Let Every Heart Prepare
A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
If you’re a geologist, you have an extensive vocabulary for circumscribing what the rest of us generally call ‘a very long time.’ For geologists there’s an age, and bigger than that there’s an epoch, and beyond that there’s a period; but that’s not all, because above that level there’s an era, and then the unit that marks the mightiest length of time, at least half a billion years at one go, is called an aeon. We use these words loosely in everyday speech when we’re trying to say something’s really important, or when we’re being bold and casting a sweep over swathes of history and characterising it by a signal moment or distinctive feature.
But for Christians, chronology is a whole lot simpler. It turns out there’s only two eras, or ages, or aeons, or whatever we want to call them. There’s the period of preparing for Christ’s coming; and there’s the period of preparing for Christ’s coming again. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in the second one now. We were in the first one until 2000 years ago, but then Christ came – and went – and now we’re awaiting his second coming. By recent estimates his first coming happened around 14.8 billion years into existence – so you could say he wasn’t in a hurry, although who’s to say whether 14.8 billion is a lot of years or just a few? Either way, a lot of people thought his second coming would follow on smartly from the first, but they turned out to be wrong, and it could be that his second coming will be a while – maybe more than another 14.8 billion years. Who knows? All that matters is that there’s two moments that decide everything, and everything else is preparation.
Just see how much changes when you see time like that. When cosmologists argue over the origins of the universe and biologists over the beginnings of life, one question that arises is what’s called the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle suggests the universe had to be hard-wired with the conditions that made conscious, sentient life possible, because otherwise we’d never have known it existed. But if you say that the pivotal moment in history is the coming of Jesus, then you’re talking about something we might call the Christological principle – in other words the universe was created in a way that made it possible for Christ to come. You can be pretty agnostic about the precise details of the big bang and evolution – the point is, it was always heading towards Jesus. It was heading towards Jesus because Jesus is God and creation in perfect relationship. Which is what it was always all about.
That’s Jesus’ coming. Take now the significance of Jesus’ second coming. We get excited or depressed about politics, and even more gloomy about global warming. And we’re right to care deeply about such things. But the point about Jesus’ second coming is that God ends this story when God wants to and gets to put right everything that’s gone astray on the way there. The problem with climate change is not that humanity will die out along with most other sentient life or that God’s plans for the world will be thwarted; it’s that it’s an act of monstrous ingratitude for the gift of life itself. So in the face of Jesus’s second coming the basic attitude is one not of panic but of patience and humility. Judgement day isn’t a kangaroo court in which a dictator hands out arbitrary eternal rewards for human beings who didn’t know any better; it’s the day when every aspect of existence is evaluated for the degree to which it harmonises with the character of Jesus’ first coming in the light of his second. The way to be ready for heaven is to start living heaven now.
It’s often said that genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. When you see Rafa Nadal curl a passing shot just inside the line it’s 1% because he’s Rafa Nadal and 99% because he’s been out at 7am on the practice court every day since he was 5 years old. In just the same way, our lives are almost entirely made up of preparation. We’ve been put on this earth for a reason, and most of us spend most of our lives trying to figure out what that purpose is. But when we discover that purpose, we look back on the whole of our life up to that point as a time of preparation. Every single detail we didn’t previously understand is woven back into our story as a training in sympathy, endurance, understanding, knowledge, courage or sense of humour. How often do we say, ‘I was miserable in that nine months looking for work, I was devastated not to get into that university, I was heartbroken when that relationship finished, I was crestfallen when I couldn’t live in that house’ – yet ten years later we think, ‘But through it I learned x, or met y, or realised I had to face up to z.’ It’s all preparation.
There’s two ways to look at Jesus’ life. You can take the Godspell version, where Jesus came to introduce the whole world to the sixties, and it was all love, cupcakes and crumbly candy bars, but some grown-ups got involved and were all nasty and killed him and that was an awful shame. Or you can take the heavily dogmatic approach, and say Jesus came to die and the rest is just background material. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. Around the middle of the gospel story Jesus starts to recognise that he must go to Jerusalem, and that there will take place the events for which his whole life has been preparing. It’s not so much that he has to die, but that his death is what almost inevitably happens when utter goodness comes face to face with fear, fragility, folly and fecklessness. As Jesus walks the via dolorosa to Golgotha, every moment in his previous life becomes what it always was – preparation. He becomes hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick and a prisoner. He becomes the man by the side of the road, left half dead. He becomes the son in the far country, with nothing to eat. He embodies his parables and experiences the deprivation of those he’s healed. It turns out his whole life was preparation.
John Irving’s 1987 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany tells the story of a physically weak but intelligent boy, Owen Meany, as he grows up in 1950s and 60s New Hampshire with his friend John Wheelwright. Whenever the teenagers get together they fall into a regular routine. They go out to the basketball court and practice a ritual by which John holds the spindly Owen up high in the air until Owen dunks the ball. They call this The Shot, and they learn to complete it in three seconds. Gradually Owen comes to be aware that he has a special destiny in life. That destiny involves an early death and relates in some way to the Vietnam War. He receives officer training at university. When he begins life as a soldier he delivers the body of a Vietnam veteran to the man’s distraught family. The brother of the dead man takes the news especially badly and mutters about killing many Vietnamese in revenge. Some hours later at the local airport Owen and John see a large group of Vietnamese children arriving – but also see the vengeful brother holding a grenade. Suddenly both Owen and John realise the whole of their lives has led up to this moment. The angry brother hurls the grenade, John and Owen perform The Shot, Owen catches the grenade as it hurtles towards the Vietnamese children, the grenade explodes and Owen incurs fatal injuries. Yet all the children are saved. Every inscrutable mystery of Owen and John’s life and upbringing coalesces in this iconic moment. Owen is lifted up and gives his life as a sacrifice to save many. It’s a twentieth-century crucifixion.
I don’t think every one of us has to assume that our lives will end in such a dramatic, cathartic, painful, heroic and public way. But I do believe that John Irving’s story points out a vital truth about discipleship – that it’s mostly about preparation, and that each of us can expect to reach a moment in our lives when not just the purposeful but also the apparently wasteful and meaningless strands of our story converge to make us ready for the time of trial.
On 18 June, 1940 Winston Churchill said to the House of Commons,
The Battle of France is over… The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. … Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world … will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age … . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, [people] will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’
Churchill perceives that the whole of British history has been a preparation for this defining moment. At a unique juncture, Britain steps forward and, on behalf of the world, stands between freedom and the abyss. Again, we don’t all get to play a role at such a critical juncture in world history. But we all get to ponder those words, ‘Their finest hour.’ We don’t all get to lay down our lives for a noble, just and successful cause. But we all get the chance to dedicate ourselves to the flourishing of others. We don’t all get a clear sight at what our defining struggle will be. But we all get to look back and realise the potential significance of hitherto unregarded and mysterious parts of our personal histories.
Of all the apparently wise sentiments in our world, the one I find perhaps most misguided is the phrase, ‘You only get one life.’ Sometimes people say, ‘Life isn’t a rehearsal.’ Actually, I believe it is. Our earthly lives are preparation for our heavenly life. This life is limited; that life isn’t. The life in response to Jesus’ coming is littered with sin, failure, mistakes, clumsiness, misfortune, regret. The life in response to Jesus’ second coming is delivered of all these constraints, unleashed into joy, glory, fulfilment, peace.
Here’s the most awesome discovery of all. The whole of existence is preparation. Every single event in what we call existence is a preparation for eternity, a rehearsal for forever. Existence is simply preparation for forever. Everything we think and say and do in this life passes away; it’s all training, practice and preparation for the life that never passes away. But as we follow Jesus’ journey to the cross, reflected in the story of Owen Meany and the rhetoric of Winston Churchill, we are each offered the opportunity to let every moment of our life be revealed as preparation for what God has in store. And whether it comes in the middle of our lives or at the end, whether it’s a dramatic moment or a hidden secret, whether it was a long time coming or took us by surprise, we call that opportunity ‘Our finest hour.’