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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)

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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.