A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 8 December 2019, by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12)
I’d like you, please, to indulge me. I know you’ve got all sorts on things on your plates - Christmas plans, rail strikes, global warming, winter darkness, etc. And I know that what I ask will be painful. But just for a moment, use your imagination - and picture yourself in the midst of an election campaign.
Among the parties and individuals whose literature pops invitingly through your door is one
who addresses you and your household in this rather bracing way: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” No offers of new hospitals, more police, infinite broadband, or dramatic instant benefits resulting from awarding them your vote - but the promise of a winnowing fork and fire to run through us.
Well, contrary to appearances, John the Baptist - and indeed his successor, Jesus of Nazareth - was offering himself for the choice of the people. But not for him the offer of this or that box of chocolates, these inducements, or those sugar-coatings to help us make a choice for our own good. And you would have to say that their respective manifestos and their canvassing techniques, while causing a stir, didn’t ultimately turn out well. The encounters of John and Jesus with the politicians and power brokers of their day brought rather definitive ends to their careers. The indications are that God and the Mammon of politics don’t blend.
These things acknowledged, it is fitting that we consider our electoral choices during this season of Advent. Advent, as indicated by the message of John, is about choice. And we make our choices as electors in light of the choices we make about God.
Politicians of all kinds are inclined to present us on the one hand with the kind of inducements I’ve just mentioned, the advantages which will come to us if we vote for them. And on the other hand they frequently present us with an apparent existential choice: you can come this way, with all its attractions and easy gains; or you can go that way, usually portrayed as a way of apocalyptic catastrophe. This is convenient and straightforward enough; and we are the judges. Just put that pencil cross in the right box and everything will be hunky dory; but don’t go the other - or God help us all.
All clear and conveniently simple - boiled down to two, or maybe three, or possibly even seven, paths open to us. Except of course that practical life doesn’t exactly correspond to electoral politics. So. By way of an example (which may be controversial but isn’t at all partisan): some years ago we were given the simplest of choices, in or out - only to spend the intervening period arguing about what the word ‘out’ means. Even in its starkest choices, politics tends to be a ragged business; and having made those choices, life goes on and we have to live together in the light of those choices. Life goes on. As I discovered rather to my surprise following the birth of our first child: Caroline needed some treatment and so our daughter, then aged about 15 minutes, was put in my arms and everyone else cleared the room leaving me there alone with her for rather a long time. Tired and emotional, it dawned on me that all that planning, hopes, expectations and fears, all those ante-natal classes and so on - all of that was about the few hours through which we had just come; but a baby, just like a Christmas puppy, is for life.
General elections are profoundly important things; no doubt there are real choices and outcomes may be significantly different depending on how we choose. But I can assure you that however attractive the prospect may be, however stark and existential any such choice may be, politics doesn’t go away, is never ‘sorted’. We will next week still be in the position of the first-time parent, with a perplexing, noisy, often disruptive, and sometimes smelly society to run. And that society is, those creatures of God’s are, for all their really annoying characteristics: loveable.
In the election you and I, along with the rest of the electorate, are the judges. But the Baptist, and this season, remind us that actually we are those who are judged. The fruits of which John spoke to those who came out to hear his manifesto were not being offered. They were being told to bear them, or the very tree on which they depended would be ruthlessly cut down and burnt. That indeed is an existential choice, which John was putting before the Pharisees and Sadducees but which his preaching is also putting before you, me, and all of human society. You can live in the light of God, allow him to purge and transform your life; or you can choose an ultimately delusional way, whose outcomes are not good.
Our choices and our actions judge us; but the true judge is God, who “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” This week we will make our choices under that loving judgement: the choices of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday - and Thursday too. God will be our judge, whether we like it or not.