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Sermon: Choral Evensong - 28 February 2016

Sunday 28th February 2016
Choral Evensong
Genesis 28: 10-19a
John 1: 35-end
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There was a buzz of lively chat and purposeful activity around the craft tables.  Glue sticks were passed to and fro; biscuits were being iced; beaded prayer bracelets were carefully threaded; younger siblings murmured 'I want one'. 

Family, children and volunteers were enjoying  one of our family fun days.

The voice of a 6 year old boy caught  my attention: 'But it's massive' he exclaimed as he stood at the west end.

'What do you want to do first?' said his dad, 'what about decorating a goblet?'

'It's massive' he repeated - wonder undimmed; eyes cast heavenwards; utterly transfixed by this place ignoring everything going on around him.

And that little boy isn't alone. Many visitors experience a jaw-dropping moment of amazement when they cross the threshold of our cathedral church. Perhaps like Jacob they say 'how awesome is this place!'

But is that enough? Do we stop at a 'wow' moment generated by aesthetic appreciation or surprise? Entering the turbine hall at the Tate Modern for the first time or watching torch light flicker across immense underground caves;  appreciating the view when you've climbed Scafell Pike; gazing a the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

There are many things that take our breath away: natural wonders or beautiful landscape; human creativity or feats engineering. What's the substance of the 'wow' of this place?

Yes, this place is massive; yes, it surprises visitors. But the effect of bricks giving way to lofty vaulting isn't the source of our wonder. In experimenting with new materials, sight lines, colour and plays of light, Edward Maufe was responding to something beyond.

As an architect, is he capturing something of God's glory? Is he creating space where we might encounter the Christian story? Is he igniting something in us of God's creative Spirit?

We refer to places of worship - from the tiniest welsh churches to american mega-churches - as 'the house of God'. But we sometimes forget that for Jacob, this glimpse of glory came a moment of struggle in his own journey. He is literally in between  places. He had fallen out with his brother Esau - having supplanted his birthright and blessing. He fled.

And now he takes his rest. He dreams of a ladder and angels. His vision is a heavenly one. Yet amidst the stones and desert night, God was with him in that place. The promise is an earthly one: of offspring and blessing; of assurance and homeland.

Having left behind him a trail of deceit and ambition, broken relationships and anger, this is a turning point. The wilderness becomes an awesome place as he hears God's words of faithfulness. At this earthly gate to heaven, his hope of returning home in peace is kindled.

His story is more complicated than that of course - pick up on the story of Jacob and his descents from Joseph onwards by reading through Genesis. For now, being drawn into this encounter with God helps us make sense of Jesus' words in our second reading.

When it comes to thinking about Jesus' ministry, the language of following seems self-evident. Jesus calls the disciples, they respond immediately, leaving everything behind them. What we hear tonight is full of relational language: of questioning, desiring, inviting and inspiring.

John the Baptist speaks words of prophecy and fulfilment: by referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God, he's echoing words full of the promise of liberty and peace. He is pointing to one who comes not with power but with gentleness; the suffering servant, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

This cry perhaps stirred in his own disciples the stories of Genesis and Exodus; the familiar imagery of Isaiah. John guides them towards one who breaks down walls of mistrust, violence and fear.

Then we hear the first words of the Word made flesh: Jesus asks 'what are you looking for?'

He invites them to look into their hearts and acknowledge their deepest desires. That question is addressed to us too: what is it that we seek? Peace of mind, recognition, intimacy, security, love, fulfilment, forgiveness, rest...?

Like those disciples, guided towards Jesus by the witness of others, perhaps we can't quite answer. Perhaps our first longing is to find a teacher or companion; to begin a conversation; to build a relationship.

They simply want to know where he is staying. Come and see, he says. And they remained.

That might seem obvious: if you accept an invitation the expectation is that you stay awhile.  Crossing the threshold of someone's home is to accept hospitality.  But John is someone who choses his words carefully.

To stay is to abide. It speaks of the intimacy of mutual indwelling. The Word which abided with the Father now dwells with us; we who abide with the Son, are in the Father's love. It speaks of the dynamism of the life of God; it anticipates the gift of the Spirit.  How apt that is for us as we gather for worship in a cathedral dedicated to the Holy Spirit.

For now we are caught up in a compelling narrative of transformation: this is not just teacher, but God's anointed. The disciples invite others into his company. Ordinary people like Simon are given a new name and a new calling. He will be a faithful rock - will he hold onto those words of assurance in the face of struggle and denial; in moments of healing and recalling?

Philip follows and begins to make sense of things: the law and prophets which spoke of the love of God and the call to justice and compassion are fulfilled.   This is not just an awesome place; but an awesome encounter with the living God. The fullness of love divine in the fullness of our flesh. Even the sceptical Nathaniel has his assumptions about Nazareth turned on their head.  He too begins to walk in Jesus' steps.

The cries of humanity and the wonder of Jacob are fulfilled in Jesus Christ: the Word made flesh. The gateway to heaven is opened to us on earth. This is no dream which dissipates when we wake from sleep; this in no breath taking moment which, however dramatic is ultimately fleeting.

Jesus' promise of greater things makes Jacob's vision a reality: God stoops down to earth and in Christ, we abide in his love. We abide together in the friendship of our common life.

Yet in John, there's always a 'more than'. For the one who calls us to love one another as he loved, sends his Spirit upon us. This Spirit will guide us into truth; it wells up within us - enabling us to pray, witness and serve in the name of our Lord. It's a Spirit of abundance enabling us to improvise, like skilled musicians, on the theme of love.

In a world where people often feel that they are all by themselves, we proclaim the good news of life together with God which sustains us in the storms of life. Some who come here may well feel that loneliness is a huge strain on them. Time passes slowly; no one says their name.

Whatever is it that we seek - peace of mind, recognition, intimacy, security, love, fulfilment, forgiveness, rest - our vision is a Johannine 'more than'; more than bricks and mortar.

Yes, this place is massive; it is awesome; it is the house of God.  But, let's pray that those who cross the threshold may find substance to that wonder: in worship and prayer; in compassion and hospitality. Beyond this holy place, we like Andrew and Nathaniel, we are God's pilgrim people invited to abide and to follow.  May we, in the power of the Spirit, express something of the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.