The Morning After
Today is the morning after. The morning after what?
For some, it may be the morning after walking into your new room in hall wondering how it could ever seem familiar, could ever be home; the morning after eating dinner mentally comparing the brilliance, popularity and confidence of others compared to your own drabness, slowness and shyness; the morning after finding yourself at the Union drinking a sickly concoction in a variety of hi-viz colours called, for no discernible reason, a Pablo; the morning after a night of fitful sleep with unsettling dreams.
For some, the morning after delivering your child to St Andrews to begin their time at University, seeing them into their room, unloading enough bags for a what seemed like a dozen children; the morning after wandering round this small town wondering how your son, your daughter will fit in; the morning after eating dinner wondering what it will be like to return to a home unusually empty of noise, chaos and unwashed clothes on the bedroom floor.
For others, returning to St Andrews, to Chapel, to worship, it’s a new year, a new beginning. The reading lists just got longer. The experiments just got trickier. The workload just got heavier. The summer just disappeared. This is the morning after the night before, the summer before, the 18 years before.
We are not the first people to wake up in a new world. Our reading for today from Mark’s Gospel told the story of a girl in a place called Tyre whose mother encountered Jesus, and pleaded with him to make her better. And he did. The language belongs more to the time of the Bible than to ours – impure spirit, and demon. We may well interpret the situation differently today. Yet I think we can still imagine something of how it felt.
You are a young girl, and all you can remember is to feel out of sorts, unable to grasp the world. People scowl at you, are frightened of you. Your body will not obey you. Your voice comes out all wrong. You are full of tension and distress. Your mother’s face is always etched with worry.
But today, you woke up and it was all different. For the first ever time, you felt calm, at peace, with a clarity to your impressions. You were not fighting yourself any more.
Mark ends that story there and moves with Jesus to Decapolis. But let us stay in Tyre with the girl. What happened next? What was it like the morning after her healing? We don’t know. Was it a life without problems? Surely not. She had to adjust to herself. Her mother had to adjust to her changed child. The impure spirit gone, the girl had only just begun to explore what it meant to be herself. What did she like? What would she play? What would she say? Who would she be? God had come to her, with power and love, but the morning after, she had to discover what it meant to be a human being, made in the image of God, with a God-given responsibility to live her human life.
Perhaps it is not so different for many in Chapel today. I don’t mean that a demon has been cast out of us – however we interpret that. I mean that after a long time of routine, of familiar patterns, of preparation, we now wake up to a new morning. God has answered our prayers – we have written that perfect personal statement, got the grades, and persuaded our parents that St Andrews is the place to bring us and leave us, on the cusp of adulthood, of a lifetime of our own decision-making.
Or God has answered our prayers – our child has thrived, studied, succeeded, been accepted, and now has arrived on the cusp of adulthood, of a lifetime of their own decision-making.
Or God has answered our prayers – we have been supported through the long, hot days and weeks of the summer – too long, too hot perhaps, and have returned to this place of worship and of inspiration.
Whether a long-expected event, or an unexpected miracle, we are here. And it is a new morning. What does it mean to be ourselves? What do we like? What will we play? What will we say? Who will we be?
I was an undergraduate student in Aberdeen, in the north-east of Scotland, and I remember my first few days. I didn’t know much about myself. My clothes were not quite chosen by my mother, but not far off. I’d certainly never bought my own socks. I’d never washed my clothes. I had no idea what I drank in a pub. My cooking stretched to French toast and Angel Delight – a pink powder you whisked with milk to make a pink pudding. (Now that I think about it, wouldn’t Angel Delight be a great title for a Christmas sermon.)
Within a year, things were a little different. I’d just about mastered the laundrette at the halls of residence. I bought my own white socks to go with my stonewash Levi 501s – it was the 80s. I’d drunk my first cappuccino. And I knew that I liked Guinness – no such thing as a Pablo then. It would take another year to learn to cook spaghetti Bolognese.
But I’d also learned much more about who I was. I loved Philosophy. And the novels of D. H. Lawrence – under the influence of a girlfriend. I felt comfortable in a church called Bridge of Don Baptist Church. I’d begun volunteering at the weekends with people with mental illness. And I’d made friends, exploring conversation and ideas long into the night. That’s not quite who I am now, but it’s part of who I’ve become.
You may be thinking – that’s all very well. The rosy glow of hindsight. But what about this morning? After all, Jesus moved on from Tyre to Decapolis, off to heal someone else. What about those he left behind? It’s all very well to say that God has answered our prayers to bring us here – what about now? Where is God in the light of this morning? Where will God be the first evening I get scared? The first time I struggle with an assignment? A friendship falls through? A relationship turns sour? I feel lonely? I get sick?
Here, the first reading from the lectionary today, from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament, may bring comfort. It is not the story of what God has done, but what he promises to do. It was spoken to a people in exile. The Hebrews had been taken away from their home, east to Babylon, where for generations they lived longing to return to the hills and valleys, fields and villages of their memory. Babylon may have had grand architecture, but to the Hebrews it felt like a wilderness, remote, empty, unfamiliar, dangerous.
And to this people, at this time – to people feeling weak and feeble, parched and fearful – Isaiah says: God will come and save; God will bring healing; God will let water flow; God will make a road for you; God will keep you safe. It doesn’t say when and it doesn’t say how: but it speaks with confidence and hope that God will do this, that he is with them even if seems like a wilderness; that he will accompany them into a future in which their difficulties will be transformed.
And so, Isaiah says, even though there be lions and jackals in the night, be strong, don’t be frightened, rejoice at God’s presence. Even then, the lions and jackals would have been understood both literally and metaphorically. And so we could translate that passage today in many different ways.
Even though there be dodgy results; even though there be unhappy adventures in the night; even though there be embarrassing mistakes; even though there be the worry of how our child is getting on – be strong, don’t be frightened, rejoice at God’s presence.
For God is there the morning after the night before. He doesn’t leave us to face those lions, those jackals on our own. He is there in your care, in this community, among our friends; he is there in our prayers.
Whether we’ve arrived in a place strangely empty of what is familiar and comfortable and easy;
whether we leave St Andrews soon for a home strangely devoid of incomprehensible music, unidentifiable stuff and teenage hormones;
whether we’ve returned to a St Andrews with strangely more cashmere shops than can possibly be useful:
the morning after may well be strange, but it will be full of promise. For, as Isaiah said, when God is with his people by his loving presence:
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.