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Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23rd December 2018

Isaiah 10:33-11:10, Matthew 1:18-25

‘In the bleak midwinter’; ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’; ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out … deep and crisp and even’. But Bethlehem is a hot place, dusty rather than snowy. I suppose carols and hymns can be rather an unreliable source of proper geographical information. ‘And did those feet .. walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

I don’t suppose they sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Italy, or in France or in Germany. Or if they do, presumably those feet were walking in the Black Forest or on the Palatine Hill, or maybe, in the Bois de Boulogne. There is, if we are literal about it, quite a lot of nonsense which we happily tolerate at this time of year. Things that appear to go completely contrary to common sense; like snow in Bethlehem. It probably was quite cold at night in the stable, once the sun had gone down. But there certainly wasn’t any snow.

One of the things that these carols are doing is assimilating the story of the birth of Jesus into our homes, or rather into an idealised version of our homes, because even here in England a white Christmas is, of course, very rare. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that we won’t have one this year either.

And as well as the carols, the Bible readings that we traditionally use at this time also contain things which look contrary. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the peaceful life on ‘God’s holy mountain’, after the Rod of Jesse, the Saviour, has beaten the Assyrians, and saved God’s chosen people, isn’t just a pastoral idyll.

It deliberately puts almost impossible companions together. The wolf and the sheep; the leopard, the kid; the calf, the young lion, the cow and the bear – the little child, leading them, like a party of schoolchildren following their teacher around the Tower of London, say.

Or perhaps it’s a classroom, full of these unlikely neighbours, who are not busily eating each other, but they are sitting attentively in class, being kept in good order by a little boy, like my two-year old grandson Jim. In your dreams, Sunshine!

Well, yes; in Isaiah, in Isaiah’s dreams. In the words of the prophet, telling his hearers what God has spoken to him and said, that the Rod of Jesse would come and slay the Assyrians, and then that they ‘would not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.’

Interesting that it is on a mountain, on a high place. The Greek gods were on a mountain too; on Mount Olympus. And in the Old Testament, the heathen gods, the Baals and the Astartes of the Chaldeans, were worshipped with sacred poles, which were ‘in the high places’. ‘High places’ was almost a synonym for where God lived. We ourselves look up, look up to heaven, because conventionally, God lives in Heaven, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand ‘on high’, we say. Think of our Psalm this evening.

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes:

O thou that dwellest in the heavens. [Ps. 123]

But again, it’s not literally true. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, was said by Nikita Krushchev to have gone into space ‘but not to have seen God there’. The early astronauts didn’t find a man with a white beard sitting on a golden throne and floating above the clouds. John Gillespie Magee’s wonderful poem, which is often read at the funeral of a pilot, ‘High Flight’, comes to mind. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth … put out my hand and touched the face of God’. And so, on God’s holy mountain, children can safely play with cockatrices, vipers, and with asps, cobras. ‘Sheep may safely graze’.

It’s a much better outlook for the Israelites. The Messiah would come along and free them from slavery. The Rod of Jesse would mete out retribution to all their foes. That’s something that we can certainly relate to. ‘If only ..’, we say. If only: what would you call in the Rod of Jesse to do in your life? But maybe we are too comfortable, too well settled to really empathise with how the Israelites must have felt.

But there are people who are in exile, who are not free, who may even be subjected to slavery, even today, not far away. On Friday I did my first Father Christmas duty of this Christmas, up at Brooklands College, where there is a project for children who are asylum seekers and refugees. I gave out splendid big stockings full of goodies donated by the supporters of the project and by Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group, to 26 young people, teenagers and in their early 20s, who had come from Eritrea, from Syria, Ukraine, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Afghanistan. Some were black Africans, some were Arabs, a couple were Chinese, and a couple were white Europeans. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to stay.

Some were learning to read and write for the first time; although typically, the ones who hadn’t been able to read and write were amazingly good at mental arithmetic. They were learning English, of course, and learning how to fit in with English society. The first words that they are taught are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’, because none of those are necessarily expressions that you come across in some of the countries that they have come from. Part of Father Christmas’ visit was a huge lunch, of Middle Eastern and African delicacies, that one of the volunteers from Elmbridge CAN had made. For about half the children, this would be their only meal that day. One meal, if you’re lucky. This is in Weybridge!

So pictures of the Israelites, in exile and under the oppressor’s boot, could still in certain circumstances be a picture of contemporary life, for refugees and asylum seekers today. Think what life in the refugee camps must be like, in Jordan, for example. No snow there, either!

As well as the mythical snow on this fourth Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas itself, St Matthew tells us the story of the other half of the Annunciation. This isn’t about Mary but about Joseph her betrothed. Again, the Christmas story is so familiar that we perhaps gloss over the bits that seem rather unlikely. Joseph’s original reaction when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, although he has had nothing to do with it, is what you might expect. His first thought is that the wedding is not going to happen.

Who is the Angel Gabriel? Have you met any angels recently? Or at all? It seems to depend a bit on where you come from and what you’re used to. In Africa and in Southern Europe, people are much more ready to believe in the existence of angels than perhaps we are. I don’t think that we can explain the Virgin Birth in the same way that we could explain how to bake a perfect soufflé – or whatever it is they do on the Great British Bake-Off.

But look at it functionally. Jesus definitely lived. He was a human being, although during his life and afterwards, things happened which have led us to believe that he was more than human, that he was divine as well as human. So somehow he must have been born, been conceived. All the things that show that he was really born, that he really was human, just like the other miracles, turning water into wine, miraculously healing sick people, raising Lazarus from the dead – none of those can be explained: so Jesus’ conception is equally mysterious and impossible to understand.

But notice how Jesus’ earthly parents, wonderfully, accepted the situation; and of course Mary said the Magnificat, which we’ve just sung together. God has chosen me; God has magnified me; God has made a big thing out of me.

Is it just a pretty story, then? Is it just a convenient excuse to have a nice time at Christmas? Think about what Mary said. Think about the message of the Magnificat, and the message of Isaiah, about the animals on ‘God’s holy mountain’. ‘He has put down the mighty from his seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ Are we the mighty? Or are we the ‘humble and meek’?

We need to think about it, and to do something. Perhaps the other thing about God’s holy mountain is that a little child shall lead them. Shall we say that that is the Christ Child? You know, in snowy Bethlehem? And another thing. ‘No crying he makes’. This is some baby!

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday in Advent, 13th December 2015
Isaiah 35; Luke 1:57-80

So where are we up to in Advent? This is the third Sunday, and we are thinking about John the Baptist. Our second lesson was about Zacharias and Elisabeth, the faithful old couple who were way past having children when an angel visited Zacharias and told him that Elisabeth would have a son and that they would call him John.

Not surprisingly, Zacharias was rather worried that this was all not real. He asked the angel for some sign that he was telling the truth, and the angel said that he would be struck dumb until the boy was born. At about the same time, the angel Gabriel went to see Mary.

These were instances of special children, children with links to God, being born to women who had previously been unable to conceive, which had happened before in the Old Testament, in the book of Samuel. Hannah was infertile, but she prayed in the temple that if God granted her a son, she would give him up to be a priest. According to the book of Samuel, this happened.

So: John the Baptist. The angel had said that ‘he shall be great in the sight of the Lord and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost … And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17) It was the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the time when all the happy things described by Isaiah in our first lesson would happen, the lame man leaping as an hart, like a deer: ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.’ [Isa.35:5f]

John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. But what did he actually do?
He baptised people. What did that really involve? Obviously, dunking them in the river Jordan was what he was doing physically, but why did people turn out in vast numbers, as they apparently did, in order for him to submerge them in the Jordan?

Baptism by total immersion still happens today. The last Deanery confirmation and baptism service was at St George’s, Ashtead, where they have a built-in baptism pool. One of the faithful at St Andrew’s, a grown-up, was duly baptised there this Autumn. According to him, the pool was not heated, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The symbolism of baptism is fairly straightforward. It is a symbolic washing way of all our sins, all the bad things about us. If we are making a stand against evil, and trying to be closer to God, this washing will symbolically wash away the obstacles to our closeness to God. You can see what the washing is intended to signify.

Well that in Ashtead was a couple of months ago, but going back to Biblical times, the story of Zacharias and Elisabeth and their son John needs to be related to the context of the Old Testament. The significance of John’s arrival in this miraculous way has to be understood as it would have been understood at that time, in the context of Old Testament theology.

What John was doing in baptising was not just giving people a wash, but it had ritual significance as well. In the Jewish cult, that is, the way in which the Jews worshipped God, there are all sorts of procedures laid down, particularly in the book of Leviticus, among them for what was called ‘purification’. The Jewish religion was a religion of sacrifice, holiness, purification and atonement.

At every stage in life, Jews had to come before their God and propitiate him, turning away his anger and regaining his love by giving him things, by making sacrifices in his favour. This mostly involved killing innocent animals, unfortunately, and then burning them on the altar. I won’t take you through the whole ghastly procedure. If you really want to look it up, it is in Leviticus chapters 11 to 15.

The Jewish religious rules also laid down foods which were permitted to be eaten and which were not. Jewish people still abide by this – although some of my Jewish friends seem to have given themselves some latitude where bacon sandwiches are concerned!

I always smile when we read Romans chapter 14 about the Christian attitude to foods which were ritually proscribed. ‘One believes that he may eat all things, another, who is weak, eateth herbs’ – or, as for once in my life I prefer a modern translation, ‘the weak eat only vegetables.’ [NRSV, Romans 14:2]

Be nice to your vegetarian friends!

But there is an urgency about this, a dynamic to it, which perhaps we don’t quite ‘get’, if all we understand about John the Baptist and about baptism is a kind of symbolic washing, or even a kind of initiation ceremony. As we say, anyone who has been baptised is welcome to eat at the Lord’s table. That’s not really the full flavour of how it was in the Old Testament. The Jews were God’s chosen people, and their worship was designed to acknowledge that they had been singled out by God.

The whole dynamic of the Old Testament concerns the interaction between the Jews and God. They disobeyed God, and were enslaved by the Egyptians and Babylonians. They obeyed God; God loved them again, he freed them and took them to the Promised Land. It’s an idea of God, a picture of God, which I don’t think we would find convincing today.

Take the stories, that we were brought up on, of the soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, perhaps 100 or 150 yards apart, the Germans and the Brits so close that they could hear each other talking. So close that they could hear each other saying their prayers. They were both praying to the same God. What were they praying for? To survive, not to be hurt, and, dare one say, to win.

How could there be a God who favoured one side over the other? Or both sides against each other? Just as a matter of simple logic, it doesn’t work. It surely can’t be how God works.

Of course some people don’t take it any further than that and simply say that it means that God does not exist. I think in a way that is just as big a mistake as imagining God as some kind of divine helper who can fix things when they are seemingly hopeless, and more importantly, who can favour one lot of people over against another.

Of course the Emperor Constantine, in 312AD, had a vision, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, that if he and his soldiers painted the sign of the cross on their shields, God would give them victory. They did paint the sign of the cross on their shields and they were victorious.

After that, Constantine adopted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was probably one of the biggest factors in making Christianity a world religion instead of just being a local middle eastern cult.

But it is rather doubtful whether Constantine actually believed in anything which modern Christians would recognise as Christianity. We certainly would not imagine that God would work some kind of magic so that someone would win a battle.

But certainly in the Old Testament time, the time of Moses and Elijah, Jews believed that they had to perform these various sacrificial rituals as part of their proper worship of God. There was a vital significance to this, that unless they worshipped properly, God would be angry with them. If so, God would ultimately enslave or destroy them. Ritual cleansing was all part of this worship.

These days, I don’t really ‘get’ the idea of ritual washing. I’m as fond of a nice spa as the next person, but that has to do with simply enjoying a pleasant experience. If somebody said to me that, in order to get closer to God, to put myself right with God, perhaps to atone for past wrong, for things which I have done, I needed to be baptised, I needed to have a ritual bath, I’m not sure whether I would believe in it.

Perhaps we should look again at what the work of John the Baptist could mean today.

For instance, the idea of purification. In the Jewish religion, purification has a connotation of stripping away things which are not true, bringing people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation.

Such a purification, a weeding out of things that are not true, that are wrong, could still make sense. There are plenty of things that are wrong today. If they were purified, refined back to their true essentials, would it indeed help to bring people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation?

Vital reality. I wonder why it is, therefore, that today there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of urgency. Quite a lot of people, after their Sunday lunch, and perhaps a little walk, may indeed have watched Songs of Praise, but now instead of coming to Evensong, they will be settling down for a pleasant evening catching up with the doings of some Norwegian detective.

I wonder whether we ought to be quite so blasé. Some of the things, which we take as being facts of life, perhaps aren’t. They might perhaps be better for some purification.

Take money for example. We all understand the idea of money: that money is something which stands for things which you can exchange for it. A certain amount of money gets you a certain amount of goods or services. Until 1933, a £1 note could be exchanged for a gold sovereign. There was a gold standard. The idea was that money had a fixed worth.

Clearly that is not true any more (if it ever was). Why is it, for example, that if a poor person goes into debt, maxes out their credit cards at Christmas and then is made redundant, they are immediately in trouble, and there is no one to help them; but if the banks go bankrupt, as they did in 2008, governments will step in to bail them out? It’s all the same stuff: all money.

Indeed the banks were bailed out largely by the government creating money. Clearly that money did not necessarily represent, or have any equivalence with, goods or services in a way we would understand. Is that the reality that suits us human beings best? Is it a true reflection of how things are? Perhaps we need some kind of washing. Perhaps this whole system needs to be washed through, cleaned.

Maybe John the Baptist still has something to say to us. It is something to think about when you are next in the Jacuzzi.

Sermon for Evensong on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, 27th July 2014 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Acts 12:1-19.

What a week! The church is being persecuted: Christians are being killed, just for being Christians: there are disciples in prison. Brutality, killing, everywhere. Equally true in our lesson from Acts, and still – even more so – today. In Mosul, near to the ancient city of Nineveh, which Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, memorably said yesterday on Radio 4’s Today Programme, was ‘made famous by that dubious submarine evangelist Jonah’ – you know, Jonah and the whale – fundamentalist Moslems have been confronting Christians and giving them a choice between converting to Islam and death. It was reported that there was an option of paying a fine, but Canon White says he doesn’t think it was real. Convert or die.

Or if you live in Sudan and they think you have changed your religion away from Islam, again you will be killed, killed by due process of law. Dr Meriam Ibrahim was brought up a Christian, but her father, who deserted his family soon after she was born, was a Moslem. Somehow she was accused of apostasy and sentenced to be flogged – 100 lashes (when they reckon 40 is life-threatening) – and then executed. She was heavily pregnant, and was forced to give birth in prison while shackled to the floor. A completely harmless, innocent doctor. But she still had the courage to stand up for her faith. She refused to renounce it. She would rather suffer – and she did. She is worried that her baby may have been damaged by being born when she was unable to move her legs because of her chains.

What a week. We cannot understand the unspeakable horror that is happening in Gaza. 1,000 Palestinians dead and countless more seriously hurt. According to the United Nations and the BBC, almost all were innocent civilians. About 40 Israelis dead, all but three of them soldiers.

Yesterday an British Apache attack helicopter flew over my garden. You could see its machine guns, missile and bomb pods. Imagine that helicopter – because that’s what the Israelis have too – flying towards you and letting loose that vast destructive force at you and your house. Or if not a helicopter, a fast jet or a so-called drone – actually some of them are as big as an airliner – or a Merkava battle tank. You have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. They hit hospitals. On Friday they shot up an ambulance and killed a doctor. One in four of the people they have killed, according to Save the Children, is a child.

I’m not going into the merits of this as between Israelis and Palestinians. The great conductor Daniel Barenboim, who holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports, has written a very good piece in yesterday’s Guardian, http://gu.com/p/4v8bg, in which he says that what is wrong, at bottom, is that both sides want each other’s land. You can argue it all ways – but only one thing is certain, he says, and that is that violence, the use of force, solves nothing.

Of course the Israelis don’t want the constant threat of rockets falling on them (although they have developed the highly effective Iron Dome anti-missile shield system). Of course the Palestinians don’t want to be annihilated by one of the most powerful armed forces in the world. But – and this is what Daniel Barenboim says – it doesn’t help either side to continue the use of force. Remember, Daniel Barenboim knows about getting the two sides together. He created the famous West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which musicians from both sides play wonderfully together. They have been at the Proms, although I don’t think they’re coming this year.

And then there’s MH17, the airliner shot down over the Ukraine. Whatever else may be true about that, the people who died were innocent bystanders. No wonder the Dutch prime minister is so angry, blaming the Russians.

What a week. The poor early Christians must have felt similar emotions, in that Passover time that our lesson was about. They were innocent. But the majority around them, the Roman army of occupation and the Jewish majority, didn’t like them. They wanted to be rid of them. Maybe some of the animus against them was like the prohibition against apostasy in parts of Islam today. The early church contained a lot of people who were of Jewish origin. They were seen as apostates, people who had turned away from the true religion. They must be killed.

That was what they had in mind for St Peter. He knew. He said, ‘The Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me … from all the expectation of the people of the Jews’. Sinister understatement – to have been delivered from all the ‘expectation’. What did they expect? More death. Execution. Stoning. What a wonderful escape!

But now, here, unless you work for one of the relief agencies or for one of the broadcasters or newspapers, it’s difficult to be really involved. Really involved – not with the Roman world 2,000 years ago, and not with the Middle East today, but here in Stoke D’Abernon. What are we supposed to do?

What would Jesus do? It’s clear, in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew chapter 5. ‘You have learned that they were told, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” You know – the Israelis say, we will stop our military operation for 24 hours – but if there are any rockets, we will retaliate. An eye for an eye. But Jesus said, ‘…. resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ Daniel Barenboim. I don’t think he’s a Christian – but he’s got it. Turn the other cheek. Don’t launch an artillery strike. And certainly, don’t fire off any more rockets either. No more war, however angry, however justified you feel you are.

Now that may be absolutely right – but is that likely to do any good? Just for all of us good Surrey people to nod sagely and say, yes, they must stop killing each other: it’s surely not very likely to do anything, is it?

I’ve held back from my look at this terrible week two good things, two good things which might still give us a glimpse of grace, a reason to hope.

The first is in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles. It says, ‘Peter was kept in prison under constant watch, while the church kept praying fervently for him to God’. Kept in prison under constant watch – just like poor Meriam Ibrahim. But the church was praying to God for him – just as, all over the world, and certainly here at St Mary’s, Christians have been praying for Meriam. So the first is that there was a lot of prayer, prayer for release from the tyranny of oppression, prayers for release from imprisonment for Peter and for Meriam.

And of course the second is that the prayers were answered. St Peter escaped. His chains fell off. ‘Now I know it is true’, he said; ‘the Lord has sent his angel’ – he has answered all those prayers. A million people signed petitions calling for the Sudanese government to release Dr Meriam. Many, many of those online petitions were also prayers. And now she has been freed: not only just freed, although that is good enough: but she has been welcomed and blessed by Pope Francis. The prayers were answered. ‘The pope thanked Meriam and her family for their courageous demonstration of constancy of faith. Meriam gave thanks for the great support and comfort which she received from the prayers of the pope and of many other people who believe and are of goodwill’, said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, according to Friday’s ‘Guardian’.

At the ‘house of Mary, … where a large company were at prayer.’ We are also in the house of Mary. Although we are far away from the strife in the Middle East, I think we can learn from these happy stories, of Peter’s escape from prison and from Dr Meriam and her family getting away safe. We can learn that it is important always to pray. Prayers are answered. They were, they are, answered here.

As we pray, let us pray for all the injustice and violence in the world to stop, and for the innocent prisoners to be freed. Let’s not forget that, as we bring our concerns before God in our prayers, He may speak to us. He may inspire us to take action. We can give, or we can agitate, we can even be political.

Canon Andrew White said yesterday that in his work in Iraq, the most important help and support had come from the people of the UK. Britain more than anywhere else had tried to help the Christians in Iraq. So let us consider what we can do to help the Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief based in St George’s Church in Baghdad. Look them up with the help of Google – http://frrme.org. Look them up. Give them some money, if you can. And say a prayer.