All Saints Sydenham
31st August 2008
‘Like a Mighty Flood’
Some weeks ago we were thinking about the properties of water. This Sermon came to me ready-made as I stood at the foot of the Powerscourt Waterfall south of Dublin in Ireland.
Powerscourt Waterfall is Ireland's highest at 398ft – that’s over twice the height of the Niagara Falls, though much narrower – and it cascades down the rocky mountainside into the River Dargle. After flowing for miles over brown, peaty earth, the water suddenly crashes down the Falls turning into a pale coffee-cream-coloured foam against the almost-black rocks over which it tumbles.
What surprised me was the difference in appearance of the water once it started flowing away at the bottom of the Falls. As you turn your back to the waterfall you’d expect to see a creamy torrent rushing down the river valley. Not so! Its appearance changes suddenly from a majestic, thundering waterfall, into a rather ordinary-looking river called the Dargle.
Like many other things in God’s world, the way the Powerscourt Falls appears depends how you look at it – on your ‘point-of-view in other words. Looking upwards it’s majestic; looking downwards, with the falls behind one’s back, its majesty disappears.
This is a parable about two different ways of looking at the Church of God. One way might be called the Insider’s View: that’s the view of people who look upwards to the source of our Faith; the other is the Outsider’s View, the view of someone looking downwards at the Church on earth.
Like that waterfall our view of God’s Church changes dramatically according to how we look at it: as Insiders we look upwards towards God and we see His Church as something majestic, beautiful and inspiring; Outsiders, who turn their backs on God and look downwards on His Church only see something very ordinary and uninteresting.
When Insiders – that’s people who take their faith seriously – come together to worship God, and ‘lift up our hearts’ as we are doing this morning, we are in reality, as the Psalmist says, ‘lift[ing] up our eyes unto the hills from whence comes our help’, – the help ‘which comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth’. So, for a moment or two, we catch a glimpse of something unutterably majestic other-worldly and breathtakingly beautiful. We see Heaven opened, and realize that we are standing, with angels, archangels and all the faithful worshippers both past and present who have ever lived in the Presence of our Creator, and praising Him in the words with which we are all familiar: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts: heaven and earth are full of Your glory. Glory be to You, O Lord Most High’.
The moment we turn our backs on that majestic vision and look downwards and away from it, what do we see? We simply see ourselves, and our fellow-worshippers, at All Saints Sydenham, or Saint Stephen’s Lewisham. It’s a completely different viewpoint. The Church, seen from an Earthbound view, looks as different from the Heavenward view, as the lowly Dargle River from the Powerscourt Falls above.
When we start looking at ourselves, we see what the Outsider sees when he or she comes to church for the first time. He looks downwards on us and he sees a number of very ordinary human beings busy doing something which makes no sense to him. Worse still, he may imagine that we the sort of people with whom he has nothing in common. To him, from his earthbound vision of the Church of God, we look and sound to his eyes and ears today as dull as the Dargle River does to the person who looks down on it but fails to ‘lift up his eyes’ to where it that River has come from. He fails to make in his mind the vital connection between the mighty Powerscourt Falls and the down-to-earth Dargle River which it becomes when it finally hits the ground below.
Because the Outsider fails to make that connection he also fails to understand that the water flowing down the river is precisely the same stuff which came over the waterfall. In his (mistaken) view they are two quite different things. But Waterfall and the River, are precisely the same substance, water. Because the water is now flowing steadily between two banks, rather than rushing over a precipice, it looks different because it has entered a different world. The two visions appear different because of its change between crashing waterfall and running river, and not because of any essential change in the water itself.
Is it surprising then, that our Outsider, who never ‘lifts his eyes up to the hills’, fails to see that vital link that you and I can see between what comes from Heaven, and what we appears on Earth below.
Admittedly, in some churches, the casual and haphazard behaviour of the Insiders might well convince any outsider that no such link exists. Looking downwards on careless worship he thinks that they’re nothing more than a group of people who ‘rather enjoy doing that kind of thing’. Well, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying Church; but that’s not why we should do it. Some people like it, some don’t; but the Insider’s reason for worshipping God doesn’t depend on whether he enjoys doing it.
What churchgoing should be about is making the most of the unique opportunity it gives us to turn our eyes away from earthly thing, and lift them upwards towards the Everlasting Hills. From those Hills, the Grace of God ‘thunders like a mighty flood’. When the priest lifts up the consecrated elements, the veil, or cloud, which lies between Earth and Heaven is momentarily ripped away and get a vision of what we really are – as part of a much bigger ‘Show’ than the earthbound view could ever lead us to imagine.
Visions, by their nature last a very short while. Within moments our attention is drawn back from the eternal heavens to that our commonplace Dargle-River congregation of which we and our fellow-worshippers, with our all our shortcomings, are a part. But that vision, however short or imperfect it may be, marks out the vital difference between the way in which Outsiders’ and the Insiders’ look at life.
Insiders, who have understood the connection between what we are, and what God is, are like the person who takes both the upwards- and downwards-view of the waterfall. Whilst the Church links us heavenwards, nevertheless, we see that, like the water, it’s all made up of one and the same thing.
Understanding that truth, helps us to realize how we and our fellow-worshippers, and the world in which we live together, are all being changed by the grace of God. That grace thunders down from on high into His New Creation, an in the process of doing so converts us from being mere men and women like everyone else into effective channels of God’s Grace upon His earth below.