While Madhavi watches Rafael Nadal systematically crush the life out of Roger Federer (whoops! Federer’s coming back!), impeded only intermittently by the BBC’s execrably artsy camera direction (that phrase modifies “watches”, not “crush”), I’m entering this morning’s sermon. The sermon fought hard against my writing it down; I knew the rough direction I wanted to go, but I was falling into bad compositional habits and couldn’t turn the prose the way I wanted it. Eventually I got something close to what I wanted, though I think the beginning ought to work better. It’s posted after the “Continue Reading” link.
Church was lovely this morning, though the weather has turned outright chilly after Friday’s taste of exquisite summer sunshine. Most important, though, my beloved wife and daughter arrive in Glasgow on Thursday morning!
5 June 2011
St. Mary’s, Glasgow
Acts 1:6-14 / Ps 68:1-10, 33-36 / 1 Pt 4:12-14; 5:6-11 / Jn 17:1-11
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you.
+ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Amen.
You may have — I know I have — encountered hard times, harder times in fact than we would have imagined clearly during our more fortunate days. When the sun was shining, the birds were singing, when everything was coming up roses, we have a hard time wrapping our imaginations around the gloom of midnight. When the harsh winds blow and bone-chilling rain sets in, we may not be able to remember ever having been comfortable. The bitter reality tells us that our options run the gamut from bleak to grim to utterly miserable. In the words of a song I heard last Sunday night, “Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises / We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong”. Some days, midnight just marks the starting point of how dark it can get.
And into the bitter anguish of bleakest suffering, the epistle of Peter assures us: “Don’t be surprised”.
Don’t be surprised when the economy sours and jobs disappear. Don’t be surprised when ageing bones ache and complain, or when youthful flesh withers. Don’t be surprised when people betray your trust. Don’t be surprised, the letter tells us, because that’s the sort of thing that happens in this world. We inhabit a world where we cannot escape the effects of death, greed, decay, and malice. Don’t be surprised by the icy hand of midnight; it’s already reaching for you. It will grasp you sooner or later.
The epistle isn’t trying to scare us, or to urge us to feel dour and bitter. The epistle is telling us the truth about who we are, and where we live, and in order to get to the truth it has to be honest with us. In this world, there’s no predictable relationship between trying hard, being virtuous, and the good things that would make life more comfortable for us. Hard times don’t mean that we’re at fault. There are forces at work around us that militate against goodness and comfort. Some forces simply derive from the outworking of chaotic, untrammelled nature: we’ve seen earthquakes, tornados, floods, and volcanoes just in the past few weeks. Some forces arise from the corrosive power of human malice: the privileged few laying claim to even more privileges, at the expense of their disadvantaged, disabled, disregarded neighbours. Some forces arise from plain random bad luck: being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or getting an unexpected bill just after having paid for an expensive repair, or running into bad weather on a travel day, or coming down with a virus that others didn’t catch. We can’t control these forces, we can’t keep them at bay by goodness or diligence or piety. They’re out of our hands — indeed, they represent the opposite of our ability to control.
The epistle depicts these hostile circumstances, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, as the work of the devil, a roaring lion, on the lookout for someone to devour. You may laugh at the idea of “the devil”, a cartoon villain in scarlet spandex with horns, tail, and pitchfork; you may reckon that everything happens for a perfectly reasonable cause, with concomitant effects, without needing any demonic forces to push everything down the hill into the muck. That’s fine with me; I don’t want to argue about it. For my part, though, I find the persistence and power of evil more satisfactorily described as a focused destructive force than as the calculable outcome of infinitely complex causal relations. When I’m in that darkest-of-the-night situation, locked into the horribly predictable grimness of one calamity after another, it feels as though I’m wrestling against a stronger, meaner Adversary. In those circumstances, I don’t know of a more apt way to describe what I’m up against than simply naming my opponent as “the devil”.
First Peter describes this world for us, where we shouldn’t be surprised if fiery suffering besets us; he takes our suffering with the utmost seriousness, he doesn’t deny it, he doesn’t tell us to “cheer up anyway”. Smiles are not required of us; indeed, our reading this morning supposes that we’re sharing in a portion of the suffering that Christ took on among us. Like Jesus before, we may cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” — so that even in our deepest desperation, we address our lament to the God whose mighty hand we do not perceive. We may not feel hope, but we pray, plead, shout, rage at the God whose love can bear our sharpest anxiety, our fiercest misery. We cry out from our predictable suffering, and in our very crying out, we bear witness to something greater, something truer, something more glorious than the dingy grey shadows of hard times in the predictably shabby seasons of the world.
And in our turning to God, we entangle ourselves with utterly unpredictable forces. As much as we should not be surprised by sorrow, we must always be surprised when God pushes back the clammy fog of misery to reveal the brilliant glory of divine grace. The shimmer of welcoming love; the support of steadfast friendship; the sweetness of rest and relief, these we may never take for granted. That’s what grace means: if we can predict it, if we think we can pin it down, or claim it or control it, we’re not talking about grace any more. And if we have been blessed to walk in sunnier paths, we ought all the more to be surprised every day to see how we have been protected from misfortune, and to work all the more energetically to share our comforts with our neighbours. That’s unexpected, too; giving (and I mean real heartfelt giving, not simply participating in obligatory rituals of exchanging consumer goods) and sharing (again, not just quid pro quo, but offering our abundance to relieve our sisters’ or brothers’ need), giving and sharing disrupt the predictable system that weaves misery into an inescapable trap. Giving comes out of the blue, sharing is too much, and giving and sharing punch holes in the net of trials and troubles that the suffering-sphere weaves us into. Like brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures on a Glasgow summer day, the glory of God‘s grace always comes to us as a surprise.
This very God who graces us with life and hope, who in Jesus shared the walk along the midnight path beside us, promises that our grief and pain in this grievously painful world need not govern us. We all, particularly we who suffer now, perhaps especially we who struggle to hold onto anything even vaguely resembling faith, we all bear in the scars of our lives the signs of a promise that a whole different order of love and glory enfolds us and awaits us in ways we can’t enumerate. We can’t count on relief from suffering; everything we see reminds us that some lives endure daily horrors while others sleep cozily in elegant palaces, and we know that this present order of things will not redress those imbalances. But this predictably inequitable order can not prevail over grace; as the crucified Saviour who shares our sufferings rises in glory from out of death’s midnight, so we who share in the sufferings of Christ will be surprised by a glory that raises us from icy midnight to warm radiance in the presence of God.
So the promise that God will bring us out of the sphere of decay and death means much more than mere pie in the sky. God’s promise, underscored by Jesus’ ascension, takes up our pain and grief into a different dimension where the first and last words God addresses to us are Love and Yes. The same God of all grace who entered our world on our terms and endured our pains at our hands, has called us — perhaps upwards, perhaps outwards, but certainly onwards to his eternal glory in Christ, and God will restore, support, strengthen, establish — and by God’s own unfathomable, unpredictable grace — will certainly surprise us with glory that accepts our midnight, enfolds our pain, and transfigures our predictable, mortal lives into brilliant, ecstatic eternity in God’s presence.