Sermon preached at St Peter’s Church, Clifton, Bristol – date unknown, but sometime in the 1990s
Thursday week ago, I attended a day retreat for Bristol church leaders. It was held just over the Suspension Bridge, in Leigh Woods parish church. I left Henleaze straight after celebrating the 10.30am mid-week communion and found myself, on arrival, catapulted pretty quickly into a worship experience which was dramatically different to what we take for regular or normal here at St Peter’s. Among those present were our own Bishop Mike, the Bishop of Bristol, and about twenty Bristol clergy that I recognised from the Anglican church. But the other 80 or so were from the large number of free and community churches meeting throughout the city. The flavour of the worship was clearly evangelical.
Our own neighbour, Tim Dobson, from Henleaze and Westbury Community Church, had organised the day, invited the leaders and introduced this period of worship. He started by saying he wasn’t quite sure what would happen, but suggested that we began with a period of music and singing and followed this by prayer – and if anyone felt the Lord speaking to them with something they would like to share, please feel free to come to the front and share it.
So, with everyone on their feet, the music started, words appeared via PowerPoint on a large screen to the side at the front and we sang songs generally centring on the majesty of Jesus – songs which led some, but not everyone, to extend their hands in praise ‘towards God’. The period of song, some of which I knew and some I didn’t, lasted for the next twenty minutes. The time of prayer then started and, after a while, some of those present, especially those of us towards the back, sat down. People around the church voiced their prayers when they felt moved to: at other times there were short periods of quiet. Occasionally over the next half an hour people took it in turns to come to the front and share with all present the prophecy, the vision or the special word they felt God had placed in their heart.
At the first mention of the word ‘prophecy’ I have to admit I felt my eyebrows rise.
What’s going to happen next?
Is someone going to embarrass themselves (or rather – embarrass me) by saying something silly or what I would probably call ‘beyond the bounds of religious good taste’?
These were the questions that flicked through my mind. But my questions were swiftly quelled by the reticence and good humour with which these prophecies were invariably couched. ‘What I feel the Lord saying to me is…’ and then they would say it and then they would frequently say something like ‘but I may be wrong – I may not be interpreting God’s will right. If there is anyone here who can put me right or help clarify what God may be saying, please do so’.
On one occasion someone shared how an image from 2 Kings 6 had come into their minds. I don’t need to say any more – do I? Everyone here knows the story of 2 Kings 6 and the image it contains. Oh – you don’t – well, I have to admit I had no idea either. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard the story before, (perhaps because I never went to Sunday School), about Elisha and some men building some dwelling places out of logs by the River Jordan. One man’s axe head falls off, into the river. He’s concerned because it’s not his – he’s borrowed it. So Elisha throws a stick into the water and, miraculously, the stick makes the iron float. Well, it was enough for me, and pretty impressive, for one person to make reference to this story and apply it to hopes for renewal in Bristol. But then shortly after, another person came to the front to say that these images and thoughts corresponded amazingly closely with a dream that he had had within the last two weeks, that had stayed in his mind – about an axe head being in water and being brought to the surface in some powerful and symbolic way.
Well, I can tell you, I felt myself to be in the presence of a very different Christian spirituality to that which I am used to. Prophecy and words from the Lord coming in our own time are things I’ve heard about and believe in: but I tend to see – and pigeonhole ‘prophecy’, for instance – exclusively into reasoned and faithful critiques of established positions. So, for me, Drop the Debt campaigners are, collectively, ‘prophetic’ in their dis-ease with the status quo and their passionate dedication to try and get things turned round at a hard-nosed, political level. ‘Prophecy’ in the sense of images and dreams to be interpreted by others – that’s another ball game entirely! And, as for ‘words from the Lord’, I feel I have them occasionally myself. But they come in moments of concentrated prayer – and, pretty much always for me – at times when there is deep silence around me. The whole idea and experience of God getting through to me or of me being receptive to God’s communication in the middle either of singing or of other people praying out loud isn’t a cap which fits me well!
Through this retreat, then, I think I was being given the chance to encounter God in a different way – in a way with strong contrasts to what is comfortable and usual for me.
It puts me in mind of some thoughts Rowan Williams offers on ‘Advent’ – the season beginning today.
A recommendation he makes is for us to see Advent as a time to be prepared to see and encounter God differently – in ways which conflict with our normal expectations. So much of the time, he says, we make God in our image, we think of and relate to God in ways which are comfortable for us, in ways which fulfil our expectations and confirm our prejudices. But Rowan warns us of ‘domesticating’ our God too closely. He recommends that ‘in Advent we all become…Jews once more.’ He invites us to ‘relearn the lessons of the First Covenant: that we cannot make God, however we long for him; that we must be surprised, ambushed and carried off by God’ – if we are to be kept from turning our comfortable, traditional version of God into an idol – an idol we create unwittingly ourselves. What the Jewish people have continued to do, remarks Williams approvingly, is keep loyal to the God who ‘surprises, ambushes and carries off’. The loyalty of the Jewish people lies, for instance, in their refusal to ‘make sense’ of, to explain and to domesticate the ‘nightmare upheaval’ of the twentieth century, the Holocaust.
The lesson for us, perhaps, this Advent is to learn something from our cousins in faith, the Jews, whose reluctance to pin God down to any name other than Yahweh ‘I am who I am’ is extreme. The lesson I recommend this Advent is: ‘Let’s try and identify and cast out all the images and idols of God we have built up and maintain for our own comfort. Like our Jewish cousins we should try having, our Archbishop says, “no idols, no images to mirror back to us what we long to hear”’.
Is there some routine, I wonder, some way through which, over the next four weeks, you can lay yourself open to being surprised by God? Is there something you can do to experience God in a way which is positively alien to you? If you are a dyed in the wool Anglican, how about coming to the URC for our joint Advent Carol Service tonight? If you have never experienced or are frightened of a long period of silent prayer, how about drifting in quietly to the Julian of Norwich-style prayer times, with a little music and readings too, at 7.45pm here in the Lady Chapel over the next three weeks?
If you love modern liturgy, why not attend a Book of Common Prayer service some time in Advent (9.45- for possibilities Peter Wright might be able to help!). If you love traditional styles, come to the Crib Service on Christmas Eve for a non-traditional experience! For a more extended encounter with God in a new way, see the Yellow Leaflets at the back of church offering the opportunity of experiencing what’s called an Open Door Retreat – a Christian Retreat in your own home and own time, courtesy of our partners in mission, St Alban’s, Westbury Park. More details about this will be available next week.
So there’s a variety of ways in which we could dare to encounter God in different ways. What’s great is Advent gives us an opportunity to be vulnerable and courageous and dare to be surprised, ambushed and carried off by God in various ways.
To end now, I’m going to offer you a poem which I find helpfully puts the coming of Jesus into a new perspective. Perhaps it will give you a start towards experiencing God in a fresh way for yourself sometime over the next five weeks of Advent. The poem is called ‘It was to older folk that Jesus came’:
It was to older folk that Jesus came
that they might know their place and learn his name,
and upset notions of whom God may choose
to change the world or celebrate good news.
And this they understand who have been told
of Sarah who conceived when she was old;
and Hannah who found joy despite her tears;
and Naomi who blessed her later years.
With Zechariah, zealous for routine,
ensuring what’s to come is what has been,
they may disclaim an angel’s message too
declaring God intends to make things new.
Like Simeon, resigned to failing power,
old age might yet become the finest hour
for those who risk false claims that they’re deranged
by saying God wants all things to be changed.
It is not in the manger Christ must stay,
forever lying helpless in the hay;
it is by older folk Jesus is blessed,
who see God’s restlessness in him expressed.
(Cloth for the Cradle: Iona p81)