Tuesday, 23 November 2021

'The God who Sees' - a sermon for Advent Sunday

Advent Sunday sermon, 28/11/21 @ Hodge Hill Church


(image: icon of Hagar, by Revd Charlotte Gibson)

“Every year, the island was a little less. ‘Look,’ my father would tell us, distracting our teenage minds from bathing in the rock pools, ‘Can you see where the waves reach? One day, all of this will sink beneath the sea.’ Standing in front of the ocean as a child, then a teenager and then an adult, I was always possessed of the feeling of potent destruction contained in the waves, of the enormity of that which is to come.”[1]

The words of theologian Anupama Ranawana, remembering her childhood in Sri Lanka. Her father invited her to ‘look… can you see…’ – and she invites us, in turn, to open our eyes: to what is happening all around us; to what we have lost, and what we are in the middle of losing; to what remains; and to what is to come.

The writer Ben Okri, just last week, urged his fellow-writers – and I think he includes all of us who tell stories, all of us who pay attention to the world we’re living in – to nurture an attitude that he calls ‘the creativity at the end of time’. This is what we need, he writes, when we find ourselves ‘[f]aced with the state of the world and the depth of denial, faced with the data that keeps falling on us, faced with the sense that we are on a ship heading towards an abyss while the party on board gets louder and louder’. ‘There is a time for hope and there is a time for realism. But what is needed now is beyond hope and realism.’ What is needed now, he argues, is for us to ‘be able to imagine the end of things, so that we can imagine how we will come through that which we imagine’, ‘a special kind of love for the world, the love of those who discover the sublime value of life because [we] are about to lose it… this most precious and beautiful of worlds’.[2]

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

Later in this service, as our Confession during this Advent season, we will use words written by African-American biblical scholar Wilda Gafney, to lead us into a time of silent watching and waiting together:

            There will be no candle of Hope this year.
            Hope is no longer enough.

            There will be no candle of Peace this year.
            For there is no peace without justice.

There will be no candle of Joy this year.
There are too many empty places at the table
to rejoice.

But there will still be Light.
Light that shines in the darkness,
illuminating injustice and indifference.
Light that exposes the casual violence
that steals, kills and consumes God’s children.
Light that shows up
where even we are complicit.

This Advent, we have work to do.
Stay awake to injustice.
And stay awake to justice, and to love,
wherever they may be found – lest we despair.
Stay awake.[3]

In the last few years, the word ‘woke’ has been turned into a term of casual dismissal, used to patronise and demean those who call out injustice. But its original meaning, a meaning we need urgently to hang onto, is, as Wil Gafney reminds us, simply about staying awake, staying alert, watching for the light, and paying sharp attention to what the light reveals. This is precisely the work that Advent summons us to. To open our eyes wider, to open our ears wider, to open our hearts wider, to the deep realities of the world we are living in.

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

‘Now the messenger of the ALL-SEEING GOD found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur…’

‘Then the messenger of the FOUNT OF LIFE said to her,

“Look! You are pregnant and shall give birth to a son,
and you shall call him Ishmael (meaning God hears),
for the FAITHFUL ONE has heard of your abuse.”’

‘So Hagar named the LIVING GOD who spoke to her: “You are El-roi” [the God who sees me].’ (Genesis 16:7, 11, 13)

Hagar, the slave-woman of Abram and Sarai, is running away from her abusive owners, when she runs into the path of the Living God. And the Living God sees her, and hears her, and knows what she is going through – and Hagar names God ‘El-roi’ – ‘the God who sees me’.

‘I feel seen’. It’s a phrase that has become quite common in recent years. What does it mean? What does it feel like? In a world where all too often we feel divided, distanced from each other; where so many feel overlooked, silenced, pushed to the edges; where the curse of isolation and loneliness can weigh heavy even on those who have busy working and social lives, ‘I feel seen’ means there is someone who knows what we’re going through, and names it – and in that naming, we know we have a place.

Hagar is seen – by the God who sees. And her mistreatment and abuse in slavery is seen too. And with her, all the abused, invisible, overlooked, silenced, oppressed, exploited, marginalised ones of the world are seen. All those of our kin, human and other-than-human, who have already been lost – grieved or ungrieved – are seen. And with Abram and Sarai, all those who are complicit in, or indifferent to, or passive in the face of the abuse and oppression and exploitation – their actions and inactions are seen too. We are seen: as the mix of victim and perpetrator, bystander and survivor, that we are, by the one who, as the 1st Letter to the Corinthians puts it, will ‘bring to light the things now hidden in darkness’.

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

And this is the God whom Mary wrestles with. When the messenger of God who comes her way tells her to ‘rejoice’, Mary is ‘troubled’. When the angel announces that she has ‘found favour with God’, Mary wants to know ‘how’, exactly. How does this messenger claim to know her body, and what is to happen to it, better than she knows herself? And the angel directs her attention in two directions: firstly, to the Holy Spirit, brooding over her as she brooded over the waters of creation; and secondly, to Mary’s kin – to her cousin Elizabeth – who, like Mary, is discovering, as the poet and artist Jan Richardson puts it:

‘that radical hope is found at the boundary where the outrageous gives way to the possible. A child given to her aged kinswoman? The courage to say yes to Gabriel’s invitation to her, an unwed woman? Well, then God might as well have turned the world into one where all things are possible! Even justice. Even freedom. … Hope starts small, even as a seed in the womb, but it feeds on outrageous possibilities. It beckons us to step out with the belief that the action we take will not only bear fruit but that in taking it, we have already made a difference in the world. God invites us, like Mary, to open to God’s radical leading, to step out with sometimes inexplicable faith, trusting that we will find sustenance.’[4]

And the God who sees, sees
And the God who hears, hears
And the God who walks in the shadows & in the darkness, walks with us

So where does Anupama Ranawana’s childhood island, and the rich world’s consuming indifference to climate catastrophe, and Hagar’s desperate escape from abuse, and our government’s deadly hostility to asylum-seekers, and the casual white supremacist violence that continues to kill and incarcerate black bodies, and our neighbours who will go hungry and cold this winter, and the broken windows of our church building, and Mary’s courageous yes – where do all of these meet?

They meet, ‘beyond hope and realism’, in the light of a flickering candle flame, where we begin to face the depth of the truth of things, on the common ground of love. ‘There are some things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried’, said the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero. It is only through the tears that God sees us. Only through the tears that we will begin to see each other.

I want to leave you with a poem, a prayer, a plea, from a Palestinian Israeli Christian, a professor of Biblical Studies at a college in Nazareth, Yohanna Katanacho – its title, ‘Cry with Us’. Let these words be a call to a kind of spiritual discipline this Advent.

This is a season of weeping and mourning, but it is not void of hope.
Our tears are the bridge between brutality and humanity.
Our tears are the salty gates for seeing a different reality.
Our tears are facing soulless nations and a parched mentality.
Our tears are the dam preventing rivers of animosity.
For the sake of the mourning men, cry with us to reflect your amity.
For the sake of the poor children, cry with us demanding sanity.
For the sake of lamenting mothers, refuse violence and stupidity.
Love your enemies and cry with them is the advice of divinity.
Blessing those who curse is the path to genuine spirituality.
Pouring tears of mercy and compassion is true piety.
Pray with tears, for the sake of spreading equity.
Followers of Jesus: crying is now our responsibility.
But don’t cry for your friends only; but also for your Enemy.[5]


[1] In Hannah Malcolm (ed.), Words for a Dying World: Stories of Grief and Courage from the Global Church (London: SCM Press, 2020) p.199.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/12/artists-climate-crisis-write-creativity-imagination

[4] Jan Richardson, Night Visions: searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas, pp.56-7

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