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A sermon about my poem Uncertain Advent at Salisbury Cathedral

preached at the Eucharist on 8 December 2002 by Canon Jeremy Davies

The Christmas cards have already started to arrive and, miracle of miracles, I’ve even started writing my own.  Among those which arrived yesterday was one from a friend who is a poet.  And unlike the cards which contain letters of family crises and achievements in the last year, which I put aside for later consumption with a stiff drink, I read Alwyn Marriage’s poem straight away – and found food for thought. I hope you have her poem in your hand: it’s called ‘Uncertain Advent’.

Can Christmas this year pierce the gathering darkness,
the daily news that plays upon our fear?Apocalyptic premonitions shape our Advent,
that even in the throb of Christmas preparation
war and the plots of terrorists are ever near.Christmas may warm our hearts
but not till wintry chill
has seeped through sinew, heart and bone
with threat of horrors yet unknown.

Stars and angels tell a different story,
Of unquenched light and peace and warm goodwill;
a message scattering stardust down the ages
encouraging us to trust that all may yet be well.
Through darkest night a glimmer leads to morning,
guiding our hope and trust and longing still.

Waiting in the dark we cannot know
what lies ahead, of war or of redemption.
What images assail us in the night,
of rape and pillage, show
of rage and might; or light
of long lost sweet remembered love?

Through the dark hours our thoughts are turned and tossed
we snatch at tantalising dreams of reconciliation
gently ruffling feathers on the white breast
of a dove.

Before the morning comes
we wait, as night
aches on.  Uncertain now
what shape or form
our longing calls to birth;
knowing only that those who take up arms
will never bless this earth.

Yet even now we dare to trust our longing,
that when the first faint glow
of morning washes darkness from our eyes,
all that our hearts were yearning for in darkness,
will like a radiant, Christmas morning

Uncertain Advent certainly catches the mood this year: catches the mood of the season which is always about waiting in the darkness, about longing and hope, about cosmic conflagration as well as our personal sense of mortality. However many Christmas cards we write bearing hope of comfort and joy and a quickly scrawled message ‘Hope to see you in 2003’, Advent has a feeling of the world in crisis. And this Advent, as the poem suggests, is more than usually fraught with danger and uncertainty

Apocalyptic premonitions shape our Advent,
that even in the throb of Christmas preparation
war and the plots of terrorists are ever near.

I suppose we come here each week, and not just in times of national or international crisis, because we believe that God is faithful. That, despite all the signs to the contrary, there is point and meaning and purpose to existence. That despite the horrendous mess humankind manages to make of this world, there is a God who loves and forgives and who provides us with the means to unpick the mess we have made. A God who is sufficiently involved in our predicament that he is prepared to offer himself as the way out.

So while I’m reading Alwyn Marriage’s poem about uncertain Advent, and picking up the Guardian from the mat, that is already telling me (as I’m bent double) that Saddam has produced his evidence and Bush isn’t believing him.  With the Guardian in the one hand and the poem in the other, I go to my study to find a bible to consult today’s Gospel from Mark whom we started reading last week and who will be our guiding evangelist throughout next year. And as I sit at my desk with these three aids to reflection – a poem, the Guardian, holy scripture – two other images confront me: the medieval crucifix which hangs above my desk, and a photo of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, which I cut from the newspaper last week to remind me that, though Advent is uncertain and our world in crisis, God is faithful.

Mark, by far the shortest of the gospels, is also the bleakest. Pared down to the bare essentials, it has been estimated that, apart from the Passion narrative, Mark contains only three weeks of material from the life of Jesus.  Perhaps he was writing for a persecuted Christian community in Rome, presenting them with the name of Jesus and the spare outline of his story that alone would see them through the fiery ordeal that almost certainly awaited them.  Mark is a good gospel to be reading in an uncertain Advent, because he doesn’t pull any punches.  He tells it as it is.

So don’t be disappointed if, as we begin Mark’s account, we are confronted not with the baby in the manger; no angels, shepherds or wise men.  If we want them, as we certainly shall do in a couple of weeks’ time, we shall have to turn to Matthew and Luke for help.  Where does Mark start his narrative?  Out in the desert, way back in the Old Testament, with a guy who has clearly stepped out of its pages.  We call him John the Baptist.  At a time of crisis in the Middle East, God provided someone who looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet, wild, unkempt, living on what he could gather from the unyielding soil, beyond the power structure of ‘civilised society’, and delivering a message of such power that the people of Jerusalem and Judaea flocked to hear him and be baptised.  His message was twofold:  prepare the way of the Lord by preparing yourselves for his coming and there is one coming after me who is mightier than I.  That is to say, John like the prophets of old challenged the men and women of his day to take responsibility for the way the world was by recovering a sense of the way the world was meant to be.  He called them out of the city with its politics, its compromises and collusions and arrogant self-sufficiency, to the place of locusts and wild honey.  He offered them nothing except a mirror in which to see themselves, and the natural but scarce water in which to make a clean breast of life; to start again. 

No wonder John ended up in prison and eventually executed on the whim of a lovely courtesan who represents the unredeemed and seamy side of all our lives.  No politician or ruler could easily live with John the Baptist with his challenge and his questions.  Prophets, as Jesus subsequently reminded us, have no honour in their own country.

But John, to recall the second part of his message, was not a political animal despite the political implications of his moral message.  He was clothed as he was and survived as he did on God’s bounty because his finger was not wagging in condemnation but pointing beyond himself to one who would be mightier than he.  He was pointing, like all the Old Testament prophets, to God.  And John saw, coming over the horizon, one whom he recognised as God in human form.  We call him Jesus.

We live in uncertain times.  Today is the deadline for Saddam Hussein to comply with the UN resolution requiring him to declare what weapons of mass destruction he possesses.  Eleven or twelve thousand pages of evidence have been amassed and delivered to the United Nations.  Still the build-up of troops in the Gulf continues and the hawks in the American administration continue their belligerent rhetoric.  Soon we may be at war and thousands of innocent people will suffer and many will die.  It’s an uncertain world.  Last week David Durston fixed our attention on the scourge of Aids and the reality of famine and starvation in southern Africa.  And that’s only southern Africa.  Famine and Aids are already decimating the continent.  It’s an uncertain world indeed – but for many there is an all too dreadful and certain outcome.

Before the morning comes
we wait, as night
aches on.

In an uncertain world and during this uncertain Advent what is the appropriate Christian response?   Do we simply wring our hands in despair?  Or ignore it all as beyond our competence and carry on with Christmas as though there’s no tomorrow?  Or do we believe that God is faithful and that his grace is sufficient for us?

I’m glad to have a photo of the new Archbishop of Canterbury above my desk, and I’m glad that his election to his new responsibility took place in the great city on the Monday after Advent Sunday.  I mustn’t cast him as the John the Baptist for our day – partly because I remember what happened to John the Baptist and partly because the new archbishop is likely to drown under the welter of expectation from within and beyond the Church.

Let me simply say that we shouldn’t be surprised when God does supply us with unexpected opportunities when the world looks most uncertain.  And if Rowan Williams is, as I believe him to be, one of those opportunities, then we should be grateful.  Last week in our Advent Processions we rehearsed the great Advent antiphons, the Great O’s.  In the course of them we pleaded for Sapientia – for wisdom.  In the new Archbishop we have a man of huge intellect – that no one disputes – but much more than that we have a man of wisdom, of depth, of holiness, courage and humour.  A man who has looked deeply inside himself and wisely and compassionately at our world, and who knows his need and our need of God.  If he makes challenging remarks that the media and the politicians don’t like, we will find him not pointing at himself or wagging a finger at us, but raising our sights to a wider horizon and a deeper encounter.

God who has given us a saviour may yet again have given us a prophet.  Our response, if we are to prepare the way of the Lord, is not simply to overreact when the Archbishop says something  with which we disagree.  (Who wants an Archbishop with whom everyone can always agree?)  Our response to Rowan Williams in this uncertain Advent should be to look for wisdom and godwardness in what he says and let ourselves be both challenged and cleansed by what we find.

Yet even now we dare to trust our longing,
that when the first faint glow
of morning washes darkness from our eyes,
all that our hearts were yearning for in darkness,
will like a radiant, Christmas morning