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Sermon: The Christian Journey - Advent 3 2012

 
Preacher:
Nicholas Thistlethwaite
Date:
Sunday 16th December 2012
Service:
Evensong
Readings:
Isaiah 35: 1-10

‘A highway shall be there,

and it shall be called the Holy Way …

the ransomed of the Lord shall return,

and come to Zion with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.’ (Isaiah 35: 8, 10)

The metaphor of a journey is commonplace in Christian spirituality.  Indeed, it has become something of a cliché.  Yet it remains valuable if it reminds us that the Christian life requires us to press forward (not remain in the same place) and that Christians are people who have an ultimate destination.

           Journeys are, of course, common in the Bible.  Abraham (the pattern of obedience) leaves Ur behind and sets out in faith for a promised land.  Jacob goes to Haran in search of a wife, and on the way he encounters God and a vision of angels at what becomes Bethel.  Moses leads the children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness as they journey back to the promised land.  Five hundred years later, the defeated Judaeans journey as captives to Babylon; sixty years on they make the return journey.  In the New Testament, it soon becomes clear that discipleship involves journeys.  Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs to evangelise the towns and villages of Galilee, and twenty years later, Paul embarks on a series of audacious missionary journeys that contribute significantly to the dissemination of the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean and the Roman world.

           These journeys have this in common: that as well as involving physical movement towards a geographical destination, they also contribute crucially to a spiritual journey.  The participants are changed by the experience; their lives move on.

           During the 1660s, John Bunyan, imprisoned in Bedford Gaol for being a nonconformist and preaching without a licence, began work on The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Published in 1678, it was to have a vast influence on the Protestant imagination and the English language.  Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair, the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, are examples of people and places that Bunyan made familiar to his readers.  The story is an allegory in which Bunyan dreams about the journey of Christian – a sort of Everyman figure – who sets out on a spiritual quest, leaving behind ‘the wilderness of this world’, to find the Celestial City.  His question, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ is answered by the Evangelist who points out the way whilst warning him of the dangers that await him on the journey.  Fascinatingly, although his journey is a spiritual quest, the landscape through which he passes is inspired by the places Bunyan the tinker (for that was his trade) encountered on his circuit from Bedford to London.  The Slough of Despond is a swamp that existed in those days a few miles from Bedford; Vanity Fair is Stourbridge Fair, held each year in Cambridge since mediaeval times; the Delectable Mountains are the Chilterns; the Celestial City is London, beginning to rise again after the destruction of the Great Fire, with Wren’s gleaming steeples making a splendid show.

           Christian’s journey is both an actual journey through real places that Bunyan knew, and a spiritual journey in which these places, and the people Christian meets (characters with names such as Obstinate, Pliable, Presumption, Sloth, Hypocrisy, Money-love and Save-all) are transformed into spiritual temptations, challenges and dangers.  Christian overcomes them all and finally reaches the gates to the Celestial City where he is welcomed by the Shining Ones.  As he enters, Bunyan’s vision ends: ‘So I awoke, and behold it was a dream’.

           But not all pilgrimages are solitary.  Turning to this evening’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, we find the prophet describing a   communal pilgrimage or sacred journey in which a great highway is constructed in the desert to enable ‘the ransomed of the Lord’, as Isaiah describes them, to return to Zion or Jerusalem.

           Although many of the prophecies recorded in Isaiah seem to have been delivered against the background of Israel’s resistance to the Assyrians in the eighth century, this chapter is thought to have been composed much later when a widespread dispersion of the Jews had taken place.  Yet such was their attachment to the promised land and to Jerusalem that the expectation of an eventual return of this dispersed family to Israel has retained its hold.  In the Jewish imagination, Jerusalem has always been an idea as well as a place: or (to put it another way) a spiritual concept as well as a geographical location.

           Today, we can see the consequences of that.  For the Zionists, Jerusalem is non-negotiable.  Politically, they do all that they can to maintain their grip on the city with the result that peace with the Palestinians who claim East Jerusalem as their capital is as far off as ever.  Pragmatism has nothing to do with it; we are dealing here with passionate conviction and three thousand years of believing that God gave the Jewish people the land and Mount Zion as a sign of his particular favour and their unique status as a chosen race.  To committed Zionists, the views of the international community are irrelevant.

           But there is a conundrum here.  Can we confidently translate prophecies about Jerusalem and Zion into contemporary political realities, or do those prophecies refer to a future time when the political order we know has faded away?  Is the desert highway described by Isaiah a genuine highway constructed of stone and shale, brick and tarmac, or does it describe a spiritual journey which the faithful will make to the heavenly city: a metaphor for the destination which awaits all who   follow the way of the disciple?

           It is surely the latter.  The prophet sets his highway within a desert transformed:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom …

waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water … (35: 1, 7)

This miraculous transformation will be accompanied by the healing of the blind, the deaf and the lame, and wild animals that might threaten the pilgrims as they travel along the Holy Way will be restrained.  The Jerusalem that opens its arms to the approaching travellers is no earthly city but the heavenly reality of union with God following the transformation of a spiritual pilgrimage in which temptation has been overcome, forgiveness secured, and reconciliation achieved.

In the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation, John describes how, in his vision, he is carried away in the spirit ‘to a great, high mountain and showed … the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God’ (21:10).  He describes twelve gates guarded by angels, foundations adorned with jewels, and the river of the water of life, flowing through its streets.  But unlike the earthly Jerusalem there is no temple,

for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  (21: 22-3)

It is Bunyan’s Celestial City.  It is also the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies, and of the teaching Jesus gave about Jerusalem when he warned his awe-struck disciples against attaching too much importance to the material reality – the stones and the imposing gateways – of the city and the temple.  The earthly Jerusalem is a pale fore-shadowing of the heavenly city; it is not our destination but – like the shrines and the holy places, the ancient pilgrimage routes and the churches ‘where prayer has been valid’ – a staging post along the way.  Not to be discounted, then, but not to be lingered at, either.  For our encounters with God should always inspire us to press on to our true destination, our heavenly home, where the risen Lord has prepared a place for us.