Sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing 2nd December 2018 by Revd Sue McCoan
Psalm 25;1-10; Luke 21:25-36
If you’ve been on any train or tube journey recently, you will have heard the security announcements: ‘If you see anything that doesn’t look right, please inform a member of staff or British Transport police, and we will sort it. See it, say it, sorted’.
It is a reminder that our best defence against a terror attack is for us, as members of the travelling public, to keep vigilant – but also not to take things into our own hands. Vigilant, not vigilante. Whatever voice or accent makes the announcement, those last three words are always spoken in the same pattern, like a mantra, so that it sticks in the brain: ‘See it, say it, sorted’.
Jesus, in our gospel reading, tells his disciples to be similarly vigilant. Be alert, be on your guard. He is talking about events just as disturbing as a terrorist attack. This reading from Luke follows on from Jesus predicting the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – we had that reading two weeks ago, when I was last here. Or rather we had the equivalent passage from Mark’s gospel.
Be alert, Jesus tells them, because when these strange and unnerving things happen, it will be a sign that the Son of Man is coming in glory. And you don’t want to miss that.
In our little sketches earlier, we saw people being alert. The wise people, in their studies, alert for the meaning in what they were reading, alert for the connections between world news and ancient stories, alert for what this might tell them about what lies ahead. And the shepherds are alert for the safety of their sheep. Even at night they are watchful, attentive, listening out for the slightest sound that might mean a wolf is near. Be on your guard.
It reminds me of our little dog. Lola can be in the kitchen, apparently fast asleep. If I go in to put the kettle on, she won’t move a muscle – not even a twitch. But if I go back in the living room, the opposite end of the hall, and even so much as touch the lid on the biscuit jar – she is at my feet as if by magic. Always alert, especially to the possibility of a biscuit.
Be alert; be on your guard. I’m on guard to stop the dog getting at the biscuits. Two can play at this game.
The early followers of Jesus expected him to return in glory within their own lifetimes. They were ready for it. They gave up jobs, some of them; they stayed single to avoid distractions. When Jesus did not return, there was an amount of adjustment to be made to their thinking and in their living. You can’t keep up a state of acute alertness for all that long; it’s just too tiring. If you are waiting anxiously for news; if you are caring for someone who can’t tell you their needs; if you under threat of attack, then that alertness and vigilance can be exhausting.
The early church stopped living in crisis mode and adapted for the long haul, living normal lives – but always with this awareness that they were to keep alert.
But how can we be alert, for something that might not happen for weeks or months or years or, in our lifetime, ever?
We have an answer to this in the gospel reading. Jesus says, ‘Be on your guard; don’t let your minds be dulled by dissipation and drunkenness and worldly cares’.
He is talking about a spiritual alertness: less an alertness to the sights and sounds of the world around us and more an alertness to the presence of God within us. That’s our call to alertness.
Here’s the difficulty, though: when we’re asked to be alert to danger, our bodies work with us. If we see a suspect package, if we sense an attack on the sheep, adrenaline kicks in and makes us sharp. When it comes to being alert to the presence of God, we don’t have that natural support. We need, most of us, a bit of practice, a bit of discipline, to encourage that to happen.
This is where Advent comes in. Advent is the start of the new Church Year, and it is a good time for reflecting, for looking back in preparation for looking forward again to Christmas. For looking at what has gone well and giving thanks, and for facing those things that have not gone well. I spoke two weeks ago about facing difficult times in the world, and anxieties about our circumstances. I would like us to think now about looking within – and especially at those things within us that dull our minds to the presence of God. ‘Dissipation and drunkenness’ can mean all sorts of distractions.
We need to be careful, though, how we do this looking within,
When I was working in computers, we would often, at the end of a big project, have a project review. This was to look back at what had gone well, and what had not gone so well, so that we could learn from that. It was a great idea. The trouble was, in a big project, there were always things that went wrong, and quite often for the same reasons: not enough time to do the job properly, and the customer changing their mind about what they wanted. We techies thought the sales people were unrealistic, and they thought we were too slow. If we weren’t careful, the review could quickly descend into blame and excuses until we all ended up feeling thoroughly miserable.
Looking within is not about beating ourselves up and feeling miserable. Nor is it about making excuses and thinking we are ‘no worse than anybody else’. That may be true, but this is about our relationship to the God who loves us; other people are not our true measure.
To look within, we need two things.
The first is honesty. We need to be very honest with ourselves about the ways we fall short. This can be a painful process; for many of us, there will be some areas of our lives where we fall a long way short. I will say: you don’t have to deal with all of them at once. If you are looking honestly and find something that’s tough for you then deal with that; that will be enough.
Once we’ve opened up our shortcomings, then it really matters that we don’t stay there in the discomfort. The second thing, after the honesty, is to take all that we’ve found to God. No excuses, just lay it before God’s grace. And God will deal with it.
Let me give you an example from my own life.
I have always thought, and if you had asked me I would always have said, that it’s really good to include other people in leading worship. To have other voices, to be inclusive. And yet, I have been here over two years, and today is the first time I’ve actually done it.
I reflected on why I hadn’t done it before. And it was a lot of little factors – I wasn’t prepared far enough in advance, I didn’t know who would be willing, I put off ringing in case it was a bad time to phone…. All these piddling things, and the effect was that I was keeping you out. This is pathetic. You deserve better. So that’s the honesty, and it was painful to admit it.
If I’d stayed with that, I could have gone into, well I’m just rubbish at this sort of thing, it’s too bad. I took it to God in prayer. I get a small glimpse of seeing myself as God sees me – as a beloved child who can be so much better than this. Yesterday, at the last minute, I rang up five people and they all said yes and bless you for that.
This process of reflection, of bringing our shortcomings to God, is what will keep us spiritually alert. In traditional language, it is called confessing our sins and receiving pardon.
We look within, we say what we find to God. And God will deal with it.
Or as our transport colleagues would say: see it, say it, sorted.