Mark 1 1-8
The prophet, John the Baptist, says, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me: I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
The prophet turns up when the reality of God has somehow become lost or smothered, hidden under a great deal of stuff. For this sermon I’d like to consider some areas where the modern Church has mislaid its sense of God.
The reality of God. The most precious gift a church can give is a sense of God. By this I don’t mean an idea of God, a story about God, or a ritual about God. What lights up a person more than anything else is sensing, although the word is not quite right, a richness, a transcendence, a mystery, a depth which is utterly intimate and present and also beyond any final description or analysis: the groundless ground of God’s love. The practice of the presence of God. Perhaps the Genesis story, which we are studying for Advent, is telling us how all of us have fallen away from the sheer richness of God’s radical nearness to each of us. ‘Where are you?’ God asks of the man in the garden, and it could be a good question for many of our churches. ‘Where are you?’ Churches are very good at being busy and talkative and putting on loads of services (and all of that is a great thing) but all such busyness and talk and services and Bible study should be pointing to the central mystery at its heart: the reality and transcendence of God. Talk is cheap, in a sense, and so is ritual. But discovering the living God at the heart of it all is a prize beyond measure. The pearl of great price.
The Bible. In our Bible courses, and in conversations, I have had some searching conversations about how we are to read the Bible. Some, and this is true of a lot of people, have been challenged by the idea that the Bible uses myth and symbol to reveal truth. Is this part of the Bible history? Is this part of the Bible symbol? Is this part of the Bible myth? How are we to understand such questions and challenges? Again, a starting point might be: how is the Bible revealing to us the reality of God alive and present in our world now? In other words, as we read of, say, the man and the woman hiding from God’s presence in the garden, can we not wonder how we hide our own vulnerability, our humanity, from the divine? And what might it be like to come out from our hiding places and allow the divine to love us and know us truly, madly, deeply? The Bible lives when we treat it with mystical seriousness. It becomes vastly less important as to what genre is being used in the Bible, symbolical, poetical, historical, fantastical, when we put our relationship with the living God at the heart of the question we are asking. We live, sadly, in legalistic and literalist times, times when the Bible is sold, by snake-oil salespeople, as some sort of moralistic manifesto for a successful life, or as a pseudo-scientific document. We should be brave enough to reject such remarkable dreariness and re-encounter the Bible as a spiritual pathway taking us to a love that can never be killed by the letter, and can never be captured by a trite interpretation, whether liberal, conservative or in-between. God is a living mystery. The Bible is one way to draw closer to such living mystery. We need to learn to love breathing underwater when we dive into the mysterious, Biblical depths.
Prayer. When we come to prayer, we find ourselves back with the central prophetic complaint against Church. The Church finds it hard to share the living God. However, when we receive communion, we come and receive the living God. We do not receive a ritual or a symbol or an idea. We are certainly not participating in some kind of bonding social feel-good experience. We are participating in God’s life, in God’s heart. That is exactly what prayer is: a participation in the life of God in the depths of our being. But you would not necessarily know it from the Church of England. When I started out on my faith journey nobody talked to me about prayer. One very fine priest in many remarkable ways said that he simply prayed corporately with the rest of the church and that was the only prayer life he knew. He said it with a kind of common-sense, spade is a spade, I-don’t-take-kindly-to-any-mystical mumbo-jumbo which made something deep inside me feel like it had died.
Prayer as direct intimacy and encounter with God. Prayer as being drawn by God the lover of your soul. Prayer as depth contemplation. The spiritual treasures of the Church’s mystical life have not been shared by the modern Church and it is a direct cause of the growing atheism we find all around us. What I say here is not to criticise the ways of prayer we have grown familiar with, prayers of intercession say, they have their prized place in our corporate spiritual life. But that form of prayer is not the end of the story. It is not even, really, the beginning, of the story. When Christ said, the kingdom of God is within you, he meant it at the deepest, most profound, level of reality. It is a part of the Church’s mission to share and teach ways of prayer which help us to slowly realise that the Kingdom of God is indeed within us, and to learn to live out of such life-giving depth.
The prophetic voice is vital for us to re-connect to the depth and mystery of the Church’s calling: the knowing of the God of love and the sharing of such love. We have all grown tired of slogans, of Church being woke or anti-woke. But we won’t grow tired of learning to sense the living God within us, among us, we can’t ever grow tired of that ever-green mystery, we won’t grow tired of becoming, in the words of the second letter of Peter, ‘participants in the divine nature’ (1:4).