This and That

Sermon at St James, Colwall on 3rd Sunday before Advent 2016

Job 19.23 – 27a; 2 Thessalonians 2.1 – 5, 13 – 17; Luke 20.27 – 38

This and that. Mention This and That to my sons and they’d immediately identify the names of two of the excellent beers brewed by the Talbot brewery at Knightwick. This and That, and there’s another one called T’other. Next time I sample them I shall be transported back to our Gospel reading. You remember - the rather absurd and convoluted question from these Sadducee folk about the serial widow married to seven brothers? What’s going to happen when they get to heaven and they all want ... to keep acquainted with her? And Jesus’ answer? In this age we marry, in that age and in the resurrection, we won’t.

Let’s reflect on this and that - this age and that which is to come.

But before we do, where do you think this is?

The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world.

If I tell you that the city referred to there could quite plausibly be ... Hereford, many of you will probably think that I’ve finally lost it completely, which may well be true, but those are actually the words of Thomas Traherne, Hereford’s very own adopted theologian. He wrote in the 17th century and is celebrated as you may well know in some wonderful stained glass in a small chapel tucked away in the cathedral there. If you’ve not seen it, do go next time you’re in the city.

Now of course Traherne was under no illusions about Hereford and in fact, he may have been writing about some more general idea of a city. The point he was making was that that was the way he had seen things when he was an innocent, a child who saw everything as fresh and exciting. He goes on to explain how life and experience had disabused him much of that outlook and of the idea that anywhere was anywhere near that wonderful. He learnt too as he grew that men and women were not nearly so angelic as he may have thought them in his infancy.

And I think there’s something in that - as children, everything is ours: our house, our street, our town, our neighbours, our school, our country. As we grow older we may still use some of those phrases, but not in the same trusting childlike way. We come to know that there’s good and bad in all those things and all those people.

But Traherne wanted somehow to recapture that childlike view of heaven in the world while not becoming completely starry eyed and pretending the bad things weren’t there. He wanted to see God in the world without losing sight of the often sordid reality of it, and much of what he wrote was attempting to help others to see that too. He saw the way from this world to that which is to come in the pursuit of innocence - becoming like a little child to find the Kingdom of God. He put it like this:

So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.

In our OT reading, the writer attacks innocence from a different direction but still attempting to reconcile heavenly hope with the reality of the world. I’ve no doubt we all know how hard that can be. The reason I asked Pam to read more of that Job lesson was just because of how hard it is. Listening to the short reading, it’s all too easy to hear the standout phrase in the reading, “I know that my redeemer lives,” say hallelujah! and tick it off as another piece of conventional Christian theology.

But if there’s one book in the bible that does not lend itself to that, it’s the book of Job. It’s hard to do justice in a few minutes to what’s going on in this reading because we’re in the middle of Job’s tit-for-tat dialogue with his so-called comforters, where he spells out at great length the enormity of the unfairness he has suffered and they tell him why conventional wisdom says he’s wrong. But I hope we heard enough of that chapter 19 to realise the extraordinary point that Job’s beef is not just with his friends and family but with what he clearly states is the injustice of God. He feels really badly done-by by God. That’s why he says, let my words be written on paper, NO! not just on paper, on stone, so that it’s indelibly recorded that I am innocent and am being treated unfairly, He knows that in accusing God in this way, the odds are stacked against him so that’s why he wants his case ... written in stone. So it can’t be brushed aside.

And yet what comes next? A moment of hope. “I know that my redeemer lives... then in my flesh I shall see God.” There’s almost an idea there of this redeemer figure being able to stand up to God, being other than God and able to point out his injustices. It’s not standard theology is it? And I’m no theologian, but it does seem to me that it’s another honest effort, this time by this OT writer to grapple with the relationship between his dreadful experience of this world he’s living in and why there is hope for better in that world which is to come. It’s at one with what Traherne was trying to do, if from a very different perspective.

That world which is to come? It’s a hope and a mystery, this Christian trust in the God who has power to do all things and bring us to eternal life. In the meantime let’s not forget we live in this world and in the spirit of Thomas Traherne, let’s do our best to see God within it and within each other. Perhaps, dare I suggest it, we could even venture a wee smile at someone nearby? At their sparkling eyes, their fair skins and their ruddy faces.