Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 11th December 2011
11 December 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
‘In an English country lane a young man who found life more difficult than he had expected lay down miserably on a dead tree trunk. He wished he’d never been born. Somebody might have come to ask him about his trouble and help him. But nobody did come because nobody does….and so he continued to wish himself dead’
This is a scene from Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure – which, with that phrase ‘nobody did come because nobody does’, may also remind you of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. Both depict the deeply dispiriting experience of coming to think there is no-one and no God who will ever come to help, and to make sense of things. So - like many of Hardy’s characters - Jude stands for Advent doubt rather than Advent faith: he stands for the person who is buffeted by life, tired of false dawns, losing hope. It was a book which so depressed the then Bishop of Wakefield that he is reported to have thrown his copy on the fire in disgust!
It is a complete contrast to the voices of the readings we’ve just heard in the Gospel. Speaking from other times and places, they are full of hope: they are a voice crying out in the desert proclaiming confidently that someone would come from God: a voice echoing an earlier prophet who proclaimed hope from the desert of exile: ‘in the wilderness prepare a highway for our God: for the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.’
What is it which gives some people hope, even in exile, where others only have doubt? Hope, after all, matters so much. Individuals and nations live by hope, and die without it. Dum spiro spero…the very breath of my soul is hope. If hope dies it can literally take our very life and soul away, as Jude found: but with hope our life and soul returns and we flourish! No wonder it is one of the three great gifts of the Spirit: faith, hope, and love. So I ask again - what is it that gives some like Isaiah and John the Baptist such hope, which others like these 19th & 20th century English writers could not find?
No doubt there are all sorts of reasons to do with their different social circumstances and their different psychologies. But what I want to suggest now is a spiritual answer, not psychological, and for that perhaps there is something we can learn from people of different times and circumstances. For what those prophets had was a desert experience: throughout scripture, from Exodus to Jesus’ own ministry, the desert was the place where God did meet people, a place where they found hope.
I don’t mean, of course, that we all need the physical location of a real desert - but we may need what it represents. Yet as it happens, it was an actual desert which helped me understand what this might be. In a brief foray into the Judaean wilderness some time ago, what I found was not emptiness but a strange experience of connectedness. There were large landscapes and huge horizons but, rather like the sea, the longer you stopped and looked and listened the more you sensed it was not empty space but seamless in its sights and sounds: something joined up the landscape rather than breaking it up. It was a complete contrast to East Jerusalem from which I had just come, with its disorientating cauldron of different sights, sounds, competing cultures, commerce, religions, politics. So what I mean by desert is just this: a state where we’re not constantly pushed and pulled by the babble of competing pressures and ideas and events, but re-orientated to something deeper which lies behind them, joins them up, makes sense of them. Finding such a place beyond the clamour is not burying our head in the sand, because the God we meet in this way will send us back into the clamour. But it is a how He can and does often best meet us, and renews our hope.
How might we find such a desert? There’s a negative move and a positive one. There is first some drawing apart from things, at least temporarily. Let me be practical: do we really need to dwell so constantly in 24-hour news and comment about world events? Yes, of course we should stay in touch, and yes it’s often grim. But do we need to be bullied by it constantly? Remember how selective it is! It is only when we switch off the news, at least sometimes, that we may be able to see and hear other good things which lie behind the news. Likewise with other pressures which assail us: yes, we do need honestly to face the real intellectual, social, personal pressures on our faith and hope today, just as Hardy faced the atheistic Darwinism, the social injustices and hypocrisy of organised religion of his day, the diseases and personal hurts of his own family life. But - do we need to dwell exclusively in these things? No! Draw aside for a while - and then make the positive move as well: take time, in Paul’s words, to ‘hold fast to what is good’. Dwell in things which do join life up, which make sense of it.
How? There are many ways. Perhaps it will be by immersing ourselves in music, or the rhythms of nature; better still, by dwelling in the love of people, and in loving them. It will be by prayer; and it will be by actively seeking out good news in the world with as much vigour as the media hunt after bad news; above all by seeking out and living in that pivotal good news story of God to which Isaiah and John were pointing: the story of Christ, the one who did come, does come, and will come again, to give sense and hope through everything that life can throw at us…
Being here at this service may mean we are already doing this. We have sensed that the spell the music weaves, the beauties of the building, the goodwill of the people around us, the power of the stories told in scripture, the mysteries of sacraments, are at best not just escape or fantasy but a kind of desert: they are ways of re-orientating ourselves beyond the immediate pressures, they are gateways to decluttering our life so we can see the world differently, and see God. Seek out more such gateways in the rest of your life too, not just in church. For this is how faith and hope is renewed. Not by denying the doubts, throwing difficult stories faint-heartedly onto the fire; but certainly by sometimes drawing aside in order to ‘hold fast to what is good’ – most especially by holding fast to the good story of Christ, as it unfolds to us again this advent.