A sermon preached by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL on Sunday, 27 November 2016
Romans 13 v 11-14; Matthew 24 v 36-44
Today is New Year’s Day for the church: we bid farewell to one year and welcome the start of a new calendar. As we all start to close down 2016 I realise that it’s been a year when I’ve found quite a lot of things difficult to believe. Here are just a few examples of my disbelief:
· I don’t believe that the adversarial tone to our public conversations is either attractive or reassuring. As we’ve coped with migrant crises throughout Europe, Syria still in turmoil, the continuing effects of globalisation and national debt we need more than theatrical politics and the demonization of people.
· Nor do I believe that the experiences of mass democracy in the British referendum or the American Presidential election this year have done us much good. That’s not because I disagree with the outcomes but because of the sense of polarisation both have created.
· Both those campaigns, which have dominated our news for much of the year, have produced a whole lot more unbelieving in me. I simply don’t believe that crowd pleasing postures and being deliberately economical with the truth are any substitute for the serious business of political decision-making. Divorcing our electoral processes from the hard tasks of negotiating sustainable solutions around which we can all gather and support is simply dangerous to civil society.
· I also don’t believe that abandoning decency – whether that’s about abusing one another or manipulating emotions - abandoning decency can’t happen without immense cost to us all.
· And I don’t believe that any of the solutions produced by our electoral systems this year are really tackling the roots of inequality and injustice. As the Jewish prophets told us repeatedly: without justice there can be no peace for any of us.
· And in case you think I’ve only spent this year fretting about politics, I also don’t believe that Ed Balls ought to win this year’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’!
We’re looking back on a year full of conflicting views, many of them expressed without good manners or a regard for the sacred nature of facts. So as we look over the horizon of what comes next it’s right to ask –
How do we live together and shape our public realm? What kind of society do we think we want in 2017? What is our starting point?
This week a delightful young person came to interview me and she asked just those kind of questions. She wanted to know what I thought was the state of our nation. We talked about Brexit, and about the increase in mental illness across all age groups but most alarmingly amongst young people. We talked about what life felt like in Salisbury. Here in the Close or on the Friary estate just a few steps outside the Close wall.
And as I reflected on that interview I realised that I would have made my young interviewer much more uncomfortable had I discussed with her one of the central themes of this Christian season, the certainty of judgment. For our society has its own areas of disbelief and one of them is surely divine judgment.
In our Advent preparation for the coming of Christ, as our earthly Redeemer and as our Judge at the end of time, we have to acknowledge that there’s now a general reluctance to confront the theme of divine judgment.
- For many of us one choice is as good as another, one version of events is as valid as another so we can even talk of being in a world of ‘post-truth’;
- We’ve become reluctant to see ourselves as accountable to anything other than our own conscience – a notoriously unreliable guide - and the common law;
- We’re guided predominantly by human reason and the very thought of a ‘day of judgment’ belongs for most of us to a bygone era. Worse than that, we associate ‘judgment’ with our fear that social attitudes and behaviours will be imposed on us by religious interest groups using the threat of divine wrath.
And yet here the church stands, at the threshold of a new year, and it holds to the conviction that human history, including our own choices, will be measured against God’s perspective, and we will all give account. It believes moreover that judgment is to be welcomed. In judgment is the promise of hope because a merciful God, not motivated by revenge or cold-hearted retribution, seeks our rescue from the wickedness and deviancy from truth of which we are capable. As John Milton wrote and we will sing at the end of our service;
“Rise God, judge thou the earth,
in might this wicked earth redress,
for thou art he who shalt by right
the nations all possess.”
And before John Milton there was Jesus with much to say about that ‘day of judgment’. We heard a small excerpt, a nugget, from Matthew 24 which is all about judgment. In his description of ‘that day and hour’ I ask you to note these three things.
· Firstly, ‘that day and hour’ is going to involve public recognition of where truth lies. Jesus uses the example of Noah when the whole of creation was swept away by a symbolic act of destruction and then redemption. And then he says there are two men working the fields, two women making bread. The point of these illustrations is to give us a sense that judgment invades our known and shared world. It does it in a sudden and unexpected fashion, like an event from which you cannot escape. At its very essence judgment is a revelation of truth. ‘When the Lord comes he will bring to light things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.’ If we fear judgment is it because we fear truth?
· Secondly, as I say judgment brings with it the promise of hope. The very last reading in our ‘Darkness to Light’ Advent service brings the story of salvation to a crescendo by saying that the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. In the face of our dark and complex world the judgment of God comes only to heal. The Christian calling is not to condemn or punish but to mend the world and to help humans to flourish. Of course faith can become a poisoned well but the ‘day of judgment’ reminds us that our task is to be an instrument of God for the sake of human flourishing, in this life and the next.
· Knowing that sense of accountability we’re invited to ‘lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’. The ‘day of judgment’ calls us to an active transformation of the world rather than an interior fleeing of the soul to God. We are people of prophetic religion; an authentic religious experience should be a world-shaping force.
So our year starts here with an Advent invitation to see all the events of our society and of our own lives in a divine perspective of mercy and justice, of judgement. Let us not be gullible about much which our world asks us to believe. Instead let us be strengthened by hope and ready for that day and hour when we see as God sees.
“You must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”