St Bride's: Sermons

Road Maps and Mystery

John 1: 1-14

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Road Maps and Mystery
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Not long after I was first ordained, many years ago, I was offered a lift to a conference by a very senior and somewhat dour clergyman.  He declared that he was very happy to do the driving, so long as I was capable of navigating - although judging by his tone of voice and the rather penetrating look he gave me when he said this, I'm not sure he was convinced that I was capable of crossing the road unaided, let alone guiding us safely to an obscure venue somewhere in the north of England.

And so, anxious to prove that his doubts were completely misplaced, and keen to demonstrate my navigational competence, I took steps to ensure that I was fully prepared for the task - to the extent that I went out and equipped myself with a brand new, state-of-the-art AA motorists' road map.

We set off, and all went well until, an hour or so into our journey, I alerted him in advance to a forthcoming right turn.  'It will be easy to spot', I said, consulting my new map.  'We pass directly over a stretch of motorway, and our turn comes immediately after that.  So we proceeded along the road looking for the motorway that was our landmark, and kept going, and kept going, considerably farther than I was expecting - until it was obvious that we must had overshot and missed our turn.  My colleague turned the car around, and we retraced our route.  Still no sign of any motorway, which I had assured him was the key landmark.  We tried again, without success, at which point, my colleague, trying hard to contain his exasperation and rolling his eyes skywards, stopped the car and said, 'Give it here!'   I handed over the map.  There was a surprisingly long silence, at the end of which he exclaimed (somewhat to my gratification, I have to say): 'But this is ridiculous!  There on the map, just as I had said, was the motorway, in glorious technicolor motorway blue, but in reality there was absolutely no sign of any motorway whatsoever.

 And then realization suddenly dawned that the map that I had bought that morning was so up-to-date, that it was depicting a stretch of motorway that had not yet been built.  We had been looking out for something that did not yet exist.  But initially it didn't occur to either of us to question the accuracy of the map, which is why my colleague automatically assumed that the fault must lie with the navigator.

It can be quite disorientating when sources of information that we would normally trust absolutely, prove to be not quite as reliable as we had previously assumed.  But of course, as we all know, even the most reliable of documents (or these days, their electronic equivalent), can be subject to human error - whether through miscalculation, or simple misprint.  (Incidentally, and I cannot resist this aside, possibly the most glorious misprint in the whole of publishing history was discovered in an edition of the Bible that was specially printed for King Charles I in the year 1631, which famously included a version of the seventh commandment that read, 'Thou shalt commit adultery'.)

So, the things in human life in which we would normally put our trust, readily and with justification, can sometimes fail us.  Conversely, there are occasions when we can come to recognize a profound truth, against all the odds, and which reason tells us should make no logical sense whatsoever.

I can remember hearing the actor David Suchet (of Poirot fame) describing in an interview how, as a young actor, he was in his theatre dressing room one day when an unknown woman came in bringing him a message.  He looked up at her and knew, instantly, and without any shadow of a doubt, that this was the woman he was going to marry.  As indeed, proved to be the case.  And a very long and happy marriage it has proved to be, too.

Now, what possible sense can one make of a human experience of that kind, which goes against absolutely everything that we would otherwise regard as rational and explicable?  Suchet knew absolutely nothing about that young woman, and yet, in that instant recognized a truth so real and so profound that nothing else mattered.  For me, this is one of the stories that remind us that there are dimensions to human life and human experience that are deep, and mysterious, and inexplicable, but no less real for all that.

By any objective standards, the claims of the Christian faith are far-fetched to say the least.  It would be one thing to claim that, two thousand years ago, a Galilean carpenter's son was a wise prophet; a great teacher; and a miracle worker of some renown.  But to claim that that man was actually God incarnate is utterly outrageous - indeed, scandalous.  How could such a thing be so?  

And yet, the disciples of Jesus, reflecting on their own experience of the death and resurrection of Christ and, in the light of those events, looking back to the details of his life and ministry, came to recognize that inexplicable, and perplexing truth: the deep mystery of the true nature and identity of Jesus, the Christ.  A truth that required them, as it does us, to look beyond the story of the man Jesus; beyond the accounts of his miraculous healings and wise teachings; to look beyond even the cross and resurrection.  With the help of the opening words of John's Gospel, which we heard read to us a moment ago, we need to be prepared to look beyond the dawn of time, to the origins of Creation itself.  Because those familiar opening verses of St John take us into the very heart of that mystery.  And however familiar those words, they never lose their power.

During my final summer as a student in Cambridge, I lodged for a short time in the Vicarage of Great St Mary's, the University Church.  At the time, the Vicar was a man who was in the process of being appointed Dean of Westminster Abbey.  I experienced him as a remarkable priest and pastor, and a man of great wisdom and insight.  His name was Michael Mayne.  And on the subject of faith he once wrote the following:

Faith is not absolute certainty, but a readiness to explore the mystery.  It is not a method of finding all the answers, but of living with the questions.  Like hope, it is an attitude of mind, an orientation of the spirit.

In other words, faith is not the acceptance of a neat package of answers; rather it is a readiness to accept an invitation to enter into the heart of a profound mystery; the mystery described in the opening verses of our Gospel reading.  

People often make the mistake of confusing mystery with fantasy, as if they were the same thing.  They are not - in fact they are polar opposites.  Because fantasy is an escape from reality; whereas mystery is what we encounter when we enter deep into reality's very heart.  Which is also, paradoxically, the point at which good science and good religion have most in common - particularly at the extreme ends of science, the micro and the macro, where we move beyond entities that are measurable by conventional means, and are obliged to work with models and hypotheses.  Because in both the life of faith, and some of the extremes ends of scientific research, we are challenged to set aside our assumptions and enter into uncharted territory, seeing where it leads us, testing our models against lived experience, and being ready to be surprised by the outcome, and to be changed by it.

Faith, properly understood, can never be about ticking boxes; it is not like painting by numbers, in which all you have to do is follow the instructions and you will achieve a prescribed end result.  It is much more interesting, and at times much more dangerous than that.  Which is why prayer is so very important in the Christian life.  Because prayer can never be an escape from the busyness and the complexities of daily life; rather, it is a means of entering into their very heart.

Amen

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