Sermon: The Second Sunday of Advent
Sunday 11 December 2016
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
Hope Springs Eternal
(Isaiah 35.1-10, James 5.7-10 & Matthew 11.2-11)
The children stared at each other.
“I don’t know that I’m going to like this place after all” said Susan.
“Who is this Queen, Lu?” said Peter “Do you know anything about her?”
“She isn’t a real queen at all” answered Lucy “She’s a horrible witch, the White Witch. Everyone – all the wood people – hate her. She has made an enchantment over the whole country so that it is always winter and never Christmas.”
”I – I wonder if there’s any point in going on” said Susan. “I mean it doesn’t seem particularly safe here and it looks as if it won’t be much fun either. It’s getting colder every minute and we brought nothing to eat. What about just going home?”
”Oh, but we can’t, we can’t” said Lucy suddenly; “don’t you see we can’t just go home. not after this. It’s all on my account that the poor Faun has got into this trouble. He hid me from the witch and showed me the way back. That’s what it means by comforting the Queen’s enemies and fraternising with humans. We simply must try to rescue him.”
(from ‘The Lion, the witch and the Wardrobe’)
And here’s something to take some of us back to the late 1980s. [Extract from Hope Jo’anna – Eddy Grant]. That anthem against apartheid was recorded in 1988, at a time when the whole corrupt system was beginning to come under intense pressure. It was 1990 when Nelson Mandela was released from imprisonment, and 1994 when he became the first black president of South Africa.
What do these two have in common? Hope. Hope deferred, hope anticipated.
Advent is a season of hope and anticipation; our readings, in different ways, take us there. John the Baptist sounds like a man running low on hope in today’s gospel reading. Put yourself in his shoes, if you can. He’s done everything that you might think God required of a prophet. He’s served his time in the wilderness; he’s lived off a limited diet, and with no attention to personal grooming. More importantly he’s done the thing prophets are meant to do – he’s prepared the way for Jesus, he’s called the people to repentance, and on the way he’s spoken truth to those in power. In his case, Herod. Incidentally, it’s worth noticing here that of all the corruptions of power John might have accused Herod of, the one that got him into trouble was not about his politics, or his financial misdoings. No – it was the one area we today tend to say is people’s own business – his sexual morality. He’d broken his marriage vows, and then married who he shouldn’t. And he’s paid the price for that. So here he is, locked up in prison, wondering if it’s all worth it. If it’s even all true. And he sends a message to Jesus: “Are you the one?”. Or have I made an almighty mistake.
I suspect we’ve all been there at one time or another. Set out confidently on a course of action. Sure we’re right. Or if not sure, at least buoyed up by confidence that it’s a risk well worth taking. Then it all goes wrong. Maybe comes crashing around our ears. The things we hoped for are not here: what surrounds us is the opposite. And we wonder if it was all worth it. It may be in business, or in love. It may be in faith. And if it hasn’t happened to you yet – count yourself lucky. It probably will. And of course, it may well happen again. And again. That was John’s problem.
It was also the problem for the people of Israel going back a few centuries, in captivity in Babylon. The people Isaiah spoke to, with that lyrical passage about God making a pathway home, a Holy Way across the deserts, back to Jerusalem. “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing”.
And the experience of the earliest Christians, who we often picture as brave, confident and world-changing. But the ones James wrote to were suffering, grumbling and impatient. And he calls them to patient hope – like the farmer who waits for the crops to ripen, or the prophets who foretold what they didn’t see. Which brings us back to Isaiah, and back to John.
Because John was vindicated by Jesus’ words. But it didn’t get him out of prison. Or save his life – for famously he lost his head to a moment of vanity on Herod’s part, and of lust for vengeance on the part of his new wife.
But Jesus may not bust John out of Herd’s prison he has more cryptic but significant things to say. He vindicates his prophet-hood. He confirms he is the expected Messenger of the Lord. He calls him “the greatest among those born of women”. And then he says there is something even greater arriving. This kingdom of Heaven is so different that even the least in it is greater than John. This isn’t the finish-line in some great heavenly marathon. It’s the inauguration of whole new way of being. The hope of this kingdom is not that everything will be alright in the world of humanity. It’s that the world of human vision is burst open to a whole new horizon.
In apartheid South Africa, the hope Eddy Grant sang of was realised within six short years. Of course, as significant as the end of apartheid was, the politics of South Africa today continue to be troubled and unequal in many ways – as do those around the world. Including our own country and city. We still have refugees fleeing warfare, and in our own city we’re told nearly 40% of children live in poverty, and over 100 people sleeping on the streets this winter. The Kingdom touches this world –it doesn’t yet overtake it or transform it. But it’s the hope of the kingdom that inspires us to work that it can touch this world more powerfully and more immediately.
Our hope is not forlorn. Our hope is not blind optimism. Our hope is not wishful thinking. Our hope is well founded. Because it’s based in ultimate truth about the universe. That it is purposeful, and that purpose is God’s purpose, and he is the last word.
In terms of Narnia, it’s not just that there’ll be a Christmas after all in the midst of winter. It’s that spring is arriving, and the time of the White Witch is at an end. But as Mr Beaver says in LWW: “They say Aslan is on the move”. And because of that hope – nothing need ever be the same again.
Or as Jesus said back to John: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them – and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”