Sermon for Evensong
Trinity Sunday 2019
The Mystery of our faith
As the Modern age has progressed one can to a certain extent map a reduction in the explicit consciousness of God in our human affairs. Charles Taylor in his magisterial work ‘A Secular Age’ asks the question “Why, was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in say, 1500 in our western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” [check quote]
In our consciousness it is probably very fair to say that Man has grown larger and God smaller. For those who follow Jesus, it is becoming almost an embarrassment to speak of The Fear of the Lord. The sense that God is beyond our capacity, in greatness and splendour . . . has receded. We have perhaps reduced God to our own image, in our consciousness – perhaps this was why Freud was so quick to assume that god was merely some ego projection, for the God he encountered in Modern Christians was so human sized – as the human grew . . . so we are told we live in ‘the age of the Anthropocene. The Human stamp is stamped everywhere – human consciousness invades every moment of our day . . .
I speak of consciousness for in part Taylor’s question is a question not so much of belief, but of how we are aware of ourselves and the world around us. We live with forms of certainty – granted in small part by science and technology, couples with what we call ‘the power of human reason’, yet, it seems we are rapidly accelerating into a world where we realise how little we know.
As the Creation falls apart around us – I suspect we are becoming more and more conscious of a reality far greater than we had been led to believe in. That the human brain and intellect so powerfully advertised as of a complexity and power far far beyond that of super computers – turns out on the grand scale of things to be not much more advanced or indeed useful than an abacus in terms of its ability to discern the Truth of Existence.
Of course this huge and I suggest anxiety driven emphasis on Reason etc. has had a powerful impact on our faith where all too many either abandon faith or retreat to the ‘certainties’ of ‘what the bible says’. Biblical fundamentalists are the mirror image of the Dawkins of this world – being imbued with the same ratioreductionist [un]conscious approach to faith. We can see everything – nothing is hidden from our unseeing eye – perhaps we have in our own imagining become like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings?
This anxiety driven certainty creates a consciousness which has little time for mystery – perhaps this is why we are so obsessed with Safety – a flight from our inability to rationally calculate everything that might conceivably happen in a world which something somewhere suggests to us might Not be as it seems. If we increasingly limit the possibilities open to us, through for example highly developed H&S policies, then we might conceivably keep Reality from breaking in.
So too mystery and faith. My training incumbent, a thoughtful evangelical has an almost visceral response to the word ‘mystery’ and would endlessly quote Colossians 1:25-27 “I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” There! He would say “the mystery is revealed -there is no mystery . . . however he didn’t than qualify it with other words of St Paul, namely “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” And of course most of Reality is in truth mysterious
Well today is of course one of the days of great mystery in the church calendar – Trinity Sunday – the day when many right thinking, or perhaps rationalist clergy decided to take a holiday and allow someone else to have the benefit of their pulpit! God as Three in One. As the cover of our font reminds us The Father is not the Son is not the Spirit – yet the Father and the Son and the Spirit are One God . . .
And no doubt here and there people are being subjected to images of God as a clover leaf etc. Trying to make it visible . . .
And of course the hyper rational age loves the visible – where mystery is done away with. We live in the age of the image – or as the French philosopher Guy Debord calls ‘the society of the spectacle’ I’m not here going to engage with Debord’s thesis but he certainly points us towards a society where our gaze is captivated by that which we see on a screen – and of course if we see it, it must be The Truth. No mystery in what we see is there, after all?
Most tragically perhaps we might apprehend this in the deluge of pornography which is freely available. The cultural critic Naomi Wolf writes on on how this deluge has changed people. On the one hand she speaks with evident envy of a female friend who converted to Orthodox Judaism, and went about with a headscarf. When asked by Wolf why she did this, she responded, ‘my hair is for my husband’. Wolf noted a new incredible erotic charge and energy about her friend, where the sexual had become ‘mysterious’ shrouded, hidden, and thus more vividly alive – Real perhaps?
Her musings closed with a young man who was speaking about the effects of porn on himself and his friends When asked by Wolf about the mystery of sex, responded thus “Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
It is perhaps here that we see the root of the familiarity of the erotic with the deeply Spiritual. Both engage us in a deeper knowing. A knowing which cannot be rationalised, a knowing which is beyond Reason, yet somehow far more sure. A knowing perhaps which is truly Personal and hoas to do with the depths of our hearts and our Loves.
Jesus says – ‘now this is eternal life, that they might Know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ Knowledge of The Mystery takes us into the place of the powerfully personal – into the very depth of our being.
Jesus tells us ‘when you pray, go into your inner room and close the door. There, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your father who sees in secret will reward you’ Here of course the contrast is wth those for whom – its all out there! Those who stand on street corners to pray, that they might be seen by men
And so we come to our two texts for this evening – both of which take us beyond the place of the simply rational – although we must apply our minds, if only to draw us into the mystery of our faith.
Moses alone in the desert – the place of the encounter with the depths of who you are – reminiscent of the old teaching of the church fathers, ‘stay in your cell and it will teach you anything’ It is when we close our eyes to the easy lies of the visual – when the world around us is devoid of fascination, that the vast interior spaces open up. So the wilderness – the desert.
’Nothing to see here’ yet here Moses encounters the bush ablaze yet not burning – and draws aside – it is not a thing of direct vision. It is off to one side, pretty much as this Life which comes to us from God does not apprehend us in the three dimensions with which we are so familiar but comes at us if you like perpendicular to time and space
Who are you he asks? And the answer ‘I Am what I am, I will be what I will be’ An answer that is no answer at all . . . Certainly an answer which places us in a position where we cannot use God for our own purposes, for He does not allow us to touch Him, to lay hold on Him – to Close the story so that we can simply move on – rather we are called to move towards, deeper into the unseen, yet ever near.
And again – Jesus words leave Nicodemus drowning in incomprehension – You must be born again . . .what does this mean? Of course a faith which seeks to abandon mystery must make of this a simple formula. Repent of your sins, believe in Jesus and you will be born again – but with Nicodemus we MUST ask – but what does this mean? To repent is to reorient the eye of the heart . . . it is to turn our forgotten organ of perception, something perhaps akin to our intuition towards God, to Light, to fire, to a burning bush. It is to behold!
As I have been at pains to point out over the years, our English language often does not serve us well, in this case particularly with respect to Seeing. In Greek we have two verbs, one we might say is to see with the eye, as I see you and you I. Yet that that sense is one of the most readily deceived.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate
In our looking, we miss the Big picture -the relatedness of the apple to the provision and command of God.
The second verb is translated in older translations, Behold. This is the verb Jesus uses when he speaks with Nicodemus. Unless a man is born again he shall not Behold the Kingdom of God. Behold the Lamb of God says John the Baptist – when to the eye, all there is is a wandering dusty rabbi from Nazareth of all places! Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the world . . . surely in part our loss of God consciousness is our reduction of the second person of the Trinity to simply that Nazarene. The divinity of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, is largely ignored – and with it tragedy of tragedies, our own destiny shrinks
What is it to be ‘born again’? Perhaps it is to become the vessel of that uncreated Light – Wisdom – over which we have no hold – Uncreated Light . . .
One of the old fathers of the desert asked his disciples – what does the following verse mean? One after another each gave his answer – until he came to the last disciple, who answered ‘I do not know’. The Abba said ‘you have answered truthfully’
Such hiddenness, such uncertainty, such mystery is so frustrating to we Moderns, but if we are to find our way back, perhaps it is the place to start
How is God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I do not know