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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 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 23rd October 2016
Ecclesiastes 11,12, 2 Timothy 2:1-7 Falling off the High Wire

Cast your bread on the waters. Take a risk. Buy a ticket in the lottery, perhaps. ‘Have a portion in seven, or in eight’. What on earth does all this mean? 

In Hebrew Qoheleth, the ‘preacher’, or ‘teacher’, or ‘the speaker’ – whatever the Latin word ‘ecclesiastes’ means – has a rather cynical outlook. You don’t know how a baby takes shape in the mother’s womb. You don’t know how God decides that one baby should spring to life and another not. If you are a young person with all the grace and beauty and energy of youth, make the most of it. Because it won’t last. 

But this wonderful asset, of being young, is ultimately useless, is ultimately ‘vanity’. We will all have to meet our maker at some stage and account for what we have done in our lives. There is nothing for it; the only thing you can do is to obey God’s commandments and do your best.

It’s rather an odd set of sentiments to find in the Bible. Usually we read about how God cares for us; that if we follow God’s commandments, or turn away from bad things that we have been doing, we will be ‘saved’. What sort of salvation is it? Perhaps we shall be saved, in the sense that the Good Samaritan saved the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho: saved, taken to hospital, picked up in a lifeboat – saved in an earthly sense. Or alternatively, there is the vision of heaven, the vision of eternal life. Being saved in the sense of having eternal life. 

I gave a birthday present to the lady who is my personal trainer at David Lloyd’s gym the other day. I should say that, as you can see, I am not her model student, apparently because of the things I like eating and drinking rather than because I’m doing the wrong exercises. But even Charles Atlas couldn’t do a better job on me than Liz Ferrari.

Anyway, I decided to give her a book, a book that she would enjoy; and I found a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced travel book. But it was a travel book with a twist. The idea was that, in each of the exciting or beautiful places around the world, there was an activity which you could do. You could run up mountains or cross bottomless gorges on rickety rope bridges. You know, all those rather extreme sports. She likes that sort of thing.

Liz was pleased with the book. But it got us talking about risky activities. I confessed that I don’t really like going to the circus. I know that unfortunately the lion tamer and the elephant man or the beautiful girl choreographing sea lions in evening dress are not what they seem, and circuses don’t have them any more. Unfortunately there was a lot of cruelty involved in training those animals. We know better now.

But what about the Cirque du Soleil, those circuses that have no animals, but just have acrobats, trapeze artists and people on high wires? I can’t bear to look. I can’t bear to look because it seems to me that the risk of falling is terrible. Is there a safety net? If there is a safety net, thank goodness, because if they fall, we can hope that they will not be badly hurt.

But why is it often somehow more exciting, a bigger box-office draw, if the artist on the high wire does it without a safety net? Why do people pay more to see something like that? Something really dangerous. When Philippe Petit walked on the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 107 storeys up, why was that to be celebrated? If he had fallen, like the people who jumped out of the windows of the burning towers on 9/11, he would likely have been dead, we understand, before he hit the ground. 

I can’t bear to watch it. I don’t want these people to risk being maimed or killed just for the sake of giving spectators a thrill. I’m not even sure what that thrill is, really. We don’t have wild beast shows like the ancient Romans – and that’s good. The Romans who went to the arena to watch these shows – gladiators and Christians against each other, and against lions – and, I suppose, people who go to bullfights or boxing matches – all go because they want to see somebody surviving even through there is a terrible risk, and some people get hurt. 

They want to see Cassius Clay; but they’re not so fussed about Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I don’t think people really want to go to see people or animals being hurt, but I really wonder how the thrill works. Because it could happen. The man could fall off the high wire. The girl might not catch the hands of her partner hanging down from the trapeze. It’s a risk. 

And somehow people say that it is a good thing to have an ‘appetite for risk’. It’s supposed to be good for the character of children to do risky things. Of course there has to be a ‘risk assessment’ to make sure that the risk is not too great.

I’m sorry, but I think this is all nonsense. ‘They shall not hurt or kill on my holy mountain,’ says God, through the prophet Isaiah. ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the little child shall play on the hole of the asp’. There will be salvation. But how? Ecclesiastes points out how in individual cases it may not work. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.’ 

I just went to see probably one of the most disturbing and terrifying films that I’ve ever seen. It didn’t involve dinosaurs; mountains didn’t explode like they do in James Bond films; Bruce Willis didn’t slaughter half the world. There was no terrifying car chase, and there was no love interest.

But nevertheless, it’s a film which will live on in my mind’s eye for a very long time. It was about what happens when you fall. Why do you fall? Why could you fall? Was it because you were a bad acrobat, if you somehow deserved to fall? When you are lying, maimed, on the ground, can you reasonably expect that there will be somebody to care for you and put you back together again? 

I won’t spoil the plot for you. All I would say to you is that you should go and see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ before very long. 

Ecclesiastes doesn’t really offer any answers, for all his pretty words. ‘A time to laugh: a time to cry. … For everything there is a season.’ That’s Ecclesiastes. Vanity. Is that what we believe? Where are the seeds of salvation, and what is salvation? On God’s holy mountain, there. And there, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’.

But where is that mountain? It’s not a place for extreme sports. Is it all right that in the trapeze artistry of life, some people don’t make it? They fall. But as Ecclesiastes says, we don’t know which ones they will be. Then we see the refugees in their dangerous boats, or the young ones in Calais, who, whatever the newspapers may say, are young – but look old. They look old because of the risks that they take every night, trying to jump on trains and into lorries to get through the tunnel.

They are risk-takers. But they’re not risk takers for someone else’s enjoyment. They have no alternative. Their houses are destroyed. Their relatives are gone. They are unable to work – although they’d like to. Why them, and why not us?

What is it about the fact that we happen to live here, where they want to be? For them to be in England represents salvation. In Ecclesiastes, there is no salvation. It’s just the luck of the draw. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. What a bleak vision. It must look like that when the bulldozers come, and the gendarmes escort you to a bus, to take you heaven knows where. Where they definitely don’t speak English. 

But Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbour’ – love that young man, who is, you know, just an economic migrant. Think about it. Of course he’s an economic migrant. He is hungry. He has no money. He has no money and he is hungry, because he is a refugee, because he has been driven out of his home. 

How would we feel, if we were driven out from our home? Just imagine if London had been invaded by IS/Daesh. Just imagine if large parts of greater London, including Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, had been flattened in the fight. If our brave boys had had to become guerrillas and fight house to house. In the eyes of the enemy, we had become combatants. And we had to leave. We had to get away from our dangerous place. Everybody who could had to pack up their cars and get away. But where would we go?

Could we get on a ferry, or through the Tunnel? And find a new life in safety, in Europe? Would they welcome us? Would we be able to speak the language? That must be what it feels like to be a refugee. There are hundreds of thousands of them – millions, even – and about 12,000 of them on our doorstep. About 1,000 of them are children. Is it vanity? Is it emptiness, just a spectator sport?

Although some people do like watching people on the high wire, I do hope that, in this area, we won’t: I hope that we realise, as a society, and for those in power as a government, that there are some risks that should not be taken. There should always be a safety net. Not as in Ecclesiastes, for whom, however awful things are, it’s just too bad: everything is vanity. 

Instead, we Christians should feel very confident that we have a better example, the example of the man who said that we should love our neighbour.