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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 at St Mary’s on 17th November 2013, Second Sunday before Advent
Daniel 6 – Biblical Big Cats

In the 1960s, if you had gone shopping at Harrod’s, you would have found that they had an Exotic Animals Department. You may remember the wonderful story of the lion cub who was sold in Harrod’s and who became known as Christian the Lion. He lived in Chelsea with two young men who owned a trendy furniture shop, for a year before he got too big and was taken to Kenya to be released into the wild. There is a very sweet story about him meeting up with his former owners several years later, and fondly remembering them.

We tend to be rather soppy about cats – and that includes the rather daft idea that lions and tigers and leopards, big cats, are just that, big cats. If only they got to know us properly, we think, they would be just like big pet cats, with sweet, gentle dispositions, keen on sleeping and climbing under counterpanes on the spare bed when no-one is looking: happy to be stroked and to have their tummies tickled.

You will remember the famous zoo owner and gambler, John Aspinall, who kept tigers and encouraged his keepers to go into their enclosures with them, to play with them as pets. Unfortunately, those tigers didn’t know what Mr Aspinall expected of them, and on several occasions, they devoured their keepers.

The truth is that even domestic cats do not have entirely reliable tempers. My two Bengals are very good at rolling on their backs, purring and generally appearing very friendly, inviting you to tickle their tummies: but you should be aware that the height of ecstasy for both of them is then to grip your hand in their paws and give you a good bite! Nothing personal, of course. It’s just what cats like doing.

Which brings us to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. There were several Persian kings called Darius, but most scholars agree that this was Darius I, who died in 486BC. He set up a complicated administration structure for the Persian empire. According to the Book of Daniel he divided Persia into 120 administrative zones, although the contemporary account in Herodotus’ Histories suggests that Darius only set up 20 regions, called satrapies, and his descendant, King Xerxes, increased the number of satrapies, perhaps indeed to 120.

It is possible that the Book of Daniel was written not just in order to tell historical stories – and indeed it may be that the history is a little bit shaky in places – but rather for prophetic teaching purposes, to demonstrate the power of God. So Daniel going into the lions’ den illustrates this. It is an escape story, just as in the earlier chapter, chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three other Jewish exiles in Persia, in Babylon along with Daniel, were cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden image which Nebuchadnezzar, the king before Darius, had made. And again, God saved them and they were unhurt, even though the fiery furnace was so hot that the people who were throwing them into it were themselves consumed by fire.

Daniel portrays Darius as a benevolent king, who was tricked into signing into law an edict, that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from him, the king, for thirty days – and according to the commentators, ‘prays’ should better be translated as ‘makes a request’ either of gods or of humans – that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from the king, should be punished by being thrown into a den of lions.

Interestingly, none of the historians can find any evidence that the Persians had dens of lions, or that they used them to deal with criminals as a way of execution. The Romans certainly did. They had a special expression for it, damnatio ad bestia, condemnation to the beasts. The main reason why the early Christians were martyred by being thrown to wild beasts was because they refused to worship the emperor; similar circumstances to those in which Daniel found himself.

There are a couple of other interesting things which we should note in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. One is the way in which King Darius refused to contradict the law which he had made, the edict. The laws of the Medes and the Persians could not be changed. Indeed that expression, ‘The laws of the Medes and the Persians’, became synonymous with the idea of immutability, unchangeability in the law.

I think also that we are meant to understand that it was not one of those cases where the Israelites on the one hand were God’s chosen people, and on the other hand there were their oppressors, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, people who didn’t believe in God and who were vastly inferior to them. In this case, the Medes and the Persians were decent people, who treated the Jews in exile fairly and well. One defining characteristic of the Medes and the Persians was that they recognised the rule of law.

As Lord Denning famously said, ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’ He was quoting Dr Thomas Fuller, who said this first in 1733. This is a hallmark of civilisation. This is something we look for today as a desirable feature in all countries. When we talk about ‘failed states’ – Somalia, perhaps Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, the rule of law is said to have broken down.

So here Darius felt that, whatever he personally may have wanted to do in order to be compassionate to Daniel, he was not allowed to do, because there was a higher principle, the rule of law. And so he very reluctantly sealed the lions’ den with Daniel in it, with his own signet ring.

This is a terrible story. So often in ancient literature we don’t get the gory details. The King simply decrees that somebody should be done in, and he is: witness Herod with John the Baptist. But here, King Darius personally supervises his good friend and trusted minister Daniel being fed to the lions.

Clearly those lions were very fierce, because when Daniel’s story has had a happy ending, and Daniel has survived a night in the den without being eaten, King Darius makes sure that all the people that tricked him into making the law and putting Daniel in mortal danger by it, are themselves thrown into the den, with their children and their wives; ‘Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.’ So it’s not the case that the lions’ den had been filled with special soft lions like Christian the Lion. These were normal cats, and for Daniel to survive a night with them really was a tremendous miracle.

This is one of the great Bible stories, which I’m sure we all remember from Sunday School, from our earliest days. It’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. But are there any lessons which we can learn from it as grown-ups today? What about the laws of the Medes and the Persians? Are there laws today which result in cruelty? Is there anyone like Daniel, who, despite being innocent, is being thrown to the lions? Can we by prayer, by relying on God like Daniel did, in fact negate the effects of these immutable laws?

I will leave you to ponder on that. There are 38 shopping days left until Christmas. It’s a fortnight until the beginning of Advent. Christian the Lion and his descendants are no longer available in Harrod’s. Perhaps in Advent there is another lion that we should remember. What about Aslan, the lion in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’? Now there was a Christian lion!