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The Very Revd Andrew Nunn

4th November 2018, 4th Sunday before Advent

Readings: Daniel 2.25-48; Revelation 7.9-17

Twenty years ago on a bare hill outside of Gateshead in the north east, the sculptor Antony Gormley oversaw the final installation of one of his greatest and most famous creations, ‘The Angel of the North’.  It’s a monumental structure, it stands 20 metres in height and from tip to tip of it’s aircraft like wings it’s 54 metres wide, it’s slightly tilted wings spread out across the countryside, welcoming, embracing those who approach.

If you drive up the A1 or are travelling on the east coast railway line you can’t help but see it.  It’s become in the years since it’s been there the symbol of the region, the icon of the north east.  There’s a Lego version in Legoland – slightly smaller – and it’s spawned lots of other angels in lots of other places.

But it isn’t just iconic, it has also become a place of pilgrimage by popular acclaim.  People go there to leave flowers for one reason or another, couples go there to declare their love, people go there to find space and room to think.  And the arms spread out over them all.

The angel is made of 200 tons of steel and it’s standing in 600 tons of concrete.  It’s designed to withstand winds of over 100 miles per hour.  This statue is going nowhere. Talking about it Gormley said it’s
“to be a focus for our hopes and fears - a sculpture is an evolving thing."

It has certainly evolved from public art to public icon.

King Nebuchadnezzar is having some disturbed nights.  He keeps dreaming and no one can help him understand his dreams, until, that is, one of the captured Hebrews is brought to him, Daniel, who everyone understands is not just able to tell the king what it was he dreamed but what it all meant.  It’s that dream and its interpretation that we heard as our First Lesson.

It was a monumental statue that the king was dreaming of, just like one of those seven wonders of the Ancient World that continue to capture our imagination.  He was dreaming of powerful statuary.  But it was nothing like Gormley’s, it was all unstable.  This was real mixed medium art, different materials brought together, clay and iron mixed in the feet, instability was being built into it.  And then the whole thing is brought toppling to the ground.

No wonder the king was so disturbed.  His kingdom was part of this whole unstable structure, his may have been the golden head but the whole thing would come crashing down.

The Second Lesson was also visionary, apocalyptic writing.  The Book of the Revelation to St John continues to capture imaginations with its dramatic images and terrifying narrative.  But the part that we heard described a very different kind of kingdom and structure to the one that the king had dreamt of and Daniel was interpreting. 

One of the challenges to the first structure was competing and hostile power blocks, one kingdom destroying another, the mixing of what could never hold together.  But John’s vision of heaven is both diverse and yet stable.

The Book of Revelation is full of wonderful songs, the worship that’s being continually offered up to heaven by the elders and the saints and angels gathered before the throne of God, worshipping day and night.  But they all sing from the same hymn sheet, as it were.  What John describes might be diversity but it results in harmony.

‘there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages .. singing’

The seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn begins his poem ‘The World’ with these visionary words

I saw Eternity the other night, 
Like a great ring of pure and endless light, 
All calm, as it was bright; 

He wrote in a period of great turmoil in this country, during the Commonwealth period, but like George Herbert who he so admired, he kept faith with the vision, that the turmoil would not prevail, that in the economy of God there was a better vision, the one that John points us to.

People often don’t like it if priests veer off into politics.  ‘Keep to what you know about’, we’re told.  But I come from Southwark Cathedral and so I have no such qualms.  My faith is rooted in the incarnation, in the fact that as St John in his gospel so beautifully puts it
‘The word was made flesh and dwelt among us.’

Jesus came to share our clay feet, mixing in his stature humanity and divinity, standing where we stand, walking where we walk.  Jesus entered into the messiness of the world and its politics, from day one, or at least day two, when the news of his birth was being proclaimed by angels and a jealous Herod got to hear and planned an assassination plot.  He feared that this baby would cause his own kingdom to topple.  Perhaps he was right to be fearful.  But there was Jesus in the mess of it all, being carried as a refugee to Egypt, being tried before an occupying power, being hung on a cross for all to see, like a common criminal.  The incarnation is our permission giver to engage with life as it is.

I don’t need to tell you that there’s huge uncertainty around at the moment.  It isn’t just Brexit, it isn’t just Trump and the forthcoming mid-terms, it isn’t just the Brazilian election result, it isn’t any of those things or many more besides – it’s all of them and the fear and the uncertainty that’s leading people all over the place to be making decisions that lead to decisions that seem increasingly divisive.  At one point Jesus comments about the devil but his words are pertinent for us. This is what he says in St Matthew’s Gospel
‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.’

The edifice however impressive can fall, the king’s dream can all too easily become our own reality. 

A few days ago I was standing by the grave of Oskar Schindler.  I was teaching for a couple of weeks in Jerusalem and I’d gone with the students to the cemetery on Mount Sion where this ‘righteous gentile’, as he’s called in Israel, is buried.  His simple grave stone is covered in stones placed there in respect by Jewish admirers who venture into this Christian graveyard.  And as we stood there remembering the actions of this man during the Second World War, saving 1,200 Jewish children from the concentration camps, I told them something a good friend once said to me
‘To the other you are the other.’

The simplicity of those words have always stayed with me and made me committed to a more inclusive way of being, of seeking to break the cycle of naming and dividing, of fearing and demonising.  And it’s that that I see in John’s vision instead of the king’s dream.  In heaven, in their diversity, they sing the same song, they’re united in their difference, their otherness is their strength and not their weakness, perfect love found in the presence of Jesus has cast out fear.

The political threats to stability in this present age are real and we ignore them at our peril.  And we have to ask ourselves which vision we want to go with, with the toppling and unstable statue, with the harmonious singing.  And the angel spreads its wings over us

I saw Eternity the other night, 
Like a great ring of pure and endless light, 
All calm, as it was bright; 

May that be the vision that we hold to, whatever tomorrow may hold.

Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark Cathedral