Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 4 December 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
John 1.23. John said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.
“We are no longer then in the region of shadows: we have the true Saviour set before us, the true reward, and the true means of spiritual renewal.” So wrote Newman in one of his Advent sermons. What God asks of each of us in Advent is honesty, sincerity of purpose, and singleness of mind, and if you find any of those things difficult, then you are human after all. The region of shadows we know all too well. It is our natural habitat, pretence, a veneer of spirituality, always an escape clause; never quite committed to what we know to be true, how strange is that. The region of shadows is for those still on the run, those still fleeing the Hound of Heaven, those in hiding from judgement of any kind. If we look at our lives in any depth, we might well stand back aghast, for as Newman said later in the same sermon, “nothing is so rare as honesty and singleness of mind.”
But it is possible to move towards a life of Christian honesty and singleness of mind, and now’s the time to have a go. Each of us, including those window shoppers in Oxford Street, has a unique view of the world, often misguided, but it works for us. In Advent that view falls back into the shadows, and we can begin to see that there is only one right way, a true way of seeing the world and all it contains, and that is God’s way, God’s Word spoken to us. Even so, God speaks to each of us in a slightly different way, just as a parent speaks differently to each child. The true light, which lights everyone that comes into this world, breaks through into our lives again. It is then we begin to see how trapped we have become in our delusions and shadow lives. In Advent we see the way clear for us to tread the highway of our God, the way of holiness. How is that going to work for you?
When I was a boy there was a London clergyman called Antony Bridge. He was a painter, and he became vicar of Christ Church Lancaster Gate, then Dean of Guildford. He wrote a book called One Man’s Advent (published 1985). It’s a spiritual autobiography, and all of us here will have had similar experiences in our lives, the joys and sorrow, the shocks to the system, the disappointments and wrong turnings, the unexpected happiness, and so on. At the end of his life, he indicates, as we might come to do, that actually the shadows, the restlessness we know, that frustrating pursuit of a truth which is always just out of reach, the experiences we haven’t sorted out, what Antony Bridge called his “unquiet corpses”, turn out to be aspects of a life to be accepted because they do not: “allow me to take my life for granted without asking questions about its meaning.
As for myself, [Bridge goes on] what is left of me, old, bald and a bit corrupt, I shall try to remember in whatever time remains to me that being is a matter of becoming, and becoming is a matter of receiving. ‘He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God’.” So we become who we are meant to be by receiving, receiving Christ into our lives, heart and soul. That is when we discover honesty and singleness of mind.
Bridge, as an artist, knew the significance of images. All this becoming and receiving, in practical terms, will be a matter of which images we invite and welcome into our minds. You have a huge advantage here, particularly those of you who come regularly, because we do our best to put on show the richness of the Christian tradition, and I know there are always too many words to take in, but no one leaves here without some inkling of a vast hinterland of spiritual experience to be explored. The same goes for the time when we sit at home with a Bible. The images we receive, such as the Advent stories of John the Baptist, of Mary, the songs of Isaiah, are more than background reading, they are directly applicable to your life. The images of God doing battle with the attractive demons of the world, and the way we behave will depend on which images are uppermost in our minds. Those Advent stories are about people venturing into the unknown in faith.
Tonight’s anthem, Remember, O thou Man, by Thomas Ravenscroft, dates from 1611, but it becomes our experience of Advent leading to Christmas. It is part folk song, part carol, and it expresses for me that particular Christian compound of joy and sorrow which marks the season of Advent. Repentance and fear, remembrance, joy, the songs of angels, and freedom. Being, becoming, receiving. Joy and sorrow, there is no other way. Much of our Christian journey will be spent learning how joy and sorrow belong with each other. Joy and sorrow mixed together become love, the love shown to us on the Cross, love which we can show to an incredulous world, giving life our full attention. We emerge from Newman’s “region of shadows” with a purpose and with confidence. We can start again as we mean to go on. Remember God’s goodness, O thou man, O thou man, remember God’s goodness and promise made.