Sermon, Sunday 9th December 2019

Readings: Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 3.1-6

We live in strange and fearful times.  If, as seems likely, the government loses the vote on the Brexit deal on Tuesday – assuming it goes ahead – it’s impossible to say what will happen.  There are so many actors in this drama with so many different agendas that we risk entering a truly chaotic situation with events spiralling still further out of control. 

And this in one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies that likes to pride itself on the stability and dependability of its institutions.

The brutal truth confronting us - and our MPs who increasingly hold our future in their hands - is that there is no single outcome that does not carry with it profound risk.

Staying in the EU, accepting the deal on offer, going for No Deal, the Norway option……so great are the passions unleashed by the 2016 referendum, so bitter the disagreements, that all foreseeable outcomes carry the risk that we will be still further fractured as a society.

So how are you feeling about this?  Concerned?  Personally I would put it stronger than that.  At times I feel a real sense of unease amounting to fear.  The Collect for Peace in the Book of Common Prayer evening prayer service expresses the deep human desire that we should “pass our time in rest and quietness”.  In a nation increasingly ill at ease with itself this looks a forlorn hope just at the moment.

In this, of course we are not alone.  You only have to look across the channel at our friends and neighbours in France to see the deep fractures in that society expressing themselves in different, more violent ways.  Elsewhere we see far-right, nationalist movements on the march – sometimes literally – in hitherto stable European countries and some of them in power.  The times, as Hamlet said, are indeed “out of joint”

The awkward and uncomfortable truth in all of this is that, by and large, it is NOT our lot to “pass our time in rest and quietness” – quite the opposite in fact.  The kind of peace and prosperity that rich western nations have enjoyed since the second world war is the exception, not the rule.

That period, which now seems to be under severe threat, is an historic exception, one that has been marked by political stability and a remarkable spreading of prosperity throughout society unheard of in human history.  We should be very grateful for it but not regard it as ours by right.

That, for the most part, humankind lives in fearful times is a given in the pages of the Bible which is full of dire warnings.

Take our reading from Malachi today.   This is a prophecy that anticipates the coming of John the Baptist.  Of this messenger Malachi says:

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

John’s message was hardly a reassuring one.  In a passage following our gospel reading today John calls the crowds following him “a brood of vipers” fleeing God’s wrath.

“Even now” he tells them “the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown on the fire”

And what of Jesus?  For all that he had to say about the sureness of God’s love and forgiveness, Jesus was uncompromising in forewarning his disciples of what awaited them.  He tells them plainly the temple, the focus of the Jewish religion and the focus of much they held dear, will be destroyed, that there will be wars and insurrection and that they will persecuted for their faith in him. Just put yourself in their shoes for a moment – what would all that have made you feel?

In the bible fear is a pretty constant given of human experience.  How can it not be in a world full of sin?  And how, looking at the world beyond these shores could we be in any doubt?  We may, as a nation, have enjoyed peace and prosperity but that is not and never has been the condition of the rest of the world.  Consider: the terrible plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East – a cause that the Archbishop of Canterbury is making much of this Christmas;

the people of Yemen cruelly fought over by bigger powers; the continuing agony of Syria; the plight of a whole people in North Korea;  I could go on.

So how to cope?  What to do?  This is where a belief in a power that exists outside ourselves makes all the difference.  In the bible the opposite of fear is faith.  When Jesus calms the storm in Mark’s gospel he asks his terrified disciples:

“Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

On our own we are small, weak and pretty powerless but when we have faith we have access to resources beyond ourselves.  When Jesus warned his disciples of the persecution awaiting them he also warned them not to rely on their own resources but instead to wait for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We too have access to such resources if we truly and earnestly desire such faith for ourselves, for the alternative is to stay constrained and locked in by our fears.

Whatever our fears no one truly knows what lies ahead. 

As Rabbi Lionel Blue once wisely said, we spend our lives worrying about things that rarely happen only to find that things we could never anticipated come to trouble us.  There’s surely truth in that.  But fear is a given of our lives and the question is how we contain it.  If you fret – as I do – that your faith just isn’t big enough then consider this:

we have here at St. Mary’s a thriving community built on mutual care and support.  It’s a community that, in a fractured and divided world, models – however imperfectly – a way of being that values and honours individuals as nothing less than children of God.  As such it demonstrates in countless, often untold and undramatic ways, those small acts of kindness that give us hope and that, in turn, kindle the kind of faith that casts out fear.