12th December 2021
Irony in the Soul
A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
Sunday 12 December 2021, The Third Sunday of Advent
(Zephaniah 3.14-end; Luke 3.7-18)
Ironies of various kinds abound in the 21st century British Advent. I won’t even draw attention to the promotional material for the famous whiskey which reads: ‘Bushmills: persuing perfection since 1608’. More to the point are the snooker player Mark Williams, photographed a few days ago, fast asleep in his chair in the middle of a match. ‘Wake, O wake’ indeed. In this season of waiting, we are surrounded by Christmas lights and images, and I spent much of Friday singing Christmas carols. A somewhat more troubling irony can be heard nightly in BBC Radio 4’s scheduling for these middle two weeks of Advent, as the Book at Bedtime, of the novelised form of the 1970s horror film ‘The Omen’ – a plot based on the coming into the world of the Antichrist.
Advent is a season of cross currents, complex patterns, of present slumber waking up to both disaster and hope. Our two readings this morning are dealing in just such confusing messages: the passage from Zephaniah, replete with reassurance of the presence and love of God, the one who ‘will restore your fortunes before your eyes’; and John the Baptist, telling people not to take confidence because God loved their ancestors, and who – after telling his hearers that God’s axe is about to cut through them – in effect goes on to tell them that the person who is just about to arrive from God will be a lot harder on them yet. So, are we supposed to be reassured by the promises of God, or threatened by the certainty of judgement?
The answer, of course, is – both. It’s vital to look back, to grasp the whole sweep of God’s dynamic relationship with his people through recorded time: to see his enduring promise, his faithfulness, his love. Equally, we must grasp the majesty of God’s purpose, and just how much the way things – and we – are now are flimsy, shameful apologies for the glory of God. This here is not good enough, what is to come will be different.
We look back; we look forward. Past and future. Comfort and confidence – and the harsh certainty of future judgement, one that even our ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ society cannot dodge. Irony, the tension created by apparent contradiction.
Stuck in the middle, as we are, what are we to do? The very question put by the expectant crowds in the wilderness to this latter-day prophet, John. So far as we can tell, his answers to such urgent questions were remarkably simple and matter-of-fact: if you’ve got more than you need – share it; if you’re a petty official and in a position to cream off a few perks on the side – don’t; if you’re stronger than people around you – don’t bully or exploit them. This is not, as they say, rocket science. As ethical advice, it’s about as simple as you can get.
And it takes us to the heart of Advent. It may feel complex, full of competing or confusing messages, and endlessly distracted, plus – in Church – drawn to both a remote past and an imagined future. But in fact it is challenging us to live NOW: the past and the present together throw the spotlight on here, now, and what we do. We are being called on to
participate in what, when existentialism was fashionable, used to be described as ‘the sacrament of the present moment’. It is right now that we can know and serve God. It is here that we can experience and live the Kingdom of God.
And every now is eternally replaced by another; in God’s grace there are no limits to the opportunities to meet and serve him. So it’s reassuring to me to know that if I make a complete shambles of this sermon, I might get things right next time. More importantly, moral lapses, past or recent disregard of others near or far, these things do not deny us the chance to act differently in ten minutes’ time. The invitation to experience and to be part of the unambiguous presence of God is ceaselessly renewed.
The past is full of promise. The future is full of hope. The present is for God and others. Thanks be to God.