The Very Reverend Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
Isaiah 2.1-5; Romans 13.11-14; Matthew 24.36-44
‘The bells of waiting Advent ring’ is how John Betjeman begins his much-loved poem ‘Christmas’.
Advent, the season we begin today, the beginning of the new church year, is typified by this concept of waiting. As a child, of course, these last few weeks before Christmas were filled with the agony of waiting – I felt that I’d burst with anticipation, with excitement, that I couldn’t possibly live without the particular toy which I’d asked mum and dad to buy for me. Life would be so much better when the waiting was over and I had in my hands the particular thing that I’d set my heart on. Now I wait differently for Christmas.
Some years ago the Access credit card, which has now disappeared, ran with the advertising slogan ‘Takes the waiting out of wanting.’ You may remember it – I think it was at the time when we were just beginning to discover the joys of our flexible friend – the credit card, when it was a novelty to get a Barclaycard or an Access card and when the salesperson had to run the thing through some machine that made an impression of it on a piece of carbonated paper.
It was great – you didn’t need to save any longer, you didn’t have to miss out on a bargain, you could have what you wanted when you wanted it, you could buy now and pay later and it made all that waiting a thing of the past.
When I was studying sociology I was told that there were two kinds of people - those who looked for instant gratification, you had to have it now – these were the working classes we were told; and there were those who looked for deferred gratification – the middle classes – who could wait until tomorrow because they knew it was better to invest in the future rather than the immediate. What the upper classes did I have no idea – I must have nodded off when that was explained.
So a religion which calls upon us to wait, which makes a virtue out of waiting, a virtue not just a necessity, must surely be out of step with what people want. And even though so much of what’s been happening in global economics seems to have come out of an obsession with credit and debt, corporately, individually, even though so many of the strictures in spending, the cuts in government activity, in the potential of our pension plans, even though we’re all familiar with that, yet the obsession with the piece of plastic in our wallet, on our phones, the love affair with now rather than later, the rejection of the virtue of waiting, still has a hold on us.
The prophet Isaiah says
‘God works for those who wait for him’
There’s a faithfulness in God, is what the prophet’s saying, but there’s an unfaithfulness at the heart of our human nature. If God seemed absent we went our own way, the leaf faded and we were blown away as if by wind through our iniquities. But the God for whom we’re called upon to wait is faithful, he will not abandon us, we are his people, God has created us.
Jesus echoes what Isaiah says with that Advent call to us in St Matthew’s Gospel – ‘Keep awake’.
The fact is that waiting in the Christian sense is not a passive activity but an active one. We wait and we’re alert, we wait and we’re constantly on the look out. We wait and we don’t get bored, don’t grow tired, or sleep, don’t lose faith in the one for whom we wait. We wait and the green leaf of our faith, as the poet R S Thomas describes it, remains green, it doesn’t wither as Isaiah prophesied.
That great English theologian of the last century Bill Vanstone drew to our consciousness that waiting has a dignity about it. In his book ‘The Stature of Waiting’ he concentrates on the way in which, at the time of his passion, Jesus was the one waiting for things to happen to him. But despite his waiting he was not an undignified person, he wasn’t the victim of the waiting.
I’m a inveterate reader and I adore Dickens and every part of London evokes memories of the man and his stories for me – not least the area around this Cathedral.
Thinking of his great characters, you’ll no doubt remember ‘David Copperfield’ and the cad, Steerforth who manages to lure Little Emily away into a life of misery. If you do you’ll also remember Peggoty, who’d rescued her as a child and taken her into his family. They lived in a house in Yarmouth made out of an upturned boat and every night he waited for Emily to return and as a sign that he was waiting and ready, a candle burned in the window to beckon her home, to welcome her home.
‘Brothers and sisters, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep’
writes Paul to the Christians in Rome. They have been waiting, now Paul is saying the time is here and God is coming. He tells them about God’s faithfulness, that our salvation is nearer than when we first believed, when we first began this waiting game. We wait, but know the end is near. We burn as lights, expectant, waiting. We ring like bells, of waiting advent, ringing to welcome the one who we know will come.
And as we wait we make ready the way of the one who will come. Like parents waiting for their child to be born, like expectant eager parents we make things ready for the one who’ll come among us, as Messiah, as king, as baby. And we don’t need to prepare a crib, for our embrace is always ready to receive him but we do need to welcome him into the kingdom which he will recognise.
And that kingdom is a place where different values are at work, and different values are being lived out, in which people have what they need and no one lives without; where having is ranked less than being; where debt is understood as what we owe to God; where credit is given for who people are, what they bring; where the strong help the weak and the weak humble the strong; where the city is for all and not for some; where none is excluded and all are included; where your needs are my needs and my needs are yours.
And it takes vision and it takes energy and it takes green leaf faithfulness and we both work for it and wait for it and when it comes it will be like a baby.
Almost ten years ago Her Late Majesty The Queen came to the Cathedral. She came to see the Diamond Jubilee window – some of you may have been here on that wonderful occasion, the last time Queen Elizabeth came to this Cathedral.
As she entered the choir sang an anthem by Peter Maxwell Davies, a setting of a poem by Rowan Williams, called ‘Advent Calendar’. The music and the words are haunting.
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens to mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
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.
Like a child he will come, like leaf fall, like the frost, like the dark. He will come like bread in your hands and the waiting will be over and it will be full of mystery and wonder and joy. And until then we get things ready so that when he comes he’ll recognise a world prepared and a kingdom active and alive with Advent people – for that, my friends, is who we are.