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Life, says David Meara, is full of surprises. He should know - he has been the recipient of many during his 63 years.
Possibly his biggest surprise after he had completed much of his studies at Oxford occurred shortly after he had resigned himself to advancing through life as the quintessential bachelor. He fell in love with an attractive, trainee teacher. Thirty five years later, with four children and several grandchildren around, the rest, as we generally remark, is history.
Then there was the occasion when he picked up the 'phone one morning and the caller - a Canon from Westminster Abbey - asked the then vicar of Buckingham if he would like to apply for the job of rector of St Bride's Fleet Street. Here we go again - the rest is history!
In fact, surprises was the theme of David Meara's sermon to a packed congregation at St Bride's on Advent Sunday.
I wonder if you are the sort of person who likes surprises? Do you enjoy surprise parties, do you like receiving surprise Christmas or birthday presents when you don’t know what you’re getting? If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like surprises it’s probably because you like life to be under control, well-planned, everything timetabled to your satisfaction - and let’s face it, most of us are a bit like that because we like to be in control of what’s happening, if we’re honest.
It’s the same in the religious life: the Hebrew people grumbled like mad when they were led out by Moses to an uncertain future – many of them preferred slavery in Egypt to wandering in the desert because at least in Egypt they knew where they were and what was going to happen next.
Matthew 24:36-44 KJV
36But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
37But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
38For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,
39And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
40Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
41Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
42Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
43But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.
44Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.
In this Gospel reading Matthew has been talking about the stresses and strains of the first generation church, and he goes on to talk about the final judgement of the second coming of Christ - an appropriate theme for Advent Sunday. The theme is ‘Be Alert’ because you never know what’s around the corner, and with God’s timetable unknown the only thing we can be sure of is that the world, and you and I, will be surprised by God. If we are surprised, many of us will be caught unawares, unprepared. Matthew uses the picture of Noah and the flood as an example of how, when Christ returns, there will be no time to get organised, get changed, get tidied up, have our plans in place. Because God is a god of surprises.
I have two books on my shelves which I have returned to often. One is by Gerard Hughes, a Jesuit priest, called God of Surprises, and one is by the famous Christian Writer and apologist C S Lewis, called Surprised by Joy.
Hughes begins his book by saying that he is speaking to all those who suffer from confusion and bewilderment in their lives of faith. He describes God as:
"The God of surprises who, in the darkness and the tears of things, breaks down our false images and securities. This in-breaking can feel to us like disintegration, but it is the disintegration of the ear of wheat: if it does not die to bring new life, it shrivels away on its own.
Through this painful in-breaking of the God of surprises, truths of Christian faith with which I was familiarly bored, or doubted, began to take on new meaning. As God breaks down the cocoon of our closed minds, he enters it. We meet him smiling at us in our bewilderment, beckoning to us in our confusion and revealing himself in our failure as our only rock and refuge and strength."
Lewis’ book is an account of his conversion from atheism to Christianity and he called it Surprised by Joy because all his life he was haunted by experiences of unearthly joy which came and went, unbidden and uncontrollable – the sort of experiences we all have as responses to beauty or landscape or books or music or a myriad of other life experiences: What Lewis described as ‘the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.’ Significant because for Lewis these experiences and feelings are pointers to God (that led him to God) and they always come out of the blue, they are surprises: things that disturb or break into our neatly ordered, well planned lives.
And if I think back over my own life I can see how those insights are true, how some of the really important things that have happened to me were not planned but caught me by surprise: out of left field, totally unexpected.
I remember how aged 24, having been brought up entirely in male establishments, somewhat shy, I was seriously resigning myself to a life of bachelordom, and then out of the blue through mutual friends I met Rosemary and fell in love, and she has given me over 35 years of wonderfully happy marriage which aged 24 I could never have dreamt possible. Truly, surprised by joy.
And then after a stint as University Chaplain at Reading, wanting desperately a parish in Maidenhead and just being pipped at the post because I was considered too young and inexperienced: but instead being pointed in the direction of a country parish in Berkshire which proved ideal and where our family grew up and we spent 12 very happy and fulfilling years. The God of Surprises at work again.
And then ten years ago being phoned up out of the blue by a Canon of Westminster Abbey as a possible candidate for St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street – something completely unexpected, unsought for, for which I felt totally inadequate, with its high profile position and media connections. And yet which has given me the most exciting and stimulating 10 years, meeting people I would never have dreamt I would meet, enjoying our wonderful musical tradition, having a real sense of history with our Guild of St Bride and working with a congregation and staff team that are second to none.
And then on top of all that the privilege last year of being asked by Bishop Richard to work with him as Archdeacon of London. Truly a God of Surprises.
At each of these moments what I had resigned myself to, or planned for or wanted was trumped by something different, something better, Surprised by God. And what is, has been, true in my life I’m sure has echoes in your lives.
As Christians we ought of all people to know that the world and our lives are not as fully under our control as others might imagine, that business doesn’t always continue as usual and that the best laid plans sometimes don’t happen because something else intervenes. That is God’s way. Today Advent Sunday as I reflect on 10 years of ministry amongst you, I am left with a profound sense of thankfulness, but also as I look ahead with the question ‘Am I ready, are we ready for the challenges and surprises God still has in store? The adventure is not yet over.
That’s the Advent challenge that the God of Surprises offers us all.
As rector of this journalists' church, and right hand man to the Bishop of London, no less, as holder of the ancient post of Archdeacon of London, David is, quite naturally, a Fleet Street icon.
He is tall - no, very tall - and whose body language is difficult to understand. Whatever crisis or joyous occasion he happens to be going through, there are no clues as to what is really going on. That is until Advent Sunday 2010. During Eucharist, a magnificent piece of oak woodwork in the form of a flower stand, was unveiled and presented to David by senior Churchwarden Mary Walker, on behalf of the entire congregation, to mark his 10 years as rector.
For once the body language was there for everyone to witness. The smile said it all. 'I'm overjoyed,' he beamed, 'and almost lost for words.' An Archdeacon lost for words? Never. Eucharist followed, with some of David's favourite hymns being sung. They may have been unseasonal, but for a joyous occasion like this, what did it matter!
The choir, under Director of Music Robert Jones, was in splendid voice, particularly in the singing of a new piece by organist Matthew Morley, specially dedicated to mark David Meara's 10 wonderful (his own words) years in this great church: Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill? Those of us who have the pleasure of regularly worshipping at St Bride's would come up with the same name when answering these marvellous questions.
Then Eucharist over, another surprise, but this time David was not the sole recipient. There was the presentation of an inscribed vase for his wife Rosemary and a voucher for a holiday together.
By this time, the West End of the church became resonant to the clinking of Champagne glasses to round off a wonderful Eucharistic celebration.