Sermon for First Sunday of Advent – Litany in Procession and High Mass Sunday 27 November 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
On Friday evening, the phone rang and I answered, “Good evening, All Saints, Margaret Street. “Can you tell me when your ‘Black Friday Sale ends?” the caller said. I replied, “This is All Saints Church not All Saints shop, and we don’t have a sale.”
We were not doing “Black Friday” then, but we are doing “Purple Sunday” now. It marks, not shopping days to Christmas, but the beginning of Advent, the season in which we prepare to celebrate the coming of our Saviour; that coming in “great humility” at Bethlehem – the only thing we need for Christmas. A store along the street promises to provide everything we need for a perfect Christmas. Well, in this case they cannot march a competitor’s offer – because they do not stock the Saviour of the world. We do.
But first, we contemplate his second coming “in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead.” We are not having a sale because, as the Advent Collect reminds us, our business is grace; the “grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.” Grace is a free gift but it is not “cheap.” Judgement is not a popular idea: It sounds like an affront to our human dignity. But at the heart of that dignity is the fact that we are moral beings, able to respond not just to instinct but to conscience; to make choices between right and wrong, good and evil, life and death.
The “Daily Mail,” is not part of my regular reading, so I do not usually get to read Quentin Letts who is one of its columnists. Some years ago, however, Mr. Letts, whom I have a never met, suggested to his readers that I might be worth a bet on who might be the new Dean of St. Paul’s. Well, as you can see, I am still the Vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street, so I hope no-one was foolish enough to rush out to Ladbrokes or Paddy Power.
Since then, Mr. Letts has written a novel, called “The Speaker’s Wife,” so I thought I would repay the compliment by reading it.
The central character is a priest. Fr. Tom Ross combines being Speaker’s Chaplain with being vicar of a country parish in Herefordhire. There are two other clerics:
- Petroc who runs a happy-clappy “fresh expression” in Victoria, and who has been landed on Tom as a lodger, a relationship at first tense, but they become friends and allies;
- Tony the ‘Dean of Communications’ at Church House, an ecclesiastical ‘spin doctor.’ Mr. Letts does not think much of such a creature – but perhaps we would not need to have them if the media, having dispensed with most of their religious affairs correspondents, was not so clueless about religion in general and the Church in particular.
Then there are politicians, both scheming and decent, and a celebrity atheist: Augustus Dymock, known as the “Don of Doubt”. No prizes for guessing who he is modeled on. In fact, he has no doubts at all: only the cast-iron certainty of his own infallibility. He and his political sympathizers begin a campaign to take over churches and turn them into housing. Tom’s country church – and his official residence as Speaker’s chaplain – are both marked down for seizure by an alliance of atheist campaigner, ambitious politician and corrupt developer. Oh, and Dymock has a glamorous young Russian female assistant called Olga who ends up marrying the new Speaker, who is an atheist. So, the triad of money, sex and power is complete.
Well, I’m not suggesting “The Speaker’s Wife” as devotional reading for Advent; an alternative to Christmas telly perhaps. What we will be hearing a lot of in church in this season is the prophecy of Isaiah.
As we heard this morning, for Isaiah, Jerusalem is a problem that will not go away. In his very first chapter, he condemns its national pride, its self-sufficiency and self-serving religion. But this judgement is not his or God’s last word for Jerusalem. It still has a crucial role to play in God’s plans.
The poem, the word which Isaiah sees, looks in imagination beyond present dismay through the eyes of God, to see what will be but is not yet. That is how promise works in scripture, and what Advent does in the life of faith. Faith sees what will be – that is not yet. The promise is sure because it is the will of God. But the prophet does not know when it will come to pass. It is in the nature of faithful promise to trust the one who promises, and therefore not to need a timetable.
The promise proceeds by making a sharp contrast between what is and what will be “in the days to come.” The city then was marginal and vulnerable. It lived and flourished or suffered and died at the will of great powers. Against its present decay, the prophet imagines a majestic future in which all the other nations, even the great powers of Assyria and Egypt, will “stream to it.”
This is not an anticipation of a worldly political triumph. The peoples will say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,” because It is the place of God’s presence. The journey to God’s presence is a journey to his law, his instruction, his teaching:
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
The nations will not only enjoy God’s presence, they will be engaged in God’s purpose. They will accept his law as the basis for their well-being.
And as they do, God is established as the adjudicator of international disputes. The coming role of God is cast in theological terms, but its import is profoundly political. The poem envisions a court of appeal, whereby there will be adjudication of large and deep problems. In the ancient, as in in the modern world, the warrant for war is often there is no such authority to arbitrate. But where God’s rule is acknowledged, war as a mode of national policy is not needed.
The poem offers a lyrical vision of an alternative economy and the dismantling of weapons of war. The move to a peacetime economy requires not only good intentions, but procedures whereby the resources and capacities of the economy are otherwise deployed. It is not enough to end spears and swords as an act or romantic goodwill. There must at the same time be production of instruments of life, plough-shares and pruning hooks. Human energies and resources must be reassigned to vine-dressing and agriculture. The economy is transformed; the earth is also transformed, from battleground to fertile garden.
To turn back from Isaiah to “The Speaker’s Wife:” Near the end of the novel, Dymock comes to Fr. Tom’s in his country church – to try to persuade him not to reveal the corrupt dealing he has discovered. The Vicar is praying the same Litany we sang at the beginning of mass today: that long responsive prayer for the well-being, the commonweal of church and state, society and individual.
The priest says to the Doubting Don: “Your lot want to turn this place into weekend flats. Chichi get-aways. We’ve had surveyors poking around.”
“They want to build dreams for the aspiring classes,” he replies, sounding like the leading architect who has just suggested that the occupants of social housing in central London be cleared out to make space for his bright young staff, so they do not have to commute.
“We build dreams here as it is. More than dreams.”
“But you can’t live in them. You can’t make money out of them.”
“Money, no,…but we can pass them on to our sons and daughters.”
Looking at the state of the Church in this land, and in Europe generally, we might be tempted, if not to condemnation of scandal – the “deeds of darkness,” then at least to despair about what seems the inexorable decline in which the likes of the Doubting Don taker such delight.
But, Isaiah’s vision should give us hope that God is not finished with us yet; that he still has a task for us to do: to build dreams, and more than dreams to hand on to our sons and daughters.
That vision is to be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s law of love. Like Isaiah’s vision of a the city of peace to which the nations will come for instruction, it needs to be made real in terms of communities shaped and guided by that instruction; which live out that Gospel, not just in theory in the day-to-day business of building communities which work for the common good. This goes on at different levels: that of popes and bishops and theologians who speak in the public square; but also in ordinary parishes like ours as we live and work and pray together that the earthly city may know the peace of the heavenly.
The words of Jesus in the Gospel, “Keep awake and Paul in the epistle, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” warn us that there is an urgency tot this task. This is not about the survival of the Church as an institution but the common good of our world.
The rise of hateful words and dark deeds in our society, the contempt for truth and reason, should be a warning to us too. Yesterday, there was a report that after the murder of the MP Joe Cox by a neo-Nazi extremist, 50,000 messages celebrating her death, in the vilest terms, were posted on Twitter.
Our common home is being broken into by far worse than thieves. It is danger of being overrun by barbarians. Our world needs the word of the Lord , the instruction that goes forth from Jerusalem. It will only hear it if we, the citizens of the new Jerusalem, have first done so. It will only see that vision of peace if it has been made real in our common life.
So, we must pray that prayer for the “grace to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light,” not just because it is beautiful but because it is true.