Advent Sunday, 3 December 2017
There is fear in today’s readings, and that is what I want to look at this Advent Sunday. It is all around us. Last week on a testing journey across Salisbury Plain, I found myself less fearful of the conditions than of what was coming out of the car radio: pundits talking about the dangers in the US president’s erratic behaviour on Twitter, and then another expert on how the algorithms that shape the financial markets could make the next great crash happen not over several weeks, as in 2008, but in seconds.
Isaiah’s people are fearful, weak and pushed around, and the prophet cries on their behalf for God to stop moving in a mysterious way and put a bit of terror into the people who are terrorising them: ‘O that you would tear the heavens and come down!’ In the Gospel reading, Mark describes Jesus warning of terrors to come. What terrors? His words about dark skies and the shaking of heavenly powers sound like the end of the world, but early hearers of the Gospel would think at once of the day the Romans sacked Jerusalem. The sky was indeed darkened then with the smoke of destruction. When the holy Temple - the dwelling place of God’s glory - was razed, it must have felt as if the heavens themselves trembled: not the end of the world, but the end of their world.
Now we can leave the readings there, noting the events that made the writers use the words they used, but that leaves Isaiah and Mark – and Jesus – safely (and uselessly) in the past. If the atmosphere in these passages is one of fear, and if we are to hear, really hear, what they are saying, then you and I need to get in touch with our own fears.
The church used to be a market leader in this business. Pay a visit to our friends at St Thomas’ church in the city centre and you’ll find there two venerable icons of dread. On the central arch, dating from the late 1400s (with some Victorian touch-ups) is a picture of the last judgement, with a ghastly fishy monster gobbling up the souls consigned to hell; these seem to include a pub landlady. The message? Be afraid; and behave (and stop watering down the beer).
A century later, in the reign of Elizabeth I, you’d find the painting whitewashed over, but now you’d see a royal coat of arms (still visible), a symbol of state power that preaches a similar message to the medieval artist’s hellfire sermon in paint: fear God; honour the queen (1 Peter 2.17); and do as you’re told.
Jump to the 19th century, and you might find some tracts at the back of church, perhaps one from a Victorian priest who made quite a name for himself writing stories for children about how God would roast them in hell if they weren’t good boys and girls. His name – you’ll remember this – was Father Furness.
The priest, the preacher, the prince recruit God as their enforcer. Put the fear of God into everyone and they will stay in line, it’s an old trick. This is rule by fear, and no-one needs that. But is there fear that we do need? Is there such a thing as good fear? That’s a question these readings put to me.
There is such a thing as harmless fear – fun fairs get their money out of people’s enjoyment of being scared – and there are good effects from everyday fears. Imagine that tomorrow you have a difficult meeting at work, or an exam; or perhaps you have a solo role in the Darkness to Light service this evening. Being a bit scared can make you perform at peak, it makes you watchful and attentive. And facing fear - facing it down - makes you stronger; it puts you in touch with pluck and nerve and the need to trust - trust your own preparation, and trust God. There is a psalm verse I try to have in mind before a scary thing: In God I trust and will not fear. What can flesh do to me? Psalm 56:34.
Then there is the fear you feel when you’ve let down a friend. You have to face them - there they are in the street - and you’re scared, not because they will beat you up but because - just by being there - they’ll bring you face to face with what you have done and what it means. This is the fear that shows you that something is wrong and needs seeing to, like the red light on an overheating iron. Advent is a time to wake up to healthy fear, and to ask God’s help in slaying the bad kind.
Today’s readings and the spine-tingling collect talk about God’s judgement and Christ’s return. The return of Jesus: this means that our existence has an end, a goal, and that the end of things – the end of one life, or a way of life, or the end of everything – will be bound up with Jesus and what he shows us of God. And God’s judgement: this means that whatever you and I do or don’t do has consequences, and when we look God in the eyes (as with the friend I spoke of a moment ago) we will be brought face to face with who we are, and what we have made of ourselves.
In the unimaginable future God promises us, fear will fall away. Meanwhile, in my imperfect life, I need first to learn to fear the right things, like being less afraid of what others make of me than what God makes of me. Then, as I get to know God better, perfect love will cast out fear (1 John 4.18).
And what about the stuff you cannot help but be afraid of, the threats to livelihood or even to life itself? In John’s gospel on the night before he is killed - that moment we remember at every Holy Communion - Jesus promises his friends a peace which the world and its terrors cannot touch (John 14.27). To be at peace means not being afraid, or not letting fear be the biggest thing about you. It means being held by the love of God, at a point that is deeper than the fearful things, the threats to job or housing, the scariness of debt, even the terrors of illness or bereavement. I think of a tree in the Close that over the years has been blasted and bent by winds, yet the roots hold it firm, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.
The judgement of God and the hope of heaven, things we are called to wake up to in this season of Advent. They come down in the end to these questions. Where do I want to put the final weight of my existence? Which are the baskets into which I’ll put the eggs that matter most? Will it be the business of securing wealth and protecting status? Hoarding things and piling up experiences? Constructing some idyll of refined peace and quiet? These may seem to promise much, but they lead to the frightening discovery that ‘what I make to meet my needs cannot set me free’. Or, will I choose the task of sharing my life with God’s life, and with the people God calls me to be among, which is what you and I were made for?
It is indeed ‘a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews 10.31), until you discover that your name is written on the palm of God’s hand (Isaiah 49.16).
‘What I make…’ from ‘Advent’, a sermon of Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement, DLT, 1994, page 9