Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 15th December 2013
15 December 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
Do not worry about anything… The Lord is near. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep you. That is what we heard from our readings - and we often hear it in scripture. It is a repeated refrain: ‘Do not fear: do not worry. All is well. The Lord will come, and will keep you’.
The trouble is - all does not always turn out well in this world, and I for one do worry. I suspect I am not alone. In fact it’s generally reckoned that society as a whole suffers collectively from anxiety. Western democracies are especially prone to it. We’re anxious because the old stories we lived by, first Christendom, then rational scientific social optimism, then de-regulated capitalism, have all seemed to falter, we no longer trust them to be entirely true or to keep us safe. And there doesn’t seem to be anything obvious on the horizon to replace them. Perhaps this is why there is such neuralgic activism in our politics: more and more laws, more interventions in public life, more attempts to control private life, the plethora of health alerts for just about everything we eat and drink – it is all, I suspect, a symptom of this collective anxiety: a vain attempt to control life because, at some level, we all feel insecure…
A cheerful start to a sermon! So let me quickly move on. What then might we do about it?
First, if we are anxious, at least we needn’t add to our burdens by feeling guilty about it as well! Precisely because anxiety is collective as well as individual, and we’re all so formed by society, it’s not necessarily our fault if we feel worried. But also, secondly, let’s shift the focus anyway from what we feel - and ask instead, what is true. What is the truth of the matter? Will all be well?
History and science, when they look at the world, cannot necessarily answer this. They do not seem clear. Some historians believe they do see signs for hope and optimism in the patterns of the past, others look at the same data with more baleful eyes - and like the old Greek philosophers see only endless repetition, bounded by the same old human nature, history repeating itself, especially its mistakes. Science doesn’t seem to settle the question either. Some scientists see the universe expanding with exciting new possibilities. Others see it predestined by its own laws to collapse back into itself. Some look at the recent mapping of human genes and believe it leaves plenty of room for hope that we can always change human life for the better. Others believe it shows the opposite - that we are determined by our genes and bound to frustration. Neither history nor science seems sure, in their own terms.
Yet - Christian faith is sure. Sure, at least, in this sense: sure that through all these complexities that history and science uncover, there is a divine mind, God, steering events ultimately to a good end: so whatever we now experience, all will finally be well in the fulfilment of history and eternity. It is not facile optimism. This belief offers no promise of a trouble free life, nor inexorable improvement through life. It is, after all, based on the life of Christ himself in which the final good only emerged through a cross. Nonetheless, that final good is the final truth.
But where is this truth displayed, so we can really believe it - and believe it to be true? Supremely, of course, in those events of Christ. There is no better place to look. But also, like scattered fragments of an irresistible light, it is reflected in many other places as well. It’s embedded so deeply in our world, and in our humanity, that it keeps breaking surface everywhere, in people of every race and religion and none, in people of every circumstance, whether they live in security or in desperate danger. Its chief witness is that simple, extraordinary persistent, human experience of hope. Dum spiro spero - ‘while I breathe I have hope’: originally the watchword of a third-century BC Greek poet - but so universally recognized that it’s the official motto, I’m told, of such disparate bodies as the State of South Carolina, the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland and the Kingdom of Sarawak! And, in fact, isn’t it really the unofficial, instinctive motto, just of being human? As a sociologist has remarked, every mother who has ever lived witnesses to it when they reassure a child beset in the night with nameless threats and fears: ‘don’t be afraid – everything is all right’, she says. Think about that simple statement. Things may not be all right. She certainly has no power to make everything all right. Yet she is not just saying it as a white lie. It comes from an instinct that there is some truth in it which goes deeper than rationality or empirical evidence. It’s like the equally profound instinct that goodness must ultimately be more lasting than evil. Long before Christ, Plato taught this. Hard-headed post-christian philosophers have taught it too. We intuitively feel that the reality of love, beauty and goodness is so solid it must ultimately trump evil - even though much in life seems to mock this belief.
To be sure, socio-biologists may well write off this sort of instinct just as a product of evolutionary necessity. ‘We need this belief and hope’, they say, ‘to keep going in the face of the realities of danger and death - but that doesn’t make it really true’. Yet even as they say it, their argument falters. After all, if this instinct was only an evolutionary quest for survival it would act to keep us out of danger. Yet in fact our hope in the ultimate triumph of goodness often drives us into danger. So it must be coming from somewhere else, from a deeper truth than our evolutionary instincts alone. And of course it does! This hope for the triumph of goodness is not just coming from ourselves: it is the voice of our Creator sounding in us, as he sounds through the whole universe – and especially in Christ.
I do not suppose seeing or saying all this will necessarily stop us worrying. But maybe it can help us stop worrying about worrying. Our hopes are actually a deeper truth than our fears, whatever we feel about it. That is the Advent affirmation. And so, in that wonderful phrase of the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, all we are now invited to do is to live in that truth…