Third Sunday of Advent - 9am & Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    Canon Treasurer - The Reverend Canon Leanne Roberts

Although I cannot hold a candle to our Dean, who as many of you will know is a veritable doyen of popular entertainment, I confess a weakness for films that will never achieve critical acclaim

I cry easily at happy endings – however predictable or sentimental they might be – and if that comes with some good songs, lots of dancing, and a fair helping of glitz and glamour, so much the better.

I think this might stem from my time at University; whenever we felt low, or overwhelmed, or wished to put-off starting the latest essay (which meant most of the time, in retrospect), my friend Abigail always had the perfect solution: we would gather round a very small TV, and watch – again, and again – the epitome of glittery, romantic schmaltz, which even just a year or so after its release was already well on its way to becoming a cult classic of its kind: Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Strictly Ballroom’.

If you haven’t seen it, I commend it to you. It has it all: young rebels, old romance, tensely-timed misunderstandings, terrific music, and – of course – lots and lots of dancing. The central message of the movie is a quote, originally spoken in Spanish (which I won’t attempt here), and translated as ‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived’.

It is hard to be alive in our world at the moment without considering fear – our own, and that of others living in terrible and terrifying circumstances.

Whether we’re worried about the nuclear stand-off between North Korea and the US, the post-Mugabe regime and how it will affect our friends in Zimbabwe, the effects of Brexit on every aspect of our lives here in the UK, or any number of personal, hidden agonies we might be carrying, there is a lot of fear around.

The thing about fear – and I’m not talking about a helpful jolt of adrenalin before we do something a bit nerve-wracking, but about gut-wrenching, desperate, debilitating fear – is that it deprives us of the opportunity to be fully, properly alive: ‘a life lived in fear is a life half-lived’.

It is fear that encourages us to take the easy path, to turn our faces from things we’d rather not see, to eschew opportunities for real growth, to hide from anything that might mean we must change. This is not the fullness of life we preach as Christians. This really is ‘life half-lived’, if that.

On this third Sunday of Advent, the Church traditionally thinks about the man described by Jesus himself as the greatest of all prophets, his cousin, John the Baptist. John is the bridge between the old dispensation and the new; the last of the great prophets; the first of those prophets to behold the fulfillment of God’s promise in the flesh. Opinions vary about John the Baptist, but, say what you like, he does not present as one constrained by fear.

This is one of the hallmarks of prophets: they do not let fear prevent them from speaking the truth they have received. I find it inspiring and extraordinary that they were able to step outside their own concerns to such an extent that they could proclaim with such astonishing boldness – without regard for reputation, social conformity, or even personal safety. Remember, John got under the skin of the royal family to such an extent that he suffered a gruesome beheading for his warnings.

Such prophecies have such power because they hold a mirror up to those around them, and often what is then seen is so disturbing in its indisputable truthfulness that the response is mockery, rejection, and rage – as the prophets well knew. It can be unbearable to be shown the truth, because we realize we have known it all along but chosen to turn away from it, to accept some other, more palatable narrative.

It seems to me that nothing much has changed. In these times where ‘fake news’ is a trope used to mislead and confuse, truth is difficult to discern, let alone hear. It is hard to know who to trust, but I suspect that was as true in 1st Century Palestine as it is today.

This made me wonder who are our current prophets, those visionaries, thinkers, agitators who shape the perceptions of our society and alert us to the truth? Is this coming from within the Church, or without? What is our role in hearing and telling truth?

One example that sprang to mind was the recent #metoo campaign. I daresay there will be no one here this morning who hasn’t been aware of this to some extent; how women – and some men – from around the world, from every walk of life, have taken the leap of sharing their experiences of sexual assault, harassment, and prejudice in response, initially, to the accusations against Harvey Weinstein.

Perhaps they sensed, too, that ‘a life lived in fear is a life half-lived’. The women of the #metoo campaign were made, jointly, ‘Person of the Year’ by Time magazine recently, an acknowledgement of their part in the cultural shift that is hopefully taking place because of our new awareness of these issues.

This campaign has had a mixed response, inevitably. I have not been at all surprised by the hate and anger it has stirred in some quarters, and internet trolling is a sad fact of our online lives these days. But what has led me to reflect more deeply on the #metoo campaign has been the response I’ve perceived in some people that I know, like, admire, and trust. There has been a real reluctance to see this as an expression of reality for many, if not most women, and for some men. I’ve perceived a tendency to diminish, doubt, and disparage the motivations, if not the stories, of those adding their voice to the thousands now saying ‘me, too’.

I have found this attitude disturbing, particularly when it comes from within the Church, which preaches that everyone is created in the image of God, and that everyone’s story is of equal value in His sight, and supposedly in our sight, too.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves of the fact that the two central tenets of the Christian faith – Incarnation and Resurrection, Christmas and Easter – hinge upon the accounts of two women whose stories were not initially believed. We proclaim a faith in which women were first at the cradle and last at the cross, chosen to bear the good news in all its joy and peril and messiness and mystery. Women who decided to tell the truth, the greatest truth of all, regardless of their fear and the very real risks involved.

Our world needs truth-tellers, and truth-hearers, and if the Church does not take the lead in matters of truth then our faith is in vain. Now is a good time to consider our role in this, to consider whether fear constrains us from proclaiming the truth which, as the prophet Isaiah tells us this morning, is good news for the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, the prisoners, and those who mourn. But before we settle into feeling all fuzzy and warm, we should listen to what the prophet goes on to say; we need also to be prepared to proclaim that this involves a ‘day of vengeance for our God’, this God who loves justice, but hates robbery and wrongdoing, and promises to ‘faithfully’ give recompense.

Such news is certain to arouse controversy, and it will take all our courage to hear it, and to tell it. But Paul reminds us in his letter to the Thessalonians that we are to ‘hold fast to what is good; [and] abstain from every form of evil’. It’s a tall order, but the one who calls us is faithful, and nothing is impossible for him.

Advent is the Church’s time in the wilderness, shouting, with John the Baptist, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. This can be difficult to do and to hear, and that’s no different now from how it was for the Baptizer and all the prophets before him. The wilderness can be a risky and lonely place, but it is the place in which we find ourselves as we watch, and wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We each have our part to play in this. We have been given authority to tell the truth – about Jesus, and therefore about ourselves. We are to prophesy, with confidence, the ‘way of the Lord’, to trust in his desire for justice, and to believe in his ability to bring about his kingdom in us, and through us, his body here on earth.

A life lived in fear is a life half-lived; but we are called to be fully alive in the love that casts out all fear. It is this truth that we are called to proclaim, whatever the cost.

I would like to end by praying the alternative Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent, and I hope you will join me. Let us pray:

God for whom we watch and wait,

you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son:

give us courage to speak the truth,

to hunger for justice,

and to suffer for the cause of right,

with Jesus Christ our Lord.