Sermon preached on 2nd Sunday of Advent, 4 December 2016
My first year in Salisbury has brought many new experiences, one of which is living with neighbours who own a snake. Our daughter Julia was troubled by this. ‘It’s only a little one,’ I reassured her, ‘and it sleeps inside a trainer. What’s not to like?’ ‘I’m never going in that house,’ she said. Shortly afterwards, Julia came to stay, but arrived early - and as yet without a key - to find no-one at home. She rang to say that she had gone next-door and was with some very nice people called Ed and Caroline - in the House of the Snake.
History is on her side. When John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a ‘brood of vipers’ he draws on fear and loathing which for millennia has seen the snake as the emblem of all things nasty. When things go wrong in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3), it’s not a fox that leads Adam and Eve astray but a serpent. And though the story says the serpent is just ‘crafty’, people are quick to see the snake as evil, even as the devil, ‘that old serpent’ as the book of Revelation will call him (Revelation 12.9).
It’s not all bad for snakes - our high east window shows the serpent of Moses that healed the Israelites in the wilderness - but it mostly is, and that’s not fair. Some snakes are lethal, but overall they are less predatory than - say - bears, who enjoy much better PR. The hairless, slithering snake is so different from us, though, that it is the irresistible symbol of all that is alien, hostile, demonic.
St Paul today writes to a church drawn from two groups of people - Jew and Gentile - who sometimes see each other as alien or hostile, and even demonize each other. These ones are all followers of Jesus, however, that notorious welcomer of the unwelcome, so they have to get on together, Paul tells them.
How hard can that be? Hard enough for Paul to deploy some heavyweight quotation from the Jewish Bible to make his point, culminating in words from Isaiah about the promised ruler who will unify the human race, Jew and Gentile. Isaiah’s words are themselves the climax of a passage (Isaiah 11.1-10) in which the prophet gives a tough assessment of the difficulty of overcoming division and the predatory nature of human life. On that day, he says, the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and bear will graze together - and the child shall play by the nest of the snake. It’s that hard.
Isaiah saw things like that because his nation was threatened by predators, invaders from Assyria. He looked forward to a time when this business of hurting and being hurt would finally be over - and he died waiting. John the Baptist comes (in the gospel reading) and everyone is still waiting, for John’s world is full of predators, and when members of the metropolitan religious élite approach him, John names and shames them as the snakes of society.
Will John be the one to make Isaiah’s vision come true? He says no: someone is coming who is more powerful still. The next character on the scene will be Jesus, and there will be things happening around him to suggest that, yes, new possibilities are opening up beyond this deadly round of hurting or bring hurt. But not even Jesus has made this vision of the prophet come wholly true. Not yet.
What God does in Jesus is something more puzzling. Jesus heals people, but he doesn’t abolish suffering. He brings hope and forgiveness to many, but many more don’t get either. He dies, but that is not the cue for God to bring in the end of history; instead God raises Jesus from the dead in the middle of history, and fills his followers with new life and hungry hope - while the rest of the world seems as much the same as ever. In Jesus God seeds this old, predatory world with bits of a new and generous one, particles of God’s future: fragments of glory, pockets of compassion, oases of friendship, places and moments in which real trust and forgiveness are possible. But you may feel that these particles are harder to find just now.
Last Sunday, the Dean mentioned some of the troubles that confront us: the venom that has entered our public conversation, here and over the water, the democratic adventures that have produced little that will really put an axe to the roots of inequality and injustice.
The following Friday, my former flock in Richmond returned a remarkable by-election result. The EU referendum had hung over the campaign as much as the planes approaching Heathrow, whose planned third runway was the reason Zac Goldsmith resigned. And if any had thought we were settling into a kind of pre-Brexit truce, here was evidence that (at least in one corner of London) we hadn’t. The victor, Sarah Olney, spoke of overcoming ‘intolerance, division and fear’, then confirmed she would vote against triggering Article 50. MP James Cleverly said she was telling the British people to ‘get stuffed’.
That same day, the Bank of England’s chief economist expressed his concern about the sharp inequality between our regions, so that for instance the economic output per head in London and the South East was over twice that in the North East.
‘How do we live together and shape our public realm?’ the Dean asked, ‘What kind of society do we think we want?’ Cogent questions and hard to answer, but we have things to bring to this debate.
First, wisdom. The people of God have no technical insights denied to Downing Street, but we are offered wisdom of another kind. Our scriptures this morning suggest that we would be unwise to underestimate what is required to overcome all this. ‘Reconciliation’ is the word that always gets used, but when people are divided over truth or justice, reconciliation means more than saying, ‘Oh, well, never mind.’ The language of today’s gospel is vigorous - straightening roads, felling trees, changing direction; and its tone - as befits this season of Advent and these times we inhabit - is urgent.
Second, values. On that same eventful Friday, Justin Welby opened a Lords debate on ‘the shared values underpinning our national life’. Archbishop Justin said that values are developed and refined above all in what he called ‘intermediate institutions’, those groupings in society that stand between the individual and the state. These are where ‘we build social capital, integrate, learn loyalties, practices and values, learn to disagree well [and] to build hope and resilience.’
As examples the Archbishop cited families, clubs, schools, businesses. Oddly, he didn’t mention churches or other communities of faith, though these are really potent places for fostering values. (Here in the Cathedral we publicly declare ours to be integrity, generosity and compassion.) They are also places that send people out into these other groups on which national life depends. And in my first year here I have been rather humbled by how much of that many of you do.
Our task - in here and in all we may do out there - is to watch for those particles of God’s future and grasp them, not falling for the naiveté that says everything is awesome and all you need is love, but not conniving either with the cynicism that says the world’s a complete jungle and everyone’s motives are poisoned. It’s a dilemma, though not a new one. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will send out his disciples with this advice: be as innocent as doves and wise as - serpents (Matthew 10.16).