The Force Awakens

Sermon preached by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington on 27th December 2015 at St Mary’s, Garsington and St Giles’, Horspath.

Readings: Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52.

At last the day has arrived. The day a generation has been waiting for, since it was first announced that Disney had bought the rights to George Lucas’ Star Wars films and were going to continue the story of Luke Skywalker and his friends, taking us once more back to ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. The Force Awakens is now out and you have 29 opportunities to see it at the Vue cinema alone, if you want.

I was only six when I first saw the original film and like many it left a deep impression. Through the power of the visual experience, no story or fairy tale before had enabled you to enter so fully into an imaginary world, so much so that the lives and situations of the characters continued within your mind long after leaving the dark world of the cinema. We may laugh at those who state on their census form that their religion is Jedi, but the language of the Force gave many a physical and emotional expression to spirituality which continues to define the divine for many of the so called missing generation from our churches. For the Star Wars world, like all great stories, plays out many of the truisms of life itself: good battling against evil, the complexity of family relationships, striving for justice and peace, loss and triumph. They are all there, and like the bards of old, who wove their magic by the fire, so the magic of cinema continues to play out the deep truths which underlie our ordinary lives and experiences.

Over the last few days we have been telling another story, the story of the birth of Jesus. From hearing the scriptural account read out in our churches, to singing carols, listening to stories about angels and wise men, watching films or plays based on the biblical narrative, to delighting in the children’s Nativity and crib service, we have been telling the story of Mary and Joseph, the vision of the shepherds, the journey of the wise men and the birth of a baby. Today that story continues as we hear about the boy Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, becoming lost and being found by his parents in the Temple. In many ways it is a story many of us can relate to. We have all at some time or another gone on a journey of some significance and feared losing someone or getting lost ourselves in a strange place. The narrative takes us to that place of strangeness and anxiety in our own lives but then it tells of another kind of strangeness, a boy teaching the wise and revealing the ways of God. Roles have been reversed and in this place of strangeness something new is being revealed in an undefined and unexplained way. We are invited to ask new questions, to wonder, to ponder, just like Mary does. The story, even though we know it so well, continues to live in our minds and hearts long after we have left this church. We are invited to align our lives to its narrative, not only to understand ourselves better but also to understand the person of whom the story is about. For the ‘old, old story of Jesus and his love’ as the hymn puts it is not called the greatest story ever told without reason. Unlike Star Wars or any other great story, what stands out about the story of Jesus is that it is not essentially a story at all.

Today we also commemorate the feast of St John the Apostle and Evangelist. At the heart of his gospel account of the story of Jesus, John continually emphasises that what he tells us about Jesus is not just a story for us to tell each other, however many truisms it may hold but that at its heart it speaks about and shows truth. That slippery word which Pilate cannot get to grips with. But this is not a dogmatic sense of the word truth which lays down fixed and unchanging statements. Instead it is an invitation to encounter Truth himself in all its Neo-Platonic sense. As we heard over the Christmas period, for John, Jesus is the living Word who conveys in his own words and actions the truth of God. John calls himself the witness. Witness not just to the events of the Jesus’ history but to the Truth that Christ embodies. So John writes in his first letter: ‘we declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us – we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete’. Through his words both spoken and written John the apostle, the close and beloved friend of Jesus gives us a reliable account of the story of Jesus. But at the same time, John the Evangelist invites us to enter into fellowship with this living Word and through the narrative of our own lives encounter Truth himself.

Last Wednesday, with great excitement and anticipation, we went to see the new Star Wars film, The Forces Awakens. It is as good as the critics say, and from a Star Wars fan of old I was not disappointed. The images still linger in my mind and I wonder what the next chapter will unfold. For me, the imagery of the Force still captures all the wonder and mystery and immediacy of God, and the role of the Jedi encapsulates the life of dedication to the divine. But this story, like all great stories will fade in time until the next film is brought out. Yet Truth will continue to reveal himself through his living Word, not only as we journey through the season of Lent and Easter and enter into the story of the life of Jesus, but also, I believe, through all the great stories we tell each other. For, if we believe the Christmas message to be true, that God is truly with us and we can behold his glory, then there is nowhere that he cannot be seen or encountered, even in the fantastical and imaginary world of the cinema. Amen.