A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer, on the Third Sunday of Advent, 15 December 2019
Picture – Jesus heals the sick (from a window in the Trinity Chapel)
Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?
For three Westminster party leaders those two question have been answered No and Yes, respectively, after an election which dealt some brutal and chastening blows. An increase of one percent in the overall share of the vote, combined with other gains and losses, gave the Conservative party spectacular gains and has changed the landscape, even perhaps the climate, of our politics.
For Labour above all, but also for other parties, there are now existential questions. Mr Johnson, on the other hand, has both majority and mandate to do what he said (in six words) that he would do. Nothing, domestically at least, need stand in his way in governing as he wishes. Even so, Aaron Bell , the first Conservative MP in a century for Newcastle under Lyme, spoke yesterday of feeling daunted by the size of his majority and the burden of expectation before the challenges ahead.
And the challenges are not only domestic. Mr Johnson quipped last week about making Britain ‘carbon neutral by 2050 and Corbyn neutral by 2020’. He may have managed the second, but by the time we reach his later target date, global heating may have already secured an unassailable majority. As our election delivered a decisive verdict, the UN climate summit in Madrid was paralysed, mainly by three powerful nations jibbing and baulking at what is needed to Get Climate Action Done. Delegates are still working now. We must pray for them.
It’s too early for me at least to say much more by way of analysis that would be worth listening to. Instead, let us take a few minutes to look at today’s gospel and the light it might shed on the point our nation has reached.
Last Sunday, we heard the remarkable rudeness of John the Baptist: ‘You brood of vipers!’ he said to the posh people at his mass rally by the river Jordan. And now his acid tongue has got him into jail. John knows he is only the messenger. The message is about someone else – but who? Jesus has begun his ministry and John hears of crowds flocking to him, so is he the one? John gets a message through the bars of his cell to his disciples to go and find out. They locate Jesus in mid-campaign and ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come? Or are we to wait for another?’
And Jesus says – well, he doesn’t say No and he doesn’t say Yes. But nor is he evasive. He says, Look around: blind people receive sight, deaf people hear, crippled people start walking. The things that Isaiah promised seem to be happening now, around Jesus. Even more, lepers are being cleansed and poor people hear good news for a change. Isaiah’s promise has turned into something even more generous. On Jesus’ Holy Way there is room for everyone, rich or poor, clean or dirty, one nation restored as God’s people.
The Prime Minister’s speech outside No10, was mainly future tense – ‘we will honour…we will work…we will be bringing forward proposals…we are going to unite and level up’ – inevitably so. So is Isaiah’s prophecy – ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened’ – but Jesus’ reply to the disciples of John the Baptist is in the present tense. He is a leader with an existing record. Why should we follow you, Jesus? Just look: the healing that comes after a time of sorrow is beginning.
Healing is a word I heard twice last week. ‘Let the healing begin’, said Mr Johnson after what he called the ‘increasingly arid argument’ over Europe. That’s his prescription for 2020. Forty-eight hours earlier, I was in the imposing bowels of St Paul’s Cathedral listening to Dr Dee Dyas of the Centre for the Study of Christianity & Culture at the University of York. She was also talking about 2020, which is not only our 800th anniversary here in Salisbury but also the Year of Cathedrals & Pilgrimage across the country. The vision for the year, she told us, is for cathedrals to ‘invite the nation in’, to ‘inspire the nation to journey and explore’, but also to ‘help the nation heal’.
How do we help the nation do that? What are our therapeutic resources? Here are two. The first is perspective. Look around: the gates of the Close were barred against the Black Death in the 1380s; the cloister walls are pockmarked from the Civil War in the 1640s; all around us are reminders of centuries of triumph and tragedy, public and private. You can get some perspective on our times as you think of the things these walls have seen. Mind you, you can do that in one of the excellent museums or historic houses in the Close – or even at Stonehenge – so we need our second, greater resource, which is prayer.
Some people, said Dr Dyas, find themselves ‘ambushed by the atmosphere’ of a cathedral. It is a place that is not just past-tense but present-tense, not ‘a museum of how we used to think and feel’ (in Richard Coles’ phrase) but a ‘laboratory of the Spirit’ (RS Thomas’ words from his poem ‘Emerging’) in which people still bring their hopes and fears and test them against God.
‘Sacred space’ is the shorthand for that. It’s good as far as it goes, but it’s not fully Christian unless it helps people who find God in this place to leave here and find God in other places too. A hospital does its job of healing by enabling patients to go and lead healthy lives beyond its walls.
And that brings us back to Mr Johnson and Dr Dyas. We need to be careful how we talk about healing, as you will find that we try to do if you come for the laying on of hands or anointing during the Giving of Communion today. Healing language is easily misused. Have you never heard someone say about a friend who has lost a loved one, ‘She doesn’t seem to be getting over it,’ as though bereavement was like a bad dose of flu? Similarly, we must not talk about the healing of a nation as though it’s some uncomplicated process that just happens with the passage of time, as long as you don’t pick at the scab. We must remember what the prophet Jeremiah said about ‘healing the hurt of…my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace’ (Jeremiah 6.14).
We do deserve, as the Prime Minister says, a break from ‘wrangling’, but healing does not mean an end to argument. It means taking the medicine of courtesy before you speak to someone with whom you may disagree. It also requires the therapy of looking for the image of God in the faces of people in whom I don’t see my own. The PM also said that we need a break from ‘politics’. Yes, but healing does not mean deciding that none of this stuff really matters; it means digging down to what really matters within it.
The last time the UK prepared for Christmas in the aftermath of a general election was in the troubled winter of 1923. When people came here then to hear again the message of the angels about the birth of their Saviour, I hope they found what God wanted to bring to birth in them. My prayer is that those who come here this Christmas will find a place and a people in which – as in the gospel scene today – something restorative is coming to birth; that they – and we – then go and tell what we hear and see; and that then the healing can begin.