, that it is God who commands the winds and the waters. 

But there’s something even more fundamental here. The obvious miracle is that the storm stops. ‘There was a calm’, says Luke. And that is what’s on the outside; a calm lake is what the disciples see. But the calm on the outside is a pale reflection of the calm within Jesus.

It would be unlikely that anyone could sleep through a howling gale and panicking crew with water surging into the boat. But Jesus’ faith in God his Father, his inner stillness, his contagious calm, is far greater than the disturbance of the world around him. Nothing that the violence of nature or of humanity can throw at Jesus is big enough to take away the stillness of resting in the love and will of God – a stillness which touches and changes the world around him – and us.

Come farther in.

A week ago I was standing over there after leading the morning Eucharist, and a lady came up to me who I’ve seen sitting early in the morning here in St Paul’s, who sometimes joins us for the Eucharist, and had done that day. And we spoke together about silence and prayer and what in Christian tradition is called contemplation: about the experience of meeting God beyond words, in inner stillness. 

There’s plenty around these days about mindfulness and meditation, focused on stilling the body and the mind. And that’s very useful, as far as it goes. 

But the point of Christian prayer isn’t to relax or to empty yourself and make yourself feel better. Christian contemplation looks beyond and within yourself, to Jesus Christ who we have invited into our hearts and who lives in us. Contemplation means ‘to gaze upon’; and faced by the stresses of the world around, we’re encouraged, not to withdraw into ourselves, but to look towards God, who is the source of our life, like a spring of water welling up within.

Contemplation means waiting, in stillness, not knowing what will happen, if anything – only that we give our time and our attention to God who dwells in us, and find within a presence which is also an absence, the work of God inside us which enables us to be rooted against the storms that rage around us: the stillness that dwelt in the heart of Jesus. 

As RS Thomas that great poet of Christian silence wrote: 

The silence in the mind
is when we live best, within
listening distance of the silence 
we call God. This is the deep
calling to deep of the psalm-
writer, the bottomless ocean
we launch the armada of
our thoughts on, never arriving…. 

I started with the question of how we might respond with Christian faith in our anxious and unsettling times. 

And the answer is to draw close to God – not in order to avoid the pains of the world, but to be able to bear them and bring them into the kingdom of God.

Come farther up and farther in.

A few days ago I went to see a close friend of mine who’s waiting to hear whether his cancer treatment has been successful. He has a 50% chance of surviving: so he waits between life and death, to hear the consultant next month deliver his verdict. He talked about what he might still do as a servant of Jesus Christ if he’s given more time. 

And then we spoke of how we learn as we grow older, to move our focus from changing the world to being changed ourselves, to move from doing to being; and finally to offer ourselves to God, as we move from being to not-being, but still held in the love of God – the love which is waiting in all our hearts to be found beyond any and every storm, in the silence with which creation began and with which it will end.

The last of CS Lewis’s Narnia books pictures the end for which the world is made, as humans and animals and all that’s good in creation looking up and going through that door into heaven, following the call to enter into God’s vision for us, and God’s presence within us:

Come, farther up, come farther in.