A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 5 July 2020, the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this address: Song of Songs 2: 8-13
When you wake up in the morning it can take a while to find your bearings and work out where you are, what time and day it is. Then suddenly it hits you – if you’ve had a bereavement or a break-up, it thuds in your head, if you’re living with anxiety or fear, it trembles through you, if you have a hospital appointment or interview or difficult meeting, you shudder and take a faltering breath.
We all woke up this morning and had to find our bearings. But where are we? Are we in the middle of a nightmare, or should we be grateful it’s worse for others? Are we in a swimming pool, flailing around trying to get to the handrail on the nearest side, or are we becalmed on a boat on a peaceful lake where nothing’s happening and we’re glad to hear the sounds the noise of life usually obscures? Are we at the start of a pandemic, near the end, or somewhere in the middle? Is being in church a sign that the plague is over, or a premature celebration when the worst is yet to come?
Today’s poetry from the Song of Songs invites us to reflect on the season of winter. In many ways the pandemic resembles winter. Growth has been clawed back, life has been curtailed. Some of this has been for good, just as the wizening of winter can benefit a tree or shrub. But some of it’s been devastating: wedding plans ruined, projects derailed, one-off opportunities lost for ever, work asphyxiated. Winter kills. Mercilessly. Sometimes for good. Other times cruelly. We can all think of ways our lives have been in winter, perhaps for longer than the pandemic. Perhaps always.
So hear the words of Song of Songs. ‘The winter is over.’ Over. Feel the wonder, and the power, of those words – especially if you’ve dwelt in winter for a long time, or always. If you’re LGBTQ+, and you perceive you’re not going to be despised or excluded any longer. It’s over. If your child has had a life-threatening condition, and after 18 months of gruelling treatment the doctors give you the all clear. It’s over. If you never thought you could have a baby, and amazingly you hold a new-born in your arms. It’s over. The shame, the fear, the wait. It’s over.
Long ago a friend and his wife were expecting their first child. In the last scan the doctor spotted something that shouldn’t be there. My friend’s baby was born healthy, but cancer lurked inside his wife’s body. Six weeks later she was dead. My friend had a tiny boy but no wife with whom to be a family. It was winter. Deep deep winter, with no Christmas in the middle. Fast forward five years, five tough years of growth and struggle shrouded in doubt and sorrow, and I sat at my friend’s wedding. And the preacher said these words: ‘The winter is over.’ That long winter of loss, grief, hardship, loneliness was past. Arise my love. My friend had found a new beloved. When it came to the vows the priest said to the bride, ‘Will you take this man to be your husband?’ But then he gestured to the front row, and a five-year-old in full morning dress stepped forward. And the priest now said to the bride, ‘Will you take this young man to be your son?’ Turning to the child he said, ‘Will you take this woman to be your mother?’ The winter was over. The flowers appeared on the earth. The voice of the turtledove was heard in the land.
That’s the agony of winter. That’s the power of the word ‘over.’ That’s the wonder of being able to say, ‘The winter is over.’
Think about the significance of that phrase in the context of the whole Bible. The pivotal moment in the Old Testament is the exodus, where Israel escapes from slavery in Egypt and its oppressors are engulfed in the Red Sea. The winter is over. The most poignant part of the Old Testament is the exile, a kind of 50-year prison sentence in which Israel’s transported a thousand miles east to Babylon. There Israel spends a long winter, understanding its history, compiling its memories, reimagining its future, rediscovering God. But eventually, to everyone’s surprise and delight, a new king sends Israel home. The winter is over. Then in the gospels Jesus appears and announces the kingdom of God. The reign of sin and death is to end. We’re no longer to be chained by mortality. Our relationships are no longer to be poisoned by cruelty. The winter is over. This one phrase, these four short words, encapsulate the hope of salvation, the promise of glory, the truth of God’s ultimate and everlasting reign.
In C.S. Lewis’ story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the whole of Narnia is in the depths of winter. The land is cloaked in snow. But the power of the White Witch begins to fade, and the great lion Aslan is abroad in the land. Things quickly begin to change. We read these words. The child Edmund’s ‘heart gave a great leap … when he realised that the frost was over… . And much nearer there was a drip-drip-drip from the branches of all the trees.’ C.S. Lewis describes the moment of his own conversion in almost identical terms: ‘I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back – drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle.’ The winter was over.
Feel the power and the wonder of this transformation. Notice it’s not the language of victory and defeat. Too often faith has turned to words like conquer, defeat, vanquish and destroy. This isn’t about some almighty battle. That would suggest the problem with evil is that it’s too strong, and we have to make ourselves mightier to triumph over it. But evil isn’t too big. It’s too small. It promises but never delivers; it tempts but never follows through; it dangles but never fulfils. It dies and fades as winter gives way to spring.
And that brings us to the great question of our Christian faith. Is winter truly over? Is it really springtime? The government guidelines for the resumption of public worship in churches don’t say a lot about the flowers appearing on the earth, the voice of the turtledove being heard in our land, the fig tree putting forth its figs, or the vines giving forth fragrance. But they’re clear that the time of singing has not yet come. They don’t refer to humming, tapping your foot to the beat, or pretending to conduct gorgeous recorded music: but they’re adamant that the time for singing has not yet come.
So is the winter over or isn’t it? That’s the question for all of us today, in the midst of the pandemic. And the truth is, none of us know. A million business, academic, governmental, and personal decisions rest on the question. But no one really knows, however many titles they have before their name, or responsibility they hold over millions of pounds or thousands of people. And the challenge for each of us is not to lose ourselves in the minutiae of things we can’t know and still less control, but to focus our thoughts and energies on the things the pandemic can’t change.
I’m guessing that for each of us there’s a moment like there was for Edmund when we sense a drip-drip-drip from the branches of all the trees, when we know that, even if winter isn’t yet over, its demise is sure. For some that will be getting out of the house, going back to work, returning to old routines. But I’m willing to guess there’s one person you long to see again, to hug, touch, be with in a way no screen or gadget or virtual rendezvous can substitute for. Until we get to be close to that person and relax and rejoice in their presence without feeling we’re breaking some kind of guideline, we won’t really be able to say the winter is over. For a number of people, gathering in church, albeit at three arms’ length – being in God’s presence together, sharing communion as best we can – is such an experience. Spring may not be here, but winter is over. But for others, the damage of winter is deeply felt and will abide a long time: the lost livelihood, perilous financial position, fragile health or devastated plans will rid this moment of any real joy.
And that takes us to the heart of the Song of Songs. This is poetry about intimacy. Intimacy is about making with someone an electric connection of trust and adventure. Adventure inspires you to discover, experiment, explore; trust gives you safety, confidence, and acceptance. When you’re intimate with someone you feel able to tell them things. It’s a risk to confide in them about your past, about the tender territory of hurt, shame, regret, sadness, grief. But those things, for good or ill, are gone. It’s actually a greater form of intimacy to whisper your dreams of the future, hopes that may or may not happen, possibilities that’ll need courage, companions and a fair wind to come true. These are things we seldom articulate, even to ourselves. They require trust and touch and tenderness to take verbal form. The Song of Songs shares a few secrets about the past. But most of it is not-yet-fulfilled longings for the future.
Just for a moment imagine that Song of Songs isn’t intimate poetry about trust and adventure that by some publishing glitch ended up in the Bible. Just imagine that it’s actually a love song whispered by God to you: a love song designed to melt the winter of your fear, your hurt, your doubt. Just imagine there’s a bigger story going on right now than the pandemic: one that absorbs and goes beyond the fervour of protest, the anger at injustice and the panic of poverty. And that story is God inviting you, whispering, ‘Arise my love, my fair one. Trust me with your fears and failures. Share with me your dreams and longings. Come with me on an adventure that knows no end, a discovery that’s ever new, a life that knows no limit. Enter the springtime where trust becomes faith, and adventure becomes hope, and faith and hope together become love.’ Turn your head, your heart, your life to God and whisper, trustingly, touchingly, tenderly, ‘The winter is over.’
Because that person whom God is longing to be intimate with, longing to see after all this time; that person about whom God feels, ‘Until we can touch and embrace and be close, the winter won’t truly be over’; that person with whom God is dying to share in an everlasting life of trust and adventure: that person is you.