A Sermon from Sherborne
You put your whole self in
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey on Advent Sunday, preached on 3 December 2017 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
You put your left arm in, your left arm out, In out, in out, you shake it all about. You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around:
That’s what it’s all about.
More than once, in my previous churches, I have run an Advent sermon course entitled “Four Last Sermons”. Instead of focussing on the traditional Advent theme of the ‘Four Last Things’ (death, judgement, heaven and hell) I invited four visiting preachers to preach the sermon they would like to preach if they knew it was to be their last.
One of my preachers was my predecessor-but-two at Wroughton, Canon John Burnett, then retired and living in Bristol. I can still remember his moving and sometimes humorous reflection on the Christian life as being like a dance around God, risking first the left arm, then the right, and gradually more and more of you until
You put your whole self in, your whole self out, In out, in out, you shake it all about You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around:
That’s what it’s all about
I remember thinking, from within the comfort of my mid-thirties, “If I can still preach like that when I am retired I shall be well pleased”.
Well, Canon Burnett died only last year, at the age of 97, so his “Last Sermon” all those years ago was, thankfully, very far from being his last. And over thirty years on, I am less surprised than I was then that beneath balding pates or greying locks there can be great wisdom and profound insight.
Advent begins today, and the traditional theme of the “Four Last Things” – death, judgment, heaven and hell – is clearly underlined by this morning’s Gospel reading. It is written in the language of what is called apocalyptic, which means uncovering, or revelation. That is why the last book of the Bible is sometimes called the Apocalypse.
All apocalyptic utterances have this in common: they grow out of times of oppression or conflict, and employ cryptic language, colourful imagery and confident pronouncement about the fulfilment of God’s promises, in order to encourage, strengthen and inspire their followers, and to intimidate, demoralize and terrify their enemies. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had hoped never to hear such language again. Now it is back with a vengeance. Some of it is tweeted. But what I think is significant is that Jesus very seldom used apocalyptic language, and then only in clearly focussed prophecy about imminent events. That passage from Mark 13 we just heard is the only sustained piece of apocalyptic in the Gospels, and it is no surprise that every single one of Jesus’ prophecies in that chapter was fulfilled within a few years.
Nevertheless, our Gospel reading serves to concentrate our minds and remind us that we are all mortal. The Advent themes – so discordant at a time when for most people Christmas began on “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday” (terms which have more than a whiff of apocalypse about them) – they are simply about preparation: preparation for Christmas, of course, but also for the rest of our lives, and for our meeting with the Lord. They are about hope, not fear. They are about promise, not threat.
So my message this morning is very simple. To those of you who are older, and perhaps feeling frustrated by the physical limitations imposed by the passing years: take heart. If you have used those years to dance ever-closer to God, until you have “put your whole self in”, then you have a ministry of prayer of which those of us who rush about in a constant state of perspiration have great need. We need your insights and your perceptions, too: do not be afraid to share them. You still have much to offer. Teach us about the deep-down things.
And to those of you who are younger, and encumbered with all the cares of work and family and schedules and deadlines: do not allow the busy-ness of life to blind you to the spiritual world. You were born with an inquiring mind, an active imagination and the capacity to be filled with wonder and awe. Every child possesses these things, and you have only to spend a little time with children in our primary schools to discover that, in this regard at least, nothing has changed. Children still brush against the Divine and wonder at the Infinite, and that should give us great hope. But somehow the cares and preoccupations of adult life claim them at ever earlier an age, and that is a cause of great sadness – unless we can help them to remain open to wonder and awe and transcendence and glory. And we will not be able to do that unless we have held on to that capacity in ourselves.
A famous scientist once asked, “What is man?” and concluded: “A man is enough water to fill a ten-gallon barrel; enough fat to make seven bars of soap; enough carbon to make 9,000 pencils; enough phosphorus to make 2,200 match heads, a little magnesium, and a little sulphur, enough lime to whitewash a hen house and enough iron to make one medium-size nail.”
And we acknowledge the truth of the description even as we know that, as an account of these crazy, unpredictable, wonderful things called human beings, it is not enough. We are made in the image of God; we are his dear, dear, children; we are very special to him. That is what your baptism was all about: the celebration of your specialness, your welcome as part of the Family of God. That is what the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, is about: God’s gift of himself as a sign that he gives himself to us continually because he loves us with the whole of his Being. That is what the Blessing is all about, which some of you receive at the altar rail and all receive at the end of the service: a sign that God cares passionately about you and keeps you always in his love. And that is what the Cross is about: the sign of the God who waits for you and welcomes you with open arms.
But only those with ears to hear and eyes to see and hearts to understand will recognise these things. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it long ago:
Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
Here, now – see and understand. Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground. God himself is here, and that means for those who perceive Him, nothing will ever be quite the same again.