A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on November 28, 2021 at Advent Carols by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Philippians 2: 12-13
If you, or someone you love, has been through a period of therapy or counselling, you’ll know that after a while, your life can get divided into two realities. There’s the time you spend on the couch, facing and exploring unspeakable truths you can no longer suppress, opening a book not knowing how long or how deep the story inside might be; and there’s the rest of the week, in a parallel universe, functioning in conventional ways and mostly making out you’re doing ok. It’s as if for a short time you let the genie out of the bottle, and the rest of the time you carry the bottle in your pocket, where no one can see it.
If you look at the gospels, certainly Matthew, Mark and Luke, you could see them in a similar way. On the one hand Jesus treads his path around Galilee and eventually to Jerusalem, discussing, proclaiming, describing, inspiring. On the other hand, from time to time there’s this scary part, occasionally with a voice coming from a cloud or pigs rushing off a cliff, but most obviously in the section the gospel writers devote to Jesus’ words about the terrifying times to come, culminating in the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. Likewise most of the New Testament is conventional narrative and letters, and then we get the book of Revelation doing scary like never before.
You can look at the traditional shape of the church’s year in the same way. There’s 48 Sundays in which we reflect on aspects of Jesus’ life and the work of the Holy Spirit. Then there are four Sundays where we explore the scary stuff, traditionally known as death, judgement, heaven and hell, as if we were going for an almighty stint of counselling all in one go, and setting those fears and terrors aside for the rest of the year. Those four Sundays are called Advent. It’s quite a good model. Like going to the dentist or doing your tax return, you can put it out of your mind for most of the year and concentrate hard on it for just a limited period.
The trouble is, the four Sundays of Advent come immediately before Christmas, and Christmas has become a festival celebrated more in the anticipation than in the aftermath. So Advent has turned from four Sundays to one, and from a month to a day. Today. That makes today the scariest day of the year, or at least the most cathartic, as we let the genie out of the bottle, open the book of mysteries, and focus our minds on the most terrifying parts of reality and our faith.
The American author Annie Dillard castigates the church for its complacency in the face of the scary stuff. ‘Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?’ she asks. ‘Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.’ (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters New York: Harper 1982) In a different vein, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr complains about the way a church that can’t deal with the scary stuff has gradually edited out all the elements of the Christian diet that differ from comfort food. He says of the transformation of Christianity into a bourgeois cosy blanket, ‘A God without wrath brought [people] without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.’ (The Kingdom of God in America Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press 1937)
What Dillard and Niebuhr challenge us to ask is whether church is more like regular life, where we reassure ourselves that the scary stuff is safely at arm’s length, or whether church is in fact precisely where we face the scary stuff in the only context in which we can address it and put it into context and be less in thrall to its power. I want briefly now to explore how Advent Sunday helps us address the scary stuff together and how we may find courage on Advent Sunday to encounter the most terrifying things about existence in ways that enable us to live more truly and truthfully – and in due course make every Sunday Advent Sunday.
We can now fly across the world, or see someone on the other side of the world on our screen. We can eat food packed a couple of days ago a hemisphere way, and become furious about a video from a country we’ve never visited when an algorithm suggests we might want to view it. We can discover about elements of the universe light years away or alter the beginnings of life with the tiniest human cells imaginable. All of which offers a formidable smokescreen to obscure the really scary things. How minuscule we are in an unimaginably enormous universe. How small our universe might be in view of universes without number that might lie beyond ours. How fleeting is our existence in relation to eternity. How impossible it is
genuinely to leave any legacy on earth that abides longer than a generation or two. How pitifully little we know of any future that might be granted us on the other side of our mortality.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as concerned as anyone about the climate emergency, and I’m bracing for the changes to my own life and community that we’ll all have to undergo to get below 1.5 degrees. I’m also aware that my children and their contemporaries may well have much more constrained lives than mine because of the carelessness and wilful exploitation perpetrated by my own and my parents’ generation. But what baffles me is how we can talk about the horror of the climate emergency when we already have multiple levels of mystery and terror that no amount of science or distraction can finally dismantle. It’s as if the notion that life, indeed all existence, has an ending had just dawned on everyone; as if the world thought, by dispensing with Christianity, it had abolished the scary stuff; as if Christianity had invented the scary stuff, rather than arisen as a way to get our heads and hearts around it.
Here’s what Advent Sunday has to say about the scary stuff. Yes, the universe, and who knows how many universes beyond it, are indescribably colossal; but they are only a fraction of the imagination of God. Yes, we live for a fraction of a second in the light of eternity, but in God nothing is wasted, and so we trust that the God who had a purpose for our existence in this life will continue to have a purpose for our existence always. Yes, our efforts to make such an impression on this world that we can’t be forgotten are largely futile; but there’s no need to leave a lasting legacy if our future lies not in temporal tangibility but in communion in God. Yes, it seems that a God who is beyond even the unimaginable extent of countless universes is almost useless in having meaning for infinitesimally small humanity; but in Christ, God has taken human form and shown us that we are at the heart of the Trinity’s purpose forever. The combination of all these answers is what we call hope. I would want to the world to see the church as a gathering and a body of people who are prepared to dwell together to face the most daunting questions about existence, and are able to do so in light of that same hope. I think Annie Dillard and Richard Niebuhr would be happy with that.
The question on which Advent has traditionally focused has been, How does this story end? For too long that question has been drowned out by our understandable but way-too-parochial anxiety about rewards and punishments – about who is judged worthy and who is deemed lost. But when we sift through the accounts of the end, in Daniel, in the gospels, in the epistles and in Revelation, what we get is an assertion of convictions that go beyond our terrors and fears. Evil and oppression will not prevail. God will always have a purpose for our existence. Those who’ve laboured for righteousness will not have toiled in vain. Whatever lies beyond death will not be isolated and empty, but communal and relational. No dreadful thing we’ve done will forever thwart the ways of peace. And, most of all, Jesus will be there. The one we pierced and nailed to the tree will be there on the last day. The face we saw on the cross will be the face we see on the throne. God will not be different from the enduring grace of the one we crucified. There is no scary, intemperate, vengeful God lurking behind the compassionate, truthful gaze of Jesus: Jesus shows us the face of God, yesterday, today and forever.
These are the truths we recall on Advent Sunday. Not that life isn’t full of terrors; but that those terrors often distract from the real questions of eternity. Not that our existence isn’t fragile; but that in Christ God has made our fragile existence the central passion of the Trinity. Not that church and worship can’t sometimes be exasperating and clumsy; but that church and worship are the ways we come face to face with our fears and stare them down until we see Christ’s face appearing beyond them. On Advent Sunday we encounter the swirling language and imagery of how the Bible describes the world’s final end or conclusion and its true end or purpose, and, like a genie returning into a bottle, we see that tornado of terror being sucked back into a book; and Jesus carefully closing the book, and holding it by his side, and looking up at us, and whispering, gently, ‘I’ve got this.’