A sermon preached by the Very Revd Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury
Sunday 28 December, 10:30, The First Sunday of Advent
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“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”
When I was serving my curacy in Portsmouth, I would regularly drive into the city on the M275. My turn-off was the one signposted to Hilsea, Copnor, and North End. For the three years that I was taking that route regularly I would always look out for that signpost and for the graffiti that had been sprayed across the it. Three words: “Grow Up Cooter”. Who was Cooter, I would ponder as I indicated left, and had he ever grown up?
Portsmouth was much in my thoughts last week because I went there to assist at the funeral of the priest under whom I served my curacy. A number of former colleagues and former curates gathered for the occasion and in the vestry afterwards one of them reminded me of my first Advent in the parish. She had presided at the Parish Eucharist that Sunday; I was to act as deacon and preacher. But unbeknown to her I had hidden myself in the parish hall. After the service had begun, and after the procession had entered, I rushed into the building; I apologized for my late arrival; I begged her not to tell the Vicar that I had overslept. I was dressed in my pyjamas, and dressing gown.
“Be alert at all times” writes St Luke; well, the new curate was looking for a new way to give new expression to that Advent Gospel of watchfulness and wakefulness. But I’m not sure my former colleague has ever forgiven me.
Every year on the First Sunday in Advent we read from the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have versions of these, and they all attribute them to the last days of Jesus’s ministry: after his arrival in Jerusalem but before the Last Supper. To our ears their imagery reads strangely. But they remind us that Jesus (or, at least, the early followers of Jesus) expected his glorious return imminently. The era of uncertainty and persecution through which they were living would not last very long. Their Lord would return to vindicate them. Their vocation was to watch for signs of his return, to be ready for it, to keep awake.
We revisit that vocation every Advent. This morning we have heard of the signs that will appear in the sun, moon, and stars; we have been urged to look out for the fig tree’s new leaves. But 2000 years on I guess that few of us are holding our breath for Christ’s glorious return. So we might ask: for what signs are we looking, and for signs of what are we looking? To what do we need to wake up this Advent?
Another Portsmouth experience has helped me to answer that question for myself. The Vicar of Gosport used to invite the new curates in the Diocese to preach a series of sermons in his church. It was a rather cunning move which, in retrospect, probably gave him a few Sunday evenings off. But in 1999 we were asked to identify what we believed would be the principal need of the Church in the new millennium and to preach on that. One of my contemporaries opted for ‘The Church needs to pray’; another for ‘The Church needs to testify’. I chose ‘The Church needs to think’.
I know why I chose it. I had only recently left my career as a lawyer. I liked propositional arguments and deductive reasoning, and I imagined that some cerebral activity, some solid theological legwork, would win a wavering generation to the unimpeachable logic of the Gospel. They would be persuaded by the unimpeachable brilliance of our submissions. Two decades later I’m far from sure of that. Let me turn to the monk and mystic Thomas Merton to explain why. In April 1940, not long before he entered the monastery, Merton, aged twenty-five, visited Cuba. In his journal he describes entering St Francis’s Church in Havana. Hearing children begin to sing the Creed, “Something went off inside me like a thunderclap” he wrote. “I knew that…directly present…was God is all his essence, all his power…God in himself”. Comparable to a thunderclap, a shaking of the powers of heaven, Merton has an overwhelming experience of the divine, and asks himself what has happened, to what he has been alerted. “It was not just the apprehension of a reality,” he writes “but…equally a strong movement of great delight, like a great shout of joy and in other words it was as much an experience of loving as of knowing something, and in it love and knowledge were completely inseparable”.
Love and knowledge were completely inseparable. What Merton wakes up to in an instant is what I am still waking up to: that thinking only gets us so far, that the knowledge of God is not the same as the knowledge of the five times table or as the knowledge of the rules of hearsay evidence.
Alone among the evangelists, Luke insists that Jesus’s apocalyptic teachings are not directed at the disciples in private: according to Luke Jesus addresses his words to all the people. And alone among the evangelists, Luke’s Jesus tells the people that the apocalyptic signs about which he is speaking do not herald a day of fear and dread. Just as Jeremiah had prophesied that both Israel and Judah are included in God’s purposes and that their salvation and safety are coming, so Jesus directs “…when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”.
There’s what we need to wake up to – right there. The advent of God is the advent of redemption, not of condemnation. The advent of God is good news, and it is good news for all people. And that’s precisely because of what Merton discovers that day in Havana: God cannot only be the object of our study or the object of our understanding or the object of our analysis. We can’t think God; we can only be loved by God, and stand up, and raise our heads.
It’s Advent Sunday. A new year opens up before us, like an empty stretch of motorway, perhaps the M275. Of course, Hilsea, and Copnor, and North End are to our left. Of course, the distance to them is two miles or three miles or four miles. We don’t need a sign to tell us that. But what if we treated the sign as an invitation first to explore, then to relate, and then to lose ourselves in what we discover?
Who was Cooter? Did he ever grow up?