Sermon for Eucharist
10 December 2006 at :00 am
Readings: Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 3: 1-6
Do you ever feel there isn't enough time for everything you have to do? If not, either your life is a very miracle of organisation or perhaps you and I had better have a talk afterwards - you could take on some voluntary work for the church. My life has often felt bound by the clock, however hard I try to beat it and however much I try to organise. I know people who start their Christmas shopping in May or even in January at the sales. They are as much bound by the clock as I am, even though I never even start thinking about Christmas shopping until the last week. We're all subject to time and we seem never to master it.
"Time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day." In the end, time will master us. It's the vision of the psalmist, rendered metrical by Isaac Watts, and one of the most popular hymns. The familiar words contrast our experience of time with God's, the master of time, for whom "a thousand ages in thy sight are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun". It's a bleak image, like that of another psalm, which sees the life of a human being as like that of a flower. "The wind passes over it and it is gone and its place shall know it no more."
These reflections are strongly suitable for Advent, the days of preparation not only for Christmas but for the coming judgement. They feel pretty suitable for Westminster Abbey as well. The Abbey is full of tombs, plaques and memorials to men and women of all kinds. Their contemporaries and those who admired and loved them were sure they could preserve their memory and remind the world for ever of their fame and fortune, their wonderful significance. As you walk round the Abbey and the cloisters you feel a strange sense. One particular memorial in the Great Cloister arrested my attention the other day. The man lavishly memorialised gave distinguished service to his sovereign, King George the First. The wording makes it clear that he was a fine, upstanding and loyal servant. My problem was two-fold: first there was no indication at all what service he had rendered - he could have been the King's tailor or gunsmith or possibly some high counsellor - and secondly, I had never heard of him, nor do I think that was a particular failure in my own education. I look forward to discovering what a great man he was - if I can find the time. Most of the memorials in the Abbey are to people of whom the contemporary world knows little or nothing and cares less. The monumental effort is defeated by time.
Well, I think there is more to say, some light and encouragement in the gloom. The reading from the Gospel just now seems at first sight to be obsessed with protocol, fearful not to mention someone who deserves proper respect. The first person to be mentioned was the Roman Emperor, Tiberius. He was, as you may remember, the second Roman emperor, from AD 14 until AD 37. Then, descending in the Roman hierarchy we find mentioned the governor of Judea from AD 26 until AD 36, Pontius Pilate, and then King Herod Antipas of Galilee and other client Jewish rulers. Finally, two Jewish high priests Annas and Caiaphas also receive a mention. This is curious, because there was usually only one high priest. But in fact Annas had been high priest from AD 6 until he was dismissed by the Roman procurator in AD 15. He was deemed by the Jews still to be the high priest, even though a succession of other members of his family had been appointed and officially approved, including his son in law Caiaphas who was high priest from AD 18 to AD 36.
Now, that is all a little complicated and probably the detail is not very important. What is significant is that the author of the gospel, St Luke, wants to locate the events associated with the proclamation and public ministry of Jesus in their proper time. He is surely not obsessed with the protocol. Rather, he is saying: look! This series of extraordinary events around the man Jesus happened at a particular moment in Roman time and Jewish time. This is not some fantasy or vague memory; it actually happened during the time of these rulers of their people.
This is important for us in our reflection this morning on time, that seems to be our master. This morning's gospel comes at the beginning of the third chapter of St Luke's gospel. Luke has just finished telling us the Christmas story: the annunciation to Mary, the birth in the stable, the song of the angels and the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the temple and then the visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve. Surely he is saying: this sounds fantastic but Jesus was born, lived and exercised his ministry in recorded time. These extraordinary events, that seem to smack of another world, happened in time, in this world. They are about the breaking through of God himself, the God for whom a thousand ages in his sight are like an evening gone, into the world where time like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away. They hold out therefore for us a wonderful promise, truly light in the darkness.
The event of Jesus - his birth, his life, his passion, his death and above all his resurrection - is one in which God who exists in eternity, outside time, not constrained by the bonds of time, breaks through into a particular documented moment in time. His purpose is none other than to free humanity from the constraint of time and offer each human being the hope of eternity.
There's a wonderful image in the creeds, vividly expressed in the medieval mystery plays and in contemporary Christian iconography: the harrowing of hell. On Holy Saturday, the crucified Jesus descends into hell, and brings up from there all the righteous, all those who have lived good lives, but who died before his time. He lifts them from the gloom and despair of limbo and brings them into the light and glory of heaven. The God who is eternal and not bound by time has acted decisively in Christ to free humanity from the binding of time and bring us into the glory of his eternal life. So, for each of us the apparent constraint, the mastery of time, is more apparent than real. All the memorials, that aim to defeat time by freezing a particular moment in time, may be fine in themselves and are certainly fascinating from a human point of view, but in end avail nothing. Time has been defeated and holds no sway over us.
In fact, time is much less of a master than we often think. Time can fly or drag, can stand still. There are even moments in our lives when every second counts and each moment seems in the memory hours. So much depends on how we are and what we are doing. And then there are those moments when eternity itself breaks through into our present life and transports us from time into eternity. Such moments happen in the Eucharist whenever it is celebrated. The Christ who has conquered time and lives in eternity breaks through into our time. Really present with us, he gives us - here and now - a touch of eternity, a foretaste of heaven, which is our true homeland.