A few weeks ago I had one of those conversations which left me biting my lip; one of those occasions where you find yourself disagreeing so fundamentally that any attempt to respond will just cause immediate offence.
It might seem trifling to you and maybe I was just having an off-day but I was told, “Well, we (in the Church of England) are not like those extremists are we? I mean our faith just fits in with our life doesn`t it?” Mercifully, they were so intent on speaking that I was spared the `opportunity` to reply!
They went on to say quite sincerely I should at that “IT” – by which I think they meant their faith – had always been there when they needed “IT”…. and praying had always “Worked” for them. And you think “OK”…. and I`m sincerely not mocking…. but I was left wondering how things would be if “IT” didn`t quite seem to work, once in a while. So I`m glad I didn`t have a chance to answer because I wasn`t in the mood and I really didn`t know quite where to start.
On reflection of course, what this person really appeared to be saying was that on the one hand they were understandably revolted by what`s nowadays called `Islamic extremism`- though I suspect that`s insulting to many adherents of that faith ….and they just wanted to say “I`m glad we`re not like that!” And on the other they were expressing a desire to have a faith which is shall we say, devoid of extremes; a faith that is manageable, reasonable and with all the wrinkles, uncertainties and controversies ironed out…. something which fits in with my life plan rather nicely.
I recall the story of the Bishop tells of being asked to give the speech at a school Founders` Day Celebration where everyone had gathered to celebrate the great and the good who endowed the school several centuries earlier. Evidently he put the cat among the pigeons because whilst they had expected him to say something that would re-inforce genteel and conservative aspirations in the pupils he had done his research and felt compelled to point out that each and every one of their Founders had been renowned for their radical non-conformity… their extremism.
And of course a moment`s reflection will remind us that the same is true of our Scriptures. The list is pretty comprehensive, but think for example of John the Baptist, St. Paul or indeed the Lord himself. Each one of these caused consternation and hackles to rise and each were actually executed for their `extremism`, they wouldn`t fit in and they wouldn`t climb down. So I find myself wondering… if this is our true heritage… how come we`re embarrassed by them?
Jesus told us that you cannot put new wine into old wineskins and his announcement of the Kingdom of God – the Gospel, the good news of what God has done – simply cannot be contained within our pre-determined patterns and lifestyle but we easily forget this. The Gospel simply doesn`t fit in with us… Christ is not in our pocket. We eventually, by grace find ourselves re-shaped by him. He told Nicodemus was told. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”(John 3.7)… curiously, another text we`re embarrassed by.
And neither can this same announcement fit in with the moral, social and economic order we have created and cling to so assiduously. We like to think it will… and it`s our fear and nervousness that it won`t which leads us to peddle the myth that you shouldn`t mix religion and politics…. Think for a moment of that other example of extremism the one that was placed before us this morning; I`m thinking of Mary, the Mother of the Lord and our Patron no less.
I wonder what image you have of her? She`s so often depicted as all sweetness and light but did you really listen to what she says in our Gospel reading this morning? She was likely as not a poorly educated country girl; with no religious or theological pedigree and (with respect) no licence from the Bishop either. She was simply convinced that the God of Israel had announced that she would be the mother of the Messiah. An Extremist? I think so. This is as about extreme as you can get. A message from an Angel…..! Someone with a `Mother of the Messiah complex`…..!
But her response to that announcement (we call it `annunciation`, perhaps without appreciating it`s true significance) was a life of radical obedience. She took the extreme step of taking the Lord God at His Word. There`s a thought.
And from this point on we see Mary engaged with the Father`s often perplexing will for her, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, she became a refugee, was wounded deeply by events and suffered at the foot of the cross but nonetheless remained faithful. It was NOT the life she would have chosen (this life of extremism) but it was the one she was given once she had said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’”. (Luke 1.38) And how could she avoid the charge of extremism when she`s remembered for these words:
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1.51-53)
Again, we might try to soften the impact of these trenchant words with beautiful plainsong and sing these words in glorious religious spaces but as William Barclay points out this is little short of a moral, social and economic revolution…. An extremist? I think so.
One of the weaknesses of the way we tend to `do` Christmas these days is that if we pay any attention to the story at all, it all too easily resembles a beautiful little family tableau, drenched in sentimentality. And we end up like this for two reasons. Firstly, the playing down of Advent leaves us with a diminished sense of, if you will, the `reason` for Jesus. So, when you forget Advent you lose touch with the Big Picture and the many years in which people were longing that the God of Israel would act as Saviour and put the world to rights.
And secondly, since his work as Saviour is so played down we fail to make the connection with where Christmas is really leading us to the pivotal point of Good Friday, Easter and Ascension. Of course, the clues are all there… just listen carefully to the text… We will celebrate “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord”… but my contention is; “that`s not what many of us are looking for”.
What I`m saying is that Christmas celebrates `God with us` in an objective, historical act of cosmic significance – the salvation of all things. But Saviour is an extreme word; it took extreme measures he was taking to bring us to life again. The Christ whom we worship does not tinker around the edges of our life. He is not there to coach us in self-improvement. You have all the imagery you need in your …. The life we lead now must die….. that we may be raised to new life here and now. As St. Paul put it , “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3.3)
Some would regard this as extremism. But it`s actually orthodox Christian Faith. It`s tarred as `extremist` because it doesn’t comply with what I was told in that rather painful conversation….. “that faith just fits in with our life doesn`t it?” Well, no, it doesn`t… and as Mary reminds us it re-makes us, re-shapes us and wraps us up in a vision of the world we would never have dreamed of or known that we needed….. if it hadn`t been for the Advent of the Saviour `who is Christ the Lord`.