|Published by Steven Rawlings on Tue, 5 Dec 2017 18:38|
Isaiah 64.1-9. Mark 13.24-37
It’s good to be back and lovely to see you all again. While I was away I was unable to kick one bad habit: reading the Guardian and the Washington Post. Waking up every morning - which was the middle of the night for you - and seeing what latest horrors had emerged. Not so much famine, flood and earthquake, thank God - although there were some frightening images of the volcano on Bali - more the degradation of politics and the abuse of power. The spectre of tyranny stalking the globe.
There is nothing new under the sun. We have two readings today, both quite bleak. Both written in times when it seemed that things were going very, very badly wrong - one from Isaiah and one from Mark. Both written for audiences who were asking - what on earth is happening? Why is this happening to us?
But I didn’t only read the Guardian. I spent a lot of time writing and a lot of time drawing; and I read the Gospel of Mark, slowly and carefully - which was a revelation - and no doubt I’ll speak more about that in due course;
And I went to the rainforest as much as possible - five times, in fact. And I fell in love with the jungle…. There is something remarkable about being out in the forest at dawn, by the sea, with the cool of the morning air… a troupe of proboscis monkeys, a troupe of long-tailed macaque monkeys, and an uncountable number of birds… Staying awake all night because of the noise of the rain forest, the hoots, the screeches, the whirrs, the whistles. Spiders as big as plates. The sound of a million bats roosting, the clicking of swifltets. Leeches on my legs, blood everywhere. The sound of barking deer in the distance, hornbills and cicadas.
It was hard work, the trekking, as Shanon will attest to. But worth it: worth it not least because it takes you literally into another place … where humans are virtually irrelevant; the forest is mostly untouched by evidence of humanity - tribespeople have passed through it over centuries but hardly left their mark. It’s incandescently beautiful and extraordinary.
But it also puts humanity in its place. At one point, deep in the forest and early in the morning, I thought - well, really, it doesn’t matter if humans wipe themselves out. The world will continue - and if it’s a race between the forest and humanity, as it seems to be when you drive through mile after mile of destroyed forest and palm oil plantations - sometimes I think I’d choose the forest.
It also gives you a real sense of the divine; it makes the world a bigger place. And a better one, in all sorts of ways. It gives you sense of the whole of creation struggling for life, using every corner, every square inch, in some way to enable life. And also the endless cycle of death, decay and rebirth which is the thing which enables the rainforest to survive; death and life are symbiotic.
Today we celebrate the beginning of Advent - the time of preparation, the time of repentance. We remember the prophets, we remember John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness; repent, and be baptized, for the kingdom of God has come near!
I reflected a lot while I was away - 6 weeks alone gives you much time to think. It was, as I say, party a retreat – in a sense it was a wilderness experience - although staying in the city of Kuching didn’t feel very much like a wilderness!
I didn’t come up with anything startling or new; but there was one scriptural verse which found its way into my mind and stayed there; what does the Lord require of you? Only this: to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
What does the Lord require of you? Only this: to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. It’s a verse from the book of the Prophet Micah- chapter 6, verse 8 - and I think we could do worse than adopt it as our core verse for this Advent – perhaps a verse for you to carry through the weeks. What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
Let’s think about those three things – justice, mercy and humility.
Justice, we are familiar with, here, I think. Justice is about challenging anything which stops people being the best people they were created to be. It means challenging the things which get in the way of our shared humanity. Here at St John’s we work hard to live the Kingdom – to be a place where justice is marked and we try to create a better world. Planting trees for Advent. Robes project sleepout. Rainbow Sunday.
Mercy, I think, is a concept that we think less about. But it’s absolutely crucial. The Hebrew word, he’sed, has wider implications than our word Mercy. It has undertones of love, forgiveness, generosity, openness; it’s a concept right at the heart of the notion of the goodness of God. It’s profoundly related to the idea of repentance. I want to remember the call to repentance. Turning to a new life. Metanoia.
The turning around. The seeking of forgiveness. Something about being in the forest made me reflect hard on the nature and meaning of forgiveness. Maybe my smallness. Maybe the time. But I had a real sense of being forgiven, while I was away, for many things which I hadn’t really believed I was forgiven for. It felt as though this was a chance to make a fresh start; a new beginning for Advent. I do encourage you to reflect on whether you really have an idea of mercy, of forgiveness in your own life.
And finally humility – walking humbly with our God. Humility means what? Well, that takes me into another of the profound learnings of my sabbatical. For I discovered, to my amazement, that I can draw a bit! The way I discovered that was using a book – Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – which enables the learner to begin to look at things using the right rather than the left side of the brain. As you probably know, the theory is that the two sides of the brain work differently – the left side is more logical, procedural, rule-based and the right side is more intuitive, more creative, more instinctive. That may or may not be a myth but it’s certainly helpful as an idea – it enabled me to begin to look at things, and people, differently and to draw them – for you have to draw what you see, not what you think you see. Here, in the spirit of Show and Tell, are a few of the pictures I produced, which I’m pleased with as six weeks ago I couldn’t draw at all!
What does that have to do with humility and walking alongside God?
I think humility means looking at the world around us, and the people around us, as much as possible as the people that they are rather than the people our power-hungry brains think they are: and moving away from our procedures and our rules and our survival mechanisms towards presenting ourselves as we are, too. Allowing both the intuitive and the logical parts of us to flourish, so that we can, under the context of he’sed, of mercy, be the best people that we were created to be.
Being human should be about being humble. And being humble means saying, quite simply, I can’t do this alone. Our intuition should be telling us that we need one another; I am, because you are, because God is. We learn from one another; I couldn’t have learnt to draw without that book; but we can’t learn unless we acknowledge our need to learn, to grow, to be enriched.
So how do we do that? Rule of life? Retreat? I encourage you to come on the Parish Retreat on Saturday 13th January to help you reflect on these questions.
Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. God is love and those who live in love live in God.
So to return to where I started: human depravity. Politics and power.
Advent is about the hope of transformation. I am fortunate enough to have spent two months being able to reflect on what that transformation might mean – but you don’t have to go to Borneo to do that. You can do that here in chilly damp London. Let both sides of your brain flourish; be thoughtful; be intuitive; be creative. Be yourself. Be the best you you can be, this Advent.
What does the Lord require of you? Only this – to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.