The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-end; Matthew 24.36-44
Whether it was on the top of the tallest mast of a ship or on the gate to the city, it was vital that the person on watch was always alert.
There could be icebergs ahead, there could be enemies on the horizon. It was only the alertness of the watcher that would save the ship, save the city, save the people. It must have been a demanding job to be always on the lookout – but that’s the call of Jesus to the church as we enter this new year, on this Advent Sunday.
‘If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.’
Of course, it makes sense, we know it does. And whilst Jesus was talking to the disciples about the coming of the Son of Man, we cannot, as a community, not begin to make connections between what Jesus said then and what happened to us on Friday.
The other day the artist Leo Villareal was in the Cathedral to talk about his project, ‘Illuminated River’, the lighting of the bridges across the Thames in central London. We’ve probably all seen the result of his work, the changing colours, the dramatic difference that lighting can make to familiar structures. It was my job that evening to introduce him and as I did so I made the point that we have a long and important relationship with one of the bridges, London Bridge. Little did we know then that the bridge and its community, that we’ve had the care of for over 1400 years, would be thrust once again into the glare of the world’s media as it became the scene of a second terrorist attack.
The events of Friday afternoon were shocking and frightening. I was returning to the Cathedral after having been away leading a retreat. As I was walking along Bankside to return to work a crowd surged towards me, people running away from the Cathedral and the Borough Market area. It was like trying to swim against the tide as I made my way along Clink Street to the Cathedral.
I arrived just in time to be locked in with all the others who were here – for the Friends’ Fair, visiting, working or volunteering here. We all came into this nave as a place of sanctuary, a place of refuge from whatever was going on outside.
Eventually we were evacuated from here and stood at the edge of the cordon that had again been thrown up around the Cathedral – just two and a half years after the last one. Old memories were revived, old wounds reopened, to call it déjà vu just doesn’t do it justice. There was a palpable sense of shock as a frightening reality returned to our streets.
Why didn’t we see it coming, why were we not as alert as Jesus calls us to be? To be honest I didn’t think it would happen to us again, call me naïve if you like, but I didn’t. But it has happened and thank God the police moved the cordon so that yesterday we could get back in and take up the task that we have, to take our place at the heart of this community, the holy place, the place of sanctuary, of welcome, of inclusion, of peace and healing that we know God calls us to be.
Since the events of Friday afternoon more has emerged about the attacker, about the event at Fishmongers’ Hall where it all began. We learnt that two of the injured lost their lives, Jack Merritt the one so far named, a young man seeking to help the very person who killed him, others remain in hospital; and we heard the stories of extraordinary bravery by members of the public, people just using the bridge as folk have done for the history of this beautiful city, and we heard of the dedication of the police and the emergency services.
There are so many questions that will need to be answered, and that question that this Eucharist poses for us ‘Why didn’t we see it coming?’ will be one of them. We will learn a lot more.
This season of Advent on which we begin today is such an important one because it’s all about being watchful people. That great Advent hymn, ‘Wachet auf’ sums it up so well with those words
Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
her heart leaps up with joy undoubting,
she stands and waits with eager eyes;
We are a people on the look-out, for the birth of Jesus at Christmas, of course, but also for the coming of the Son of Man, for the coming of the Kingdom of God, for the coming of the perfection of all things. We’re watching as the prophets have called on us to watch, for those glorious days when
‘they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks.’
We’re watching as Paul reminds us, for the days when we will
‘lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.’
We don’t know when it will come, but we know and we believe that it will come and we watch and we wait with hearts eager for things to be different.
But we know that we don’t just wait and watch in some passive kind of way. The gospel always calls us to act, to be the people of the kingdom, now, here, to take up plough-shares and pruning hooks, to work in the light and not in the darkness, to help create the world as it should be, as God desires it to be, as God’s people need it to be, as this community longs for it to be.
People within our community are hurting. Memories have been stirred, wounds reopened, what had seemed to be put to the back of people’s minds has been brought to the fore. There will be people around here who feel fearful, people who perhaps would rather be anywhere than here, others who just want life to be normal. We have to stand with them. We have to help bear their pain but also speak into that pain with words of hope.
The actions of evil people can have a terrible impact on our lives – but these people are few in number compared to the good people we see all around us. Every event of this nature produces stories of such selfless bravery that we feel humbled – PC Keith Palmer at Westminster, PC Wayne Marques here, ordinary people in Manchester, and on Friday brave people who made themselves vulnerable on behalf of others.
That vulnerability is what we also wait to see as we move towards Bethlehem and that star-lit stable. A few years ago Archbishop Rowan Williams wrote a beautiful poem called ‘Advent Calendar’. You may have heard it. The final verse goes like this
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
We’re on the lookout for God, we’re watching for the one who will come, for God will always come. We’re watching for the one who will be our peace and our healing, who will bind up our wounds, who will ease our memories and calm our thoughts. We’re on the lookout for a kingdom that will transform lives and defeat the tyranny of darkness.
God will come, like child; God will come, like bread. The Lord knows that the call to alertness is demanding, that the call to action is exhausting and so he feeds us, he cares for us, cares for you, here in this hurting, hurt community – by coming, by coming as child, by coming as bread. That is why we’re here, watching for him at this altar, alert to his presence, so that as the broken bread of vulnerability is held before us and placed in our empty hands we can say ‘My Lord and my God’ and know that it is true. The Lord will come and will not be slow. The Lord is here, his spirit is with us.