Ascension Lavender Hill
24th August 2008
‘Like a Mighty Flood’
This Sermon came to me ready-made last week as I stoood 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 forms beautiful cascade flowing down the rocky mountainside into the Dargle river. After flowing for miles and miles over brown, peaty earth, the water suddenly crashes down the Falls turning into a pale coffee-coloured foam against the almost-black rocks over which it tumbles.
But what surprised me was the different appearance of the water once it started flowing away at the bottom of the Falls. Turn your back to the waterfall and you’d expect to see a creamy torrent rushing down the 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, how the Powerscourt Falls looks depends on the way you looks at it – on your ‘point-of-view in other words. Look upwards and it appears majestic; look downwards, and 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.
Our view of God’s Church, like the view of the waterfall changes dramatically depending on the direction from which we look at it: those who look upwards to God see in His Church something majestic beautiful and inspiring; those who turn their backs on God, like Outsiders do, will usually only see something very ordinary and unattractive.
When Insiders – those people who take their faith seriously – come together to worship God, and ‘lift up our hearts’ as we are doing here this morning, we are in fact ‘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 and breathtakingly beautiful. We see Heaven opened, and realize that we are standing in the Presence of our Creator with angels, archangels and all the faithful worshippers both past and present who have ever lived, 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’.
But the moment we turn our backs on that majestic vision and look downwards, what do we see instead? We simply see ourselves, and our fellow-worshippers, at the Ascension, Lavender Hill, or Saint Stephen’s Lewisham: it’s a very different picture. We’re looking at something which, to the naked eye, looks as different from the Heavenly Vision as the lowly Dargle River does 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 and sees a number of very ordinary human beings busily doing something which makes no sense to him. Worse than that, he may think that we are people with whom he has nothing in common. In his eyes, we who are the Church of God on Earth, look and sound as dull as the Dargle River does to someone looking down on it but not ‘lifting up his eyes’ to where it is coming from, and so not making that vital connection in his mind between the Dargle and the mighty Powerscourt Falls.
The Outsider, by failing to make that connection, is making a serious error of judgement by failing to see that the water flowing down the river is precisely the same water which came over the waterfall. What seems to him to be two quite separate things, the waterfall and the river, are in fact one and the same substance, water. Because the water is now flowing between two banks rather than over a precipice it has entered different world. So the apparent difference between the two visions comes, not from a change in the water itself but from our way of looking at it.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that our Outsider, who has never learnt to ‘lift his eyes up to the hills’, should fail to see the vital link between what comes from above, and what he sees down below.
Moreover, his confusion may be worse confounded by the fact that the casual behaviour and attitude of some of the Insiders at whom he is looking, suggest that they too have failed to make that link themselves. Church-going and public worship for many Insiders in today’s world is no more than a matter of ‘meeting up on a Sunday with a group of like-minded people who ‘happen to like doing that sort of thing’. Now there’s nothing wrong with enjoying going to Church; but that’s not really the point of it. Some people like it, some don’t; but the reason for doing it should be something quite different.
The reason for churchgoing is, or should be, to make 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 apart and we can see ourselves are part of a much bigger ‘Show’ than we could ever imagine.
But such visions last only a short while. Within a few seconds our attention is inevitably drawn back to the rather prosaic Dargle-River-like congregation of which we and our fellow-worshippers, are a part with all our shortcomings and limitations; but that vision, however short, makes a vital difference between the Outsiders’ and the Insiders’ outlook on life.
Because, as Insiders, we have made the connection between what we are and what God is (like grasping the connection between waterfall and river) we learn to practise directing our gaze both Upwards and Downwards by turns. Once we’ve acquired the habit of alternating between these two visions in our everyday lives, we begin to understand how we and our fellow-worshippers, and the world in which we live together, are being changed into His New Creation by the grace of God which thunders down upon us from on high, flows through us, turning us from mere men and women like everyone else into effective channels of God’s Grace to our fellow human-beings on earth below.
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