Sermon for 3rd Sunday before Advent
I’m a great lover of walking. Around here it’s a real pleasure to get to know the landscape, the hills, and the hidden alleys. At the moment we have days of this clear, golden autumnal light and as you walk you can notice how our surroundings, and the people we pass, are touched by this quality of light.
In today’s Gospel we have a sense of movement, of journey. Jesus says to the fishermen Simon and Andrew, ‘Follow me...’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.’ Following, walking with this inner sense of direction.
Walking through different landscapes. The landscape of the city, say. London. Tides of people. The city is so alive. Walking by the Thames, watching the boats pass. It’s wonderful to walk and simply notice what you see, different faces, different stories. In the Gospel Jesus is often found walking, then stopping and noticing people. Jesus stopped and gave people, and the natural world, his full, undivided attention. In today’s Gospel Jesus stops and gives these working fishermen his undivided attention and something changes and they follow him.
Following is an adventure. That word ‘adventure’ sounds a little wrong but I’m going to stick with it because adventure has this quality of excitement and risk to it. For the fishermen who were working that day, Jesus offered them this sense of expansion, of freedom. Simon and Andrew are found ‘casting a net into the lake’, while James and John are ‘mending the nets.’ And I think we could say we find these people caught, netted, stuck in their lives. These are not free people. But Jesus stops where they are and they sense this expansion of spirit which he offers, this freedom, this new delight in life, and they follow him.
We might feel caught in our own lives. Trapped a bit in nets of our own making. Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time on my computer. And quite a lot of the day involves sending emails. And after you send one email you find you’re sending another email and then another email and then you have a cup of coffee and you send another email. Perhaps sending emails is a bit like casting nets into water, day after day. And we’ll all have the things we have to keep doing. Appointments. Piles of paper or a full inbox. Bills. The nets tighten.
What was it like to meet Jesus? What is it like to meet Jesus? In today’s Gospel Jesus has said, ‘the kingdom of God has come near.’ Meeting Jesus was meeting somebody who was soaked in the presence of God, soaked in the reality of God. Here you are in your normal, everyday lives, mending nets, sending emails, and here is this reality of God, this presence of God, this love of God, not theoretical but here and now and real. Come and follow me. Yes.
Following. A spiritual adventure. As you follow Jesus the world may appear in a different light. You can see people differently. You can see the natural world differently. Remember that autumnal light I mentioned. Touching things with a new clarity and beauty.
There is this book. It’s called The Way of a Pilgrim. It’s a story about following Jesus. There is this pilgrim and he wants to understand what it means to ‘pray without ceasing’, which is a quote from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. This Russian pilgrim is taught a form of prayer called The Jesus Prayer. There are many versions of this prayer. One of the versions of this prayer is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ The pilgrim then sets off, walking across the vasts of Russia, silently saying the Jesus Prayer. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ At first this prayer is just like a form of words to the pilgrim, but he keeps working with this prayer, and as he walks, and as he rests, he silently, meditatively says this prayer. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.’
Let’s go back to this sense of following as spiritual adventure. The moment you get this taste for the reality of God, the joy of God, you’re on the journey. Airports. Train stations. Bus terminals. Hospitals. If you sense the reality of Christ at work in you, and the world around you, these are all divine places, places of unexpected possibility. The city. Tides of people. We can journey in a listless and directionless way through cities, through life; journeying without the sense of God’s enchantment, if you like. And then the train journey is just a train journey and the walk to the shop is just a walk to the shop. But we can also go on the train journey, or walk through the city, with this sense of the divine somehow awake in us, alive in us, and then this strange magic begins its work.
When the disciples followed Jesus they were following somebody who saw people, saw the world, as alive with God; that poor person at the side of the road desperate and hungry, that person is full of God. That mountain is charged with God. That bird is full of God. That plant is full of God. Who wouldn’t follow somebody who can show you God hidden in the ordinary?
The pilgrim, from the book The Way of a Pilgrim, notices that as he walks and prays the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,’ his sense of the world around him changes. ‘Any person I happened to meet during the day seemed to me without exception as lovable as though they were my own family... If someone offends me, I simply recall the sweetness of the Jesus Prayer-the insult and the anger pass right there and then.’ Somebody I know walked through a long stretch of London, silently praying the Jesus Prayer. They noticed that they looked at the city, and the faces of strangers, with this new quality of love, of compassion.
Following Jesus. It’s not really about remembering things Jesus taught. Jesus is the open door into God’s presence. I like the practicality of prayer practice. You can pray a prayer anywhere. And one such prayer is the Jesus Prayer, one of the ways people have found themselves drawn into the presence of God. Walking through a forest, or through a town or city, sitting at home, or at a station, or a cafe. Silently saying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ That sense of a new depth to things, perhaps a sense of a love in the light or the shadows around you, looking at faces with compassion. ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’