A Sermon from Sherborne
The need to stoop
A sermon for Mattins at Castleton Church, preached on Sunday 17 December 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Once upon a time, when I was a young curate and the institutional Church (of which I am not hugely fond, but that’s another discussion for another time) hadn’t entirely taken leave of its senses, there was a wonderful rhythm about Advent. It is still symbolised in the Advent wreath. The first three candles speak, one by one, of the patriarchs (1st Sunday), the prophets (2nd Sunday) and then John the Baptist (today – the 3rd Sunday). Finally, on the 4th Sunday of Advent comes the 4th candle, for the Virgin Mary. And then at the Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve – or, at Castleton, the early Eucharist on Christmas Day which by long tradition I always celebrate with you – comes the middle candle, symbolising Christ, the Light that is come into the World.
The trouble is that the new calendar of readings has muddled everything up in recent years, with John the Baptist making his entrance a week early. Preachers get frustrated by such things! But at least here at Castleton you keep the ancient rhythm, and today John the Baptist looms large in our second Lesson with his call to us to prepare the Way of the Lord. John proclaims the One who will come after him, the One whose sandals John is not worthy to carry. Ah, but that’s not what our reading from the King James Version said. Did you notice the difference? The Authorised Version gives us the more traditional ‘the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose’? I’ve done my homework, and looked it up, and while the verb in the Greek can indeed be translated ‘to bear’, and hence ‘to carry’, here the meaning is more that of ‘to remove’. The King James Version has got it right. And surely John is alluding to the practice in that culture of stooping down to remove the sandals of the honoured guest, prior to washing his feet.
Look more closely and you discover that this impulse to stoop down before the revelation of God-in-Christ is not confined to John. Mary bows before Gabriel, God’s messenger, as she receives God’s commission: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word.’ And Mary of Magdala and the others who go to the tomb have to stoop down to look in before they can discover that he is not there, that he is risen.
And the stooping-down of Mary, and John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene, is the only response that can be made by those to whom God has stooped down first. Yes, God, God beyond the furthest stars, God the creator and sustainer of the universe, God outside time and space, God the eternal – this God has deigned to come and break into time, into our world, and he stoops down to become a child in a cattle shed for you and for me.
And does the world stoop in response? The answer is, not enough. The ones who stoop today are the poor and the oppressed, the victims of the pride and the arrogance and the greed of those who walk tall on the world’s stage. In country after country – our Link Province of South Sudan comes immediately to mind, but there are many more – they stoop to avoid being shot or beaten, they stoop to forage for food, they stoop under the burdens piled upon them. They stoop because they have to, but the world as a whole is not stooping before the Prince of Peace, not stooping before the God who first stooped to us.
And yet, and yet – if you listen, if you concentrate, if you quieten yourself and still all the noisy Christmas sounds around you – can you not hear
… angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold….
Still through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled;
And still the heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains they stoop on hovering wing;
And ever o’er its Babel-sounds the blessed angels sing.
The angels, like the Old Testament prophets we read at this time of year, bring a message of peace and righteousness, of equity and justice – but a peace and a righteousness, an equity and a justice of which we are to be the ambassadors, the agents, the servants. This message of the God who stoops down to us is a call to us to stoop down to others, to unloose their shoes and wash their feet – in other words to serve the world whenever and in whatever way it needs serving.
And this is a message that cannot be emphasised too much as Christmas approaches, for Christmas even amongst Christians has become infected with selfishness and self-indulgence, rather than self-sacrifice and service. We are called to be in the world bringing in the Kingdom, but too often we are deaf to the cries of the poor because we have turned in upon ourselves. I was reading the other day of the opening in the 1840’s – the ‘hungry forties’, as they came to be called – of a new theological college for the Free Church of Scotland. As its foundation stone was laid in Edinburgh, men, women and children starved in every city of the land, yet the one who laid the stone declared ‘We leave to others the passions and politics of this world… nothing will now be taught in any of these walls which shall have the slightest tendency to disturb the existing order of things.’ Not ‘disturb the existing order of things’? But the whole point of the coming of the Saviour was to turn the existing order of things upside down (or, perhaps more accurately, to turn a topsy-turvy world the right way up!). Another minister of the Church present at that ceremony saw it clearly, and protested: ‘The Cross must be raised in the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves on the town garbage heap. At a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek – that is where he died and that is where Christians should be.’
In order to be faithful to the God who stoops down to us we have to stoop down to others, and if we are to stoop down to others we will first have to sink a lot of pride. We will have to hate less and love more, spend less and give more, talk less and listen more, judge less and care more. But, you see, unless we learn to stoop before the God who first stooped down to us, we will miss him, we won’t see him. You cannot come close to the baby in the manger, you cannot know the joy of the Christchild, unless you are prepared to stoop down too.