A sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent, 20th December 2020
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Reading: Luke 1: 26–38
I remember a former Director General of the BBC (I think it was Mark Thompson) say how one December day he had taken a phone call from a journalist in another news organisation: ‘We’re doing a feature on what public figures are hoping for this Christmas. What’s your Christmas wish?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘something I always hope to find under the tree is a box of miniature liqueurs.’ ‘OK…’ said the journalist. The DG thought no more about it until a colleague got on to him: ‘What were you thinking? I've just watched a piece about what world figures’ hope for this Christmas. The Secretary General of the UN wanted an end to poverty; the US President, peace in the Middle East; and you said – “a box of liqueurs.”’
Well. I salute the DG’s genuineness. This year, though, I suspect all three responses would have been on the subject that fills our thoughts, the one that had millions of Britons watching a government press conference yesterday. Even virus hopes, though, come in many forms. Some are global, some intimate; some are all about others, many have a big dose of ‘me’ in them – though less, perhaps, about the presents under the tree than having someone to open them with (hopes that for many were dashed yesterday). We can hold quite different hopes all at once, as we can different fears. And, as the carol puts it, it is all these hopes and fears that will be met in the ‘little town of Bethlehem’.
Last week we lit the third Advent candle, for John the Baptist. John preached and baptised in a society full of fears, born of obscene inequalities and being on the wrong end of imperialist power. It was also a society of muddled, roiling hope, expectation that God was about to get involved somehow, to do something. This was a hope John shared. And there were no doubt other hopes and fears among the crowds that came to be baptised: how the harvest would go this year, whether your sick parent would live to see it, or whether that special someone in your village felt the same way about you as you felt about them.
Today we light the fourth candle, for Mary. She is part of the same society as John but so different. When we met him last week, John was pulling crowds like an austere rock star; Mary is obscure. What are her hopes, her fears? We can only guess, though Luke suggests she gets a big fright when, just as the word of God came to John, now the angel of God comes to her.
With Mary, the story continues to unfold as it carries us to Bethlehem and the manger we see above us. As we go, we are invited to lay that story on to our own stories, rather like in the scene here in which ‘we’, people who worship and work and volunteer in the Cathedral, are the characters around the manger. What hopes, what fears, do you bring, as in heart and mind you go to Bethlehem?
Can you remember a more fraught Christmas? Fears about jobs, about affording food, fears for health and for life itself. And now, more than ever, fears about loneliness, even on Christmas Day. But there’s also hope – the vaccines are coming, and meanwhile some of us are turning out to be thoughtful and kind.
Then there are things, also laden with hope and fear, that – but for Covid – would be filling our thoughts now: our future relationship with the EU, still unclear with eleven days and eleven-and-a-half hours to go. Iceberg A68a, bearing down on South Georgia: it was larger than Luxembourg, it’s now the size of Suffolk, and it joins late buds and blooms in Salisbury as another herald angel of a climate in distress. Even here, though, there is hope, and we are its custodians as the hosts of the Climate Summit in Glasgow next year. Meanwhile, the Church of England’s Commissioners and Pensions Board are world leaders in holding corporations to account on carbon targets.
Longings and dreads: some big and global, others personal but big to you, and so important to God. All that we are carrying with us to Bethlehem. Why? Because if we take God seriously we hope that God will get involved somehow – prove those fears unfounded, make the hopes real; do something for us. And when we get there we shall find – an unexpected preposition (I owe this insight to Sam Wells, Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields). We want God to do things for us (in return you may even be willing to do things for God) but in the manger we find God with us.
It’s a disappointment in a way. ‘For’ is what we need just now, surely. ‘For’ is practical, ‘for’ solves problems, sometimes quickly. Indeed it does, it doesn’t need a relationship, or even a conversation. You can do something really good for someone you’ve never met, like the people working for us on the vaccines.
Now God is not against ‘for’ – God is for it – but ‘for’ doesn’t reach where we feel things most. There are so many things we can do for each other this Christmas – none will be the same as being with. So it is that the deep love of God leads not to the Repair Shop but to Bethlehem, not to fixing the world for us but being in the world with us. That takes much more time but it takes us much further.
I've preached a few times on Mary and the angel. I've invariably ended with her words about being the servant of the Lord: that is, the one who is willing to do this great thing for God. I see now that this possibility only exists for her because of the truth of what the angel has already said to her: the Lord is with you.
Soon the Lord will be with Mary – with you and me – more intimately still, as bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, in the birth at Bethlehem; so that – now God is with us – we can face down fear, and (even in these days) dare to hope of glory.