A sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, 16 December, by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer.
Reading Luke 3: 7–18
Your Cathedral has been working on its online presence. If you are a new parent enquiring about baptism the first word you now encounter on our website is ‘Congratulations!’ Take things further and you will soon be hearing the friendly voice of Canon Ian, our Vicar of the Close. We have what in church-speak we call an ‘open’ baptism policy. The aim is to welcome and to embrace, rather as we did on Thursday evening when we stayed open late and welcomed crowds of people.
Compare this with John the Baptist’s response to baptism enquiries from the crowds who come to him: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?’ John operates what we would call a ‘rigorist’ baptism policy. He is rigorous because the times are urgent. They live within the Roman empire in what can truly be called a vassal state, and there is rising expectation that God will act to free his people from oppression. John believes that God’s time is coming soon, and he wants the people to be ready, so he launches a campaign of national renewal by baptism in the river Jordan. He tells them it’s no good complacently saying, ‘We're children of Abraham,’ banking on their history as God’s special people – God is unimpressed, and there will be no exemptions from repentance.
Each age has no doubt linked John’s urgent call to its own crises, and you don’t have to work very hard to do that in our own feverish times. But there, as Canon Ed warned last week, lies the danger of melodrama, being too quick to dress up our present perplexities in the clothing of the apocalyptic prophet. Like many of you, I have been unwillingly fascinated by events this last week. Really, though, it was a week of non-events: a non-vote on a deal, a non-statement of no confidence, then a non-conclusion of talks; and seven fewer days until March 29th. The consequences of time running out for our departure from the EU are very serious. But, as Ed said, ‘I do not on balance think the horsemen of the Apocalypse are on the horizon for our country in early April.’ So instead, with John the Baptist’s urgent voice in our ears, let’s look at a more distant, darker horizon.
As the TV news was speeding us breathlessly from Westminster to Brussels and back, there were other talks going on, in Katowice, Poland. They featured David Attenborough, perhaps the nearest we have to a prophet, though he doesn’t do God and he is both more polite than John the Baptist and better dressed. Speaking from the so-called People’s Seat at COP24, the UN climate change conference, Sir David said, ‘If we don’t take climate action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.’ Muhammed Nasheed of the Maldives was more Baptist-like: ‘Every country at this summit will have hell to pay if we don't.’ We heard last night that they had reached an agreement but on each night’s news last week the conference got trumped by Brexit.
The issues are of course not in competition. In fact they’re linked: wind, fire and water know no borders, so the question of how we work with other nations, including neighbours in Europe, is central to how we care better for God’s world and survive in it. They are not in competition but they are on different scales. In two hundred years’ time, students of early 21st century British history may look at this past week as a kind of summing up of these strange times: our alarm at what is immediate and serious but not quite existential, and our complacency about what is definitely existential - but not quite here yet. We are like angry motorists arguing over a pranged car while a steamroller approaches from behind.
We need to hear John the Baptist’s words of urgency, but we also need wisdom to discern what matters most; and all this in the middle of the season that is our annual experiment with urgency. John talks of the wrath to come, and these days before December 25th have their own parody day of wrath: there are certain things that just have to be done before Christmas, and if you don’t do them – send those cards, buy those presents – you will be judged. We can exaggerate the importance of this urgent stuff – after all, if you miss the Christmas post it’s not the end of the world – but it’s all a kind of parable to remind us that one day it will be.
One day – unimaginably far off, we hope – will be the end of the world itself. Long before that may come the end of certain ways of living in the world, because our shared world, for all its power, also has a fragility about it. And, perhaps long before that, it will be the end of the world for me, because each human life is itself a finite, fragile thing.
The crowds ask John, ‘What then should we do?’ and so must we. In the face of life, finite and fragile – my life and the lives of those I care about – how should I live now, knowing that one day it will be the end of the world, or at least of my world, or of ours? John’s answers are usefully non-apocalyptic. They are doable, they are about clothes and food and money: share what you’ve got if others need it; don’t be greedy; don’t grab more than is your due. That’s the way to behave in a divided society and on a threatened planet that we inhabit together.
John’s message, I admit, is one of fear – not the fear that freezes, but creative fear, the fear that once made our ancestors run faster from the woolly mammoth and which now makes you and me urgently get on with whatever needs doing. It’s the fear that comes from realising that God has given you and me some freedom to choose – and that my choice to do or not do something has consequences, for me and for you, and we must live with them. No exemptions.
Advent is a time to give a little space to that creative, holy fear. But mere fear is not enough. There are some things that are beyond us to put right, beyond my powers and yours. For instance, the BBC coverage of COP24 includes valuable things you and I can do in response to climate danger, but even if everyone here became vegan and never got in a car or plane again we’d never on our own shift the dial on greenhouse gases. And there may be some part of myself – you too, perhaps – that I just can’t deal with, however scared I am. So as Advent leads on to Christmas, God speaks another word, and it is not a word of fear.
John the Baptist hints this morning at the one who is coming after him. John makes him sound pretty scary too, and in a sense he is: Jesus will frighten friend and foe with his message of the Kingdom of God, a place of gifts not wages, a state where the only entry qualification is to accept that you are accepted. That is the word of love God speaks; and in a week’s time we shall hear again how that word was made flesh among us.