Preacher Revd Neil Summers
If you like fairy tales, romance and magic, the chances are you would enjoy a musical by my favourite modern-day composer, Stephen Sondheim. ‘Into the Woods’ is based on a very clever interweaving of several stories – Jack and the Beanstalk, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella – those characters who reappear each Christmastime as the pantomime season gets under way. (A film version was made 2-3 years ago, with Meryl Streep playing the leading role of the Witch). Sondheim’s story begins with all the major characters desiring something. In order to find it, they all have to go on a perilous journey into the woods, encountering numerous obstacles, pitfalls and setbacks along the way. To cut a long story short, by the end of the first act, they have all basically achieved what they desired. It seems like a case of ‘happy ever after’ and, unless you’ve seen the show before or looked closely at your programme, you might assume the show has finished. After all, isn’t that how all good stories should end? But there is a second act, during which the whole thing starts to unravel. The characters, having got what they wanted, go after yet more, and something of the magic is lost as reality sets in – human greed, dissatisfaction, jealousy and the blaming of other people for your own weaknesses and failings.
If you read the NT carefully, you discover a struggle going on between two responses to what might be termed ‘the human tragedy’. By the human tragedy I mean human wilfulness and selfishness, sin or disobedience as some would call it, the endless capacity we have for damaging one another, and ourselves. Human oppression, cruelty and injustice is the oldest story in the book – yes, even in the Bible itself – and there seem to be two responses to it. We might describe the first response as the longing for magical rescue. The hope is that there will be a supernatural breaking into history and God will sort it all out for us. As God says to Jeremiah in our reading today: ‘I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’. I guess that type of thinking is in all of us some of the time. When faced with some great calamity or dilemma, or diagnosed with a debilitating or life-threatening condition, we may well resort to magical rescue thinking as we pray and hope for some great intervention from ‘out there’. ‘It’s got to be out there, somewhere, we hope, and we try to compel it to come and save us from the reality, do the magic, get us out of this mess. History is filled with this longing for a figure who will rescue us. There’s a lot of that kind of thinking in the OT, particularly in the prophets, and in the NT. We find Jesus himself talking about it in this morning’s gospel, using striking images about the signs that will accompany the coming age, when the Son of Man will be seen in a cloud, with power and great glory.
But I think it was the second response which finally seemed to capture his imagination, and which directed his life, work and ministry. This was the response not of magical rescue, but of prophetic challenge and human action. It involves commitment to the God who is already among us, and it calls us to face up to the reality that confronts us, not to seek to deny it or flee from it. Isn’t this part of what we mean when we say that the Word was made flesh, and that Immanuel is God with us?
God is not merely out there, to be turned to for miraculous rescue from our history. God instead is to be found in the midst of history itself, in the messy events that characterise our lives and through which we must patiently – and, yes, sometimes painfully – find our way. An interesting example of the way Jesus applied his message of prophetic action to the social situation that confronted him is provided by his relationship with the ordinary people – peasants, many of them – among whom he worked. Their situation was in many ways appalling, often taxed into destitution and slavery, also subject to the brutality of an alien authority. How they must have longed for magical intervention. Indeed, their spiritual worldview was based on this longing for supernatural rescue, and they expected it to happen imminently, which is why we find so many references in the NT to ‘the last days’. But Jesus makes it clear to them that the new kingdom is already among them – latent, hidden, maybe, but waiting to be uncovered and made visible. He calls them to responsibility and engagement in changing the world, and themselves, and to join with the God who is already gracefully present with us, seeking to establish his reign on earth.
Over the years, I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying Judaism and have valued many encounters with Jewish people, culture and traditions. It is clear to me that the variety of views and experiences in Judaism is very broad, just as there is much diversity within Christianity. One thing to mention here: there are many Jews who no longer look towards the appearance of a personal, human Messiah, but rather to a ‘messianic age’ in which all the great themes of Jewish tradition will be fulfilled – peace, justice, welcoming the stranger and the outcast, loving the enemy, and so on – themes which, for Christians, are seen as fulfilled in Jesus but which, 2000 years on, are still too often lamentably lacking in our world.
It can all too often sound unrealistic, a pious hope, for such a world to come about, and it won’t happen in a hurry. But the Word was made flesh, wasn’t he? And not just once and for all in history. The Word just keeps on coming at us, being made flesh – in every humanitarian act, every struggle for justice, every move towards peace and reconciliation, in the quality of all our relationships and our encounters with life’s conundrums and difficulties. No wonder we turn to the prophets for inspiration in Advent. These are precisely the values they tried to steer their listeners towards. These are the ways in which we prove that the Word is indeed among us. And we’ve got to make it happen, not wait for a magical rescue. It is only when the great themes of Advent take hold of us and of our world that the Incarnation we shall soon be celebrating can find its fullest expression and we stand a real chance of being ‘happy ever after’.
‘Be alert at all times’, says Jesus in today’s gospel. And, so, we watch and we wait in the darkness and silence of Advent, because we just don’t know how, when or where that Word made flesh might encounter or challenge us next. Whenever or wherever it happens, a response will be required. If, in a month or so’s time, we are tempted to say ‘Well, that’s Christmas over and done with for another year’, then somehow I think we will have probably missed the point.