Preacher Revd Neil Summers
In last week’s sermon, we considered November as the month of remembering. That, of course, is made very specific today. ‘Remember’ is one of those many-layered English words, with a meaning that can range from having a vague recollection of something, right through to the haunting quality of the murdered King of Denmark’s ghostly words to his son, ‘Hamlet, remember me’. Remembering is an acknowledgement of distance, and distance can often help us to see things in perspective, emotionally and historically. Our ability to look back at wartime leaders helps us see them as human beings with awesome and frequently horrendous responsibilities – some of which, frankly, we have to say, they got wrong. Bear in mind that Dresden Cathedral was reopened only twelve years ago, sixty years after Allied bombs destroyed the 18th-century church and its famed bell-shaped dome during World War II. In more recent years, as we know, politicians have been strongly criticised for decisions which have led to some quite disastrous consequences. Sadly, such reflection on experience doesn’t always seem to teach us much, for we go on hearing phrases like ‘fighting for peace’, and ‘waging war against terrorism’, strategies that resort to violence in the name of non-violence, which, while understandable, can have a terribly hollow ring.
The early Christians believed that there would be a period of wars, earthquakes, famines, and bloody persecution, and that these would be encouraging signs of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth – a time when faith would be tested, to be sure, but a time which would prove to be the birth pangs of the dawning of a new age of joy and victory. Well, that’s not how it worked out. Ironically, the Christian church – and religions more broadly – have often been close to the heart of ongoing conflict and bloodshed, ensuring that’s not how it worked out. We cannot just treat the continuing turmoil of life as some sort of temporary blip by constantly re-scheduling it into an unknown future, even as we look towards the fulfilment of the Kingdom Jesus spoke about. Human suffering, pain and violence are not like the dentist’s drill – a few more moments and the agony will stop. It doesn’t, as events of the past century have proved time and time again, whether at Passchendaele, in Auschwitz, Vietnam, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq or Syria, and so it goes on… And, tragically, there isn’t a great deal of evidence to suggest that things are going to change for the better any time soon.
But does all that mean those first Christians were also wrong to believe that God would ultimately be victorious? And living in our kind of world, as Advent approaches, is there any way we can even begin to talk meaningfully of God as King, or Jesus as Saviour? Well, perhaps there is something of a clue in this word ‘remember’. ‘Re-member’ is, in English at least, the opposite of ‘dis-member’. Paradoxically, the Christian contention is that the brokenness, the dismemberment of Jesus on the cross, is the mysterious means by which we, in our brokenness, can be made whole.
The extraordinary Christian claim is that the world is healed, not by the strategies of generals and politicians, but by the self-giving love of God. And it is only that unique and profoundly Christian paradox that enables us to talk about the victory of God – which is like no other kind of victory. The triumph of the cross that Christians talk and sing about is not about happy endings; it’s not about clouds rolling away; it’s not about the pain stopping. It is an altogether deeper order of experience – the freedom that comes from the surrender of the will in the garden of Gethsemane; it is the eternal Easter hope that is only to be found in the deep and continuing darkness of Good Friday.
It is not reasonable to hope that God will spare us from the painful realities of life. If it can happen at all, it can happen just as much to us as to the next person. And it happened to God, in Jesus. People who think that being a Christian makes life a bed of roses have clearly never read the Gospels properly, because God’s way of defeating death is to enter its darkness. Our way of faithfulness will be a similarly messy engagement with the often unsatisfactory nature of living in this world, with its compromises and deals and moral uncertainties; but in the belief that God travels the road with us. Appealing though they sounds, what one of our hymns calls ‘ease or still waters or green pastures’, certainly don’t reflect the often hard realities of human life in the world. The same hymn suggests we are to tread ‘the steep and rugged pathway rejoicingly’, working in cooperation with the divine will as God lovingly, painfully, weaves so many broken threads and ragged edges back into the tapestry of creation. And that restoration can only happen through us, through human beings.
Let our remembering be the means by which the miracle of God’s love may take root in our lives, and then go on to make an impact on the world we inhabit. Let our prayer be that God will re-member us, enable us to be put back together, restore us to our full human potential, and bring to fruition that reconciliation, peace and wholeness which the world, by itself, does not seem able to give. In Christian terms, this is what lies at the heart of the Incarnation, the birth of a child, which we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time, the one who will bring the divine life, the life of God, into the very heart of our humanity – and transform it.