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Sermon at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Advent 2019

"The things which matter most must never be at the mercy of the things which matter least." [Goethe]

The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence

Sunday, 8th December 2019 at 3.00 PM

Our New Testament lesson (John 1.19-28) describes John the Baptist at a little place called Bethany, not to be confused with the Bethany where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but most likely somewhere on the Jordanian side of the river Jordan pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Today this area is about 40 minutes by car from the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Its here that St John the Evangelist records the Baptist looking forward, hoping for the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Hoping for a new beginning and for salvation.

This is the message powerfully given in this afternoon’s anthem ‘This is the record of John’ by Orlando Gibbons (which incidentally, was written for a visit by Archbishop William Laud to St. John’s College, Cambridge).

Until around 25 years ago, the area around Bethany had been a minefield on the front line between Jordan and Israel, whose border is the river Jordan.

Then after the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel the place was given new hope; mines were cleared, roads constructed, and churches built; the most prominent being the wonderful gold-domed Greek Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist  which reflects the light in a most dramatic and dazzling way.

For many centuries before, this part of the world has swayed first one way and then another. Fear, hope tragedy and uncertainty has characterised its very existence and even today the place carries the scars of historic violence and war.

We so often hear todays reading about John the Baptist at the beginning of Advent because ‘hope’ is the touch word for this season. Indeed there’s very much a sense of hope in the air at the moment.

In the political sphere, with an election just around the corner, many are hoping that we can eliminate the poison that’s increasingly contaminating our public discourse and politics.

Many are hoping to both break down the divide between the four nations that make up the UK, and the divides that exists between north and south, and rich and poor.

Indeed, many are also hoping that we can heal relations with Europe, and are hoping that real change may occur in Madrid concerning climate change.

Earlier this week the UN Secretary General said: ‘my message is one of hope not of despair, for the signals of hope are multiplying’.

So what can the Christian church bring to this ground swell of hope for a better world? What hope does the church present to our rather tired and weary nation on the eve of a general election?

Well, in an election campaign, the truth matters more than ever. At a time when the British public’s faith in politics is widely recognised to have been stretched to its limits, we all have a responsibility to speak accurately, to challenge falsehoods when we hear them, and to be careful to separate facts from opinion.

The great Christian message we have for our nation is that - in Christ’s birth God chose to come and live among us, intervening in our imperfect world, and offering the hope of life reordered and life restored.

In other words, this is a time to set aside apathy and cynicism and for us to be seen to be a people of hope.

In the build up to the Election, when truth appears to be in rather short supply, the Church has a real opportunity to speak out and shine a light on truth; to be seen to honour the gift of truth, and by this I mean both speaking the truth, but also recognising the truth when we see it. 

Interestingly, this is exactly what John the Baptist did. Indeed John’s stature among his own people was so great that many of them came to believe that he was the messiah.

When Jesus comes to ask his followers who do people think he is, the apostles tell him that some believe him to be John the Baptist come back to life.

Even in the early church, some time after the completion of Jesus’ ministry, a sectarian Baptist group still holds on to the belief that John, not Jesus is the Christ.

And that is why the fourth Gospel is so emphatic about John’s role: it stresses that John is a witness to the light.

Like John, we are asked to make way for the light. A light that is both the light of encouragement as well as being the light of reflection, or more sharply, the light of judgement.

Firstly we need to be clear that none of us (in either spirituality or politics) is the light: our role is to reveal the light through the pain and anguish of our human landscape.

That appears a mountainous task, besides which our own abilities and commitment look so small.

In more despondent moments we might think, but who are we to play a role in the national consciousness? Well, Advent re-invigorates us and calls on us to make what contribution we can.

With election fever all around us, its important for us to recognise that real democracy is all about informed individual response.

The light of God encourages us to look first at ourselves and work quietly on the darkness that hides within us, the selfishness, the unforgiveness and the lack of love that keep the light of good news from so many people.

Indeed our involvement with the larger social issues like justice and peace, the NHS and climate change which require the witness of a caring community, challenges us all to work in partnership together.

But secondly we are challenged by the fact that this light is also a light of judgement, a light of reflection.

For the announcement that God judges us is to recognise that we are known for what we are, with all the shadows that hover around the edge of our vision with all the ambivalence that drives so many of our thoughts and actions.

This time of Advent gives us a reality check to stand before God as we are without hiding from him or in political terms, pretending to be something we’re not.

In spiritual terms, this involves being alive to the light and shadows, it means noticing our own tendency to be distracted from what is truly from God (and God filled).

Its an invitation to reflect on what we truly need and long for in life. It’s a call to know ourselves and our society better.

But Advent must be even more than this, however important it is to know better, ourselves as individuals.

This season invites us to embrace a far deeper understanding of life a deep understanding of common good that in turn means coming to know both God and society in a new and more penetrating way.

Just as the minefields of Bethany were cleared away and the land rejuvenated, so the minefields of half truth need to be transformed.

Almost a century ago, the Manchester Guardian’s editor, CP Scott, in a famous essay marking the newspaper’s centenary in 1921, wrote that the public had ‘a shrewd intuition of what to accept and what to discount’.

We proclaim that the Church is integral to this debate, for as Goethe says, "The things which matter most must never be at the mercy of the things which matter least".

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