Christ the King.
Sermon 22 November 2015
Play John Rutter’s Gloria
This is one of a series of sermon looking at the order we follow each Sunday in the Eucharist/Holy Communion. So far we have looked at the welcome/gathering, last time the confession and now today we come to what we call ‘the Gloria’. This is a good focus for this Sunday in the church’s year when we are invited to consider Christ as king, reigning in glory, just before we move into Advent and prepare for his coming in a very different way, as a tiny baby. We move from the king of glory today, through the preparations of Advent to the birth of the humble son of a carpenter’s wife at Xmas. Look at your service book for a moment – see the references to Jesus as king, including king of glory (next to the confession). Then on the facing page we see the Gloria.
Gloria is short for a phrase in Latin – Gloria in excelsis deo. It’s translated into English in the first phrase in the Gloria in our service book – ‘Glory to God in the highest’. Please stand. Now raise your arms in the air as high as possible, look up and shout all together, ‘Glory to God in the highest!’ now lower your arms, reaching out to the person each side of you and smile as well. We do it again. You may have noticed a little change in your mood as you did all this. There is research to show that stretching, looking up, smiling can stimulate parts of the brain that trigger feelings of well being. Notice too your feet on the ground. We are creatures of the earth, grounded human beings, who are nevertheless drawn upwards and also outwards to one another.
The Gloria is a very ancient hymn of praise, sung in the church from at least the 4th century. Listen to the opening words – ‘Glory to God……’ Where have you heard those before? (Song of the angels to the shepherds after Christ’s birth). The hymn reminds us of Jesus’ birth, of what he has done for us and of where he is now – that king theme – in glory with the Father and the Spirit. By singing this near the start of our Eucharist we are reminded that as we focus on the Trinity- God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit- we join in the songs of the angels, that never ending worship of the whole company of heaven. The natural response to a glimpse of God’s glory is to worship. The angels are doing that already and we can join them. We are invited to take part. `Daniel has a keen awareness of this heavenly dimension and he glimpses there ‘one like a human being’ who is crowned with glory and sovereign power.
So, every Sunday as we praise God; we acknowledge his glory. As we do so 3 remarkable things are taking place. I want to link these with the 3 movements we made earlier. First of all, the upward movement.
Near the Strand in London is a sculpture of Oscar Wilde, a writer, especially remembered for his plays. It’s called ‘A conversation with Oscar Wilde’. The sculpture is waist high and Oscar W is pictured lying down, looking ahead at something beyond us while we look down on him. On the sculpture is the writing, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ (words from one of his plays). OW had a troubled life. As a gay man at the turn of the last century he was looked down on and in fact he spent some time in prison here in Reading. For many of his contemporaries he was definitely in the gutter. Yet like every other human being he had the capacity to look up at the stars – this upward dimension. Cf also Ignatius of Loyola whose friends commented on his habit of gazing at the stars, praising God and often weeping.
We have already noticed that looking up, stretching etc can shift us into a sense of well being. Praising God makes us feel better! We might find ourselves wanting to do more of it. But why does this happen? My own sense is that it’s because we are made in God’s image (or we have a bit of God inside us, to put it another way) and as we sing about who God is we are put in touch with his presence already there inside us, and it’s amazing, and we feel glad. So that’s the first remarkable thing about praising God – we are put in touch with our connectedness to God, we may glimpse who we truly are, we are drawn upwards towards something with which we feel a kind of deep affinity, towards someone with whom we feel strangely at home.
However, we are also grounded – you remember we have our feet on the earth? So here’s the second remarkable thing about praising God….It would seem that we are invited to praise God anyway, whatever is going on around us. So, last Sunday we were reeling from news of the Paris bombings, but we still sang the Gloria. Even in Lent, when we leave out the Gloria, we will still be singing hymns of praise. You might have lost your job, failed an exam, broken up with your partner, lost a loved one, received bad news from the hospital, but you are still expected to sing the Gloria. Does God not care what you are going through?! Isn’t it hypocritical to sing praises when your heart is broken? I guess it would be if you thought you had to pretend your heart wasn’t broken or that you weren’t in the situation you are in. However, we are not being asked to do that. Those events that weigh us down, whether global or personal, are real. We are surrounded by real human suffering. The emotions we feel are real. Those feelings show that we are alive and that we are fully human. Praising God in the midst of all this can do several things – it may distract us – not necessarily a bad thing (rather the way we may distract a small child); it may make us feel better, as we have already noticed. More than anything, though, it can develop in us a new way of seeing what’s happening around us. It may put us in touch with where God is in the situation. The book of Daniel was written during a time when the Jewish people were being persecuted. Daniel is pictured in the middle of this. He sees it, and he also sees much more. In today’s reading he glimpses what a full, God breathed human being can be like – full of glory, authority, sovereign power and ruling over his people in a different way from the oppressive regime he was experiencing. He sees what things are like with God in charge.
Jesus, faced with Pilate’s question about whether he was a king, offers him a way into seeing how he (Jesus) might exercise authority differently. (My kingdom is not of this world….my kingdom is from another place). Pilate doesn’t get it. We very often don’t get it, but as we praise in the midst of the worlds troubles we become more aware of how things will look with God in charge. We actually get in touch with God’s glory and how God’s understanding of power and the exercise of power is very different from ours. For St John (one of the saints after whom our church is named) and from whose gospel our2nd reading comes, God’s glory is revealed most clearly in Jesus’ death on the cross.
So, what’s the 3rd remarkable thing that can happen when we praise God? Remember stretching our arms out to one another? There seems to be some link between praising God together with others and good things happening. This is expressed very well in Psalm 67 where a kind of virtuous circle is described. As people praise God they are blessed by an abundant harvest. Others see this and join in the praise, leading to more blessing on more people (v5-6 Let the peoples praise you, O God, let all the peoples praise you. Then shall the earth bring forth her increase and God, even our own God, shall give us his blessing). In the New Testament in the book of Acts we read of Paul and Silas being in prison and praying and singing hymns to God. This is linked by Luke, the writer of Acts, with the speedy release of the prisoners and with the conversion of the jailor and his family. It’s as though praise offered by groups of people can unlock doors and release blessings. Some of you here may have 1st hand experience of this.
I guess that what happens when we regularly look up whether alone or with others praising God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is that God becomes bigger in our lives. We become part of his glory. St Paul puts it like this – 2 Cor 3.18 – ‘All of us, then, reflect the glory of the Lord with uncovered faces; and that same glory, coming from the Lord, who is the Spirit, transforms us into his likeness in an ever greater degree of glory’. May that be true for us here. Amen.