Sermon for the first Sunday in Lent 2019: part of the series 'Dancing in the desert: exploring faith in the wilderness'
Genesis 15. 1-12, 17-18
Philippians 3.17 – 4.1
St Luke 13. 31-end
When I heard the title of our Lent series I was puzzled – where had they got that from?, what did it mean? So what did I do? I googled it. Google came up with a progressive metal anthem. Not my scene at all: the music was a wild discordant cacophony, the lyrics, bellowed by the performers mostly nonsense. There was a sort of refrain: “Everybody’s going to a party, have a real good time/Dancing in the desert blowing up the sunshine.” That was the one part of the whole thing that made a least a little sense. The rest seemed to be a mass of disjointed fragments some of which made sense on their own but collectively…? I could only assume it was an incoherent cry of protest against the nihilism of our world today.
As such it was an illustration of the desert in which we find ourselves. But such a desert does not seem to be a place for dancing; it takes all our energy to survive there. And a great deal of skill - like those native Australians who manage to live in the desert there, with their uncanny ability to find water and sustenance. And the desert is no friend to faith, with so much energy tied up in just surviving faith slips away as Matthew Arnold puts in his poem Dover Beach:
The Sea of Faith
Was once. too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
The desert plunges the world into what George Steiner calls “a long Saturday”. The Saturday Steiner has in mind is Holy Saturday – the day between Good Friday and Easter Day. Traditionally this is the day of the harrowing of Hell. Orthodox icons show the victorious Christ leading Adam and Eve and other righteous OT people out of the prison of Hell into the liberty of the Resurrection. But the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar had another idea: on Holy Saturday, as he put it, Jesus experienced being dead: he shared the silence of the tomb, the isolation and powerlessness of the dead. And that image of Christ as dead is perhaps a more helpful image for us in our desert pilgrimage.
For all that he claims to be an atheist Ian McEwan’s novel “Saturday” embodies a contemporary but profound and highly relevant spirituality. It tells the story of a single day in the life of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne. The climax of this unsettling day is when the family is help up a knife point by a young thug, Baxter, who Perowne has encountered earlier in day and who he realises is suffering the early symptoms of a brain tumour. The situation begins to be resolved when Perowne’s daughter reads Baxter a poem from the book she reading. The poem she reads is the one quoted earlier “Dover Beach”. The poem has a dramatic and disabling effect on Baxter. Finally Baxter is overpowered, thrown down a flight of stone stairs and taken away by the police in an ambulance. As the novel proceeds Perowne is called to the hospital and saves Baxter’s life, who sustained a fractured skull, by operating on his brain, although of course he cannot save him from the ravages of the brain tumour. Finally Perowne falls asleep as Saturday, the day of death, rolls on into Sunday, the day of Resurrection.
When Perowne’s daughter reads the poem to the thug Baxter, Baxter in confronted and knocked sideways by what …? By the spirit, by God maybe. This idea of a life changing encounter with God is picked up in our OT and NT readings this morning. Through the bizarre ceremony in the desert Abram is set on the road to becoming Abraham, a desert nomad becomes a patriarch: the father of three great religions. In Philippians Paul is clearly reflecting his own experience that life changing encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road and his conversion, the persecutor of Christians becomes the Apostle to the Gentiles.
We are in the desert of our long Saturday, a desert of self-centeredness, materialism and positivism, a desert without water or food, a desert from which God is absent, where God is dead. Indeed we may deny God, we may think God is dead, as Matthew Arnold does in Dover Beach. But God is not dead. As our Gospel reading tells us in Jesus God is still at work. Jesus sets out to confront the agony of Good Friday and death of Saturday until on the third day he finishes his work in the victory of the resurrection.
That is the work of God the threefold dynamic process of creation, redemption and glorification. Creation began eons ago with the big bang and all that flows from that. Redemption lies in the future beyond the end of time. The process of redemption n still goes on, its crucial point was marked by the incarnation, by God entering creation in Jesus and in Jesus’ victory over sin and death on the cross, but that work still goes on, it goes on in us and through us. This is the dance of God in Jesus, the Lord of the dance. So God goes on working still; God breaks into our lives today in surprising and unexpected ways, providing us with an unlooked for revelation which can have a profound effect on us. It overcomes our resistance, throws us into the arms of God as Abram and Paul were thrown, and like them makes us new people, and it can make us dance.
But more than that as desert dwellers we can acquire some survival skills. Like the native Australians, we can find hidden springs of water and unlikely sources of sustenance. We can find them in our times of prayer and in our Bible and spiritual reading. Above all we find them here in the Eucharist, here we are drawn into the dynamic process of creation, redemption and glorification, and we open ourselves to God working in us and through us. Lent is the time to sharpen our survival skills and also to tune our ears and eyes to become more aware of where God is still breaking into our world, to find God in surprising and unlooked for encounters, such as the one McEwan describes.
Such encounters can be life changing and while they may be discombobulating they can also be energising and invigorating if we open ourselves to the divine revelation and allow it to change us. The Spirit working in us can be the secret spring which wells up to eternal life. The desert may still be bleak and barren, it may still be a place of death, there we can dance and in the power of the Spirit we can have a party, have a real good time “dancing in desert, blowing up the sunshine".