Sermon preached on 17 November 2019
Readings Isaiah 65: 17-25 & Luke 21: 5 – 19
Part of my Saturday routine involves nursing my brain into consciousness to the strains of Radio 4’s “The Curious cases of Rutherford and Fry” – a 15 minute programme in which Doctors Rutherford and Fry investigate scientific mysteries sent in by listeners.
Yesterday’s offering was a little unusual in that the listener in question was the comedian and presenter Stephen Fry – so it became the curious case of Rutherford, Fry and Fry.
What was troubling him was his own prosopagnosia – or “face blindness”. Like a surprising number of people, it seems, Stephen Fry, has great difficulty remembering people’s faces – and therefore recognising them.
He may well know the names and personalities of the director and every single cameraman while on set – filming some production or other – only to find himself standing in the canteen queue, later, and asking one of those same people what they do for a living. All very embarrassing.
And we heard the case of the sheep farmer, who could identify every single animal in his large flock, but couldn’t recognise the members of his own family. And you can imagine how they felt about that!
Then there was the school girl who relied on another person’s distinctive manner of dress to help her work out who they are – but who found school something of a nightmare, because all the students wore the same uniform! So, no visual clues to rely on.
And what the two radio sleuths discovered is that, although some cases of face blindness are caused by an accident in later childhood or adulthood, in the vast majority of cases it’s a lifelong affliction.
Most babies learn very quickly to recognise a small group of people – just as other species might learn to recognise the distinctive sound of their parents’ cries, so they can identify each other within the group –
And prosopagnosia, “face blindness”, is a failure of that survival mechanism to kick in.
For the majority of us, however, that instinct remains with us – we learn to see the things that are important – not only for our survival but also as part of the human brain’s never – ending search for meaning. We pick out the things that interest us, or reinforce our own way of viewing the world – which others may not.
As Dr Rutherford commented, the stories we hear of someone finding the face of Jesus on a piece of toast, or the image of Mother Teresa in a root vegetable, always feature people who are already inclined towards religious belief – we recognise what we have learned to see.
A different example of the search for meaning popped up, out of the blue, at last Saturday’s concert, here. Afterwards, I was approached by a member of the audience, who regards himself as a classical scholar, and who was puzzled by what is painted up above the choir.
There, below the cross of Jesus, are the two words “Salus mundi”. And while there’s no problem with mundi (world) – he didn’t recognise the word salus.
And while many of us who’ve sung in church choirs will have some across the phrase “Salvator mundi” – O Saviour of the world – this phrase, salus mundi is not so common.
So, I thanked him for my homework and said I’d look it up. And I discovered, among other things, that it is the motto for the state of Missouri, in the USA – where it is translated as “the welfare of the world” and that it appears elsewhere to mean “the salvation of the world”, the “healing of the world”.
Through the Cross of Christ we are meant to recognise the saving power of God – to anchor us in present difficulties and to point us to the new order of things that God is creating for us.
Like the old Sunday School joke, the suggestion painted here is that Jesus really is the answer to every question!
Yet, Jesus himself cautions that the answers we seek may not be that clear cut, and not that easy to recognise.
When he predicts the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple – the disciples want to know when and how this will happen. And at this stage of the Gospel, as tensions rise, there are many others who are asking similar questions – trying to force events into some kind of logical and religious pattern that they already know.
But Jesus simply carries on being himself –
doing exactly what he’s always done –
leaving everyone else to wait and see.
And it’s clear from what follows that, though Jesus may be the answer to our problems, he does not offer his followers immunity from hardship, from confusion, from disagreement – but the assurance that , by faith and faithful perseverance, we will come through and out the other side; seeing more clearly what it was all about.
“By endurance you will gain your souls”, he says.
In similar vein, our reading from Isaiah sets before us a vision of transformation – so powerful that what has been simply ceases to matter – a transformation based on a proper relationship with God; not just of individual souls,
but of the cosmos – all things in balance and true harmony with God’s will.
Again, that relationship depends on our learning to recognise the signs of what God is doing – even in the uncertainties of our own lives, and in the messiness of the world around us.
As we head towards Advent, then, perhaps both these readings encourage us to resist the temptation to try and nail down every detail of our lives – what we will do, when and how we will do it – and instead to try to attune ourselves to recognise the signs God gives us:
to see the face of Christ, perhaps not on a piece of toast, but in the face of other people;
in the things that they do;
in the richness of life itself.
And from there to respond and be transformed ourselves by what we see.
Two weeks ago, at All Saints – we ended our Eucharist with a sea of candles – each saint bearing their own light as a reminder that each of us has within us a smaller reflection of God’s own light – which is there not only to guide ourselves, but one another.
Sometimes we may struggle to see that in another person – as if peering at it through fog, as we really don’t get where they’re coming from; or we may experience someone else’s holiness as a rather severe and harsh spotlight on our own inadequacies and failings, leaving us feeling awkward and ashamed; and sometimes we may experience that same light as the gentle, comforting glow of a fellow pilgrim walking the same path with us.
Advent, I think, should bring all of those things – the path ahead being neither too safe nor predictable, and yet surrounded by signs of hope.
Somehow we need to remain alert and yet patient – drawn on by the vision Christ sets before us, but not so anxious to get there that we miss the vital signposts along the way.
Jesus bids his friends “wait and see” – for us, then, Advent is a time to make sure that we do learn to see, and not just wait.