You’ll probably remember hearing a few weeks ago that the Church of England had got into a bit of trouble by trying to place an advert in cinemas across the country promoting prayer. The advert consisted of all kinds of people, starting with the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, taking turns to give us a line of the Lord’s Prayer. Dangerous stuff. Quite wrong to mention the Prayer in public apparently, potentially rather upsetting, especially so close to Christmas.
No the adverts the public want to see at Christmas, it seems, are adverts which promote Christmas as some kind of retail therapy. The gift of giving has become the business of giving and big business it certainly is. It’s too early for 2015 figures of course but Christmas 2014 was, according to the Centre for Retail Research, kind to most retailers. Sales increased in the UK to over £74 bn. Most of that £74bn will have been spent in Advent.
Advent is the period of the year where I am routinely most conscious of the clash between the world as it is and the world as it might be. The pace is so frantic – it’s almost as though we’re too frightened to stop and reflect. What would happen if we just sat for a moment and took stock? Would we only see the pain? Or would we see the hope?
At the beginning of Chapter 3 of Zephaniah, before the passage we heard today, we get a description of the status quo which is hardly complimentary. We hear of a ‘soiled, defiled, oppressing city! A city that has listened to no voice, we are told. It has accepted no correction, it has not trusted in the Lord, it has not drawn near to its God’.
I think you might describe today’s world a bit like that. A world in which 800m are living in extreme poverty on less than 1.9 dollars a day. A world in which around 300k poor women will die this year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth. A world in which conflict and climate change are making larger and larger parts of the world uninhabitable and forcing desperate people to do desperate things, like take to flimsy boats on impossible seas. A world in which it takes a toddler to be found face down lifeless on a beach before people ask, ‘Is this the best we can do?’
It became fashionable to ask a few years ago, what would Jesus say? Today I ask, what would John the Baptist say? I think we can be pretty sure he would not have minced his words. Not a word-mincer, John the Baptist, on the whole. I think he might have been tempted to use the language we heard in today’s Gospel. Call us all ‘a brood of vipers’. That’s so hard to hear, isn’t it, when we’re just trying to do our best? But here’s the thing. We have to face the pain, otherwise what would hope be for? Indeed, what would hope even be?
In February I visited the Philippines, on a visit to see the recovery work Christian Aid has been doing in response to the massive Typhoon, Haiyan, which struck there at the end of 2013. Over 6000 people died and over 6m people were forced from their homes, leaving lives and livelihoods ruined.
Eighteen months on, I found high quality, well-kept transitional housing in place, and people beginning to earn a living again, no longer just relying on handouts. In Tacloban, one of the places hardest hit, I was welcomed by hundreds of genuinely smiling and grateful people.
It took only the gentlest of questions for their smiles to evaporate, for the tales of bereavement and trauma to pour out. I learned that every day, people still talk about what happened the day the Typhoon hit – their lucky escapes, the not so lucky ones they lost.
In this coastal community, the typhoon had whipped up a huge body of water 6 metres high which had swept in, wrecking homes and carrying people upwards and inland at the same time, claiming many victims on the way. One woman told me that for her, it had been a case of swimming along in this body of water, with her 4 children calling out, “Mum, Mum, how long do we have to keep swimming?” And she replied, “just a bit longer, just a bit longer.” And she said to me, “I didn’t know how I would keep on swimming.” And then, very quietly, ‘I still don’t know how I kept on swimming.’
And then came the challenging question: “So what are you doing about climate change?” Because she knows as I know that climate change is making extreme weather events like Typhoon Haiyan more and more likely, and that without urgent and radical action to cut carbon emissions, it will only ever be a matter of time until another massive typhoon strikes.
Everywhere I’ve travelled to see Christian Aid’s work, I have seen the seriously damaging impacts of climate change on the lives of the world’s poorest people. I’ve seen the impacts on water and food and land. I’ve seen the social impacts of displacement, insecurity, malnutrition.
But most importantly I’ve also seen the poorest people willing to do what is necessary to overcome climate change –to adopt new farming techniques, diversify their crops, use new sources of energy, plant literally millions of trees, to work hard to mitigate the risk of disaster and to improve their capacity to respond if the worst happens.
It’s a struggle, but these people have in common a clear decision: they choose a better future for their children and their communities. In the pain and the loss, they model the way. They model hope.
Over the years at Christian Aid, we have tried to model that hope that we see. 70 years old this year, we are reflecting on what we have done with the support of amazing people like you: 70 years of responding to emergencies – from the refugee crisis when we were set up by the churches at the end of the second world war to the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s to the much more recent emergencies like the Nepal earthquake. We are reflecting on the work we’ve done with partners to tackle some of the longer term drivers of poverty – eg tackling HIV and TB, and addressing the special vulnerability of women and girls to poverty, violence and other abuse; we see the organisations we co-founded, VSO, the Fairtrade Foundation, the Disasters Emergency Committee, flourishing, making such a difference. We are reflecting on our hugely successful campaigning work – fighting apartheid in South Africa, tax injustice in so many countries, and of course climate change all over the world.
When we are daunted by the size of the task, we encounter your generosity. When we feel our own strength is failing, we hear prayers, prayed for us. We go to where the pain is and what we see is hope.
The Zephaniah passage we heard today captures that hope. It’s not a wishful thinking kind of hope, a fingers crossed behind your back sort of hope. It’s a resounding confidence that it is safe, indeed, safest, to put our trust in God , in good times and in bad. Zephaniah gives us God’s promise of a world without poverty and suffering. ‘I will deal with all your oppressors. I will save the lame, I will gather the outcast. I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. I will bring you home.’ This is the God we know.
I thank God for everyone here and all our supporters in Salisbury for being part of our journey across some or all of the last 70 years. Thank you in particular for our partnership for the people of South Sudan. Thank you for the heroic fundraising in Christian Aid week, during emergencies and across the year.
Thank you for your prayers, for campaigning with us, particularly on climate change. Here at the cathedral, your green spire has been an emblem of hope which has been an inspiration to us all. Bishop Nick’s outstanding contribution as the Church’s lead spokesperson on the environment has been heard at the highest levels of government, including during this week’s meeting in Paris when he presented over 1.8million signatures from right across the world calling for a fair, binding and ambitious climate deal to French President Francois Hollande. The deal struck yesterday in Paris would not have been possible without all our voices being heard loud and clear. We the people, speaking together, have given politicians, so often bedevilled by short term electoral cycles, the courage to take the long term view.
Because God is very good, he’s giving us all another chance to help today.
The Christian Aid Christmas appeal is focusing on malaria which still kills 250k people each year in Nigeria alone, most of them women and children. Any gift you give to our Christmas appeal will be doubled by the UK Government. This is a new kind of retail therapy, the sort that John the Baptist might have approved of. As we heard him say– ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same’. Whatever you can share today by giving to Christian Aid’s appeal will not just be doubled but will be most gratefully received and put to the very best use – a sign of hope in a broken world, of God’s commands and promises being fulfilled. There’s a chance to give before you leave the Cathedral after the service.
Eleven years ago and in another life, when I became a Chief Executive for the first time, I took advice from a very experienced CEO with much bigger responsibilities than mine. He gave a great tip. It was this. If you want to make sure a message travels far and fast, say it’s a secret. It’ll get round faster than you know.
And so to close, I’d like to share with you an extraordinary secret. Please don’t tell a soul. We wouldn’t want to upset anyone, especially so close to Christmas. But soon billions of people across the world will join together to sing of a baby, born 2000 years ago in a stable, far from here. These people know that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that we might have life in all its fullness. And they know too a dangerous thing which retailers would prefer you didn’t find out- that love cannot be bought or sold, it is always freely given.
One more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal. And he will bring us home.