Sermon: December 16 2015

May the Lord when he comes

find us watching and waiting.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The 2003 film Love Actually—I am well aware how outdated and clichéd a pop cultural reference this is, but I will defend to death my right and yours to love this film unabashedly, and with no trace of irony—[The 2003 film Love Actually] opens with a scene at the arrivals gate at Heathrow, and a voiceover about how love is all around, in “fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends”. The scene is a montage of hugs, and the joy in everyone’s faces is unmistakable and even infectious.

But whenever I watch that scene—and yes, I’ve seen it more than once—I think immediately of what happens before the embraces, off screen: I think of people, bags clutched or dragged behind them, scanning the crowds. I think of that mounting feeling of anticipation—neck craned, heart rate elevated—just before the moment of recognition, and that breaking of dayspring in their eyes and lips. Unmistakable, infectious.

+++

We are called, throughout this Advent season, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive.

These are not verbs we celebrate these days, in our culture that fetishises busyness and easily quantifiable productivity. In our world in which time is money and the WiFi connection can never be fast enough, the idea that we are called to wait can sound like a drag.

But there is nothing boring—nothing passive, nothing easy—about waiting and watching, not if we do it right.

+++

Neck craned, heart rate elevated, the Queen of Sheba spies land, finally. She has journeyed long; a sort of fool’s errand, driven by rumours of greatness in the north.

The wise men, they see the star stay put, finally. They too have journey long, from the lands at the rising of the Sun, from the comforts of their libraries where they first found clues to look to the heavens; a sort of fool’s errand, driven by prophecies of a newborn king in the west.

These are, of course, the same story: of one type, as received by the Church. The queen comes from afar, bearing gifts for the King of the Jews; the “three kings” do the same. Christian legend has even long held that the Queen of Sheba brought with her the same gifts as the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The former foreshadows the latter, which is its fulfilment.

+++

Mary and Elizabeth both, hands on bellies, they feel the life stirring inside their bodies for the first time, finally. They too have been waiting; watching for signs of the impossible. There are few things more foolish, surely, than a postmenopausal woman expecting a child, except of course, a virgin doing the same.

Here too, we have foreshadowing, both between the women and between their sons. Thus, the Benedictus, in which Zechariah addresses his son, John:

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins.

It was, we might recall, the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, when John the son of Zechariah was in the wilderness, waiting.

There is nothing boring—nothing passive, nothing easy—about waiting and watching, not if we do it right.

+++

This penchant for foreshadowing—for seeing the kings of the Orient in the queen of the South; and the Church in Israel; and Christ in David; and so forth—is a manifestation of how the Church conceives of waiting. We play the long game, to be sure—often, mythical millennia divide forerunner from fulfilment—but much more than that, we hold and hold on to the insight that forerunner and fulfilment are, despite all appearances, much closer than can be quantified in our standard measures of time. We recognise that the saving work of God is both still to come and already done. And so it is, that in Advent we simultaneously recall what the Lord has done and anticipate what the Lord has promised to do; we look backwards and forwards, not least to the birth of Jesus and to his coming again in glory.

We are, of course, in the middle, in the thick of things, and called so and here to be. We are, you and I, the Queen of Sheba and the kings of the Orient; Mary and Elizabeth; John the Baptist. We wait and watch, which is to say that we move toward the horizon that we can only just see, bringing all the gifts that we can bear for the once, now, and future king. We wait and watch, which is to say that we attend to our bodies, and the image of God in us and the life of the Spirit that compels us. We wait and watch, which is to say, we go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of all their sins. Necks craned, heart rate elevated, eyes squinted in pregnant anticipation.

There is nothing boring—nothing passive, nothing easy—about waiting and watching.

+++

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John, the son of Zechariah was in the wilderness, in the water, waiting for the God who calls and comes, who invites and arrives, who promises and is present. And the crowd too, they waited and watched, not knowing quite what to expect. These centuries later, we join them and with the Church past and present, no more certain than they what God will do next. But whatever it is, whatever it is we are waiting and watching for—it is good news, and occasion for joy.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon: November 29 2015

Readings

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:12-4.2

Luke 21:25-28, 35-46

“Preparing for Christmas” involves a good many things: there are presents and cards to be purchased, food to be prepared, trees to be decorated, parties at which to be seen. It is, for many people, a time of great anxiety. The limits of our means and our memories come up against our supposed social obligations.

It seems to get earlier every year. Advent is only just beginning, and yet already our annual insecurities are being fuelled by the glare of cheap tinsel under gaudy flashing lights, the embarrassing catchiness of kitsch Yuletide pop music.

The problem is, I think, that we have, all of us, been suckered into all sorts of stories. We have misidentified ourselves, for cogs in the machinations of mass producers and Machiavellian politicians.

We have misaligned our loyalties, to Pepsi or Coke, Visa or MasterCard, Apple or Microsoft.

We have misplaced our hopes, investing them in the pale facsimiles of Christmas propagated by the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

We participate in this pernicious Ponzi scheme for many reasons. At some level, we believe that we can buy love after all, or close enough; forgiveness, for otherwise neglecting our families and friends, or close enough.

Or we believe that we can buy our ways out of our hamster wheels, by greasing the stockings of our bosses and board members; an investment, toward working less for more money. Maybe then we will get to spend more time with our families. Next year’s presents will not be corrupted by ulterior motives, we promise ourselves.

It’s not just us doing the promising, of course. Promises are made to us too. We are promised more…something. I once saw a tag line for a jewellery store: love built on more, it read. Few literary entities are more vacuously depressing than such glib slogans that manage to cheapen marriage by shackling it to exorbitantly-priced inert rocks, extracted from holes we’ve made in God’s good earth by exploiting people who don’t look like us, far far away. Love built on more. More what?

The gospel according to Madison Avenue: buy this car, and you will have this woman or man; buy this frozen dinner, and your family will be shiny and perfect; buy this detergent, and you get to wipe your cotton slates clean, no matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t take a cynical leftist to pick up on the fact that these promises are as empty as discarded Amazon boxes.

+++

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

It is the First Sunday in Advent.

Advent is a funny old thing. It is a time of waiting, of anticipation and preparation. But we seem to be anticipating and preparing for an event that has already occurred, the birth of Jesus, all those centuries ago in a place far away from us.

And yet, of course, while Christmas is in some sense a one-off historical event, there is surely a greater sense in which the Incarnation is a cosmic event, which continues to define our present reality. It is a crucial element in the logic of the story in which we actually belong as members of the Body of the One Who was Raised.

Furthermore, the Incarnation is not done. In Christ, glorified and risen, the Father is still ever working at the heart of things—in your hearts and in mine—reconciling the world to God.

The Christian faith is full of such now-and-not-yets. The Kingdom of God is among us, and yet—as we shall pray together later—we yearn for its coming. We are raised in Christ, and yet—as we shall confess together later—we look forward to resurrection and new life. The promises of God, fulfilled and yet to come to fruition.

+++

It is the First Sunday of Advent, and now we wait, which is to say that we anticipate and prepare, neither of which are passive verbs.

We wait on the promises of God, in this our celebration of the Incarnation, by coming and gathering together to tell the story that is our story; by partaking of bread broken and wine spilt, and in so doing, offer ourselves broken and spilt for the sake of the world; by going out into the world in peace, in the name of Christ our once, now, and future King, to love and to serve.

Stand up! Raise your heads!

Your redemption is drawing near.

The Incarnation was and is to come, and is now, both promised and present in the life and work of  the Church, in you and in me.

+++

The days are surely coming when he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

“Preparing for Christmas” involves a good many things: there are presents and cards to be purchased, food to be prepared, trees to be decorated, parties at which to be seen.

And what has that to do with the promised justice and righteousness? Everything.

Christmas is coming, and with it the characteristic feasting and gift-giving. This sharing of material goods, and especially of food, is neither foreign nor anathema to Christian practice. Indeed, we will soon be engaging in precisely these acts, as we take up the offering and as we share the Eucharistic feast together.

But how we share food and other material goods—what we eat and buy—is crucial, and if there is to be justice and righteousness, what better place to start? If all consumption is patterned after the Eucharist and in anticipation of the heavenly banquet to come, then our Christmas consuming must also be communion: the free and reckless opening of our selves and all that we have to and for each other. If our consumption is to be just and righteous, it must also be—it must primarily be—about and for others, for friends and family, and for our neighbour, which is to say, for the alien and the stranger.   

The days are surely coming when he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Those days are not yet come, but of course they are.

This Sunday just past, the Church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the end to the liturgical year. It is a timely reminder of our true identities, of our allegiances and obligations, meet and right. The Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category, but the risen Body of the crucified King, who subverts our dominant assumptions about death and life, weakness and power, freedom and obligation. It is only with this affirmation still ringing in our ears that we might begin to consider what it means to prepare for Christmas.

We are called, throughout this season of Advent, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive. Advent connotes both approach and arrival; in the same breath: presence and promise.

The days are surely coming when he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Those days are not yet come, but of course they are.

Sermon: November 30th 2013

The Promises of Christmas

 NB: This relatively long piece was delivered as part of a pre-Advent workshop at the St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford. 

This Sunday just past, the Church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the oft-neglected end to the liturgical year. It is well-placed, this feast; an apt reminder of our loyalties when Easter past has faded from memory and Christmas just ahead is obscured by the haze of glossy pamphlets and television jingles. It jolts us into remembering that Christ is indeed King, and therefore that our allegiances can be taken for granted by no other. Our nationalisms, political partisanships, and brand loyalties are necessarily relativized, lest they collapse into idolatry. After all, the Church is neither a voting block nor a consumer category, but the risen Body of the crucified King, who subverts our dominant assumptions about death and life, weakness and power. It is only with this affirmation still ringing in our ears that we might begin to consider the promises of Christmas.

+++

It seems to get earlier every year. Advent is only just beginning, and yet already we begin to feel the anxiety associated with that most socially awkward of our annual rituals.

God only knows what we have promised to our children in those moments of desperation, when it seemed our only option to bribe them to behave.
God only knows what they have  secretly prayed for at the altar of the benevolent bearded character who lives far, far away in a place pure white as drifted snow.
God only knows whether or not other people are planning to get us anything, our sisters-in-law, our second-cousins-twice-removed, our former and potential business clients. If so, do we reciprocate? If so, what on earth should we get?

It seems to get earlier every year. Advent is only just beginning, and yet already our insecurities are fuelled by the glare of cheap tinsel under gaudy flashing lights, the embarrassing catchiness of kitsch Yuletide pop music. We are, all of us, suckered into all sorts of stories.
We have misidentified ourselves, for cogs in the machinations of mass producers and Machiavellian politicians.
We have misaligned our loyalties, to Pepsi or Coke, Visa or MasterCard, Apple or Microsoft.
We have misplaced our hopes, investing them in the pale facsimiles of Christmas propagated by the robber barons of global consumer capitalism.

The promises of this version of Christmas are all too familiar to us.
We promise presents, or ad agencies do so on our behalf.
We participate in this pernicious Ponzi scheme for many reasons. I guess at some level, we do believe that we can buy love after all, or close enough. Forgiveness, for otherwise neglecting our families and friends; or close enough. We can assuage our guilt, at least. We can grease the stockings of board members; an investment, toward working less for more money. Maybe then we will get to spend more time with our families. Next year’s presents will not be corrupted by ulterior motives, we promise ourselves.
It’s not just us doing the promising, of course. We get promised stuff too.

We are promised more…something. I was meandering around Singapore’s airport just this past Monday, in transit from New Zealand; jetlag-addled as my brain was, I managed to notice a tag line for a jewellery store: love built on more, it read. Few literary entities are more vacuously depressing than such glib slogans that manage to cheapen marriage by associating it with exorbitantly-priced inert rocks, extracted from holes we’ve made in God’s good earth by exploiting people who don’t look like us, far far away. Love built on more. More what? The gospel according to Madison Avenue: buy this car, and you will have this woman or man; buy this frozen dinner, and your family will be shiny and perfect; buy this detergent, and you get to wipe your cotton slates clean, no matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t take a cynical leftist to pick up on the fact that these promises are as empty as discarded Amazon boxes.

+++

Creeds get a bad rep. Most of us will be familiar with that old skit from Not the Nine O’Clock News; the one where God is compared to electricity and the Incarnation to artificial insemination. It’s funny because it’s true, right? It’s funny because we see a bit of ourselves in that parody of liberal Christianity; and maybe it’s a bit sad to think that our kind of religion is a sort of relic from the age of mullets, wide lapels, and flared trousers. Maybe it’s funny because we recognize that that kind of religious skepticism is a bit silly. It’s silly not because its propositional content is preposterous but because it misunderstands the grammar of religious belief altogether.

We believe. There are at least three ways to understand what Christian belief consists in, all of which are at least partly right. There is, to start with, that notion that is perhaps currently most popular, that religious belief is the acceptance of certain facts. The fact, for example, that God exists, that Jesus rose from the dead, that we will go to Heaven. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. It does not go very far in part because our cognitive categories and linguistic technologies do not themselves go very far, but also because God is not a thing, the Resurrection is not an event, and Heaven is not a place. God is not a thing like we are things, you and me, tables and chairs, atoms and molecules. “Existence” is our concept for a thing being in the world, in some great list of objects in our ontology. God is not a thing in the world, nor is God an object of any kind, to be put on some list amongst other objects. The God who is, as Karl Barth asserted “wholly other” and as St. Augustine maintained “closer to us than we are to ourselves”, is that to which all things owe their being and therefore cannot be counted as a part of “all things”. God is the unutterable mystery who is worshipped and glorified, not amenable to theological vivisection because our tools are far, far too blunt. And the Resurrection; well, thought and language begin to break down as soon as we attempt to go beyond the empty tomb. Christians—even the most traditional, orthodox ones—know what they deny, but not what they affirm. The tomb was empty, we say; neither the disciples, nor the Romans, nor the wolves took the body away, we say. What did happen? Jesus rose again. What does that mean? Well, it means at least that all the things we can imagine happened didn’t. That’s all that can be said about the matter in empirical terms. The rest is poetry, is liturgy. And Heaven; well, let’s just say that we can go from Oxford to Cambridge (if we really must), but not, as it were, from Cambridge to Heaven. To think that travel and transportation, distances and velocities, and estimated times of arrival are relevant concepts in talking about Heaven is early to misunderstand the notion altogether. God is not a thing; the Resurrection is not an event; Heaven is not a place. The grammar of religious belief is not that of belief in everyday things, events, and places; rather, it stretches or cognitive and linguistic capacities beyond their breaking points, bringing them to their knees.

We believe. That is to say, we trust. Social scientists and commentators tells us that we are living through a crisis of trust. Or, at least, an epidemic of cynicism. Study after study, both in the UK and abroad, have found record low levels of trust in all kinds of institutions, from the government to the Church to the banks to the media. Such institutions, so most people seem to believe, are self-serving and deceptive. They are driven by greed and the lust for power; that is to say, by bald self-interest. Their promises therefore come to nought. God—that cosmic Big Brother, hidden in the sky, pulling the strings under the shroud of mystery—surely God is no different. Certainly, his representatives can be trusted no further than they can be thrown, or so it is popularly thought; and so, God is thrown out with the bath water of bigotry and hypocrisy and the multitude of religion’s sins. And yet, and yet, of course, God is different. That is the point of the doctrine of divine transcendence, after all: we are made in the image of God at least in the sense that we can look at ourselves to see how God is not. God has neither need nor desire; or, at least, none to be fulfilled by things outside God’s own life and being. The Christian doctrine of creation is that God created everything out of nothing and for nothing: the existence of all this—these planets and people, seas and skyscrapers, mountains and metaphors, cosmological constants and cathedrals—all these grand and glorious things are utterly pointless. Or rather, they are their own point. We are our own point. Our value does not depend on anything other than ourselves, our creatednesses, our having been loved into being. The politicians and other powerful figures we distrust, they value us for our votes or our taxes or our custom or our labour. In contrast, our value to God is not contingent on what we supply; rather, it is supplied to us in our having been made by God. Therefore, God is trustworthy at least because God can have no self-serving agenda for us, we are not means to some other nefarious end. We must, however, be careful in how we understand what it means to trust God, if this trust is not to collapse into fantasy. Trust in God is not the motivated belief in a particular set of outcomes. It is not, for example, the belief that we will get what we want, what we ask for. This is to confuse God for Father Christmas. God does not comply with our whims, but rather redeems and reforms our desires. Desire is no bad thing, the protestations of more Puritanical preachers than myself notwithstanding. However, the objects of our desire and the means by which we seek to fulfil them may well be mistaken. It is the task of Christian discipleship to reorder our desires in the direction of true humanity; that is, in Christ’s direction, the true human being. The promise of God—and thus the promise of Christmas—is none other than God in Christ. The fact that we want iPads instead is just an indication that Apple is better at reordering desire than the Church is.

We believe. That is to say, we promise. When we utter the words of the Creed in the context of public worship, we are not mainly expressing an opinion; rather, the phrase “I believe” is what philosophers call a “performative utterance”, a speech-act that does something, that makes a difference. The credal “I believe” is grammatically identical to the matrimonial “I do”. Both enact changes in social reality; the latter to one’s spouse, the former to God. What then, do we promise? We promise, at least, to see the world as God does, and to behave accordingly. This is not to say that we promise to see the world omnisciently, but that we see the world as gift, not to us (as if we were not part of the world) but for its own sake. Seen thusly, the world—all creatures, great and small—are infinitely worthy of our interest and care. St. Augustine puts it best. In asking what it is to believe in God, Augustine says, “It is in believing to love, in believing to delight, in believing to walk towards him, and be incorporated amongst the limbs or members of his body”. We promise, therefore, to take the world seriously, as seriously as the God whose love for the world looks like a baby in a manger and an innocent man on a cross.

+++

This Sunday just past, the Church celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, which marks the end to the liturgical year. This Sunday just around the corner, she—we—will celebrate the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the liturgical year. We are called, throughout this season of Advent, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive. The word advent, both in English and in Latin, connotes both approach and arrival; in the same breath: presence and promise.

Sermon: December 16th 2012

Readings

Zephaniah 3.14-20

Isaiah 12.2-6 (Canticle)

Philippians 4.4-7

Luke 3.7-18

Now it is time to awake out of sleep,

for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John the son of Zechariah was in the wilderness; so the story goes, as we heard last Sunday.  John was, in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah and also, as the story goes, as his father Zechariah said upon his birth. John was, in the wilderness, knee deep in the River Jordan (or so I imagine), waiting.

The crowds too—gathered perhaps out of curiosity as much as anything else—were, in the wilderness, waiting and watching, but for God knows what or whom. God knows, and perhaps John knows, but he wasn’t being very specific, our surly sage, wading in the water, like—one gets the distinct impression—a crazy person.

And yet. And yet, here we are, by the water in the wilderness, waiting and watching for—one gets the distinct impression—someone who is already here, closer than we know.

+++

It is the Third Sunday in Advent. We are called, throughout this season, to wake up and to keep vigil; to wait and to anticipate; to be patient and to prepare for the coming of God who is already and ever with us, who is ever approaching and never ceases to arrive.

We are—Christians are—not unaccustomed to paradox; and this one, between the already and the not yet, between fulfilment and expectation, is certainly a familiar and recurring theme. And so it is, that according to the prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah, the Lord is and will be in our midst; the Lord has become our salvation, and we will draw from salvation’s wells; the Lord has taken away the judgements against us, and we will be gathered and brought home.

And so it is, that in Advent we simultaneously recall what the Lord has done and anticipate what the Lord has promised to do; we simultaneously look backwards and forwards, not least to the birth of Jesus and to his coming again in glory.

And so it is, that Advent is—among other things—an occasion for joy. Rejoice inthe Lord, exclaims St. Paul, “Rejoice”. And then, almost as if whispering, surrounding his words in gentleness and peace, he provides us with a reason to rejoice, the foundation of all joy: “The Lord is near”. Near; the word, both in English and in Greek—like the word advent,which in English and in Latin connotes both approach and arrival—is ambiguous. In the same breath: presence and promise.  The Lord is near. And so we rejoice, we sing aloud, as Zephaniah exhorts us; we exult with all our hearts. And so we give thanks, we shout aloud and sing for joy, as Isaiah bids us; we proclaim the Lord’s name.

+++

It is the Third Sunday in Advent, and we are told, on this day in Advent to rejoice. And then, we are also told, by our cantankerous prophet John, that the one who is coming, for whom we wait has, in his hand, a winnowing fork to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, and to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. And then, without skipping a beat, this is called good news. John is—one gets the distinct impression—like a crazy person.

Rejoice; the Lord is near, and with the Lord, judgement. Joy and judgement; strange bedfellows, it would appear. And yet. And yet, as John suggests, judgement is the consummation of justice. Having verbally abused those who had come seeking baptism, our curmudgeonly baptizer paints his vision of the world as it ought to be. It is, fundamentally, a just world: a world free of embezzlement and extortion, to be sure, but also a world in which we take care of one another’s needs. It is fashionable—and has been for a very long time—to distinguish sins of commission from sins of omission, and it is often implied that the former are somehow worse than the latter. We intuit, for example, that it is more despicable to intimidate as the tax collector might or to threaten as the soldier might, than it is to withhold our coats and food from those who are cold and hungry. This is, of course, very convenient, since few of us are bullies as such, and most of our coat-giving has as much to do with wardrobe clearance as it does with anything else. But these are both acts of injustice—direct aggression and desensitized apathy—and both are denounced by John, both destined for unquenchable fire.

[On Friday, a 20-year-old man—boy, really—walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and opened fire. Twenty-six people were killed—including 20 children and his own mother—before he turned the gun to himself. In the face of tragedies like this, the call to joy seems hollow and the temptation to judge is acute. The word evil has featured prominently in the news and social media, used to describe Adam Lanza, the shooter, as well as his actions. But, by all accounts, he was also ill; and we have failed to notice, failed to step in, failed this boy in the wilderness. We are, all of us, for our aggression and apathy alike, indicted and judged. But if judgement is the bringing forth and consummation of justice, then it is not predominantly about blame and goes far beyond it: it is the putting right of things, the redemption of a broken and heart-breaking world. In this sense, in the face of tragedies like these, only judgement could possible bring joy.]*

And so, the world that John imagines and, by the waters of baptism, prepares is a joyful one, as difficult as that might be to see. He is saying, with the prophet Isaiah—as we hear daily in the Advent liturgy for morning prayer—“Be strong, fear not, your God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save you”. This passage from Isaiah goes on to say that the eyes of the blind will then be open, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy; waters shall break forth in our wildernesses, and streams in our deserts, and we shall return with singing and everlasting joy. We, with the weary whose hands we are commanded in the same Advent liturgy to strengthen, whose feeble knees we are commanded to make firm. We, with cold and hungry and sick, to whom we are to give our warmth and nourishment, our care and attention. There is, in this world that John proclaims, no place for our aggression or apathy, our pettiness and possessiveness, our self-defensiveness and self-centredness; rather, our joys are bound up with one anothers’, from the greatest to the least, the strongest to the weakest, the healthiest to the most vulnerable.. This is the world for which we are preparing, which we who have gone through the wild waters of baptism are called to prepare, even as we wait for the ever-coming Christ, whose judgement will save us all.

Joy and judgement; that is to say, the arrival of the love that creates, out of nothing, goodness; out of chaos, peace; out of darkness, light. Now it is time to awake out of sleep, for the night is far spent and the day is at hand.

+++

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, John son of Zechariah was in the wilderness, in the water, waiting for the God who calls and comes, who invites and arrives, who promises and is present. And the crowd too, they waited and watched, not knowing quite what to expect. These centuries later, we join them and with the Church past and present, no more certain than they what God will do next. But whatever it is, whatever it is we are preparing for—it is good news, and occasion for joy. Amen.

*The draft of the text had been more or less fixed for a few weeks by the time the Newtown, CT shooting happened. Like many other preachers, I rushed back to re-write (parts of) the sermon in light of the incident. This section—an insertion—is the biggest change, but minor amendments flank it. New meaning was brought to  both “aggression” and “apathy”. Before, the references to the Advent liturgy about the strengthening of weak hands and feeble knees were used as metaphors for economic justice; now, physical—or, at least, medical—weakness emerges as a theme too.

Sermon: December 4th 2011

Readings:
Isaiah 40:1-11
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

A voice says:
Cry out!
Get up to a high mountain!
Lift your voices, and do not fear!

A voice cries out:
In the wilderness, prepare the way!
In the desert, straighten the path!
The mouth of the Lord has spoken!

But what has the Lord said?
And what are we to cry?

+++

It is the second week of Advent.
Last week, we heard about endings that hark toward new beginnings.
The destruction of the temple
and with it, the end of one way of being the people of God.
The destruction of the cosmos
and with it, the end of one way of being people, of being human.

This week, we hear: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The beginning. The good news. The Son of God.
It is the first line of the New Testament, proclaiming a new story, a new world.

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Advent is a funny old thing. Like Lent, Advent is a time of anticipation. [Purple, you will recall, is our liturgical colour for preparation as well as penitence, which both Lent and Advent have in common.] And yet, in both cases, we seem to be preparing for and anticipating events that have already occurred, we seem to be looking forward to things that are already behind us. There is something very odd about this.

But of course, even if there were some sense in which Christmas and Easter were one-off historical events that happened far away and long ago in the past, there is surely a greater sense in which the Incarnation and Resurrection are cosmic events, which define our present reality. They are crucial elements in the logic of the story in which we find ourselves as members of the Body of the One Who was Raised.

Furthermore, neither the Incarnation nor the Resurrection are done. In the risen Christ, God is still ever working at the heart of things, reconciling the world to Godself. The Christian faith is full of such now-and-not-yets. The Kingdom of God is among us, and yet—as we shall pray together later—we yearn for its coming. We are raised in Christ, and yet—as we shall confess together later—we look forward to resurrection and new life.

And so it is that the Incarnation was and is and is to come; has happened, is happening now, and has yet to happen in full.

And so it is that, in Advent, we commemorate and celebrate and anticipate the Incarnation all at the same time. We come and gather together to tell the story that is also our story; and we go out and enact a world that has already come but for which we are still waiting.

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The story unfolds slowly, and we shall have to wait a while before we hear the details about the things Jesus said and did, and the things that were said and done to him. Nevertheless, right at the beginning of the New Testament, we are told what the story is about. It is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Much ink has been spilt on the allegedly political nature of this good news. This first sentence in Mark’s prologue certainly seems to contain anti-Roman or anti-imperialist undertones. For example, the word evangelion—“good news”—also referred to announcements of great victories, or the birth or accession of Roman emperors. Furthermore, the language of divine sonship, its potential theological implications aside, was similarly used in reference to Caesar; indeed, not just the Romans but even the Jews used the title “son of God” for the Davidic monarch. Speaking of which, “Christ” or “Messiah”—that is, “the anointed one”—was also a royal title, used most obviously in association with Saul and David. Considering this use of language, some biblical scholars have argued that Mark’s prologue is an attempt at subversion against the Roman Empire, whose forces seiged and destroyed Jerusalem and her Temple around the time Mark’s Gospel was written.

Whether or not this particular anti-imperialist reading of the first sentence holds water, the immediate invocation of Isaiah 40 surely stirs us to imagine a world under different management. As we have heard, the way of the Lord is to be made ready, and when God comes:

God comes with might, and yet
God leads gently, like a shepherd:
nourishing his flock
gathering the lambs in his arms
carrying them in his bosom

This is the world, which has been established, and yet for which we await, and therefore which we are to enact, not only at Advent, but always. We wait for and we hasten the putting right of all things; that is to say, we prepare and preparation is not passive. There are paths to prepare for the God who has spoken and speaks still peace. There are paths to prepare for peace. And for righteousness, and for faithfulness, and for love. The psalmist paints a stunning picture of peace and righteousness and faithfulness and love meeting and kissing, almost dancing in mid-air, bridging earth and heaven. But these abstractions and metaphors, while beautiful, are perhaps less than helpful. Words are slippery things, so easily abused or over-used into meaninglessness  Religious words are no exception; indeed, they are perhaps most susceptible to distortion, to domestication.

Peace. Righteousness. Faithfulness. Love.

Of course, we exchange the sign of peace—a handshake, perhaps a kiss, and a platitude that is, by the way, sometimes as creepy as it is mindless—but let us not mistake the sign for that which it signifies. Let not our acts of peace be confined to a weekly handshake. The handshake, you might know, originated as a gesture to demonstrate that one was unarmed, but the absence of conflict is surely only the beginning of peace. The kind of peace we are talking about is the state of affairs in which conflict is unnecessary, in which mutuality and generosity renders it so. It is about making room for ourselves and others to flourish with integrity; and so, against any form of oppression or domination, it is about right relationship between persons, with the rest of the natural world, and with God. That is to say, it is about righteousness.

Just as peace is about more than the cessation of armed conflict, righteousness is about more than being clean-cut, well-spoken, and uncontroversially liked. Let us not confuse respectability for righteousness. The public perception, and to a worrying extent, the inward reality is that for the Church, morality is a matter of what happens in the bedroom, rather than in the boardroom. This is a travesty, not because personal relationships are irrelevant [of course they matter], but because puritanical obsessions are so narrow, so short-sighted. To be faithful to this vision of the world, captured in the story we are told and that we continue to tell, we need a more radical morality. Alas, the effort to domesticate the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God—by bracketing off politics and economics from its ethics has been overwhelmingly successful. Even here at All Saints’, we demure from discussing public policies and consumer choices from the pulpit. We are happy for our clergy to give us marital advice, but far be it from them to try to tell us how to vote or what to buy. That would be unbecoming. The concern for respectability has unfortunately superseded the concern for righteousness. But we must resist this temptation—and the temptation to be wilfully ignorant about the repercussions of our democratic and consumer choices—if we are to be faithful to the story we are told, the story we continue to tell, the story in which we find ourselves.

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It is the second week of Advent. Christmas is coming, and with it the characteristic increases in consumption, usually manifested in feasting and gift-giving. The sharing of material goods, and especially of food, is certainly not foreign to Christian practice; indeed, we will soon be engaging in precisely these acts, as we take up the offering and as we share the Eucharistic feast together. But how we share food and other material goods—what we eat and buy—is crucial, and we must ask if our practices are faithful to the gospel. Is it, for example, faithful to the story we tell about peace and righteousness and love, to financially support those who underpay their labourers, mistreat their livestock, and pollute the Earth? If not, how might we begin to foster and maintain right relationships with the people who produce the things we eat and wear and use; indeed, how might we begin to foster right relationships with the things we eat, and the land from which it comes? Such considerations should, indeed they must inform how we celebrate Christmas and how we live out the rest of our lives, the rest of our stories.

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What does the Lord speak? What are we to cry?
The Lord speaks peace, and righteousness and faithfulness and love.
Therefore, we too cry such things, preparing the way in the wilderness.
Furthermore, tenderly, the Lord forgives and comforts, pardons and promises.
Therefore, patiently and penitently, we prepare and we await the day when we will at last be at home with righteousness.

What a glorious day that will be. Amen.