God can only help us live and love more by us inviting him into our pattern of desire
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent 1, December 1st 2019
Once a family friend came to our home. When leaving, a taxi arrived to collect her and as the taxi driver got out of his taxi to help her in, one of my sisters, about four years old at the time, asked if he would like to come in for a cup of tea. She had learnt that from my parents, who often invited people who dropped in for a cup of tea. It’s an example of how our desires are shaped by others.
As Christmas time draws near, we will experience the commercial world powering up, encouraging us to desire all sorts of things. It may seem that I am being offered things to satisfy my desires, but what I think of as being my desires are being and have been, shaped for me. But to what degree? I’m aware of some things I desire because of outside influences. The fact that we’re not all wearing togas today shows our fashion tastes have been formed with outside influences. As a parish priest, I desire a church full of people. Where does that come from? I wasn’t born with it. I don’t think it’s God’s idea. Do I desire it because a full church would mean we are a better community of faith? No, the desire for a full church is probably a priest’s version of the desire for success, which flows from our society’s valuing what is large, popular and secure, over what is small and struggling.
Now, maybe I can reassure myself by thinking that knowing I might have taken on my desire for a full church from society, I can avoid it influencing me, however, I suspect the writers of the New Testament would tell me I’m fooling myself, i.e. to think that I’ve got the full picture, because they would question the very idea of myself. I don’t mean they would suggest I don’t exist, but they would challenge what is meant by ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘myself’. The New Testament writers held the same view of the world as the ancient Hebrews, who were pretty similar to animists. Animists believe there are spirits in everything, rocks, plants, animals, birds, the ground. Our local version of that is aboriginal spirituality. With our modern perspective, we might dismiss that as just a way for people who don’t have science to explain the world, e.g. they don’t realize that a rock has no spirit, it’s just a conglomeration of atoms of various elements, held together by the forces of nature. And yet, we know that the world around us does actually affect us. Just sitting in the garden for half an hour can take away the exhaustion of a busy day, as can a walk or listening to a piece of music. The great gift of animism is not the concept of spirits inhabiting things, but it’s making explicit that the world around us affects us, shaping and directing our feelings, beliefs and behavior. Taking that for granted then, for the ancient Hebrews, the important question was specifically WHAT was influencing them? What was shaping their desires? Or more importantly, WHO was doing that? That’s most important, because we primarily learn what we desire from other people. This is why I said before that the authors of the New Testament would question my idea of ‘me’. I might believe that I desire certain things. They would say ‘no, desires for certain things operate within you and in fact, make you into you’. There is no ‘you’ apart from your desires, there is no ‘you’ who exists as a desire-free entity, who then begins to desire things. One way to see yourself then, is that you are a whole bunch of particular desires, given to you by others. Apologies if that challenges your view of what a great person you’ve made into.
The N. T. writers encourage us to pray for good things and to love and forgive others, and so on. How is that possible for us to do that? It depends whether I believe there’s me, who desires this and that, or whether I believe ‘me’ is a bunch of desires, given by others. If I go with the first option, it’s going to be very hard, praying for others’ well-being and trying to love everyone and forgive people. I’ll have to sort of whip myself, to make it happen. I’ll be trying to force myself to desire others’ well-being and to desire to forgive those who hurt me. Have you ever tried to make yourself forgive someone who’s hurt you, or force yourself to love someone? It can be really hard and often ends up with a sense of failure.
So, instead of that, let’s go with the N. T. view of what we are: a bunch of desires, given to us by others. That makes prayer not asking God to bring about something we desire, rather, it’s about our desires being changed and thus, us becoming something else, so there’s a new ‘us’, a new ‘me’. If I ask God to make me more confident with other people, true prayer becomes the experience of not being given what I desire, but my desire for greater confidence becoming less attractive and being replaced with a desire for more of God’s love. The more I experience that, the more irrelevant confidence or lack of confidence with others becomes. Prayer involves letting God change our desires, so that the other influence, which shape our desires, is not other people, or our society, religion, or whatever, but God. Our desires will still be shaped by ‘the other’, but God is ‘Another other’, different from the rest.
When others shape our desires, their agendas define what those desires are. Those who encourage me to desire Coke, do so, not for my well-being, but for their bank balance. All desires which do not come from God, come from a source that is self-serving. I don’t mean by that it must have some sort of religious significance, so that as my sister’s offer of a cup of tea to the taxi driver had no religious value, or obvious link to God, for example, that it was self-serving. On the contrary, to find pleasure in serving others, is a desire that is given to us by God.
Today is the beginning of Advent and twice in our gospel passage we are told to ‘wake up’. There’s a sense in which we need to wake up to something. Something is happening and we will miss it. What is happening is the reign of God is breaking into the world, so wake up, or you’ll miss out on it. We’re given the image of the people in the time of Noah, who were just going about their ordinary business, when the flood came and caught them by surprise, because they were not ‘awake’ to what was going on. The story-tellers had the flood to be the consequence of their leading lives that were shallow, unjust and selfish. They could have been so much more. They were just caught up in the way things were, that they didn’t see it. Two people will be working in a field; one will be taken and one will be left – that doesn’t mean God is going to suck up to heaven the one who believed in Jesus, rather, the one who will be taken is the one whose life will be taken away by the self-serving agendas of the world (which leave us less than we were made to be). It’s not a picture of the future, but like the story of Noah, it’s an image designed to scare us into action. The reason for the bizarre images is not that God does bizarre things, but we’re more likely to remember them, and thus the real point behind them.
How then are we to live more fully, as part of the in-breaking reign of God? Whip ourselves into greater loving, stronger believing, increased forgiving, and so on? No, we have to let God make it happen in us. As our desires are formed by others, let God be the one who forms our desires. So we pray by first of all bringing our desires to the One ‘to whom all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hidden’, and God will change our desires, so that we desire much more than what we have accepted up until now. As we allow God to dwell within us, so we will experience a tension between our desires with their self-serving agendas and the desires God is giving us, and we must be patient, because God is not in as much of a hurry to change us as we might be. This is God’s only access to us. The only way God can change us and help us live and love more, become more, is by our asking God into our pattern of desire.