Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Advent 2014
14 December 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Later this afternoon an old friend of mine will be arriving from Bogotá, the capital of the Republic of Colombia, and staying for a few days. As a child I remember reading with some fascination about the ancient legend of El Dorado, set in the Colombian Andes, around the holy lake Guatavita, some thirty-five miles north-east of Bogotá.
You may recall the story. High in the Andes, an Indian prince is anointed in the darkness. Then, on a large raft in the centre of this sacred lake, his naked body is plastered with gold dust by members of his tribe. They turn away so that they do not look on his face. They all wait in silence. Then the sun comes over the horizon and bathes in its light the Indian prince, gold in glory. He plunges into the lake, and the people cast jewels and sacred objects of gold into the water to sanctify the place where he swims. He is the legendary El Dorado, the gilded one. The ceremony is the annual ritual to the god of the sun on behalf of the people who depend on its power. For most primitive peoples throughout history, the sun was the supreme god, surveying the world, giving it light and warmth.
Ancient religions, as well as modern, have always used the themes of light and darkness as a way of speaking about religious experience. Perhaps because of the natural fear people experience when they cannot see what is around them, coupled with the fact that we don't usually operate effectively in the dark, light has become associated, both literally and symbolically, with goodness, and darkness with evil, misery, and ignorance. This recurring theme is also woven through the Bible, even from the very first chapter in the book of Genesis, and the idea of moving out of darkness into light is frequently used in scripture to demonstrate people coming into a relational experience of God.
The prophet Isaiah describes the light of God which comes to the people of Israel, in contrast to the darkness of ignorance and misery which covers other nations. (Isaiah 60: 2) Indeed the psalmist proclaims that those who cry to God in their trouble are saved from their distress and brought out of darkness and the deepest gloom. (Psalm 107: 1–43). And in describing the coming of Jesus, St John echoes words from the book of Genesis by proclaiming 'what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it'. (St John 1: 4–5).
Interestingly this powerful imagery of light and darkness also runs through the body of Western literature. Milton's great poem Paradise Lost, talks of Satan being cast out of heaven to dwell in 'no light, but rather darkness visible'. In Macbeth almost all the evil deeds are committed during the hours of darkness. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth call upon the powers of darkness to make them strong in evil: 'Stars, hide your fires. Let not light see my black and deep desires … Come, thick night' and the witches are described as 'secret, black, and midnight hags'. Even in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, the fear of witchcraft is linked to darkness, and you may remember Abigail's threat to the terrified Betty that 'I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning'.
But in terms of positive Christian relational experience, the New Testament surpasses all literature exuding the power of light over darkness and filling us all with encouragement and hope and expectation. This morning we also heard the beautiful and upbeat words of St Paul: how he tells the early Christians in Thessalonica to 'rejoice always' and to 'pray without ceasing'. He encourages them, 'in all circumstances give thanks' for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus'. He urges them 'not to quench the Spirit' and to 'test everything', retaining what is good and refraining from all that is evil. He ends with a prayer that is drenched in light and great hope: 'May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this'.
Then our Gospel reading, (taken from the prologue of the Gospel of John) draws us back into this Advent season. We hear about John the Baptist, the one whose dance for joy in his mother's womb had prompted Mary's great exclamation of faith. But now he is in his prophetic role as the one preparing for the coming of Christ, the one sent by God who is truly capable of fulfilling every human hope. John testifies that he himself is not the light; but the one whose advent he announces, he will be the light of the world.
This gives us an insight into one of the most fundamental of all Christian ethics grounded in the New Testament. That fundamental message being that we are to live now by the future that we most earnestly desire to see. The great light and hope that God has planted into the human heart is not wishful thinking, but the very future that God promises for us: mercy, forgiveness, peace, the fullness of life, and unconditional love. Because this is the future we are made for, we become true to ourselves when we strive for the light and live in the spirit of what God promises for us. That is what leads to vibrant hope and authentic joy.
Yet for most primitive peoples throughout history, the sun was the supreme god, surveying the world, giving it light and warmth. Legends such as El Dorado abounded, capturing the imagination and shaping the culture.
But for Christians the true light comes not as a bolt from the sky, but as a child from his mother's womb. Whenever we gather to celebrate light in the midst of darkness, we celebrate the new hope that Jesus has generated in people down the centuries. For Christ is our light; Christ is our hope. When we want to know God, it is to Jesus that we turn; when we want to worship God, it is through Jesus that we sing our praises. When we want to accept God into our very beings, it is Jesus whom we receive in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. For by whom, and with whom, and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, is all honour and glory yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen.