In the winter of 1978 I had finished my time at university and was not gainfully employed. By this I mean, I wasn't doing any paid work, since a lack of gainful employment, as we now know, is quite compatible with being paid considerable sums of money. I was at home with my parents and, this being the Seventies, there was a threat of a strike looming at my father's factory, and the strike pay was liable to run out in a few weeks.
So it was suggested that it might be safer for the family finances if I were to find some gainful (and paid) employment. I duly took some seasonal work at the British Rail parcels depot, where we gleefully, but not carefully, unloaded parcels from goods trains. A week later I came home early to inform my mother, that I too was on strike. Did I mention it was the Seventies? A particularly bitter winter had set in and the regular workers had insisted that they had been promised Parka jackets the year before if the winter were to turn bad. This was one of those intermittent periods, lasting some weeks, which occur in human history, when the Parka jacket was seen as a desirable item of clothing. The strike was settled eventually with a standard British compromise. We were issued donkey jackets.
So back to work I went, into the gigantic sheds, where train after train rolled in and we unloaded every one. Christmas was getting dangerously near and the parcels kept coming so we were encouraged to work twelve hour shifts, which meant that we would start working in the trains sheds in darkness and leave in darkness. Only at tea-breaks, when we crossed the yard to the Bothy, did we get to see the sky in daylight. Spontaneously and in unison, every one of us in the workforce, would look up and stare at the day sky, which otherwise we did not see for weeks. The sky is a wonder and we had forgotten that.
Since then, I have always been careful to appreciate the sky, and I think it was because of that experience of deprivation that in studying the Bible I have been very attuned to the prevalence of the sky in the scriptures. We disguise this a lot by calling the sky 'the heavens' spiritualising away the quite simple meaning of the word in the Bible. In the Gospel of Matthew, God is the Father in the sky, but we shy away from such primitive terms. We are embarrassed at such simplicities, and it is true that the heaven we are called to live in will not be bound by time and space in the way that the universe is now. But that is because we will not be bound by time and space, any more than Jesus is bound by time and space. The sky is the sky, and the sky we see now is the same sky that Jesus saw, that he looked up to when he spoke the words of today's Gospel, when he emerged from the river Jordan after baptism, and that he rose into when he left the disciples on Earth.
When Jesus thought of his Father, he looked at the sky. God is infinitely greater than the sky. The whole universe is nothing before God. Still the sky is too important a symbol to be ignored. Not just in its beauty and its vastness: it is a symbol of unity, the unity of the human race, the most shared thing we have. It is true that even the sky has been polluted by our bombs and rockets, but that comes from our too-earthly grubby holding on to the things of the land. On Earth, we divide the land and the land divides us. We fight for power, for wealth, for honour and for Parka jackets.
Jesus plunged into the depths of the Earth and transformed the world. He fell
as low as it is possible for a human being to fall, and then he rose again. If
we follow him, we follow him here on Earth, and we can't spend our lives
staring at the sky. Still once in a while, it's good to look up. After all, our
call in Christ is an upwards call.