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Sermon: Choral Evensong - 7 August 2016

Sunday 7th August 2016
Choral Evensong
Isaiah 11: 10-12.6
2 Corinthians 1: 1-22
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‘Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth’

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I am not usually given to quoting lyrics of the Swedish pop group Abba – I usually reserve my references to Abba as the beautiful, intimate Aramaic phrase used by Jesus, and elsewhere by St Paul, to speak of the intimacy of the relationship between each one of us as a child of God in relation to our loving heavenly Father: Abba, Father.

However tonight I want to quote a verse from Abba’s song, ‘I Have a dream’, because the words seem to have a contemporary resonance for many people, especially, but not exclusively, the young. And these lyrics lay down a challenge to those of us within a religious tradition in how we respond to the desires, fears and hopes of our generation and how they are met in Christ.

So Abba sing:

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I'll cross the stream, I have a dream

In a sense what I want to do is an exercise in Christian apologetics on these lyrics to see how we respond to the contemporary challenge that both our readings tonight can be used to address.

The first reading from Isaiah draws the reader to connect the way God has acted in the past, with the way God acts in the present and will act in the future. The dream, as it were, is of God’s restoration of his people so that they will be blessed by him afresh. This culminated in thanksgiving and praise, thanksgiving and praise that echoes the Song of Moses and the Song of Miriam when God had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, which becomes a model, a paradigm, f how God has, can and will act in human lives.

The first reading gives us the memory of a dream, and gives us a song to sing. So we Christians have a dream, the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’ and we have a song to sing, ‘shout aloud and sing for joy, O inhabitants of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel’ (Isaiah 12.6b).

Abba declare that a dream and song to sing will ‘help me cope with anything’. This isn’t so far removed from Peter’s injunction that we should always be prepared to give an account of the hope that is within us. This touches Paul’s language of consolation in our second reading. Consolation in affliction is the greatest of gifts. Paul describes, in the most heartfelt language, his own affliction to the point of feeling ‘utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself’ (2 Corinthians 1.8).

But what is the hope that breathes into situations of affliction and utter devastation, the hope that is less superficial than some pop lyrics? The hope is the deep, enduring conviction of the love of God in Christ Jesus which is sealed by the Holy Spirit.

This hope is what carries us into the future. Abba speaks of ‘taking the future’ which is one of those rather meaningless phrases but that many people respond to. It is the sort of pretty vacuous management speak that says things like, ‘take hold of your future or the future will take hold of you’.

That sort of saying strong in commending the importance of human agency and avoidance of fatalism, but is lacking in an account of what gives hope for the future and also the fact that our future is held more widely than simply our own efforts but in a deep conviction in God’s faithfulness.

‘I believe in angels’ sing Abba. Belief in angels is another interesting area where contemporary people are relatively happy to say that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. To say, ‘I believe in angels’ captures the mystique and etherealness of spirituality, whatever that means, but does not connect the spiritual life to actual bodily existence. This is what is widely known as dualism, the notion of a dislocation between body and soul.

To live your life in the hope not of angels but in the Word Made Flesh makes for what might be called an holistic or whole person approach. We are body and spirit together. Religion is the rooting of the spiritual impulse of humanity into forms and ways of living embodied lives. This is about patterns and disciplines, habit forming in the ways of virtuous living.

This is the opposite of belief in angels, which keeps human minds in a never never land of vague spirituality.

And this is where curiously Abba touches on a deep motif of Hebrew and Christian religion and hope: ‘I'll cross the stream, I have a dream’

Chapter 12 of Isaiah echoes the songs of Moses and Miriam when they had crossed not simply a stream but the Red Sea, and in the preceding verses the prophet says,

The LORD…will wave his hand over the River with his scorching wind; and will split it into seven channels, and make a way to cross it on foot; so there shall be a highway from Assyria for the remnant that is left of his people, as there was for Israel when they came up from the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11.15,16)

The ‘dream’, if we can call it that, of God’s people, the people who call God, ‘Abba, Father’ is that the God who has delivered his people through the waters can and will do that again, such that we can sing our own song of God’s salvation.