So, the day is near. Salvation is nearer now than it was when we first believed, or nearer than it was when we met last Sunday.. Does it feel that way to you? Does it feel as though salvation is near, as though the night is passing and the dawn is about to break? A lot of the people I know seem to live most of all with just a rather vague sense that things are getting worse. Whether you say that ‘things aren’t what they used to be’ or whether you think it’s pretty much Apocalypse Now, the world doesn’t feel to be in a very positive place just at the moment.. it can feel as though dozing through the next few years might be the best option.
But this isn’t at all how the New Testament writers encourage us to live, not how St Paul and all the other early Christians thought the world was. They were keeping their eyes open, believing and trusting that God’s salvation was coming and coming soon… and it was worth staying up late for, worth switching the heating onto over-ride for once, worth watching for the coming dawn. Do we just think they were wrong about all this then….? Or – if we really believe that they were right and we want to live as they did, how can we learn how to do it.. ? How can we really live as though the night is far gone and the day is near.. what would that look like?
First of all, let me tell you about a friend of mine from the United States. When he was a very young man, he had a job one summer. It was one of those summers before he went to college and he was glad to earn some money. But the job was pretty awful. He was helping out on a garbage truck – and in the hot summer that was far from pleasant. The waste products of middle America make a fine, rancid odour when combined with the indolent warmth of summer days.. But my friend knew that he wouldn’t have to do it for long, so he could put up with it. And, despite the smell and the back-breaking lifting of garbage cans, he enjoyed the company of the rather eccentric garbage truck driver. This man had a wonderful imagination – which my friend was happy to indulge. The driver pretended all the time that the truck he was driving was in fact an aeroplane. The stick shift became a joy stick as they soared, in imagination, above the houses of the mid-American town. The little back streets were always a runway lined with lights, with someone waving them into the air. The shabby cabin, with its hanging air-fresheners and its faded souvenirs was a state of the art cockpit with shining dials and gauges, accurate readouts and contact with air traffic control. All through the summer they rode the streets, stopping to collect the stinking garbage from neat clapboard houses and shabby tenements. And all through the summer they climbed into the air, circled for landing and even once or twice looped and swooped in the cloudless skies. My friend enjoyed the game and it passed the time. But he smiled indulgently inside thinking about the necessary fantasies of blue collar workers, whereas he himself was headed for a white collar future.. At the end of the summer the garbage truck driver invited my friend round for a goodbye drink. And so, clutching a Budweiser six pack, my friend showed up at the address of the driver looking forward to a great night of getting quietly drunk before he left for college. But when he arrived at the driver’s house, he had the shock of his life. For in the yard behind the house… was a small aeroplane. The garbage truck driver really could fly… it was a fantasy but it wasn’t just a fantasy…
This is a little parable I think of what it means to think like a Christian. We live absolutely in the real world, the world as it is with all its pain and injustice as well as its beauty and grace. But we have the imagination to know that this isn’t the real world, that there is another world beyond the walls of this one, a world which is always already breaking in, and a world that in God’s time will come to be fully. And we go on believing in this other world, because of what we have seen in Jesus Christ. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not unreal. We really do believe that the light is breaking in, however deep the darkness seems, and that the dawn will come.. and soon.
There’s a theologian who says that ‘Faith.. is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way.’ We all of us live in worlds shaped by our imaginations – and at this time of year we are shaped particularly by images of the ideal Christmas, of home comings and perfect families, of cosy nostalgia and warm glowing fires. But our faith is much more rich with images that can shape us and form us. Jesus himself invited us to imagine that the Kingdom of God is like… a woman who kneaded enough bread to feed the whole village, by adding yeast to three vast measures of flour.. or that it’s like a feast of the local homeless and poor who can’t believe they’ve been invited… or that it’s like the seed that grows quietly while nobody watches but gives a great big harvest nonetheless. And the whole story gives us images to feed on – with the birth of a miraculous child in dark and violent times, his breaking bread to signal his offering of himself for the world, the curtain hiding the holiness of God from the people torn in two, a crucified body and an empty tomb. And, says St Paul, think of the dawn breaking at last into the world of our darkness and sorrow and pain…
And these images, these ways of thinking what it means to be alive and with God in the world, are not fantasies. They are not bread and circuses to keep us going in the dark.. like a garbage truck driver keeping himself going with a silly pretence. But they belong to those who actually really can fly, to those whose lives are changed forever by this story and for whom, however deep the dark, the light can never be extinguished.
The first Christians were wrestling, as we do, with the gap between fantasy and truth, between empty illusions and life restoring imagination. There are traces of the things they were tempted to hope for in some of the more fruity passages of apocalyptic in the New Testament, traces you can see in that rather alarming passage from Matthew’s Gospel – about people being taken, about floods coming to punish the wicked, about dangers in the night. And you can’t blame those who were suffering from poverty, those who were slaves of an Empire, those who were hungry and desperate, for thinking that someone ought to be punished, that there ought to be some kind of reckoning and soon, and that it would come in blood. No doubt they enjoyed the thought of a good disaster coming for some – who doesn’t sometimes love the taste of revenge?
But the evidence seems to be that Jesus has a different imagination from all this. He tells parables about judgement and reckoning, but they always seem to have a subversive twist – the kind of twist that means that people are surprised to find themselves at a banquet when they thought they were condemned to the ditch. And if Paul is right then the earliest Christians imagined not blood and revenge, not retributive violence, to pay back the Romans for the crucifixion, but they looked for the coming of day, the coming of the light into the dark, and the whole creation being redeemed.
I wonder if you’ve ever tried to pinpoint the moment in the night when the light begins to come. I can remember trying a few times to spot it, to stay awake until I know for sure that the light is beginning to pierce the dark. I don’t think I’ve ever managed it. It’s not in my power and it creeps up on me. And yet, even if I can’t pinpoint it – I know it will come – I know that the light will always, always outweigh the dark. And I know this because I believe that what Jesus Christ did was to break the ugly cycle of revenge that means that darkness is always repaid with dark, that an eye must be paid for with an eye. I know that I am not looking for an apocalypse. I know that what is most real in this world is the love of God that I have seen in Jesus – and that this love, this light, is already here and can never be covered up by the dark. So yes, I believe that the night is far gone, and the day is really very, very near..
My calling, our calling, is now to live through every ordinary, even dreary, day as though it was a day filled with the most glorious light. And not because we are pretending it is light, but because we really do know that behind the clouds the sun is waiting to break through. I do not believe that Jesus is about to come back and make the kind of vengeful return that a super-hero might. But I do believe that he has already made the world different and that he is calling me to imagine and believe in that different world, and to live in it too patiently and eagerly … and right now..
On the first day of Advent we begin to play all sorts of games of waiting.. but it’s the kind of play that helps us to imagine again what is really true. We are going to be opening windows on an Advent calendar that will tell a story about Jesus being born in Somerset, even in our own town, in Taunton. And we will wait until the days of Advent are done before we allow ourselves to celebrate fully the presence of Christ with us. But we do this only to help us all discover that this is true all of the time. It may seem daft to imagine that God could be with us in Somerset, but the Gospel tells is that this is really true. Salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed.. It may seem crazy to imagine that the light is very near, but this is how we live as those who believe in the Gospel. We await no catastrophe, no apocalypse, but simply the coming to being of what we know to be true, that God is love and that the light is stronger than the dark..