The ordinary artists

Derby Cathedral, Evensong, 4 January 2015, on these readings

I spent most of yesterday on the train from Edinburgh to Derby with the weekend papers. So I am very well up on what I should be doing in the New Year. I should give up solid food and live instead on bright green juice made out of kale. I should have bacon delivered to my house by post. I should travel to the Faroe Islands, to Cuba, to Costa Rica, to Namibia, to Margate. I should mark the anniversary of the Battle of Britain, of Waterloo, of Magna Carta. I should give up social media. I should fling myself into social media. I should run three times a week. I should meditate two minutes a day. I should detox, I should not detox. I am not perhaps well advised, but I am much advised.

And here, in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, is another bit of advice.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds

A one-stop New Year resolution. It says everything.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds

It doesn’t say everything. It doesn’t say, ‘as long as you’re doing something different from the world you must be getting it right’. It is easy to feel that, but that is not the Gospel. It’s easy to feel it now, when the Church calendar and the world calendar are mirror images of each other. The Church kept Advent, which has at least a flavour of a fast, and now it keeps a feast. It’s still Christmas. Epiphany goes on for a month. But the world kept Christmas all December, and has taken down the decorations, and is buckling down to fast in January. Do not be conformed to this world.

But the feast of Christmas, whenever we keep it, is about precisely that. It is about the Word being made flesh. About what happens when God is conformed to this world, in Jesus, a human being, a baby born in the usual way: and is still God. It will not do just to say to ourselves, Let’s not be conformed to this world. We will have to take it a bit further.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds

but it doesn’t stop there, it goes on –

so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

It is the will of God, says the story of Christmas, for God, who is still God and absolutely beyond us, to become one of us.  Not in any half-baked half-hearted way, like me entertaining for a millisecond the idea that I might ever drink kale juice, but completely, body and all. God takes on flesh. And hunger and sleep. And a family. And vulnerability and emotion. And work and friends. And a history. And death.  All humanity is taken on, touched and transfigured by God.  Everything is taken on; what is not taken on is not healed.  Humanity, made in God’s image, created and utterly unlike God, is taken on by God.  It matters.

We matter to God. The world matters. Why is God behaving in this peculiar way? Why has God sent his only Son into the world? So that the world through him might be saved. Not to condemn the world; not to be separate from the world: so that the world through him might be saved. The way God goes about things may not be what we first thought of, or what we would do ourselves, but at least we can admit that there is sometimes reason in it. If the world is God’s, even we can see that it would matter to God.

It is the will of God, the story of Christmas suggests, not to be conformed to the world’s ideas of what God should do. How God should behave. But instead to take on imperfection so that it can be made perfect. To take on failure so that we can be found acceptable. To take on the way things are –  the world – so that what we tend to regard as, at best, limited, or transient, or smelly, or inessential, or foreign, or a funny shape, and at worst heartbreaking – to take on the way things are so that it can be restored to good. God, says the story of creation in Genesis, saw that it was good in the first place, when God made it. The world matters to God. We matter to God. God works through the world; through us. And this is the last thing the world has taught us to expect.

Do not be conformed to this world. Do not be conformed to expect not to find God in the world, out through those doors. Do not be conformed to think that what happens in the world does not matter. Do not be conformed to keep God safely beyond our limits, safely away from ordinary life. God chooses to be within our limits. Nothing we can do, no New Year’s resolution, no journey to Timbuctu, and certainly not kale juice, can transform us as that can.

I beseech you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed.


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