A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 9 December 2018 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Baruch 5; Luke 3.1-6)
All the familiar words of our church services were written by a person or people. Some of these people are long-forgotten: who for example knows that the composer of what in my view is the finest prayer in the English language, the Church of England’s General Thanksgiving, was one Bishop Reynolds in the year 1661?
Prayers can be age-old and the also come newly-minted. You may well hear some newly-minted prayers in this Cathedral during the coming week, and I’m going to let you into the still-forming background to whatever emerges. Towards the end of last week, my clergy colleagues and I started an exchange amongst ourselves as we considered prayers being offered to the Church of England for use as Parliament deliberates and will shortly vote on the the motion to take Britain out of the European Community on the terms negotiated by our government. This is patently an important matter and it is absolutely essential that we as individuals and we as a Church hold those who decide on our behalf before God in prayer. In my 60 years I have never known the nation to be so socially and politically divided, our politics to be so confused, and the main issue facing us to be so apparently intractable.
Here, our conversation (by email) began with a collect composed I think by the dean of Southwark. It was extended during yesterday by consideration of one whose author I do not know, but which is apparently being championed by the Archbishop of York for use, on the hour, by all his churches. Now these discussions and exchanges are bouncing between four of us here, and I should emphasise that what in I’m saying here I only speak for myself. My first reaction to reading both of these offerings is that each in its own way strikes an apocalyptic note - which may well have some resonance in Advent, of course, but of which we need to be a bit wary when we apply it to the stuff of domestic politics and the day to day business of the media.
For the sake of clarity, I should tell you that I am passionately in favour of our staying in the European Union, and I will regret bitterly our leaving it on any terms. However, although the consequences of leaving may prove to be bad in many ways, a lot of them unforeseeable, I do not on balance think the horsemen of the Apocalypse are on the horizon for our country in early April; we are not all doomed, and the end is no more nigh in Britain than anywhere else. And there is more to life than the constitution, politics, and trade.
Advent is of course a wake-up call. It’s messages are to kick us out of our lethargy, slumber, introversion and sorrow: ‘get a grip; it’s not all about darkness or triviality, it’s about God’. Grasp something of the big picture. It’s because everything to do with Advent is rooted in the presence and majesty of God, that this season is above all the season of hope - God will indeed turn our darkness into light, as the sign currently over the north porch will have reminded when you entered today.
That hope is described in visionary terms in the reading we heard from the not-very-well-known book of Baruch, as it echoes the prophecies in the later parts of Isaiah, reminding a defeated and exiled and humbled people that ‘God has remembered them’ and will bring them home. But it’s also there in the very particular way in which the gospel of Luke describes the appearing of John the Baptist. Most of you will have heard that any number of times before, but I suggest you have a look again now at the first 6 verses of chapter 3.
This paragraph is quite different from the way other 3 gospels introduce John. Here we get a list of exactly who held what roles in the realms of the day, from the Emperor in Rome to each of the petty princelings of the region; we are told who the Jewish High Priests are; and we are told about the Baptist’s ancestry. Against all this background, we learn, ‘the word of God came to John...in the wilderness’. God speaks through one man, and he does so in the middle of nowhere. But the word he speaks - or rather exemplifies from Isaiah - is for every valley and mountain, and for all flesh.
Please note that the catalogue of names in the first sentence isn’t a particularly glorious one. From the venal, corrupt and brutal emperor Tiberius, through the family of Herod, down to the dodgy high priests Annas and Caiaphas, it’s hard to see much good in any of them; at very best, an average bunch of politicians and priests.
Nonetheless, God speaks in their time. He speaks too in our time, and he often speaks in obscurity, and maybe through strange and disturbing people like John the Baptist. He speaks to you, to me, to all flesh; we are one before God. We live in this present time; but we belong to God, lord of time and eternity. May he give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and to live in thanksgiving to him.
God of hope,
as you led your people through the wilderness,
guide us through the political confusions of these days,
that together we may live in harmony
and work for the good of all;
for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.