The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Jeremiah 33.14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36
That great commentator on life – the great but flawed – Woody Allen, once said “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
We laugh because we know that it’s true. Sometimes we can almost be reluctant to make any plans because so many times in the past our plans have failed or life has suddenly upped and taken us in a completely different direction. If recent months have taught us anything – and by this I mean recent months nationally – then whatever our position on the issues that face us as a nation, we know that unpredictability, uncertainty is the name of the game. Yesterday a former member of this congregation Sam Gyimah resigned from the cabinet – who knows what’s happening as I preach this sermon! We may have our plans but there is God chuckling behind God’s hand.
The Gospel reading for this Advent Sunday took us to a familiar place. Jesus is with his disciples and he’s warning them of what’s coming. He paints in each of the gospel accounts a somewhat bleak and at times frightening picture. He speaks in other places of wars and rumours of wars, of earthquakes and famine – all as a kind of prelude to the final days, the end times. But then, whatever the gospel writers record by way of warning, the call from Jesus, echoing down the years, is the same – keep a look out, watch for the signs.
We’re good at reading the signs in the clouds, good at noticing when the fig tree starts sprouting – we know when it looks like rain and we know when it looks like spring. So Jesus is saying to us, look at what’s going on around you and read those signs and be ready for the unexpected so that it doesn’t catch you out like a thief in the night.
Last year I went with some friends to Rajasthan in India. It was a fantastic trip to some incredible and beautiful places. But what continues to amaze me was somewhere in the city of Jaipur. In the great palace at the heart of that bustling, crowded city there’s something so unexpected it takes your breath away. It’s called the Jantar Manter, a collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments built at the command of the Rajput king and completed in the mid-eighteenth century. Its name means ‘calculating instrument’ and that’s what this amazing park, this amazing collection of instruments as accurate as any instrument today, does - they calculate the position of the stars in the signs of zodiac, they tell the time to amazing degrees of accuracy.
But in the centre of the collection, dominating it, is an 88 feet high flight of steps to an observation platform. Meteorologists still climb it to watch the clouds amassing in the distance over the Himalayas – and from that they predict the arrival of the monsoon rains.
But the reality is that we don’t live our lives like a Meerkat, like some kind of sentinel on a watchtower, as a meteorologist in this park. We get on with it and we make our plans and we have to deal with the unexpected and unplanned for with the planned and expected. It’s called life!
After this Eucharist members of the Chapter are going to present the Masterplan to you. This is the piece of work that we’ve been engaged with for the last few years, working with our vision statement to see what that means for the next five years. Remember that the words we use to describe ourselves – inclusive, faithful, radical – are meant not just to be words but accurate descriptions of who we are and who we aim to be. What we’ll be sharing with you is our thoughts and hopes, but we also want to hear yours.
But we’ve been here before. I remember what happened eleven years ago. The Chapter then presented a whole list of things we planned to do. It too was the result of a lot of work after a great many conversations in the Pilgrim People process which some of you might remember. That was 2007 and then 2008 came along and the financial crash over the river in the City and the shock waves from that set us back years. It took us at least 4 years to get back on an even-keel financially and so much of what we wanted to do was consigned to the very large scrap heap of good ideas.
So we need to be realistic. We make our plans, our masterplans, our personal plans, in hope and trust and expectation, we make our plans believing in the goodness of God who, in so many ways, blesses our life here day in and day out. But we also make our plans with a deep sense of realism that we mustn’t over promise because we cannot guarantee anything.
This has been a tough period of budget setting for the Chapter. Reluctantly we’ve had to pass a deficit budget for next year. This is not what we expected to be doing and certainly not what we wanted to do. Partly it’s due to having to take on extra members of staff where we were shown to be most vulnerable and that was in the areas of finance and safeguarding. We now have a Finance Officer to work with the Cathedral Accountant. We now have choir chaperones to help look after our choristers – you may have noticed Collette and Fleur working with our young people and staying with them in choir. And our stewardship hopes have not been met by the reality of our giving. We all have a responsibility in this and we have plans as to how to address the shortfall.
But in the midst of all this uncertainty Jesus said to his disciples then and Jesus says to us now
‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
Advent is the great season of hope because we know at the end of it we’ll be kneeling beside a manger and adoring the God who is among us. We know that the waiting is fruitful because it ends in a birth. Advent is our season of high expectancy, a thrilling voice sounds throughout it, we believe in the one that Paul speaks of to the Thessalonians in our Second Reading, who directs our way, guides our steps.
Our plans may fail but God’s plans never do and we have seen that in Jesus.
Rowan Williams poem ‘Advent Calendar’ has a bleakness about it which picks up something of the mood of the season but at the same time it’s pregnant with the realisation of the divine plan.
He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
We make our plans, and God may laugh, but God also rejoices as in the falling, frosty, darkness a baby cries and the heavens echo songs of praise. This is God’s plan and we’re part of it, sign-watchers maybe, but bread holders always, who know that even in uncertainty one thing is always certain – that God loves us, that God loves you, that God loves me for no other reason than that God is love and on a dark December morning, not far off, we will see it and know that it is true.