The Second Sunday of Advent
9th Dec 2012
The Second Sunday of Advent
Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. Isaiah 40.4., Luke 3.5,6.
This single text is attributed both to the prophet Isaiah, and also to St Luke five centuries later. They are profoundly connected. In the voice, the cry, of John the Baptist we witness Isaiah’s prophecy re-written into Luke’s message of forthcoming deliverance. The scripture passages set for this Sunday repeat their messages to one another and complement one another in a harmony, rather like a choir singing a chorus. And the chorus echoes down the three centuries since Handel set them to music in his ‘Messiah’ of 1742. What scripture envisions in ‘the exalted valleys’ and ‘the mountains made low’ is none other than a spiritual earthquake, a complete re-making of the world’s moral and spiritual compass: the divine re-alignment of the world’s bearings on new bearings, founded in Christ: “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight and the rough places made plain” It is to John the Baptist, the desert dweller, the man feeding on locusts and wild honey, the zealot, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the herald of glad tidings, that we cast our gaze in this time of Advent. It is through his voice, crying in the wilderness, that this eruption will take place. It is to John that we look to provide the hinge on which the whole of the Advent Season turns.
In our Gospel Reading this morning (Luke 3.1-6) we are to know first of all that Luke places John the Baptist in strict historical and chronological time. The Emperor at the time is the corrupt and weak and vascillating Tiberias, son of the murderess Livia and stepson of the Roman God Augustus. Pontius Pilate is Governor of Judaea and Herod Tertrarch of Galilee. Ordinary history is leaden, time bound, specific and limited in its scope: confined to a long list of mostly doubtful characters. What Luke writes is God’s history, and the coming of John the Baptist points to a coming salvation which is both time honoured and timeless. This is expressed in the Easter blessing of the Paschal Candle “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega. All time belongs to him and all ages…”
And yet it is in ordinary time that God’s activity manifests itself. It was after all almost exactly two thousand years ago that John the Baptist walked this earth and proclaimed his message. And it is in the ordinary and in the ordinary things of life that we witness to Christ here in King’s Cross. This is our terrain. This Church exists to fulfil what has been promised: of lives grounded and transformed in the witness to Christ in this place.
The great green prefabricated shed, the nissen hut, which has served as a concourse for King’s Cross is now finally being pulled down. It will open up much needed open space which will complement the renewal of the surrounding buildings and spaces. We call this ‘regeneration’. And it cuts in two ways. Undergirding and over-arching physical, architectural regeneration must also come that social regeneration which provides for a sense of human worth and belonging. The opposite is of gross or excluding places which only increase the sense of isolation. Our churches must surely be places where that truer harmony may be found. God’s divine purpose for all of us can be met and experienced in the invitation God offers to experience a new kind of society, in which we find ourselves in mutual recognition of our own existences and active in their support and nurture from a Christian base. “As you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters you did it to me” says Jesus. (Matthew 25.40)
Here at Holy Cross Church we are once again appealing for a small group of volunteers to support the work of the Camden Cold Weather Nightshelter. The night shelter project sees seven local churches working each day a week in the dead of Winter to provide supper and breakfast and a bed for the night in these churches. It has been customary for us at Holy Cross to cook ‘full English’ breakfasts at St Mary Magdalene’s Church, opposite Great Portland Street Station on several Sunday mornings from January until the end of March. We begin at 6 30 am and return to Cromer Street by 9 am. It’s a simple piece of work, requiring a little effort, but which makes all the difference, and what looks like an initial massive effort (to get up at 5 30 am) becomes a joy. It in this initiative, and many more like it, lunch club, drop in, church sitting, open group, that we ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6.2). In these works and their purposes lie the new terrain that the Gospel writer Luke speaks, expressed in the words of Isaiah five centuries before and brought to us in music by Handel more than seventeen hundred years later : “Prepare a Way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough places made smooth, and all mankind shall see (and indeed experience) the salvation of God”.
This is the promise of the one-who-was-and-is-and-is-to-come.
“Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him…I hope he will lay out his whole skill and genius upon it, that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The subject is ‘Messiah’”.
Sermon for Advent Sunday
2nd Dec 2012
HOLY CROSS CHURCH, CROMER STREET 2012
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen. Luke 21.36
The season of Advent, unlike any other season in the Church’s year, involves us in a waiting mode of being. I overheard a child in Tesco the other day saying to her brother “I can’t wait for Christmas!”. In her eyes I could glimpse how children are caught up in the excitement of waiting. It’s a wonderful, suspenseful kind of waiting, and a prolonged wait, peppered for the child with all kinds of promise.
But for adults waiting is often a much less ecstatic business. When I think about waiting my mind turns to hospitals. Patients start the day waiting for early breakfasts, for the bed to be made and for the doctor to come on his rounds. They wait for the result of tests and appointments and surgery or to be sent home; some even await their own death. One of the great theological books written on the theme of waiting is Bill Vanstone’s The Stature of Waiting. In it Jesus is seen above all else as one who waits; most clearly seen in the Garden of Gethsemane as one who waits and holds on with all the fearfulness and the terror of his own position in the waiting. He is waiting in the midst of his own vulnerability and exposure and helplessness. When I think of Jesus, I think of him waiting, of him trusting, of him waiting, open and vulnerable and exposed.
But we do not wait in a vacuum. We wait in time. “And time will have its fancy” says the poet Auden , “tomorrow or today”. But as time goes by we can experience some of the greatest challenges to our sense of who we are, and of the need, expressed ominously in this morning’s Gospel, to ‘pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen’. But I think we would rather not know what might happen, yet we must face the possibility that we might be severely tested. I have just got back from a few days with my family. As time goes by, I value these family get-togethers more and more. We are none of us getting any younger and at this particular time it has been important to support my parents, whose health is very frail. We spend a good deal of time talking about the past, as family gatherings are wont to do, but there is the inevitable sense of family concern turning to the health of the older generation. Even though that is barely expressed it is as clear as day. The writer of Ecclesiastes (3.1) reminds us that ”there is a time for everything under the sun” and the Season of Advent exposes us to what is in relation to what is to come. But even though the passing of time brings new challenges, some of them emotionally trying, we are urged not to be afraid. Praying for strength to survive is seen as an act of human survival itself. Spiritual awakenness is the mark of the Christian character. It echoes St Paul's definition of that faith which will outlast the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and which "...bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". (1 Corinthians 13.7-8).
As the Advent Season progresses we make a journey from darkness to the light in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem. This light is the end point of human longing, for it is the light which brings God to us in human form, Jesus Christ. We are led to this light by the wisdom of the prophets, the message of an angel and the guiding of a star. But that is for later… For now the Holy Season of Advent points to the hard fact of patient waiting; the waiting in faith while something greater is being unfolded. Waiting in God’s time. In an age in which a vast amount of choice is available to us. In an age in which temporary gratification is satisfied in so many ways and in an age in which communication is instantaneous and abbreviated we are too often urged to live our lives without the inconvenience of waiting. Instead we are bewildered with the luxury of too much choice and gratification. This is can lead to a numbing of the senses, and there must be times when we willingly lay this aside and consider that place where truer life is to be found. Yesterday we spent a quiet day at the Benedictine Centre for Spirituality in Cockfosters. We allowed ourselevs to inhabit brief periods of protracted and sustained silence and found there in the words of Meister Eckhart that sense of God which gives the strength to survive:
"Nothing is so like God as silence".
Advent speaks to us of the gradual unfolding of the divine disclosure as this morning one of our children lights the first candle on the Advent wreath. This is a small but vivid marking of that time which will lead us back to God through the birth at Bethlehem. But first we must wait. We must wait and quieten ourselves to remain awakened to the One who is present. Await his coming if necessary in passionate silence. So, then let us wait; and let us pray; let us wait, and then let us see…
Because of his visitation, we may no longer desire God as if he were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following him, we may depart from anxiety into his presence. W H Auden.
Christ the King
25th Nov 2012
Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King.
"My Kingdom is not of this world" John 18.36.
Today’s Feast of Christ the Universal King always occurs on this the last Sunday of the Church’s Year. It provides a powerful reminder of the kind of authority which is known in Christ. By placing his divine authority alongside what we understand to be kingly powers, we learn of a kingship which reverses the accepted notion of grandeur and deference and distance. This kingship is one which is spelt out in this morning’s Gospel. It is one which expresses in the being of Christ a real active, disinterested and unselfish love. It is one which increasingly runs counter to the culture where human acquisitiveness and the cult of self is predominant. It calls forth resources of human generosity above the interests of acquisition or self-will : The Christian Gospel proclaims an ethic of care and disinterested love while at the same time directing our minds and hearts to the source of it all which is Jesus Christ. It is before all else an embodied Gospel. And it is for this that Jesus was born. As we love the other so we love Christ himself and Christ as God. This is not dictatorial. It invitates us into close relationship with the Saviour and with our fellow men and women. This became recognisable in Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who even though experiencing as we now know, dark and difficult periods of emptiness, nonetheless articulated her care for the poor always in terms of the realisation in their faces, their lives and even in their diseases, the person and being of Christ himself. Christ’s is a kingship whose reign has been borne out of the Cross. It is a sovereign gift which is always to be given, poured out, even and perhaps especially when the cost of that giving is great.
Jesus reigns from the cross as a King. 'For what,' Pope St. Leo the Great asks, 'could be more royal than a soul which by subjecting itself to God becomes ruler of its own body?'
A man crucified, who says, 'Father forgive them'; an executed criminal who can promise heaven to a thief. This is a man who is a ruler, a man in charge of himself, ruling from the cross. So Jesus is king, whether the crowd approves or not.
We have a king who hopes we will follow him and so follow His teaching, but Christ the King never coerces us. It is always the paradox of true love. This love will wait, it will hope, it will never dictate, it will never intervene, it will always allow for free choice. This is unlike President Assad of Syria who has often said that only violence can restore order. It is for this, his own order that he is prepared to kill his own people.
When Jesus laid aside His garments to wash the disciples feet John 13.4 . He was symbolically laying aside his external outer layer of personality which had covered his inner being. Only when this happens can transformation take place. It is the shedding of those things no longer needed. Our outer actions transform us for good or evil, but will come from decisions made within our own hearts. This King we follow shows us that we are not to tread down or doubt or do violence to the good that is in us, so that his transforming love might be enabled in us. Jesus reminds us that God's influence on us all is an influence that will in the life a tested and tried faith, prevail.
On 7th February in the year 1649, following the execution by beheading of Charles I, the office of King in this country was abolished once and for all. But only 11 years later his son King Charles II, was restored with much fanfare, and shortly afterwards Charles I was canonised by the Church in England as a saint, something before and since unheard of. There are two churches in my home town, Plymouth, a staunch follower of Oliver Cromwell, named after the beheaded Charles I after the Restoration of the monarchy. One is simply called ‘Charles Church’ which was gutted during the Second World War and now forms the centre-piece of a roundabout in the city centre. Monarchy in human history has suffered mixed fortunes and has been unpredictable. The gloves Charles I wore on the day of his execution can be seen at Lambeth Library and are a poignant reminder of his demise. Now monarchies are thinly spread and often associated with the condition of exile rather than rule. In this country The Queen’s role as head of the nation is important for the social and cultural functions it fulfils. It is a long distance away from Charles I’s insistence on ruling by divine right.
The Queen’s role includes (as the Royal Website puts it) : “…providing a focus for national identity, unity and pride; giving a sense of stability and continuity; recognising success, achievement and excellence; and supporting service to others, particularly through public service and the voluntary sector. All is now drawn in broad brush strokes. It appears less as a function of power and yet positively as one of symbolic and actual significance and very much as a complimentary and stabilising presence in our nation to the politicians, the great and the good and the powers that be…But nonetheless its existence remains inseparable from the existence of God and at her coronation the Queen was solemnly anointed to bear her role of service in a rite very akin to the rite of ordination. So solemn, in fact was this rite, that in 1953 it was hidden from cameras and the public in Westminster Abbey. It was holy. Covered by a golden canopy. Its significance renders for the British monarch a meaning far beyond the limits of the modern job description. Its significance, as for the Christ the King, allows us to see that real earthly authority, the one that really influences, combines real human presence with the call to holiness from which it is nourished. Consecration carries and brings forth the means of dedication and enables its fruits to last in honest duty. We are left in no doubt in this morning's Gospel that this consecration is a consecration in and with and through the person of Jesus Christ.
And so in many ways we understand the Kingship of Christ as one that is a Kingship both of this world, and importantly beyond it. It is one which receives its proclamation and anointing from the place of his own offering and his own kingdom teaching. This teaching and instruction, coming from the wisdom of the cross, is the one which offers to posterity the highest ethical standard for the Christian Church. It is one which is rooted in active and disinterested love. Only in this way can the Kingship of Christ be deemed credible. ‘As you did it to the least of these my brethren you did it to me’, says the wise and gentle ruler. Christ the King rules through vulnerability, His own and ours. This is the King whose outstretched arms embrace His death as he embraces us in ours. This is the king who longs to be with us in every aspect of our lives, but allows us not to invite Him into our lives. This is the king who never gives up on us. This is the great and marvellous message at the end of the Church’s year and the Gospel’s final flourish before we turn again and wait for his coming in Advent.
Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's just and gentle rule;
through Jesus Christ our Lord
who is alive and remains with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Entering the Sanctuary
18th Nov 2012
The Second Sunday before Advent
“We have confidence to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus” Hebrews 10.19
Our cathedrals are really small miracles written in stone. They speak to us of the faith of those who built them and of the lives of countless thousands of Christians who have offered their longings and prayers in the worship of God over the centuries. And what stories they could tell! These sacred buildings have a powerful life of their own. In Salisbury Cathedral it is as if the stone melts away and a kind of glorious vision takes its place. It is as if the stones were not hard or impermeable but living stones which over time have absorbed so much life and have become saturated with the Godly presence that they emit a power of their own. The stones also achieve a grace and a beauty which is awesome. It makes you want to sing the Sanctus:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory
Glory be to thee, O God most high!
When we express ourselves like this we are responding to the numinous, which the dictionary tells us is ‘…spiritual, revealing or indicating the presence of divinity, awe-inspiring’. And yet this cannot be for the Christian all that there is. Another dimension is present. It lies in the response of Christian faith which is more than contemplation. These buildings speak to us in the present as they spoke to many others in the present. The God who inhabits these places is the God who lives with us and who inhabits our lives both within and beyond the place of worship. The glory which is experienced within the building is to be ‘taken out’ and shown in the way we live our lives outside of it. “May we live and work to your praise and glory” we say as we are dismissed from the Mass.
This morning’s Gospel reading has a disciple praising the Temple building and its beautiful stones. Jesus’ response is delivered bluntly in the prediction of its coming demolition. Some forty years after this prediction the Temple was indeed destroyed by the Romans, putting down Jewish insurrection. The Jewish temple was never to be rebuilt. Today all that is left of that old temple is the great wall we call the Wailing Wall. It is a wall of lament for the lost temple and it is a wall that divides the Jewish from the Muslim holy place in Jerusalem. Little slips of paper containing Jewish prayers are placed into cracks in the wall. The wall has lost its grand purpose of holding up a great temple and is now a place of sighs.
We need to remind ourselves that the gospels recount a Jesus who speaks and preaches in doorways, in houses, at the meal table, in a boat on the lake. His relationship to grand buildings like the temple is ambivalent. Last week I visited Seville Cathedral, the third largest church building in the world. Such buildings were designed to overwhelm and to make you know your own size and your own place in the order of things. At the same time they are expressions of the divine inhabitation which can be both lofty and immense and intimate and touching. The cathedrals are a visible reminder of the historical development of the Christian Church over the centuries and of an architectural expression that takes us way beyond the confines and the horizons that existed around the Sea of Galilee. But the purpose of the Gospels is nonetheless to bid us return to Christian basics. In this particular gospel reading lies the message that The Christian Faith is never contained in buildings alone. There will always remain the challenge which Jesus calls from us this morning, the same challenge that was laid down in the Wisdom of Solomon:
“…Will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!”
2 Chronicles 6.18
In predicting the fall of the Temple, Jesus is standing before us as the living embodiment of what became known as The Christian Church and of Christianity. In the early, formative centuries of Christianity, buildings were not dominant. It was only with the Conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity that Christian buildings, taking on high status became grand and dominant. Jesus would have known nothing of this in his own time. The prediction of the fall of the Temple is also a prediction ahead of this Advent season in which a proper judgement of the Church is evident and in which we are reminded of the spiritual dynamism of a Church that exists without walls and doors, which is not shut up but open to all who would come and receive Christ. This is an open church whose glories within, the glories received in church are to be turned inside out, so that such glory is shown and found in many other inhabitations beyond the place of official sanctuary.
This is an important reminder. Jesus is allows us to see that there is a link between the church building and the life of the people. Our church’s history here at Holy Cross is a vital and important one. It traces a very important story of witness to Christ in this part of London over almost 125 years. The Church itself and its arrangement of light and of sense which is most attractive to those to come here and find a place of sanctuary. But in the final analysis Jesus, both in his person and in his teaching bids us to draw from that sense of sanctuary, and do what we are bidden to do as we leave this place:
To live and work (O Lord), to thy praise and glory.
11th Nov 2012
So we shall stay with the Lord for ever. Thessalonians 4.18
My home town of Plymouth was a war ravaged or blitzed place and I spent my early childhood playing on bomb sites. This was before the era of health and safety, and we would cheerfully stumble across the rubble and twisted metal, broken bricks and glass and build dens in old cellars. I well remember you could see the sides of houses blown away and catch sight of wallpapered rooms, their insides turned eerily outside. It was only gradually that I came to realise that a generation before, all was death and devastation, and I caught glimpses and experiences of it from my father, even though he rarely expressed them verbally. The bomb sites were scars on the landscape providing an outward manifestation of the inner human scars that the war had left behind.
I once felt sure that as the years passed this Day of Remembrance for the War Dead would spend itself with the deaths of the combatants of the Two World Wars. But this has not been the case. This Sunday strikes a chord in the human heart. Remembrance Sunday is much more than the sum total of the observances that take place. It occupies a sea of human experience which spans life and death and the life beyond. It brings us in touch, with the brutality and the futility of war and yet at the same time with the dignity and the eternal worth of human being and human sacrifice. And the promise is there of the God whose presence, even amidst the horrors of suffering, is seen in the many acts of self-giving.
These are of course Christian figures of speech – the reaching out beyond the life here to the life beyond, and the transformation of the human condition in a life which gives of itself to the other. But in a simple way it is the valuation of every human life. Yes, in the many war memorials across the world with the giant stones and the seemingly endless rows of names, each name has been a whole life, a life of hopes and dreams and cares and joys and pains. And as the poppy petals fall down into the Albert Hall each year at the Festival of Remembrance each petal represents one whole life lost. Each one counts; each one was significant; each made present in the falling of those red petals.
Always God’s initiative is manifested in the living world and among us now. And in a world in which war and the waging of war remains a reality we ask ourselves as Christians how we are to understand this Remembrance Sunday in relation to our life in the early twenty first century? We commemorate this Sunday only days after the Christian World commemorates All Souls, for others the Day of the Dead. Days too after remembering the lives and deaths of the saints. In London the dead leaves fall to the ground and crunch underfoot as nature accompanies the hallowing of the dead.
The way forward for us the living ones is through a proper honouring of the human condition as it is found, and a patient preparedness to sacrifice our own selves for the good of the greater whole. The Christian Gospel and the teaching of Christ is before all else a summons to attend to these things in a kind of spiritual watchfulness. Deadness is there in the life which has withdrawn into itself and which takes no risks and avoids having any demands made upon it. Life it is which is held for us in Jesus Christ. The life of Jesus has shown that victory over the powers of death is won through the laying down of our lives; in many, perhaps little, ways. Sometimes what seem to be intolerably large amounts of self-sacrifice have to be given for the sake of the good, and for the peace of the world. The sacrifice of the many in the past leads us on to a powerful and moving and effective understanding of the power of human self-sacrifice in every age. Jesus is our guide in all these things. He mediates the love of the Father and holds out the promise of renewal of life.
My upbringing in a ravaged and rebuilt city has always reminded me of the life that may come out of death, and the way in which the death and resurrection of Christ tells us what we know about the right kind of hope for troubled lives. In the porch of Plymouth’s civic church, St Andrew’s, which was bombed almost to the ground during the blitz, is a large sign which was once placed over the ruin. It reads simply, ‘Resurgam’ 'I will rise again'. This is the message for Remembrance Sunday, taking us in two directions – in the embrace of past remembrances and in the sure hope of the life to come. In this way we are being assured by St Paul that ’we shall stay with the Lord for ever’.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae (1872-1918)