God the tent dweller
Preacher: Canon Neil Thompson, Precentor
18 December 2011, 10:30 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)
Friday night was called ‘Mad Friday’ because of the wild drunken parties that mark this time before Christmas when A&E units are overwhelmed by the excesses of office and other Christmas party revellers.
And yesterday, Saturday, was expected to be the busiest shopping day of the year. Christmas is big business and people celebrate it for weeks before it arrives.
By contrast, the Church has this season of 4 weeks of preparation – at first this might seem to be a rather unattractive alternative to the world’s activities. Advent’s traditional themes of heaven, hell, death and judgement are not entirely as marketable as going out shopping or partying!
Christianity though is full of surprises and God never fails to provide challenges and new ways of thinking and living to the human family.
Today through our scripture readings we are invited to re-think and re-discover where God is in the world and what he is doing.
Our Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel is the heart of this challenge. King David is now settled in Jerusalem and the Ark of the Covenant containing the Law has been brought there and David tells Nathan the prophet that he wishes to build the Ark a permanent home which at present resides in a tent.
But God does not want a house of cedar or stone but instead he will make a David a house, a dynastic kingdom that shall be established from generation to generation.
Now back to Rochester in 2011: it’s winter and it’s very cold.
And we learn from this reading that God chooses to live in a tent – a flimsy, portable and uncomfortable structure.
I remember a few years ago a young teenager chose to sleep in a tent for year or so in order to raise money for charity.
It really wasn’t easy in the winter months – and I don’t expect anybody here would naturally choose to sleep out tonight or over Christmas and New Year in any sort of tent!!
We live in a world where we take for granted the stability of our society and in many ways our own lives.
By contrast, the biblical world of the Old Testament was forged in the nomadic experience of a disparate group of tribes who found an identity as God’s people, the House of Israel.
There is always a tension between settlement and wandering; pilgrim and resident; tent-dwellers and city-dwellers and the desert and Jerusalem.
It is a tension in which God favours the pilgrim and the wanderer.
And so, in the sublime words of John’s Gospel the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and the actual Hebrew words and meaning is more specific: God pitched his tent amongst us.
So Jesus was not born in a fixed address but rather the outhouse of an inn in Bethlehem. His childhood and youth was spent in the relative stability and insignificance of Nazareth in Galilee and his ministry led him into the wilderness and a nomadic life.
He died outside the city walls of Jerusalem and was buried in a borrowed tomb.
We must not dismiss nor devalue these facts for God in his mysterious presence as a brother and friend is also that of a traveller and he lives outside of our limits and securities: his tent is here and near but he will always be moving and leading us into change.
I am not sure that that is how people see and receive Christianity and it must be a major consideration for us who here in this massive and majestic cathedral are preparing to make a home for the Babe of Bethlehem in our celebrations this Christmastide.
God in Jesus is most certainly present here in prayer, in sacrament, in mystery and beauty.
But we can never contain him nor possess him. The tent dweller is always moving beyond ourselves and our horizons and leading us to our only home where we are called to be citizens: citizens of heaven.
This fragility and searching, this insecurity and provisionality are a great gift and grace.
What we offer in our worship is met by him and transformed so that God’s spirit changes what we are and own and offer – and takes it beyond us into the greater community of earth and heaven.
Church life can easily be scarred by criticism and personal opinion based on what we prefer and what pleases us. It is totally at odds with what worship truly is: that which is offered only to please God and give him glory.
Our choir and music, these hallowed stones and beautiful spaces, are all for God and not principally or primarily for us.
Indeed they are offered to lead us out from ourselves into the divine presence.
Our free-market society has turned everyone into consumers in which market forces and consumer taste and preference take precedence.
We who live in permanent dwellings and paved and lit environs can easily be deluded as to our permanence, importance and power.
Without God we are as nothing – and from the material world nothing will remain save that which is of God himself.
There is no permanence in this life and our New Testament readings throw us the lifeline of belonging to a house not made by us but by God himself.
This mystery, for such it must be, for it is not an initiative or project devised or even funded by us, is God’s love finding a human heart and will to dwell in – somewhere where he will pitch his tent.
God’s son will be a man after God’s own heart, a heart that will be broken by the pain of the world but at the moment of breaking would render all man-made temples redundant.
And it this mystery to which St Paul refers in our passage from Romans 16. The mystery was hidden long ago but is now disclosed in Jesus.
And so to the Gospel scene of the angel’s annunciation to Mary: this extraordinary and miraculous moment of disclosure.
Here is a moment in history which invites us, yes you and me, into a friendship and love which fills our lives with a new breath, the breath of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is the celebration and fulfilment of this holy moment.
Breath and the Spirit are one: the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, and that she will become the temple and dwelling place of God - as her life bears his - that he might be our brother and saviour.
And so God pitches his tent amongst us in flesh and blood.
It is a mystery so close and natural to us that we can mistake it for wishful thinking, fanciful invention or merely of no consequence at all.
Yet God is not our equal. Neither are we, his. Mary is blessed and favoured because she not only knows the power and meaning of the presence of the Lord, but she said the words of response and opened her life to his will.
Mary has been neglected and almost written out of some Christian spirituality and prayer – as though she is neither necessary nor relevant to God and his Christ.
Mary is the tent within which the gift of the incarnate God first dwelt in his journey in time amongst us.
And it is her line, David’s line, that brings Jesus to Bethlehem and it her life and ministry that touches and fills the humanity of our prayers.
We never pray alone, and Mary and all the saints always pray with us and indeed for us.
Mary is the first disciple, and it is her life, her example and her prayers that enable us to encounter the Christ who walks with us as a brother in Jesus, born in Bethlehem.
God will meet us in many ways, ways that seem to be well beyond the bounds of religion, organised or not.
God meets people of other faiths too, and perhaps even the seemingly godless.
Indeed, he never gives up on us; it is only our faithlessness, our blindness, and our selfishness that cuts us off from him.
Wherever people dwell, there we will find his tent and his presence.
And so God has pitched his tent in the most unlikely places. May we find them and him this Christmas and in the years of this 21st century.
But we can only do so if we are willing to be changed and to move and to travel as God’s people.
Prayer is the cord by which we are led and sustained in this pilgrimage. It challenges the powers of the nations and the economies of every land and empire.
The fragile human ‘yes’ of Mary must be replicated by our lives and our journeys.
Soon we will return to our homes – and we might easily forget this truth. Please listen to how TS Eliot writes of this journey and movement of our lives.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.
East Coker (The Four Quartets) ~ TS Eliot