I want to speak about that most Advent of subjects – sunbathing. Just the weather for it, don’t you think? Let me be perfectly honest, I’m not a natural sunbather. I seek out the shade and the only thing that can keep me sitting on a beach for any length of time is a good book (and even then I’d rather be inside with a beer). But as we reflect on light this Advent, the thing that came to mind was the best Thought for the Day that I had heard in a very long time. Giles Frazer, back in August when sunbathing ought at least to have been topical, spoke about prayer as sunbathing. It was an image he took from Rowan Williams, and it emphasises the way in which in prayer God acts on us far more than we act on God. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God – it changes me”.
Going to the beach with my children, I often reflect that protection against the sun is far more widespread than it was when I was a child. Being a pale skinned, easily-burned ginger kid meant that I was often the only child on the beach in a hat, and one of the few wearing factor 50 suncream. Truly things have changed. We are much more conscious of the dangers of the sun. It is, I think, a more mature attitude. The sun is a source of life. It is where, ultimately, all our energy comes from. We need sunlight to be healthy. But prolonged exposure to the sun can be dangerous to us. And so I want to couple the image of prayer as sunbathing with the key Advent theme of judgement, and I want to suggest that prayer is about learning to live in the light of the judgement of God.
Now I know that the moment that I said ‘judgement’ many of you felt the urge to be somewhere else, or at least to find another focus of concentration. So thank you for bearing with me. Judgement is not something we find easy to think about. All too quickly, despite all our aspirations to a more mature theology, we find ourselves back with the image of God the heavenly headmaster. That would make prayer something akin to waiting outside his study, trying to think of a good excuse to avoid punishment. I want to urge you to put this image aside and return to the image of sunbathing. Relax, lie down on your beach towel, and feel the warmth of the sun. This is prayer. This is also judgement.
Let me offer you three biblical images for judgement that might help. The first is from the book of Job. Job, afflicted by all of his troubles and perhaps even more afflicted by the comforting efforts of his friends, expresses a desire for judgement. ‘O that my words were written down! … For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth … in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side’ (Job 19.23,25,26-27). Judgement, for Job, is something to look forward to. For Job it will be his vindication in the face of those who persecute him, it will prove him right and put his oppressors in their place. Job here speaks for many of the prophets and the Psalms, which contain cries for judgement, cries for justice. There are things that we are involved in that are about justice, whether it be about fair trade, tax justice, human rights or even climate change. All of these find us asking for justice, asking for judgement. Bathing in God’s judgement is not, therefore, arbitrary punishment. Rather it is God putting all things right, it is salvation. We are right to sunbathe here.
But it doesn’t take too long until we realise that we are going to be on the receiving end of some of that justice. We may try to be part of the solution, but we are also part of the problem. Bathing in God’s justice is to be changed as we realise what we are doing that is involved with injustice. And, let’s be honest, that is hard work. But rather than scurry for the shade, out of the rays of God’s justice, instead let us put on our dark glasses, slap on the suncream and let God change us.
Judgement is justice. And judgement is also truth. This season of Advent is a season of preparing to hear the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word …’ And that passage continues to tell us that “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1.9). Advent is a season of preparing ourselves to meet the light of the world, and that light brings truth. The truth will indeed set us free (John 8.32), but freedom means looking at the truth about ourselves. The late Cardinal Hume once spoke of judgement as whispering into God’s ear all the things we don’t even want to admit to ourselves. Confessing our sins, which we do each time we come to church, is about receiving forgiveness not about beating ourselves up with guilt. T.S. Eliot reminds us that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. It is hard to hear the truth about ourselves. As we sunbathe in the light of God’s truth, we are changed to become more truthful, not just in what we say but in how we live. Truth is something we get better at as we are exposed to it.
Judgement is justice, judgement is truth. For the third Biblical image of judgement, we need to hear the repeated refrain of Jesus in the Gospels, “You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Luke 12.40). You must be ready, ready to meet the Lord when he comes. This is the third biblical image of judgement that I want to look at – judgement as encounter. Meeting God is not to be taken lightly, it changes lives, it is costly. It is judgement. ‘If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’ ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.’ Aslan is not a tame lion.
Judgement is justice. Judgement is truth. Judgement is encounter. All of these are good things, they are the light that gives us life and health. But all of them threaten who we are, because in the light of God we are changed. The light of God burns up the injustice to which we are party, the falsehood that is in us, and all that stands between us and encounter with the living God. To pray is to bathe in that light, the light of judgement, the light of God. When we pray we place ourselves into the light of God. It is light and health. It is burning judgement.
So to pray takes courage, courage to face what we will discover about ourselves. Courage to change as we are exposed to the light. Courage to allow God to work in us. To pray takes trust. Trust that God will hold on to us as we are changed. Trust that the pain of change will be worth the price. Trust that it is indeed God’s light that we encounter. But most of all, to pray takes nothing other than showing up. We show up in prayer, we kneel or sit and simply let God’s presence get to work. Prayer changes us because it is encounter with the living God. There are no words, no special techniques that make prayer better. All we contribute is showing up. God does the rest.
So, this Advent, let me commend to you the spiritual exercise of sunbathing. Not so much the beachtowel, suncream and dark glasses; but the placing of ourselves in the light of God and allowing that light to work on and in us. Relax, lie down and feel the warmth of the light. Let it invigorate you. Let it burn away the dark. Let it bring you to healing and life.
And may the Lord when he comes find us watching and waiting. May he find us sunbathing! Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
First given at Derby Cathedral Quiet Day: Light and Darkness, 2.12.15