Stagger onward rejoicing

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The Four Last Things: Hell (a sermon by the Rev. Jessica Martin)

3rd Sunday of Advent, 16th December 2018

Old Testament: Zephaniah 3.14-20

New Testament: Phil.4.4-7

Gospel: Luke 3.7-18

The Lord is near. [Phil.4]

And the crowds asked [John]…’What then should we do?’ [Luke 3]

Today is a day for joy. Its traditional name is ‘Gaudete Sunday’, which you could translate as ‘Rejoice Sunday’. It gets its name from the first line of the New Testament reading: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say ‘Rejoice!’’ That is Paul’s instruction to the people of Philippi; that is what he enjoins them to do in every waking moment. Rejoice! In the watching and waiting of Advent, today points urgently towards the joy which comes towards us. ‘The Lord is near’. He is close now. Before long he will be with us, in our company; before long we will know, just as we are fully known, face to face with our redeemer and judge, Jesus Christ. Rejoice!

Oh, but hang on a moment, you’re thinking. Isn’t today the day we get some preaching about hell? Don’t duck out of it; we hardly ever get any preaching about hell these days, and we were quite curious about what you felt able to say. Is it real; is it not real? Is anyone bound for it, or are we all redeemed whatever we do, think, feel or say? Have we any time or place for hell in our polite, restrained and studiedly incurious Church of England? And what has hell to do with rejoicing?

When I was a very small child, I was walking with my mother by the sea, and I asked her whether hell was real. It was a cold, grey day: we were on a pier somewhere, sharing a paper cone full of tiny shrimps, which tasted surprising; delicious. She paused a long time, and then said, cautiously, ‘Some people say that the hells we experience happen before we die’. She didn’t say anything else. But I thought about that for a long time, I am still thinking about it half a century later, because… it turned things upside down, somehow, if this world was the world with the real horrors in it; and the world to come – whatever else it might contain – was to be a place mercifully free of man’s inhumanity to man.

Put aside the pictures in your mind of the medieval place of punishment; the strange, toothy stick-insect torturers of Hieronymus Bosch, the half-comic prancing devils with their pitchforks, and the patient, agonised, mutilated bodies of the lost. These are human nightmares: they imagine the ways in which God might be cruel in a peculiarly human way. It is true that the ingenuity and passion we expend upon hurting each other participate in the nature of hell. Each time we see another person as less than fully human – a thing to be used or discarded – we draw nearer to its gates. Yet it is not true that ‘hell is other people’. Hell is where we are when other people vanish from our affections, hell is not a hot place but the place where love grows cold; hell comes near when we lose our capacity for sympathetic imagination; when we look around the world we are in and see nothing but endless reflections of our own hungry, lonely selves.

Last week Canon Johnson, pondering the nature of God’s judgement, talked about the experience of being brought up into the light, the place where the secrets of all hearts are revealed. I want to think about that. About what it might be if every part of you were discovered, shone upon: the secrets, the forgotten things, shames and struggles and failed attempts at goodness; resentments and hatreds and griefs; pride and contempt; cruelties of thought, hidden actions, furtive transgressions; and those stark moments of self-knowledge which are too hard to bear and have to be shoved under a muffling cushion of distractions, busy-ness, business, discontent, wandering, or sleepiness. There it sits, this jumble of half-remembered nastiness and misery, telling you at intervals: no one knows how unpleasant you really are; no one’s love could survive what you know of yourself; trust nobody.

But in the steady, bright gaze of this light, the whole lot comes out, tumbling out any old how, tawdry and battered and small. And you are still loved.

And you look at it, and it’s a painful kind of relief, sharp and searing, like grief or the way it feels to sob and sob and let it all go, the way it feels to stop maintaining it all day after day after day, and you think, ‘What now?’’

‘What then shall we do?’

Because you’ve been carrying hell, and it was a dreadful thing, and now it’s all over the floor.

And this is when the Lord does something unbearable. He hands it back to you. He gives you a choice.

He says, ‘What shall I do?

‘I won’t take it away if you want to keep it. It can go as soon and as fast as you choose, washed away in the deep waters of baptism, dissolved by innocent blood, broken like a dying body. But if you are attached to it, if you can’t find it in yourself to give it away, it’s still yours. This is judgement; that you have to be ready to give yourself away, even the bits you clung to as being absolutely your own, the nasty bits you didn’t ever have to or want to share. Mercy is on the other side of your pride, your self-respect, your contempt, your greed, your familiarity with your own sins, those sins which know you better than anyone in the whole waking world. Are you ready to give yourself away like that?’

And you say, ‘What do you mean by giving myself away?’

And he says, ‘By being ready to be as small as everyone else. As small as the person you despise most, the person you think barely is a person. By learning to love in places where you have so far barely managed even to take notice. By giving up being afraid that people will find you out. By looking outwards, and discovering what you are being asked to give by discovering what someone else might need.’

And at that point, you really can choose. God never rushes anyone. You can keep your hell, and bolt yourself into it; but the bolts are on the inside. Right up to the last moment of choice, conscious or unconscious, the Lord is near, the one who turns the shadow of death into the morning, his hands ready to take the bundle of nastiness from you and leave you light and clear, winged, transparent, emptied; yet still held and filled, solid and real, rejoicing and strong.

Freedom is always at your right hand, every day. Rejoice! The Lord is near. He is coming, he is close. He will make your heart free. The choice is yours. It is always yours. If what you want is hell, you will not be denied it. After all, you made it yourself. But the light is always waiting beside you, just in case you are ready to turn, and to be rescued, and to consent not just to know, but to be fully known.


“The Lord is with you”

Sermon by the Rev. Jessica Martin
Ely Cathedral, Advent 4 (24th December 2017)

Old Testament: 2 Sam. 7.1-11, 16

New Testament: Rom.16.25-27

Gospel: Luke 1.16-38

‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’

‘The Lord is with you’.  Gabriel’s greeting blazes into the life of time and hangs between him and the girl to whom he is speaking.  It is not a promise.  Promises are about the future.  This is now.

The angel who came to Abraham, back near the beginning of God’s story with his people – he uttered a promise. That angel said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son’.  Sarah was not in the room – not standing before the angel but listening from behind the wall of a tent, and she heard his prophecy with the kind of despair which makes people laugh – you will know that rejecting laugh that wards away sorrow, and keeps you safe from pain? – that was Sarah’s response to God’s promise. And the angel heard the despair, and overturned it, saying, ‘Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?’  And in due season she had a son.

But this angel, Gabriel, the messenger of God, speaks no promise. There is no narrative trajectory forward; no future fulfilment.  Although Mary converses with him, and although her obedience to the way of God is discovered through what she says, the pinpoint of the present moment seems to spread out over the whole encounter. So that it becomes hard for us, hearing what happened, to say when the moment wasthat God entangled himself into the life of her flesh and became a shining particle of the world he himself had made.  Does Gabriel’s greeting itself bring the life of God into her?  ‘The Lord is with you’.  God has spoken those words across the centuries, the millennia before this moment: ‘I AM with you’ he says to Moses at the burning bush; he speaks his presence through the prophets innumerable times; he affirms it in song and story, the great covenant assurance which yearns for our answering embrace, and which so quickly finds us slipping out from under the everlasting arms and heading perversely into the darkness.

But there is no yearning here.  This is a piece of the everlasting joy which Gabriel speaks – not words, but an act which brings the Word that makes all into the little room in which they stand, and fills it with himself.

So Mary’s question asks only to understand what is already with them, already happening.  ‘She pondered what sort of greeting this  might be’, writes Luke.  But the gift is already given, the favour already granted .  ‘The Lord is with you’.

It is always possible to draw back from the presence of God.  He will never overwhelm. The brightness of his presence is always mercifully shadowed by cloud, and the questions he asks can always meet with refusal.  But in this encounter the only mismatch is in understanding, in the faltering of the intellect before the impossible actions of God.  ‘How can this be?’  asks Mary.  The answer is the same answer as for Sarah: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God’. The difference in the two meetings is not a difference in God, but in the varying kinds of human response he met with – the one almost beyond hope, and the other illuminated with hope’s promise and open to the fulfilment which comes to her in Gabriel’s words.

And, like Sarah, with the joy comes pain – but the completeness of Mary’s embrace accepts the pain with the joy, and rejects nothing of what God brings. She will neither laugh nor turn away, but ponder all that comes to her without defence.

Gabriel goes on to speak to Mary of what shall be.  ‘The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’. Even then she could, as anyone could, say ‘not me’.  But she would have to push away the delight of what has already been in the nature of God’s greeting.  In the actions of love it is very hard to say when fulfilment comes; it is there as much in the moment of understanding, the moment when you know that love speaks in the other’s presence, as ever it can be in the embraces which will follow.  And this is a love affair, where God will dare his own diminishment into absolute weakness, and all for love. The immensity of his intention floods his encounter with Mary, and she allows herself to be soaked in its life. It is as if she knows herself fully for the first time, just as in every love affair the heart of it is the sense of being fully known.

‘The Lord is with you’, says Gabriel. Not ‘the Lord be with you’ but ‘the Lord is with you.’  And, hearing that, she knows what to say. ‘Here am I’.  Here am I, the person who carries the Lord, because the Lord is with me.  And the I that I am shines with his presence because he spoke himself into my frail and ordinary life, until it shone with his light and I saw who I was transformed by it.  ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.’

And the word itself was already spoken at the very beginning. ‘The Lord is with you’.

The Lord is with us.  His promise is already here and we stand on the edge of Christmas contemplating the birth of God’s helplessness, the solid truth of his speechless presence in our arms.  We stand before an everlasting joy, until it spills into our own present, into this now of the end of 2017, reverberating there as it reverberates across all the whole of time, the everlasting in a little room, love who hurries towards us, love who is at the door, love who is already here.

For nothing is impossible with God.